Monday, November 13, 2006

Seven Sad Things About Church

A frustrated church leader sent me this list. Hopefully some lessons can be gleaned.

I was a former ministry student and adherent to organized religion. After about ten years of working in churches I decided to call it quits. I've boiled it down to seven reasons. I want to stress that I am still a Christian. I make a distinction between Christianity, spirituality, and the product of organized religion.

Seven sad things about church.

1. Low expectations. Every church I've worked in, save one, was hit by a severe bout of low expectations. A minister is someone who believes in a living God, who believes that he is doing that God's work, that he is God's worker on earth; a minister is someone who believes all of these things and then you see how they conduct themselves in church. It just fails to add up.

I'm not talking about a full-blown scandal that any normal person would know not to do (there are enough of those), I'm talking about boring ministers, apathetic ministers, ministers who do the same thing week in and week out and continually wait for something to happen. It's enough to just get people to come to church. Whether or not they actually grow is an entirely different thing.

2. No hindsight. I can't remember the last time I worked in a church where they actually had meeting to review what they were doing, or how effective they were. It never ceases to amaze me when churches fail to equip their members against even the most basic temptations. I don't expect the membership to notice, I do expect the leadership to care. Yet very little changes, no matter how much sin circulates inside the church. It's an equation that continually does not balance and no one cares to even ask why.

There's a belief that sincerity will win the day. That if you facilitate worship lives will be transformed. This is just lazy thinking. Members should not be asked to do more for their church than their church is willing to do for them. After all, Jesus himself did not come to be served, but to serve. Man was not made for the Sabbath, the Sabbath was made for man.

3. Lack of seriousness. If you really believed that you were serving God, and that your actions could influence whether or not someone accepts Christ and spends an eternity in heaven or an eternity in hell would you really stand up in front of people and give that boring old sermon? Would you really argue over whether or not you could have contemporary music in the church? Would you really argue over whether or not women can be leaders in a church? Or whether or not kids can trick or treat on Halloween? Wouldn't your mission of extreme eternal importance imbue you with a sense of clarity and seriousness?

I once worked in a church that pestered one woman to get baptized. Every week she was harassed to immerse herself. She felt that she was a believer whether or not she had ever been immersed. The week after she took the plunge it turned out a key leader in the church admitted he hadn't been baptized. This woman asked one question, "How serious are you guys? I turn my spiritual well being over to you and your own members don't even know what is important to you and what isn't?" I never forgot that.

4. Emphasis on the wrong things. Church is supposed to help people. All a church has to do is figure out how it wants to help people. And with the long list of issues people face every week, the complexities of life, the questions everyone asks, there is certainly a need to be served. So, pick one. Is it introducing people to Christ? Is it preparing people for a full Christian life? Pick one. Pick something. Please. People keep showing up because they want to live better lives through a closer relationship with God, that is very noble, so work on that with people.

Anyone who walks out of a church and believes that two men should not have a legal right to be married is operating from a flawed set of principles and is emphasizing the wrong things. The emphasis shouldn't be what is legal or illegal. The emphasis should be on changing hearts and values. Christianity is first and foremost a movement in the heart. "From the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks," Jesus said. If as much time was spent educating Christians on Biblical principles as it was making sure they legislated it to others things would take care of themselves.

If Christians want to defend marriage they should work on having great marriages. That seems to make sense. If Christians want to defend the 10 Commandments then learn the 10 Commandments and practice them. Give it a try. God wants you, above all else, to be a good person--to love God and love your neighbors. That attribute is like a spring that never runs dry. It bears fruit at work and in your personal lives. It takes care of every other detail you think is so important.

5. Lack of empathy. I believe Jesus had a tremendous amount of empathy. When he talked to the woman at the well he put himself in her shoes. He showed mercy to the thief on the cross. He rescued an adulterous woman from being stoned. He helped out as much as he could with precious little self promotion. He took the despised to social gatherings at his own risk. You can tell he really felt sorry for people who were struggling to be closer to God. He described them as "sheep without a shepherd." I wish an ounce of that was present in our churches.

It's not about simply "curing" people or saving people. It should be about facilitating a healthy spiritual relationship with God. Each church should remove the man-made stumbling blocks that prevent that from happening. Why did Jesus get so upset with the Pharisees? Because they bound people spiritually, they hindered them and filled them with guilt and controlled them through fear. Matthew 23 is a powerful rebuke of the religious leaders of Jesus' day. It is no stretch to apply those principles to our own churches.

6. No accountability. Ministry is like politics minus accountability. When I suggested that church leaders come up with a quarterly plan for the church, including some goals established by the minister, I was almost laughed out of the room. Their thinking is that you don't want to hinder the Holy Spirit. There's no need for a plan. But what they fail to realize is that lack of accountability often becomes a temptation to do as little as possible.

If you were going to start a business you would take it 100x as seriously as the average church does when it comes to saving souls. When your task is that important the least you can do is have a plan and hold people accountable to it. There is a belief that ministers operate on the same level as the members sitting in the pews, that it is all one journey everyone is taking together. The minister has no plan. The church has no plan. But somehow we'll all get to where we are headed. But Jesus said the blind should not lead the blind. Ministers area leaders, appointed by God. They are there to "equip the saints" as Ephesians says. It's a serious task, one that requires accountability.

7. A simplistic outlook. There's a belief that if you do certain things, God will bless your church. All you have to do is sing some songs, give a sermon, and have an invitation time. And, if you're really feeling daring you can have the sermon before the songs! Usually there is little deviation. Again, it's the unchanging equation that leads to poor results.

If a member is caught in sin, or struggling with sin, sin is blamed. It's a convenient catch 22. Prayer circles will be formed but there will be no examination of the church environment itself. There's the belief that sin is a human condition, it's in all of us, we're all growing, so when it happens it's just a happy exercise in Christ's grace. But Romans 6 says that we should not continue to "live" in sin anymore. It's one thing if a Christian makes a mistake and sins, but the Bible also says no real Christian continues to actively live in sin.

The goal should be a creating a sincere relationship with Christ among church members. The goal should not be doing things that way you've done them for the last 20 years because tradition is good. The goal should not be a fear to try new things or examine your process.

Christianity does not have to exclude common sense or wisdom. The most compelling element is its pragmatic nature. If you really believe it has the power to change people's lives then you should exhibit that transformation in your own life and call for your church environment to do the same. In light of recent events in the news it has become painfully obvious that the standard operating procedure in most churches is not facilitating the deep connection with Christ and principles that it should be. That leads to empathy and understanding, which leads to further truth which sets you free to live a full life for God.

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