There are a lot of people angry at the church today. Everyone has their reasons. I will say upfront that I love the church unapologetically. I have spent ten years working with churches and thirty years as part of the church. With that being said, there has been a growing unrest building inside of me for a while.
My intention here is not to point a finger and throw rocks from the outside but to mourn from the inside. I offer it as a starting point for some of a conversation already happening around us.
The Church Today
The church is in a unique and dangerous place today. The constant pressure to show some tangible success has pressed pastors and staff to produce. Whether it’s attention grabbing worship services, catchy sermon series, or a relevant experience, churches are starting to become producers of religious good and services, not existing for much more. Church models that have had success in other places are packaged, reproduced, and implemented in varying contexts all over with hopes that they might experience that same sort of success quickly to see tangible results.
See, we have become obsessed with numbers. We told ourselves that we care about numbers because, “Numbers are people and people are souls,” and we have dived headfirst into the number-driven deep end of the pool:
- How many people came Sunday?
- How much money was given?
- How many kids showed up?
- How many small groups do we have?
- How much will _______ cost?
- How many people go to ______ church?
And on and on it goes.
A study in 2013 found that churches spent eighty-two percent of her budget on personnel, buildings, and administration expenses. Hey, that’s horrible, OK?
We complain and sincerely mourn that people show up to our services and don’t want to go deeper. They like the music or the preaching style and just come to get “filled up for the week.” We know that’s a recipe for disaster. They come because they like the sermon series that is centered on a topic, movie, or pop culture icon. We walk away hoping they got the real message. We talk in our meetings about how we want people to experience a “real, deep relationship with Christ” and we know that’s the point. But, in our very next breaths, we spend our time crafting services that require people to sit shoulder-to-shoulder facing a stage and, for the most part, sitting quietly and listening to the preacher. The preacher who in turn spends his time during these services telling people, “This isn’t the point” and “There is more to being a Christian than showing up to a service”—which is completely true (and I am thankful for people who say that) but completely confusing at the same time.
Sunday Is Coming
Monday comes around though, and we know we have to produce something so that people will hopefully come back to hear the message. So we learn the new worship songs, prepare the graphics, go over the transitions so that everything is smooth. We see what the larger churches are doing to get some ideas and try to recreate it. We spend twenty (or more) hours during the week prepping for a forty-five minute to an hour service.
We then meet the people in our churches; the people who show up to our services. They are good people, and we care about them. Because we do care deeply about them we know they need more than just a Sunday; we do too! We know the danger of that type of thinking and what it leads to, so we decide we are going to help. We are going to help people assimilate into the life of the church; we call it the “Assimilation Ministry.” Well, that sounds creepy. Where else does anyone talk like that? It has a good heart, but we try to explain the importance of connecting with people from the stage in the most impersonal way and how we have set up a few ways to do that. You know sort of like some weird blind dates.
To make people feel welcome, we pass out free stuff to new people, make special parking spaces, maybe give out a staff members novel, a CD of our songs, and welcome them to an informational gathering to learn more.
All the while, everyone knows people don’t want or have the time to come to that, and we miss the easiest idea in the mess. Go to them and hang out. Ironically, we give out all these things and setup these gatherings to bring people into the life of the church only to bring them into the corporate and institutional life of the church. I have seen new people visit a church, go to a meeting, serve in a position, burn out, and leave the church in six months time more than I care to say. They were never really any closer with the people, but they did help the Sundays go!
Then we have people burned by the church in some ways, walking around talking about how bad the church is:
- That it’s impersonal.
- That it just cares about what they give monetarily or service wise.
- That they couldn’t connect with anyone.
- That the Pastor is unapproachable.
- That there isn’t enough services for their kids.
- That the sermons got too long or their were too many worship songs.
- That the prayers started taking too long, I just wanted to hear the songs; people sat in my seat, or the lyrics were not clear enough.
A Messy State
On and on it goes. It never stops. Why? Well, we set it up that way. We created a system where people could come and get what they want, the way they want it, and nothing was asked of them. Or when something was asked of them they found another place that didn’t ask. We taught them being a Christian was really about living a good life and finding a Sunday morning service they like, one that was not too convicting, didn’t require too much action on what they heard, and didn’t require committing to the other people next to them. We gave them a club, not a movement. We offered a yacht club without the boats and a Christianity without Jesus.
And now we are living in that mess. People walk around thinking they understand the church enough to hate it; in reality, they know so little and are a danger to anyone in earshot. And I don’t blame them completely! I blame us—the pastors, staff members, and leaders who kept the vicious cycle going. We all knew something was off, but we didn’t want to upset the boat too much. We saw the other guys who did that, and they were kicked off violently. We weren’t sure we could swim in those waters too long. We didn’t want to change anything because then, “People may not come.” And we were right. They kept coming and going, like people in Target, waiting to get their goods and checkout in a nice orderly fashion. We created hubs of people that got a little bit of Jesus and were OK with it until it didn’t fit their time/schedules/preferences. So maybe it’s all of our faults—people for wanting it and the churches for providing it.
All that being said, let me say this: You need the church. I need the church. We all need the church. That church idea was never an option. It was part of the point. Should you gather? Yes! Should churches have some form of gatherings with teaching, music, fellowship, and so on? Of, course! But if everything seems broken what should do?
Everyone with the same likes, contexts, and passions gather together—football teams, kids sports, neighborhoods, coworkers and so on. Stop using the ridiculous excuse you don’t have time, or it’s not worth it. You do, and it is; it’s just not important to you. Start there, wonder why it’s not, and make some changes.
Maybe you got hurt by someone in the church. Get healing. I’m sure you have had people hurt you in ways before, and I hope you tried finding some healing. If not, approach them. Talk with them just like you would in your neighborhood, kids sports events, a coworker, and other places. A broken relationship does not make the church bad; it just makes it full of broken people. . . . And you are welcome in, too!
Maybe you didn’t like the preaching, worship, pastor, building, wall color, etc. Just think about that one. Maybe you have a good reason not to go back there. So go somewhere else. Or maybe you have a terrible reason, and you need to get over it.
Maybe you are the pastor, leader, or staff member who is just frustrated day in and day out because you are part of it and want more. Instead of yelling at a bunch of people, start engaging. Start doing what you know you should be doing. Don’t tell others what they should or shouldn't do unless you are doing it.
It’s About Jesus
One day my daughter was crying about being so hungry “she could die.” So, I took out my iPhone and showed a picture of children starving in third-world countries. I then showed her everything we had in our house and how much God had blessed us with and how the children there would be overwhelmed with all the stuff we had. She ate very happily after that. Likewise, there are Christians around the world that are meeting in the cover of darkness and caves in fear for their lives. They don’t have the time nor would they ever care to concern themselves with these things. They just want Jesus.
Church is a gathered people who have come to the very deep fundamental realization that they are in desperate need of the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If you do not believe that, then don’t go, but if you want to or are trying to figure it out, go! Just know the point is not to make you feel welcome (though we may try), it is to paint a very clear picture of how great God truly is.
If you are a pastor or leader in the church, can I ask you a serious question? Do you believe that it’s all about Jesus? Do you ultimately trust God that the call of the church is not success but faithfulness?
Do you remember that he builds the church and we just get to tell the story? Can you be content in knowing God can do more with twelve followers than thousands of attenders?
Greg has served in various pastoral roles in churches in NY and FL over the course of 10 years. Greg now lives in FL with his wife and two children where he is helping churches and church planters equip the church to make disciples in everyday ways in everyday places. You can read more from Greg at www.gregsmiths.com
Originally appeared at www.gregsmiths.com. Used with permission.