What Message is Your Church Sending to Hurting People?
Last week was a little chaotic for me. During the whirlwind week, which involved a last minute flight to St. Louis, I had the chance to spend some time talking with a man that shares a very similar story as mine. By “similar story” I mean a man that spent many years in full-time vocational church ministry and is now doing something else.
But, the similarities in our stories did not end with our transition from vocational ministry to secular work. What became apparent is that we both found ourselves making similar observations about the church and our own theology. Let me share an example.
I was talking with a friend some weeks back and said “for all the talk the church does about grace and forgiveness, there seems to be very little offered.” My comment came after many people called for pastors and church leaders caught in the Ashley Madison hack to be removed from their positions (some even calling for them to be removed from church membership). This struck me as so odd. I recalled Peter denying he even knew Jesus and yet Jesus never once thought about stripping his Apostleship.
The overtone of responses by many Christians to this event left me wondering what our communities and religious skeptics thought of us when we decided it was a good idea to shoot our wounded. Fast forward to one of the first conversations I had with my new friend in St. Louis. I asked him why he was no longer in vocational ministry. He offered several reasons but included in his answer that he has been less than excited by the lack of grace and forgiveness in the local church.
Since I believe in providence and the sovereignty of God, there’s no way this was a “chance” meeting. My new friend and I had a lot to talk about as we discussed the current state of the church and its detriment to many pastors and their families.
The reality is that many churches are stuck in the past. They hold to man-made traditions that have no basis in Scripture, and have contributed to the ongoing hurt many people feel when they visit a church. This hurt is not due to biblical preaching, or adhering to biblical theology. This hurt is due to adhering to decades-long traditions and the refusal by many churches to change. In the end, many churches expect lost people to act like saved people – and it hurts.
Why is it that so many churches seem content to slowly die instead of make incremental changes that will reach lost people?
It’s a curious thing to see a church read about being a “light” in their community, or the “salt of the earth,” and then insulate themselves inside the walls of their church. Somehow the true meaning of these passages is not reaching the hearts of people. The result is a church that is dying while the community wonders why it’s there in the first place. Or worse, a bad reputation because the church refuses to change in meaningful ways to welcome new people.
In considering this question a recent article suggests 8 reasons that many churches don’t change. I won’t elaborate on them all but the article is some good food for thought.
One of the reasons given in the article that churches don’t change that I do want to discuss is that many churches are “trying to shelter themselves from culture.” What this means is that, whereas in years gone by the church was in the forefront of cultural battles as a respected voice, today, the church is ridiculed and mocked. For this reason many people view culture as an enemy.
When you combine the “culture is the enemy” mentality with several decades of time, you end up with a church filled with people in their 60’s that have no desire or intention to change. The way they did things in the 80’s is the way they do things today because that was the last time they can remember things working. So, for them, it’s not the church that needs to change it’s the culture.
Of course the problem is that the culture is changing. But while these churches want the culture to change back to the way it was in years past, the culture continues to move forward; leaving the church behind. What’s the result?
The church says you must use this Bible while people use the version/translation that they find most appropriate.
The church says only these songs will be sung while people enjoy a variety of music types and songs.
The church says “church” happens on Sunday (and Wednesday night) while people need flexible schedules that fit into their chaotic lives.
The church says to be a Christian you have to look a certain way while people place a high priority on not judging a book “by its cover.”
The church says this building is where we “do church” while people hunger to “be the church” in their community and to their neighbors.
The church says “come here” so you can “do church” with us while people want to “go into the world” and “be the church” to the lost, broken, and “least of these.”
As you can see, the idea many churches have of what it means to do church is not just old and outdated, it’s downright unbiblical. As a result, many people have been hurt and the church has a bad reputation for being a place where mean-spirited, uncaring people dwell. The grace and forgiveness we cherish as Christians is often buried under a mountain of hurt. It proves again that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” From my perspective we have a lot of work to do in showing people that we really care about them.
Many churches seem ready to die rather than change anything. That’s fine. I see that as a good thing. Rather than continue with unbiblical traditions that hurt people it might be better for them to close their doors and give way to churches that care more about people than traditions. Other churches are trying to change and slowly but surely are seeing life spring up from their efforts. That’s encouraging. And many new churches are being planted that emphasize a truly biblical ecclesiology from day one. That’s a very good thing.
In the end, if we care more about ourselves than we do other people we’ve lost the true message of the Gospel and what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. And, like the experience my new friend in St. Louis and I shared, many others will scratch their head and wonder what’s wrong with the church.