It is a commonly known trend that for some time now church attendance has been decreasing. People have been leaving the traditional church setting in droves, and those who remain are left trying to figure out why they left, and what we can do to bring more people in – and get the ones who left back.
Let me start off this series by saying that I love the church: the body of Christ, as well as any and every ‘church’ organization which seeks to glorify Christ. What I hope to look at in this series of thought is simply how we can ensure we are inclusive of all believers (and evangelistic to non-believers) in a manner that we can maintain fellowship with them.
A few pertinent questions to the discussion would be:
- WHY are believers leaving organized churches?
- Is the church failing in some way?
- Are believers who are leaving the church backsliding?
- Have church organizations failed to be relevant enough in our culture?
- Are Christians who leave church organizations shirking the authority that God has placed in the earth by not fully submitting to church government(s)?
- What value and purpose does our [church] organization have if it is not relevantly reaching even those who consider themselves believers?
I hope to cover these, and a few other questions as I go along, and hopefully we can gain some ground; hopefully we can attain a greater understanding of what church is, or ought to be, and start making a valid and powerful difference ourselves. (For further thoughts, prequel posts to this series could be: Fox and the Reformation; ‘The End of Denominations’ or ‘My Experience with the Quakers’; The Seven Rivers of God: A Parable)
Let me start with a couple of questions for you to think about as we continue: Are you one of those who has felt alienated from the church? Or, are you a church member, staffer, or pastor who has felt hurt and betrayed at families and individuals leaving your congregation? Have you wondered why? (Why you felt alienated? Why congregants are leaving your organization?)
Believe it or not, though, these questions are not new. The Roman Catholics church organization had to stare these questions down when the reformation occurred; but these issues had existed long before, and persisted long after even that time.
To begin with… who am I, and what do I know? Or, what validity do I have in discussing this particular topic? Well, I am not a staff pastor… in fact I’ve never been in the ‘professional’ ministry at all (i.e. been paid as a minister); I do not represent any church organization, denomination, or group. I have never [yet] planted any churches.
I am a Christian; I have ministered in both corporate and private settings; I have been lay-staff (volunteer ministry); I have ministered spiritually at biblical ‘office’ level ministry (I won’t go into details here, you’ll just have to take my word on that – or not (if I testify of myself, my testimony is not valid (John 5:31)), whatever) in small local assemblies; I spend as much time as possible in the presence of the Lord; by today’s standards I live my life nearly like an ascetic monk;
(Lol, nah I don’t smack myself in the face with boards.)
none of those things matter, much:
My one qualification for writing on this topic is: I am a member of the demographic which has been disenfranchised, excluded, and looked over in the church setting. I feel this way almost universally at this point, yet I have not, cannot, and will not turn my back on the church – Christ’s beloved bride. From this standpoint, and from having done some basic research in successful church patterns through history, I have developed some perspective, and insight into what – at the very least – would have helped me not to feel disenfranchised by the system of church organizations that exist in our culture.
I suppose since I started with this premise of my own disenfranchisement with church, I will share a little about that, and in proceeding posts get on with my further thoughts – I trust by the Spirit: Gospel thoughts that will plant seeds of healing for the body.
One tragic thing that I learned about acceptance in the church as I matured in the Lord was this: before I got saved – I could do no wrong; while I was a raging sinner, I was guaranteed prayers, acceptance, kindness, and as much ‘fellowship’ as I was willing to avail myself to in the church. Christians would reach out to me, and try to make the most of every opportunity to minister to me; after all: Jesus is the friend of sinners. Following all of this, do you know when I found rejection in the church? I found it at the same time, and the same place many others do: when I turned to Christ, and zealously dedicated my life to passionately pursue Him. At first I wasn’t rejected, as I availed myself to all of the resources that were afforded by the assembly I was involved with; for the first year or so I almost became the poster-child; I was the prized sea bass – the notorious sinner, turned Christian – prominently mounted to the credit of the assembly I attended.
After time though, as I began to grow in the Lord, and experience some revelation… and after having corrected a couple of things; at one point I walked in on a group of elders in the church – you know: worship leaders, class teachers, deacons – all gossiping maliciously about some certain lady in the congregation. I was shocked, and immediately rebuked the whole lot of leaders; I know, I know: ‘Rebuke not an elder’ (1 Tim. 5:1), right? Believe you, me, a spirit of condemnation came over me later for what I had done, and I had to really wrestle with whether that was right, or not (now that I’ve worked through it, let me save you any suspense: it was right.)
I did not rebuke the group in pride, or out of any malicious frustration – I had walked in on them doing wrong, and was taken aback: I didn’t know what to do: it was either rebuke them, or approve of their slander – taking part their sin, so I just did the first thing that came over me. It was probably the Holy Spirit (yet so condemned I was afterward that I apologized to one of these elders; to his great credit, he had the character to tell me I should not apologize, that I had been right, and they in the wrong and he was rightly corrected).
