Tag Archives: mainline church

Church Numbers: the Golden Calf in the Middle of the Room

My spirit cringes in disgust every time I hear someone boast of their congregation, “Yeah, we worship 235 on a Sunday morning.” That statement absolutely wreaks of idolatry. For one thing, as Christians, we don’t worship 235 of anything. We worship one– count em’ 1, uno, the one and only– God whom we know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We may be blessed… correction… God may be blessed to have 235 worshippers gathered in a particular place on a Sunday morning to worship. But when I hear statements like that thrown around, I can’t stand it. And while I can’t speak for God, I’m sure this whole “yeah, we worship 235 or 75 or 666 on a Sunday morning” must stir the divine stomach, too.

church numbersIt’s time to call it out for what it is. It’s symptomatic of the thinking which plagues the mainline church, my United Methodist tribe in particular. It’s the numbers game. And the way the numbers game is being played these days, it’s nothing more than idolatry, and therefore is a breach of the First and even Second Commandments.

So why all the fuss over numbers? Well actually, the church has always counted numbers. There were 12 disciples, down from 72 at one point. There were 12 apostles. After Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, 3,000 were added to their number that day. The book of Revelation records 144,000 from the 12 tribes of Israel sealed for the day of redemption. (And no, I’m not a literalist on this last one. Nevertheless, it’s a numbered count, even figuratively.) Of course, the Old Testament records all kinds of numbers pertaining to God’s people.

But as for our modern obsession with numbers, I once heard United Methodist Bishop James E. Swanson say quite prophetically, “No one ever fussed about evangelism and discipleship until the money started running out.” Amen and amen, Bishop. I wish that statement could be trumpeted to every board, committee, and task force of our denomination. As the church began to decline in both financial and people resources, then we started scrutinizing our statistics and desperately cranked out catchy slogans and programs designed to promote things like evangelism, discipleship, and stewardship.

It’s the same old spiel so many of us have heard every year at our annual denominational gatherings:

Our membership is declining at precipitous rates. Our membership is getting older. We’re running out of money. We need to address this before we die out. How will we do this?

Well, we need to reverse these these trends. We need to increase our membership with newer, preferably younger people. And, of course, we need to get money out of them to keep our ship from sinking.

Idolatry. Sheer, ugly, shameful idolatry.

Instead of fussing over numbers, we need to fuss over Jesus. And therein lies the problem. As congregations became established and static, the fervor and passion of being disciples of Jesus began to ebb away. When we lost our vital connection to a life lived in Jesus, we lost our heart. When we lost our heart, we lost our passion and settled for programs, comfortable routines, maintenance-minded structures, and a club-like, members-only mentality towards congregational life.

Numbers and statistics are important, but only as a one kind of thermometer. For example, let’s say I take my temperature, and it reads higher than it should be. If I were to use today’s church mentality, I’d be saying to myself, “My goodness! This number is too high… I need to find a way to lower this number” and then proceed to shake the thermometer to a better, lower number. (Never mind it was a digital thermometer…) You can see the problem. I’m fussing over the number without diagnosing and treating the causality, the real sickness.

The real sickness within today’s mainline church is our lost fervor for being Jesus’ disciples who strive after him while expecting great, awesome things from his kingdom here on earth and in heaven to come.

Numbers tell a story, but they do not cause or fix problems. Numbers are a gauge of spiritual activity, but they are not our chief, primary focus. Jesus is. The moment we learn that lesson is the moment we can be freed from the bondage of worrying over numbers. Numbers are not to be reveled in when they’re good. We revel in and give glory to God; giving glory to numbers is self-serving idolatry. And, conversely, numbers are not to be consternated over when they’re bad. We wouldn’t worry over a thermometer. We would address the sickness and seek a remedy for it.

In our case, we have a merciful, bountiful, fiercely loving God who is ready to pour salve on our wounds, wash away our sins, cure our spiritual blindness, soften our stony-hearted apathy, smash up our self-seeking idols of worldly success, and fill us to overflowing with the Holy Spirit of Jesus. We have an Abba Father who runs breakneck towards us prodigals the moment we decide to return home. That’s true for us as individuals, and certainly true for our faith communities, too.

In order to smash up the golden calf of the numbers game, we need a revival of biblical discipleship in which we re-learn our identity as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. As disciples, we worship with passionate abandon (no matter the form of worship, form of worship being yet another manifestation of self-serving idolatry). As disciples we build authentic, caring relationships of support, learning, and accountability with other disciples. As disciples, we learn and live the Word of God contained in the pages of Scripture, crafting a thoroughly biblical lens to view God, the world, and ourselves. As disciples, we are passionate about bringing our lost neighbors to a healing relationship with Jesus, fighting for justice, binding up the broken and injured, all the while living in hopeful expectation for the kingdom of God to come. As disciples of Jesus, we seek to be like Jesus Christ, to be the living flesh, bone and sinews of  his way, truth, and life.

