Every few days (it seems like at least) there is a report / study / survey / commentary / sermon / rant / prophetic word / gut feeling that people are giving up on church in large numbers. Here is the latest one (HT Jesus Creed). This has been going on for quite some time. I don’t doubt the numbers and it is fairly obvious to the casual observer of American culture that this is, in fact, happening. As someone who has been watching this for a long time, I am not alarmed, dismayed, and certainly not surprised. However, I continue to be troubled. Not because people have given up attending church services. But because a generation has been sold a false bill of goods.
In my last post I talked about how easy it is to base a church’s life and ministry on “taking a stand“. This is a dangerous place to be and can suck the life out of even the most vibrant communities. The simple fact is, God did not wire the church to take on the culture in some kind of direct frontal assault. He actually never asked us to take on the culture at all. If anything, the image the New Testament paints is of a Spirit-filled, cross-bearing, underground family of subversives. In an article I wrote a few years ago, I described how a church like this would approach its mission:
“The Subversive Community’s mission is not to bring the kingdom of God from without; it is to release the kingdom of God from within. Subversives do not “reach outside people and encourage them to come in.” Subversives live and do their work ‘undercover’ where the world lives and breathes. Their goal is not escapism (trying to build a Christian utopia), but to show people how they can lay hold of life as God intended, in his Kingdom.”
The startling thing about the rise of the “nones” is that they are not going to return to church if somehow churches make their services more relevant. They also won’t return just because our theology is more inviting or inclusive. Quite simply, the ship has sailed on institutional Christianity’s position of influence to a large portion of the population. Again, this should not be a shocking revelation to any Christian who has had their eyes open in recent history. But it should have caused us to ask deeper questions than what kind of music we should play for worship or if we should have a Saturday night service to attract a younger crowd.
Full disclosure here: I am committed to a way of “doing church” that I feel best suits the place that God has called me and my family to live. You could call it simple church, organic church, home-grown-on-the-farm-church – whatever, pick your poison. In essence, we have chosen to worship in a way that strips back a lot of organizational fluff so we focus on the essentials. What are our essentials you ask? Well, here is a list we come back to again and again:
Worship – bringing glory to God and receiving his love in return.
Care – living by the Golden Rule. Love God, love your neighbor as yourself.
Discipleship – following Jesus together. Giving away what we have received.
Mission – making the world a better place. Building for the Kingdom.
Fun – enjoying ourselves along the way. We NEED to have fun.
It is amazing what can be accomplished by a relatively small group of people with limited time and resources if, as they like to say in AA, you keep the main thing the main thing. I believe the answer for the church’s next season will be found in returning to the beauty and simplicity of the Way of Life Jesus gave us. There is incredible diversity to be found in this Way. It will look very different from place to place (which I believe is an important challenge to the American tendency to franchise “success,” but that is fodder for another post.) But where the life of the Kingdom is concretely practiced by people who profess Jesus as Lord, there WILL be tangible fruit. It cannot be otherwise.
My response when people walk away from church en masse is to ask, “How have we not been living out the real thing?” This is the only response that honors the fact that the Holy Spirit is constantly at work in the world. As has been said so many times, our only job is to find out what he is doing and join in.
Maybe God is trying to tell us something: “I’ve been at work all around you in places you would never expect me to be. But you have been so busy playing church, that you forgot how to see me outside of a church service. Wake up! Take notice! Throw off your comfortable routines and empty traditions. Seek out and find me with the broken, the hurting, the sick, and the lonely. Find me talking with your atheist friend. Find me spending time with your shut-in neighbor. Find me sharing a drink with your blasphemous co-worker. I am there.”