This instance didn’t become the issue which disenfranchised me, but as I began to grow in the Lord – I moved beyond the level and degree of a mere congregant. I will here strike at (what I believe to be,) largely, the heart of the matter: when I grew and developed beyond a mere babe in Christ, suckling tenderly upon the teat of the church (please take no offence, its a biblical parable I’m using (Is. 28:9)) I was unable to find the same comfort and nourishment from her.
In my Christian experience – because of the lifestyle of sin and degradation that I was coming out of – it was necessary for me to spend copious amounts of time in the word, and in the presence of God, just to consistently overcome the immense spiritual warfare that came over me. Yet, this being thrust into the consistent seeking the Lord caused me to develop, and advance more spiritually than other Christians around me – and I could not understand their complacency (this type of dynamic is actually reasonably typical of people saved out of a lifestyle of intense rebellion to the will of God).
In a relatively short span of time I was no longer the fresh young disciple poster-boy of the church. Truth be told, I was becoming a minister, but the local assembly didn’t really know what to do with me – they gave general encouragement in my continued development, but I had already outgrown their resources. God was speaking to me, and I learned more from simply resting in His presence than I did listening to the pastor, or going to classes (indeed, some of what God showed me began to be in conflict with what was sometimes being taught by the pastor, or in classes). I understand the word declared by the psalmist, who said:
I have more understanding than all my teachers: for thy testimonies are my meditation. (Ps. 119:99)
Yet, I also was not fully mature spiritually, and in the flesh was still a teenager. I would occasionally backslide in fairly major ways. I was at that awkward pubescent teenage phase in spiritual development:
you know – moving in the right direction but with gangly growing limbs, patches hair showing up in weird places, voice occasionally cracking. I.e. becoming more spiritual, but still carnal in many ways, working at deciphering which feelings, or senses are soulish (emotional/ cognitive), and which are spiritual, etc.
Now, I have come to find that further revelation of the simple Gospel, and patience is what it takes to develop fully in the spirit, but many Christians (and ministers) had not yet developed beyond the total dependency to church phase (just frankly). If the minister said something: it was Gospel Truth; if the church leadership approved of something, then you knew it was okay – if they disapproved of something, then it was surely of the devil.
Let me just stop and say that most church organizations don’t seem to move their people past that phase. What is the vision of the church? Unfortunately, with the setup of most church organizations, the end goal is: lots of congregants. The more people that are in a church, the better, and healthier we think it is. If a body can’t keep members, then we have to assess why (notice, this IS the topic issue we started with?), and figure out what we need to do in order to keep people there.
Here is the flaw with that perspective: if the end goal is the number of congregants that attend church weekly, then the end goal ISN’T developing Christians so that they can be mature ministers. Do you see what I mean?
Let’s introduce a little more scripture at this juncture; Ephesians 4 – the bible teaches us that the five-fold ministry (Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers (Eph. 4:11) – which things I will comment on in greater detail at a later time) specifically for the chief purpose of:
‘…the PERFECTING OF THE SAINTS FOR THE WORK OF THE MINISTRY…’
Wow – there’s whole lots more if we look at the passage in full, but this is so spiritually potent, I don’t want to distract from the power of it at, but get as much juice out of this grape as possible. According to Paul, the [head, spiritual] church leadership ministry positions are for the purpose of perfecting Christians, and preparing THEM for the work of the ministry.
Right here we have already run into a conflict with our standard church culture. Many (I daresay: most) church organizations don’t really have a view to do this – our view is to stay the breastfeeding mommy. What if growing up in the Lord means that members of the congregation will some day leave the nest? What if it means that we are preparing our congregations to go and plant churches, or start works of ministry overseas, or in other cities? What if it means that once we have given them all that we have to give, and imparted to the congregation all that we have to impart, that now its their turn to GO and make disciples? If this is the goal, then in reverse of our standard thinking: it is a great tragedy that churches fill up with people who attend week after week, and grow old, and then pass away to be with the Lord without ever having developed enough spiritually to minister to others!
Does that bring some degree of new perspective on the subject for some? I hope so. But that also doesn’t solve the full equation, that’s just a little adjustment in our thinking along the way. Not everyone is going to be called overseas, or to plant new churches. It is totally legit for some Christians to stay in the same city their whole lives, and be a witness for Christ in their own workplaces. Maybe the Lord has called you to that. Or maybe He hasn’t, either way the church ought to be preparing you, and teaching you how to find the will of God for your own life so that you can fulfill it.
Yet here is the second issue I have found, that ties very much to that first one of having the correct vision for our church: too often the structure of our church organizations don’t have much opportunity for its congregants to practice THEIR ministry. There is one structure for ministry practiced in the typical American church service – no matter what denomination you are a part of, the structure generally goes like this (with few variations):
Everyone meets in the ‘sanctuary’ of a building we call the ‘church.’ At front of the sanctuary is a platform, people come in and find their seats in the sanctuary before the show – er… service, I mean. As people are getting seated, and the time of the
performance service arrives the band members (and/or choir) file onto the stage. These get the people’s attention by playing the chorus a simple attention-grabbing song; associate pastor so-and-so then tells everyone to greet someone near them. We smile and shake hands awkwardly with people we don’t know but see every week – they must be friends.