When we get at that, the numbers game will care for itself. After all we worship only One.

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Young Adult Ministry: A Serious Misnomer

In my new ministry role, I’ve been tasked with building up young adult ministry in my region. (That consists of two districts encompassing 5 counties.) Of course, I’ve been charged with doing lots of other things, too, but this priority has caught more of my attention lately.

Young-AdultsThose of us in mainline Protestant denominations, my United Methodist tribe included, know that the #1 missing age group in the local church is this block of people between the ages of 18-30, typically called “young adult”. The church began to wake up to this statistical nightmare 20 years ago. It began to address it in earnest about 10 years later.

The backdrop behind this whole conversation is the typical storyline. A kid grows up in the church, checks out after high school, and goes unseen and unheard for a number years or permanently. Actually, permanent absence is more the norm. And another reality we’re learning is that young people have mentally, emotionally and spiritually checked out of church long before they physically check out! That’s a whole other conversation for youth ministry- a topic for another day…

Or, there is an expanding number of folks like me who grew up with no significant exposure to the church who have yet to enter its doors. (I did when I was almost 18, but I’m a statistical oddball. I entered the church at precisely the age most of my peers were on their way out. Most are still out.)

So, in typical mainline church fashion, we began to look around, weep and wail over our numbers and statistics, and said to our aging selves, “We’ve got to do something to reverse this trend!” The solution: young adult ministry. Programs and trainings were launched. We rolled out rousing campaigns, videos, curriculum, and über cool stuff to catch the attention of young adults. Every level of the denomination from general to local church hired “young adult ministry coordinators” and put together “young adult councils” or committees to create ministry that would attract and bring back into the fold our prodigal young people.

But here was the problem. We began to shell out lots of money and human resources without truly understanding this age group. We still, by and large, have no idea how to be the church with young adults. Anecdotal success stories abound, but most local churches still find themselves in the same place they were two decades ago. People between the ages of 18-30 (or even 40) are still missing. They’ve now been made aware of the problem, but they still don’t know what to do about it except carry on as best as they know how.

*******

Key to our recovery from failure is removing from our vocabulary the misnomer known as “young adult ministry”. I’m not clever enough right now to call it something different. Maybe we shouldn’t fuss at all over what to brand it! Short of ridding ourselves of the unhelpful terminology is to redefine what we mean by “young adult” and to understand why this term, or at least our understanding of it, is unhelpful. Then we’ll know how to think and do differently.

  • It is impossible to lump everyone between the ages of 18-30 (or 35, or 40) together into one grouping. This is an age bracket and nothing more. Young adults are wildly diverse. Included in this bracket are college campus students, stay-at-home and living-on-their-own college students, working professionals and non-professionals, married, single, parents, non-parents, or some combination of the above, or maybe even none of the above. Key to our learning here is the reality that we cannot– I repeat, cannot!– create a catch-all “young adult ministry” and expect this thing, whatever it is, to be our statistical antidote.
  • Ministry with the young adult age bracket is rarely, if ever, attractional. Often what we mean by the word “ministry” is something into which we invite people to participate. It’s a largely attractional-style approach. Case in point: ABC United Methodist Church decides they need to reach out to the missing college-aged students, so their newly formed “young adult ministry team” organizes and heavily promotes a big cook-out party shindig thing in their fellowship hall with hot dogs, potato salad, soda and the latest, greatest Michael W. Smith music blaring in the background. Two young adults, children of the coordinators, show up… and that’s it. What happened? It’s quite simple, really. Those who might have actually seen or heard the announcements and gave it a moment’s thought said to themselves, “Umm… I don’t know them” and went on their way. Or, as one young adult blogger recently pointed out, we don’t want to be the target of your church!
  • Ministry with the young adult age bracket is highly relational. Young adults often see the church as distant, judgmental, irrelevant, hokey religious, “something for those churchgoing people, but not me.” The only way to change the perception in the mind and heart of a young person is to intentionally be in a relationship in which the churchgoer opens his life, heart, eyes, ears and mind to a young person, reveal the style and character of Jesus in action while seeing the activity of Jesus in young adults. Therefore, a lot of successful “young adult ministry” starts quietly, simply, and humbly. It’s a conversation over coffee, a meal in someone’s home, a community service project– something, anything, that brings everyday people together doing everyday stuff, not religious, “y’all come to my church event” stuff.
  • Ministry with young adults is highly contextual. That’s a fancy way of saying that it takes the shape of who we already know and have connections to. I’ve seen some churches engage young adults through a softball league, or by getting to know young people by hanging out at a coffee shop, or counseling a young unwed mother who’s wondering about whether or not to get her baby baptized. It happens everyday through campus ministries, through PTA events, block parties, home dinners, hangouts. Whomever you know who happens to be within that young adult demographic is your young adult ministry. Go with it. Deepen your relationship(s), grow to truly love them, and look to see where the Holy Spirit takes you next.

