A friend posed an interesting question recently.
Where is this thing headed and how do we get out in front of the wave instead of being swept under it?
The “thing” is North American Christian congregations. The “wave” is the massive cultural shift of even serious “Jesus & Bible people” away from institutional, “professional” Christian congregations.
I began writing my thoughts in a comment on his post, but quickly realized I had much more to say than one comment’s worth on Facebook. I am not a theologian, a clergy member, or a trend analyst, but I have a few ideas to share from my own experiences.
Church is a hard place to connect with others. Building community with a bunch of people whose stories you don’t know that come from all over town, who you sit next to for an hour on Sunday, then probably don’t see again for a week or two is virtually impossible. As a church family, we lead very separate lives. Most people don’t want to get more involved in the day-to-day experiences of the other people they sit with on Sundays. Official small groups tend to be based around a book study or video series and provide little opportunity to actually learn and grow in deep relationship with one another.
Church is frequently a place where programs seem to get more attention than people. It’s so much easier and more immediately gratifying to collect facts and figures to illustrate the success of a program than trying to evaluate actual encounters with God and resulting life changes. The numbers of attendees, hours of volunteer service, percentages of church members involved, and so forth are all much simpler to plot on a graph than what relationships deepened, how people matured in their faith, or when the light of Christ shined brightly through members of the congregation into the hearts of individuals they interacted with each day.
Church is, all too often, a place that encourages unhealthy behaviors. Because most people within the congregation don’t really know one another well, conflicts that arise are often not dealt with between the individuals who are engaged, but immediately escalate to involve church leadership. Any minor friction, then, may escalate into a full-blown battle that divides the leaders and the congregants into warring camps who can’t seem to remember the unity of Christ amidst these points of disagreement. And, of course, as has been coming to light more and more over the last several years, outright criminal behavior is sometimes denied and covered up in the name of protecting the so-called Christian witness of church leaders.
Church is a place that rewards giving and can discourage receiving. Every church I’ve ever stepped foot in has a lengthy list of service opportunities open for volunteers. As long as people are giving of their time, talents, and tithes, they are welcomed with open arms. But, suddenly or eventually, the seasons of life may turn and they find themselves in a place of need. When they can’t reach out, have no energy to volunteer, no money to give, nothing more to offer, how many simply slip through the proverbial cracks? Too many times, when someone is struggling, they find themselves alone, overlooked by a church family is too busy or too out of touch with the needs of others to even consider reaching out.
Maybe I sound a little bitter. As I said above, these examples come from my own experiences, most within the last two years. For most of my life, I have heard occasional stories from people who were hurt by the church. I knew it happened, sometimes, but it had never been something I knew firsthand. Frankly, I was probably less than fully kind and sympathetic to those in my circle who had been burned by the church and were shy to risk making themselves vulnerable to such experiences again. I get it now. I don’t want to be vulnerable. I’m afraid it will hurt more, when I’m already hurting so much. I’m afraid to be told I’m not doing enough, when what I am already doing leaves me exhausted.
The fact is, it doesn’t have to be like this. It’s not supposed to be like this. We were made to live life in communion, both with God and with one another. We were created by love, in love, for love, to love in return. We can do better than this. We must do better than this. And I see and hear and know as people of faith are earnestly seeking to love more, to grow deeper, to reach higher, we will do better.
Returning to the original query, how do we, as the Church in North America, as people who are invested in the traditional, congregational institution we call “church,” paddle forward to ride this wave, rather than being knocked off the board and swept under the water? (Side note: this would have been a way cooler sentence had I thrown in some authentic surfing terminology, but never having surfed, I lack the proper vocabulary for such radical coolness.)
My proposal is this: Simplify.
Okay, I suppose I need to unpack that just a little bit. Life is complicated. The older I get, the more complicated I realize most of life is. As a kid I just wanted to grow up and be able to make all my own choices. Now I’m grown up and I know that those choices are bound by many more factors than I’d ever taken into account. There are bills to pay and clothes to wash and appointments to keep and meals to make. We have to keep track of expirations and renewals and schedules and rotations. And as I’ve had to dive more deeply into all of these things, I’ve discovered whole worlds I never knew about hidden under the surface of the water.
I’ve referred before to the “upside down Kingdom,” a phrase my former pastor used frequently in his sermons. Here is yet another example of how God’s ways are different than my ways. The deeper I dive into relationship with God, the simpler I realize it is. Just be, and God is with us. It’s startlingly uncomplicated, yet incredibly challenging.
Shortly before His life on earth ended, Jesus told His disciples to love each other, to follow His example and love so well that people would know their devotion to God by their great love for one another (see John 13:34-35).
Love exists in communion. Being with Christ, spending time simply being present and enjoying His presence, allows love to flourish.
“Come before Me,” invites the Creator of the universe. “Be with Me. Breathe and walk and rest and eat and speak in Me. I am here. Everything you do, I am here. All that you feel, I am here. Whatever happens to your kids or your spouse or your friends or anyone and everyone you know and love, I am here. I am with you and with them, no matter how many miles may separate you. In life, in death, in everything, I am here. And I am Love. You are loved.”
The only way we can live is loved, because we always are. It’s just a matter of whether you or I wish to acknowledge the presence of Love in our lives.
And I believe that is where we need to focus. There will always be disagreements about styles and colors and when is the right time to be baptized and at least a million and a half other things. But if our first priority is to be with Jesus, to let ourselves be loved until we are bubbling over with more love than we know what to do with, loving other people will start to seem like second nature. People will become more important than programs. Our congregations will begin to invite deep relationships and encourage growth, not just as individuals, but in community.
It’s not a clean, precise plan. It doesn’t make a nice three-points-and-an-illustration sermon (although maybe if I learned more surfing terms?). But love is real. Love is honest. Love transforms us. If we allow ourselves to be vulnerable, if we open our hearts to one another in genuine communion, if we seek first and foremost the Kingdom of God, we will be changed from the inside out. We will move away from doing church and we will be the Church.