Then the music starts again, interrupting us from all the fun we are having awkwardly shaking hands with (mostly) strangers, and we start the ‘worship experience.’ After worship associate pastor so-and-so again takes the stage, and reads the bulletin out loud (since ushers have handed everyone a bulletin they could read for themselves, but none of us has bothered to – despite the cool illustration that some underpaid staffer took the time to carefully design and print) (in more modern churches they skip the bulletin recitation, and show a cool video montage which makes the upcoming father’s day barbeque seem like an intense action-comedy film).
Now, this is all good – and while I am caricaturizing the standard service setup a bit, it really is in good humor; my point is that these open-meetings are really more of a weekly performance set up by the pastorate staff, and are – generally – in no way interactive. The most sort of interactive parts of the service are the meet-and-greet, and the song service, which believers are encouraged to sing along to. It really is not designed, or setup for the type of service which Paul described in 1 Corinthians 14.
1 Cor. 14:26
How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying.
The Apostle Paul seemed not only to allow for, but indeed to EXPECT, that mature members of the church would contribute something to each service. Some Pentecostal churches will allow for someone to interrupt the service with a word of prophecy, or tongues with interpretation – but this is a variation from the planned service (by all means: kudos to them for allowing the Lord to work through His body). Of course there are a number of dynamics in applying ministry formats which makes it tricky to give the entire congregation liberty to minister, or speak out. One may be entirely in the flesh (or even under demonic manifestation – I’ve seen both happen).
The issue here, however, is where I think the main issues of disinterest lie. The first thing that churches organizations usually scrutinize when people begin leaving their congregation, are things which really pertain to this service performance. We ask questions like: ‘Do we need to make the music more appealing? How do we make our sermons/homilies more relevant to the culture? Do I need to make more football jokes during announcements? Should all the pastors start wearing skinny jeans, grow long beards and wear thick, horn-rimmed glasses?’
Again I’m teasing church a bit, but I hope you can see my point. You know what compels ME to go to certain churches? I might be oddball, but I could care less about all that outward stuff. I like to go to a service where the presence of God can be FELT. Now I don’t men someone giving a Pentecostal performance and talking up the Spirit of Healing that they can ‘FEEEEEL’ here, ‘RIGHT NOW!’ (I’ve heard that sort of thing occur as just rhetoric in *cough* ‘Apostilic’ *cough*…um certain charismatic and neo-Pentecostal churches. I wonder if “healing is happening in the room right now” and you “can feel it” (yes, word for word), why not find whoever is getting miraculously healed and let them share their testimony to the glory of God like the real Pentecostals used to do? If, on the other hand you are just trying to bolster the faith in the room, you should probably use Gospel, rather than trying to act spiritual and prophetic) In fact, sometimes in churches that are cessationist I have found such a sweet presence of Christ (pity there is that they don’t know what to do with it).
I like to go to a service where the Spirit of the Lord is moving for real. I could care less if the pastor wears a football Jersey, and the worship team’s light show is better than Styx. I’d rather be in a service with a bunch of elderly ladies with overdone makeup who all sing off key to an out of tune organ, and are still using an old overhead projector for lyrics if the Spirit of God is in it (yup, been there – good stuff).
RELATIONSHIP. If our vision for church doesn’t rise above a weekly concert followed by a really dynamic lecture – then we will never, really BE relevant. It doesn’t matter how cool our worship-time light show is, whether we have a fog machine – we’re not going to impress the rock culture. If that’s our aim, we’ll never be relevant enough until we’re biting off bat’s heads. Sorry if that’s too graphic (that was Ozzy Osborne for those unfamiliar with rock culture), my point is: we’re missing the point of church entirely.
Where there is no vision, the people perish…
We need God’s vision of what the church is, in order to function in it properly. I am running a bit long so, I suppose I will end here – talked about what Christians alienated from church organizations, and a bit about what the church isn’t. In general I think that Christians feel alienated from church organizations, not because their ‘culture doesn’t seem relevant,’ but because they honestly feel like they don’t fit anywhere. This can be resolved – usually – through relationship, and purpose (when someone feels like they can contribute).
I’ll make my goal for the next post to be about what the church IS – ‘assimilating God’s vision for our earthly mission’ (<- Hey, that’s catchy, no?:) That could be the title of the series! (Who said I can’t be trendy?! I even added pics and gifs to this post rather than my standard plain text! You should be proud – hope it makes me more relevant!))
(I’d love to hear thoughts/ questions/ testimonies back from anyone – do certain thoughts resonate? am I a total heretic? if you are a reader who has felt alienated from the church, what did it for you? Would you like to find a Christian group that operated differently so that you could feel included in the body…? Let’s make it a discussion.)