The reality is that no one wants to be a demographic target. But everyone wants to be included and loved within a community. The non-religious, most especially non-religious young adults, aren’t waking up on Sunday mornings wondering about our churches. But they do have deeply spiritual yearnings and questions, like we all do. Young adults aren’t sitting around with wide-eyed anticipation at the opportunity to be ministered to or put into a group. But they are looking for purpose, authentic relationships, and meaningful ways to impact their world for the good of humanity.

So what would it look like for us mainline church folks to put aside our antsy need to do something about those wayward young adults? What if we slowed down, asking God to open our eyes to notice the young people who are already around us, learn from them, listen to them, and discern how to best love them and include them, where they are, as they are? That approach would totally change most of our conversations and hopefully discard the misnomer of “young adult ministry” from our churches.

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It’s the Most Politically Correct Time of the Year

I never thought to exert any effort addressing this topic, or worse yet subject you, my patient readers, to this dribble. Yet every time I think it’s gone away, it starts barking again. I recently posted a question about this on Facebook and got overwhelmed with the varied responses. Yes, I’m talking about the battle over Christmas.

Every year, this time of year, without fail, it goes something like this:

Do we have a Christmas Tree at the town square or a non-sectarian Holiday Tree? Do we put up a Nativity there, scrap it all together for lights and snowflakes, or maybe put up a Nativity alongside a Menorah and a Kwanzaa kinara? Oops… forgot to add the Festivus pole… oh yeah, and the Yule Log.

And of course, there’s the seasonal salutation question. Do we keep to a faithful “Merry Christmas” or offer an all-inclusive “Happy Holidays”? If we ask that, we might as well consider whether to boycott those ungodly, anti-Christian stores who refuse to acknowledge Christmas with that secular “Happy Holidays” garbage or perhaps shun the stores who sold out to the Bill O’Reilly evangelical fundamentalist right-wingers and now emblazon that bigoted “Merry Christmas” hate speech all over their stores. How oppressive!

You get the idea…

Now, just to turn down the heat with a reality check, let’s keep three things in mind.

First, Happy Holidays was originally shorthand for Merry Christmas and Happy New Years. While it’s become a polite, non-sectarian seasonal greeting for most people, some still use Happy Holidays as a catch-all for Christmas and New Years.

Second, the widespread celebration of Christmas with Santa Claus, decorations, Christmas Eve services, gift giving, and the whole nine yards is a fairly recent phenomenon. Ironically enough, 200 years ago, most Protestants could have cared less about Christmas or even wrote it off as a “papist” folly. Christmas is the Christ-Mass, after all. That’s why, historically speaking, it’s pretty amusing to hear us evangelical Christians coming to the rescue of a once-avoided Catholic feast day.

Third, for Jews and Christians, Christmas and Hanukkah are not the most important religious celebrations of the year, despite all the hoopla. For Christians, Easter Sunday is by far the foremost feast day, celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And for a long time, the January 6 celebration of Epiphany was more prominent than Christmas. (I know some folks who out of principle purposefully still honor this.) For Jews, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the most important day of the year, followed by Rosh Hashanah. Hanukkah, a far less important Jewish celebration, has earned a place of unintended cultural prominence for Jews living in the clang and clamor of Christmas, which again, once upon a time, was never all that important to a significant segment of Christendom.

So why all the fuss over Merry Christmas versus Happy Holidays or whether or not it’s appropriate to have a Nativity on public property?

This is part and parcel of the ongoing culture wars. Looking at the scope of human history, the transitional years between major periods of history have always been politically, economically, and culturally turbulent. I believe we are in that time of turbulent transition from Modernity to the next thing. That’s why we speak of everything now as post—post-Enlightenment, post-Imperialism, post-Christendom, post-Western, postmodern. These are not definitive, concrete terms, only negations of what used to be, making way for the next thing. Meanwhile no one seems to know what that next thing is. Until the next thing comes, we get to endure the culture wars of our times, the struggle between what we conserve versus what we change or simply throw out.

The struggle over Christmas is over the identity of Christmas and the place of Christmas, among many other traditional things, in an increasingly pluralistic culture. When we see the bumper sticker slogan “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” we’re dealing with a strictly contemporary sentiment that would have seemed patently absurd to people just forty years ago. That’s recent past, really.

But there’s another oddity about our post-everything age. When dealing with cultural differences, we have set up an incongruent paradigm. It’s kind of funny, actually.

On the one side of this paradigm, it is increasingly poor manners to “judge” anyone or anything. Live and let live. I don’t have the right to tell you how you should live, what you should think, and what you should do, most especially if it doesn’t directly affect me. Nor do I have the right to enter your personal space with my values and beliefs without your explicit permission. Personal freedom, privacy, and tolerance are the basic, inviolate interrelational virtues of our day.

However, on the other side of the paradigm, we hold a fundamental right to never be offended. Maybe that’s why we get so cranky! Someone says or does something that clashes with my life and values, and I feel personally violated, as if what was said and done was explicitly intended to attack my personhood. For example, I wish you a Happy Holidays, and you might interpret that as my trivializing your Christian holiday or even your Christian faith. Or if I wish you a Merry Christmas, you might interpret that as a manipulative form of proselytizing. So much for tolerance. (For the record, I don’t know of anyone who ever became a born again believer or who was ever coerced into Christianity after being wished a Merry Christmas. And no, I don’t buy the argument that saying Merry Christmas is a necessary preservative of Christmas. Unpretentiously working in a homeless shelter on Christmas Day, however—now that’s preserving the gift of Christmas.)

So, we live in this paradigmatic tension of tolerance versus never offending or being offended.

Strangely enough I live with this same tension in the church culture. On the one hand, we mainline Protestants pride ourselves for practicing “Open Minds, Open Doors, and Open Hearts” (a recent United Methodist slogan). But on the other hand, the baseline question that drives the bulk of our decisions and behaviors is, “That won’t offend anyone, will it?” Unfortunately, all too seldom do we ask, “What is the right thing, the most holy thing, the most Christ-like thing?” Instead we walk on eggshells, neurotically sanitizing everything we say or do, lest this group or this person should get their panties in a bunch (oops, that last image might have offended someone!) and walk out… with checkbook in hand, of course.

Getting back to Christmas, all sides of the debate have made it a politically correct nightmare. Both Christians and non-Christians want tolerance but are offended when their sensibilities are violated. Christians cannot charge non-Christians and secularists with a politically correct tyranny of Happy Holidays and non-sectarian winter solstice festivities and at the same time turn around and demand carte blanche for Merry Christmas and Nativities. Both demand tolerance while simultaneously filing a public grievance over the cultural violations of the other.

So, how do we go forward? I think we need to ask a question to ourselves. We need to go beyond the question, “Can’t we all just get along?” That question asks for basic toleration, and toleration isn’t enough. We must ask ourselves, “How can I fully embrace the other, honoring them while remaining true to myself?” That doesn’t mean I agree with all they believe, do, or say. But I don’t have to let those incongruities bother me. Instead, I can appreciate them for the gift from God they are and the gifts from God they offer, and fully value and include them for that.

That would mean you could see me out on the street and wish me a Happy Holidays, a Happy Hanukkah, a Happy Kwanzaa, a Happy Winter Solstice, a Happy Christmakwanzukkah, or just a “Hey there, Chris!” and I would receive that as your blessing to me, and receive it with joy because I receive you with joy. At the same time, I could joyfully wish you a Merry Christmas in my excitement over the birth of Christ, and you would receive that and me for what they were intended to be: a blessing and a gift to you, however you choose to receive me.

All this would be a significant down payment on the angels’ proclamation to the shepherds of “…good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all the people” (Luke 2:10).

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Disillusioned with Church (Such as It Is)

It seems like more and more I talk to one person after another who is disillusioned with the church. You might think that the people I talk to are those who have already walked away from it. Most of them are, yes. But alarmingly, there is a growing chorus of frustration from those in the church now, but who may not be for much longer. Meanwhile, here I am as a pastor, seemingly a purveyor of all that is church, listening to and watching the frustration. I wonder how I contribute to it.  And I ponder even more deeply still, How do I raise this sinking Titanic that is the North American mainline church? Is there any hope?

First, let me say that I share the same frustrations with the Church that so many people have. Let me give you a taste:

  • I agree that the Church tends to be way out of touch with the real needs, thoughts, and aspirations of many everyday people.
  • I too, find the Church to be many times insincere and inauthentic about our motives and our shortcomings.
  • I hate how judgmental and narrow-minded church folks can be.
  • I’ve been deeply hurt by the stories of people who have come into churches I have served and walked away feeling unwelcome and even looked down upon.
  • I get frustrated when Christians (including myself) fail to do what we preach and fall terribly short from Jesus’ standard of love, grace, and integrity.
  • I cringe at the parochial and often hateful attitudes of churches and Christians towards any beliefs, standards, or ways of doing things that don’t fit into their little boxes.
  • I am deeply embarrassed by fellow clergy who use their sacred office of trust to exploit and abuse people and the churches they serve.
  • I’m ashamed at how often churches seem to only care about their own viability instead of truly caring about the life and healing of the world around them.
  • It exacerbates me that many churches would rather decline and die than embrace new, effective means of being a wellspring of life for the needs and well-being of their neighbors.
  • I keep wondering how churches can truly be Holy Spirit-filled, alive, Christ-centered, exciting groups of people with lots of love and grace to give away, versus the typical, hum-drum, dry, bone dead institutions stuck in a rut of traditionalism and fruitless routine.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. And I’m sure that somewhere in this list, I’ve probably scraped against some of your hang-ups and frustrations about the church, such as it is these days. It’s not a pretty picture.

Now let me also say that in the mire and mediocrity of many local churches, some beautiful things happen all the time that never get picked up in the news or in everyday conversations. Every week, I witness lives that are touched and changed by Jesus Christ through the everyday ministry of his people. I see churches reach out and serve their neighbors in quiet, non-presumptive ways. At the cutting edge of many social justice struggles, you’ll find people of faith leading the charge. I remain deeply humbled by the generosity, sacrifices, and selflessness of the people I serve in order to see our church love, reach out to, and include new people into our church family.

So, there is always so much, even within many small, seemingly insignificant churches that would inspire us all. I’ve seen it. And I never cease to be amazed by it.

But even then, there are major, systemic issues that the church in North America needs to address. These issues infect and threaten every congregation, and if we continue in our apathy towards these issues, we risk losing entire generations of people, if we haven’t already. They risk missing out on good news of Jesus Christ. And we in the church risk the blessing of loving and being loved by these generations of people.

It would take lots of different blog posts to detail the systemic issues that give reason for our mass disillusionment with church (such as it is.) And there are some excellent books which detail the issues. I encourage you to read them.

So, I’d like to propose a remedy that might help congregations and denominations of Christian churches to “get it right” again, to be the Church which Christ intended us to be. I’m not saying here that even if we were perfect that there wouldn’t be people who would still reject Jesus Christ and his Church. There always have been, and there will be until the end of this world (such as it is).

But, we can do some things that would keep people who genuinely believe, want to believe, or used to believe from being further damaged or disillusioned by the church. So, here is the remedy:

1) Individual Christians, congregations, and denominational systems must be willing to listen to and acknowledge the grievances people have with the current state of the church. We must stop thinking that they are wrongheaded reprobates and validate their hurt-filled, disappointing experiences.

2) We must take full responsibilities for our shortcomings and faults, lament them, and mourn for the countless lives who have been hurt, disillusioned, and damaged by the church.

3) We must take purposeful, fearless steps towards being a more authentic, sincere church. This can happen in one of three ways:

  • We do the hard, painful work of reforming local congregations through strong pastoral leadership working alongside faithful lay people.
  • We start new congregations whose DNA purposefully resembles a Christlike way of worshiping, living, and serving.
  • We provide hospice care for dying congregations who refuse to reform.

None of these options are easy, but one of them is necessary for every established congregation. Every established congregation must either reform, launch new faith communities, or die a dignified death. That may sound harsh, but it reflects my strong, growing conviction that no church can carry on in business-as-usual mode. To do that jeopardizes everyone.

In the mean time, I have some encouragement for those of us who get disillusioned with the church but aren’t giving up on it. First, the Church, the true Church, will never die. Local congregations may come and go, but Christ’s Church will survive and thrive. Secondly, the Holy Spirit is giving God’s faithful people vision, strength, and love to keep forming and reforming the Church, even if we find ourselves in far-from-perfect local churches. So don’t give up or walk away. You may reform what is there, help begin something new, or provide hospice care for a dying church. In any case, Christ can work through you to be his Church.

For those of you who have already walked away, know that a growing chorus of us hear you loud and clear and dislike what you see as much as you do. I would love the honor of having you provide your insight, wisdom and any help you might offer to create authentic communities that reflect who Jesus is.

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Smashing the Jesus Idol of Churchianity

In my last post, I pointed out that the Church in its present state hosts many false idols of Jesus that need to be called out and smashed. In so doing, my intentions are not to bad-mouth the Church, but rather to help the Church reform and recover a more authentic, effective, and sincere discipleship under Jesus Christ. By naming and smashing these false Jesus idols, we can move closer to the real Jesus and to the abundant, eternal life he calls us to share in community with him and with each other. Some of these idols are glaringly obvious. Some are far more elusive. But all are equally damning if we worship them.

So in this post, I’d like to call out and smash one of the more elusive, difficult-to-understand false idols of Jesus. It’s the Jesus idol of “churchianity.” This idol has been created and paraded around to bless and propagate the traditional, institutional church structure in which most all mainline denominations and churches fit. This idol props up and spiritualizes the goals, agenda, and values of the institutional church.

Admittedly this is smart ploy! I mean, if the institutional church can claim that it’s only doing what Jesus commanded them to do and carry it out in his name, then who can argue with that? But this tactic is what makes this false idol of Jesus so crafty; the institutional church puts the most sacred words and commands of Jesus into this idol’s mouth and drags it out into the open when they need its justification.

But to properly describe this churchianity Jesus idol, we need to better understand the condition of the institutional church which created it.

Roman Emperor Constantine

The institutional Western Church as we know it today has enjoyed a long history of power and prestige from the time of Roman emperor Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 AD until nearly 50 years ago. The Church thrived in a state of Christendom in which Christianity of some form was the official religion of every Western nation. The Church stood at the center of such a society and by virtue of having its doors open and services conducted, it maintained Christianity as the civil religion of the land. Church and State became virtually synonymous, and the Jesus of this Church stood as the patron of their union.

The last century saw seismic shifts in society and culture which drastically affected the Western institutional church. The rise of democracy in the 18th and 19th Centuries gradually eroded away Christendom. But in the last century, with the influx of post-modernism’s deep skepticism towards all things central and institutional, the last vestiges of Christendom crumbled away completely, leaving behind a crippled institutional church. From the early 1960’s until now, the church has continued in a state of denial, believing that its ornate buildings, traditions, grand worship services, and programs would continue to attract and keep its adherents. But instead, most mainline institutional churches have suffered an accelerated decline in membership and worship service attendance.

So what do once-powerful, threatened institutions do? They throw themselves into survival mode. They ramp up their efforts to become productive again. They uplift institutional identity and fidelity as a chief value for all its members. And, in the case of the institutional church, they dig into the wellspring of biblical and theological treasures they’ve inherited to find ideas, slogans, and self-serving principles they hope will make them vibrant again. This sludge is what I call churchianity.

The United Methodist Cross and Flame

For example, I’ve too often heard my own denomination and Conference promote the following institutionally-minded goals:

  • increasing worship attendance and professions of faith, i.e. boost our flagging institutional membership statistics
  • increase stewardship and giving for the spreading of the gospel, i.e. bringing in money to keep our programs going, staff paid, and buildings operational
  • do more evangelism and faith sharing, i.e. attracting people back into our church institutions so that we can convince them to become members of it
  • making disciples of Jesus Christ, i.e. recruiting good, giving, serving church members who will uphold the church institution

Are you seeing a trend here? Every one of these goals has been couched in theological and missional language in order to keep the church institution afloat. Numbers of people and amounts of money are tantamount to this institution’s self-credibility and existence.

Then comes the Jesus idol of churchianity. Forged by the institutional church, its purpose is very simple: to speak and act in a vain effort to salvage what’s left. Now here’s the dangerously elusive aspect of this false Jesus. It very clearly speaks the Great Commission and the Great Commandment, so convincingly, in fact, that its utterances could easily be mistaken for those of the  real Jesus… except for one small but fatal difference. It pronounces the Great Commission and Great Commandment with the singular intent of numerically adding to the rebuilding of the institution who created it.

When the real Jesus commanded his disciples to go into the world to baptize and form new disciples (the Great Commission) and to love God and love others (the Great Commandment), he was not at all interested in creating and fostering an institution. Jesus’ prime and only motivation was relational and connective. In other words, Jesus sought to reconnect people back to God the Father in a community of disciples of his who would then build the kingdom of God’s shalom and righteousness in this world. There’s not a breath of institutionalism or self-preservation in any of this!

Jesus intended his Church, his living and holy Body, to be the catalyst and example for this kind of holy connectedness and transformation. But the Church was never intended to be the ends or even the focus of Jesus’ mission in the world. Jesus’  focus is the world he died to save with the purpose of raising all of creation to life in the wings of his resurrection. So whether or not the Western institutional church as we know it survives is of no ultimate consequence.  What God has accomplished and will accomplish in Jesus Christ will always stand. His Church, in whatever form it takes, will stand with him.

So, in the name of Jesus, we smash the false Jesus idol of churchianity and we strive to dissemble the last remnants of churchianity.

In their place, we worship the Jesus who reconnects people back to God through his work on the cross. We worship the Jesus who connects these same people to him and to others to form a vital community of fellow disciples called the Church who, empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, enliven the world around them for eternity, inviting and teaching new disciples of Jesus, never for their own sakes, but for the sake of all others.

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Post-Christian Agnostics: Understanding the Spirituality of Most Americans

These days I spend an increasing amount of time listening to the thoughts and feelings of people outside of the Church. I do this for two reasons. First, it’s refreshing for me, a pastor, to get outside of the church world long enough to listen to and attempt to understand different spiritual perspectives. As I learn about other people’s souls, inevitably those conversations become a mirror for me to better understand myself and my own soul, too. But the second reason I have conversations with non-Church people is to better understand the Church’s mission field. My church and I can’t form new connections and new community with people we don’t respect and understand. So often, Church and Church leaders do all the talking, trying to get a  message out there without noticing if people are at all getting what we’re saying or if they even care!

I have a confession to make before I go on. It’s taken me a while to get to this place of truly listening to people of other faith persuasions.

A little bit of autobiography: I was not raised in the Church. Up until my conversion to Jesus Christ when I was 18-years-old, I would describe myself as a pre-Christian Theist. In other words, I believed in God but had no beliefs regarding Jesus. As a matter of fact, it took me a while once I got involved with my church to really wrap my head around the whole Jesus thing. I mean, the only ways I had ever heard the name of Jesus invoked was in swearing or by some wide-eyed TV evangelist carrying on at the top of his lungs about “Jeeeeyzus.” But once I came to enough understanding and appreciation for Jesus to call him my Lord and Savior, I attempted with every effort to try to conform myself to church culture and thinking. And that led me down the road of being so church and Christianity-centered that I began to forget and even despise my unchurched, pre-Christian heritage. I closed myself to anything but Christianity and became pretty obnoxious about it, too.

Well, after many years of trying to unsuccessfully conform myself to church culture and to the religiousity of Christianity, I then began to accept myself for who I am. I am and always will be a disciple of Christ and a part of his Church. But I will never fit nor conform to the norms and expectations of church culture as it’s come to be. I understand its religious rules, norms, traditions, and attitudes, but they’re not really mine. I live and operate within a church system that has become a religious club, living for itself and its own survival, all but abandoning its call to infuse itself into the world around it to love it and to teach and model the good news of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ. I live rather uncomfortably within this culture in order to reform it. But it’s not me, and increasingly becomes less and less of who I am.

And that’s why I’ve come full circle, embracing my pre-Christian roots and how they’ve shaped me to be who I am. Those roots have given me enough love and humility to get outside of myself to really embrace other people for who they are. In that discovery, I think I’ve stumbled upon a fairly accurate description of the spiritual state of most people.

Spiritually, I would describe most people as post-Christian Agnostic.

What does what mean?? It’s really not as heady a term as you might think. It’s not meant to be cute and clever. It’s certainly not meant to spur contempt for other people… at all! But this terminology just might help us begin to appreciate the spiritual world of most people and then shape how we share the good news of Jesus Christ with them.

Post-Christian Agnostics share four common traits, each to varying degrees and shapes.

Post-Christian Agnostics have had some previous experience with Church and Christianity and have walked away from it. From having spent significant time in the Church, being raised in it, or having considerable exposure to cultural Christianity, post-Christian Agnostics are already familiar with Christianity and Church. Yet they have found the religion of Christianity and the Church to be irrelevant, deeply disappointing, or damaging. Post-Christian Agnostics will often say, “I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.” That’s their way of saying that they hold spiritual beliefs without obligating them to any one religious system, especially Christianity.

Post-Christian Agnostics are agnostic (undefined) about who God is. They are not atheists. In a general sense they believe in a higher power or a greater spiritual being. Or, they believe in a quasi-Christian form of personal deity called God. But because their beliefs are not tied into any religious system, they generally hold no defined sense of God’s characteristics beyond what the person has come to individually experience and accept.

Post-Christian Agnostics hold a scrapbook of experimentally obtained spiritual beliefs. This is the one aspect of postChristian Agnostics that can be the trickiest for Christians to grasp. Most people do not conscientiously systematize their spiritual beliefs. They pick up beliefs like trinkets or snapshots to put into a scrapbook. They’re picked up through life experiences. Most people believe something because its intriguing, feels right, or because it makes sense to them.  So, it wouldn’t be at all uncommon or surprising to find a post-Christian Agnostic who reads her horoscope, finds a neat Hindu mantra to chant during yoga, believes in a guardian angel, wonders what she was in a previous life (reincarnation), has a St. Joseph pendant, gets her palm read, and really thought that Joel Osteen clip on the radio was inspirational!

Post-Christian Agnostics are highly skeptical of any kind of organized religion, most especially the Church. I wish more church-going Christians understood this reality more clearly when thinking about planning ministry for new people. Perception is almost everything. Post-Christian Agnostics perceive the Church to be overly institutional, hypocritical, cliques, out of touch, judgmental, cold, and a whole host of other horrors. Church people don’t think these things about themselves because… well… they like themselves! That makes it hard for church people to grasp many peoples’ reservations about church and why church isn’t even on most peoples’ radar screens on a Sunday morning or on any other day of the week.

Another growing phenomenon related to my last point that really deserves its own blog post is something I call post-church Christians. These are folks who profess Jesus Christ as their Lord, hold a biblical world view, engage in the practices of prayer and Bible reading, and have a clear Christian theology. But, they have abandoned church for the same reasons post-Christian Agnostics have.  Often, they have been a part of many churches and for some reason found them either lacking or painful. In my work with post-Church Christians, I often encourage them to explore alternative, non-traditional ways to be the Church, perhaps by forming small groups or creating a new faith community.

Obviously, I’ve painted some very wide brush strokes in defining post-Christian Agnostics. The spiritual landscape of America is an ever-evolving phenomena which to me can be best represented by throwing random cans of paint against a wall. There’s almost to rhyme or reason to adequately categorizing the spiritual views of Americans. The closest approximation I can come up with has been the description I’ve offered here. Again, I’ll say that post-Christian Agnostics fit in varying degrees to the descriptions I’ve offered above. It truly takes time and love to substantially grasp another person’s spiritual place, and so no one should be arbitrarily characterized.

But, if the church as we know it today has any chance of engaging and including new people, than we must make every effort to understand our mission field. We’re not trying to create new religious people, and believe me, the last thing a post-Christian Agnostic wants is to be converted into a religious person. But, after reaching an understanding our mission field, we can offer people vital relationships– relationships with us and a relationship with the Jesus who died and was raised to life again for every person in our world and for them. It’s all about connecting people, not converting them. The Holy Spirit changes people; we don’t. All we do is offer our lives to other people in love and service and hope, even in spite of ourselves, that they encounter the living Christ within.

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The Cycle of Death and Resurrection in the Church

We disciples of Jesus Christ hinge the epicenter of our lives on Christ’s death and resurrection. It’s more than just a doctrine to be preached (what we call kerygma) or something for individuals to believe and trust for their salvation. The more I live as a disciple and serve as a shepherd of Christ’s Church, the more I see that the death and resurrection of Jesus is a massive force that shapes the movement of all things. In the turn of the seasons or in the life cycle of butterflies and flowers, we see universal images of Christ’s death and resurrection. Indeed, all of creation sings in celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

So how might it change the way we understand Church if we look at its life through the lens of Christ’s resurrection? To get to the point, might the decline of most mainline Protestant churches be a sign of death with a doorway into resurrection? Instead of consternating over the state of things, can we re-imagine the church we’ve inherited by allowing things to die in order to release new, unfettered life?jr_sunrise

To understand what I mean, let’s take a look at Jesus’ own life and ministry. Born in a manger stall, his life began in small, lowly, lonely circumstances. By the height of his public ministry, Jesus was surrounded by thousands of people. Then from there, the crowds got smaller and his miracles became fewer and fewer. On the last night of his life, Jesus went from twelve companions, to eleven, to three, and then to no one as he was arrested and taken away to be judged by the Jewish Sanhedrin. Jesus, the one who captivated throngs of people, died an embarrasingly ugly death on a cross, scorned and rejected by the whole world. The Son of God, Son of David, the one whom people called Lord and Messiah, died.

But before Jesus died, he said a few things about the nature of his death. He said, “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it does, it produces many seeds” (John 12:24).  Later in John, Jesus taught his disciples about the meaning of his imminent death. In one instance he said, “Very truly I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12, TNIV). How is that possible? God would send the Holy Spirit. Jesus then said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever– the Spirit of truth” (John 14:15-17a).

Right after the close of John, we read in the book of Acts that after the resurrected Jesus ascended, the disciples were filled by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. From there, the mission and work of Jesus Christ spread like wildfire throughout the entire known world. Just as Jesus had promised, the disciples, living and working in his resurrection power of God’s Holy Spirit, accomplished far more than Jesus ever did in his earthly ministry. His death opened the way to his resurrection, which in turn infused his ever-present life into the lives of his followers. One single seed died and erupted into bountiful fruit.

Could it be that the current mainline church finds itself in the waning hours of its life, much like Jesus’ last week? If we choose to see our decline that way, it would free us to imagine what resurrection might look like. We could allow the seeds of our tradition to bloom into new, unimaginably powerful life.

But instead, the mainline church has been looking for resuscitation.  We’ve been looking to pump new life into a dying body. Or as Jesus put it, we’ve been trying to pour new wine into old wineskins. The old wineskins are bursting and the new wine gets wasted. This simply doesn’t work.

John Wesley learned this lesson. The 18th Century Anglican church was a dead, corrputed shell of an institution. Instead of trying to challenge and change the internal structures of the church– for which he often got the boot!– he preached outdoors to masses of people, created small-groups of believers which he called classes, arranged them into regionally based societies, and called and equipped preachers and leaders. By doing all of this, Wesley ushered in sweeping revival, not only to the Anglican Church, but also in England the American colonies through this movement better known as Methodism.

I’m an inheritor of Methodism. But I’m seeing that the formalized version of Methodism which began in 1784 has run its course in America and is quickly heading to its death. Other forms of mainline church could share that assessment. Does that mean Methodism has failed? Not at all, no more than we could assert that Jesus failed when he died! But we must stop our attempts at resuscitation and instead make way for resurrection.

Resurrected church in America will in many ways resemble the pre-resurrection mainline church, but much like the resurrected Jesus, it will look, feel, and act very, very differently. Let me imagine what this might look like in decades ahead. As Sophia from the Golden Girls says, “Picture this…” In the resurrected church, disciples of Jesus will gather for worship, learn and study together, and engage in the missional work of serving and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. But long gone will be the old systems of mainline church structures and traditionalism. Congregational styles of church life may cease to exist or be radically reshaped into networks of disciples worshipping, learning, and ministering in small groups. Denominational structures will become less centralized to be simultaneously globalized and localized to support these networks of disciples. Pastors like myself may have to radically alter the way we live, work and support so that we’re acting more like apostles, building, equipping and shaping these small group networks.

Those are just a few ideas, but in each congregation, including my own, we’ve got to get on with readying our churches for a season of resurrection. We must allow failing, ineffective means, methods, and priorities to die. Then, we must allow the best remnants to grow up into a newly resurrected church.

I’d love to read your ideas and insights about resurrection, too. Let’s get the conversation going!!

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