Tag Archives: mainline church decline

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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Filed under Atheist and Agnostics, Church Culture and Leadership, Cultural Quakes

Overcoming our Churchiness

Setting out to blog today, I suppose this one could be classified as a rant. I’m not sure what will follow these openning sentences because I’m airing out some personal frustrations while earnestly attempting to keep my thoughts constructive. At the same time, I remember the words God used to commission the prophet Jeremiah: “Now, I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you… to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:9-10). Not that I’m Jeremiah– and Lord, I hope to never be!!— but the point is plain enough. Sometimes you’ve got to tear things down and rip them apart in order to plant new life.

I’ve always lived with a tolerable level of frustration with the state of the church, such as it is. It’s like living with achy knees (which I do, by the way). You simply learn to live with it, work through it, and perhaps use the annoyance to spur on some kind of greater good. (In my case, achy knees constantly remind me to lose weight and keep my leg muscles in shape.)

There are certain churchy mindsets, attitudes, values, and priorities which I live and work in everyday. Sometimes I even catch myself falling back into them. As a spiritual leader, much of my job is reforming the church away from these inhibiting qualities which have led us into serious decline, and shepherd us towards more authentic, Christ-centered, biblical mindsets, attitudes, values, and priorities. Sometimes it feels like pushing Mt. Everest. Other times, it’s rapturous to see how easily many of us “get it.”

But I recently had something happen which ratcheted up the normal tolerable level of frustration to jabbing pains. When that happens, I rant.
Two Sundays ago at our Vacation Bible School celebration, we used some technology normally not utilized in worship. Our VBS leaders used PowerPoint digital projection to display the words of the VBS songs we sang all week. I’ve been a longtime proponent of our church installing digital projection into our sanctuary, for reasons I’ll unpack a little later. So, knowing there would be digital projection during our worship services that Sunday, I asked the leadership team if I could create and include a PowerPoint presentation of my sermon. There was method to my madness; if folks could see the full potential of digital projection, they just might want more of it. And yes, people loved it!

Yesterday, I followed suit. During my sermon, I used PowerPoint again. I wanted people to be able tune in more and see what they were hearing. I projected my major points, some Scriptures, and some images of things I was describing. Despite a few minor technical glitches that need working out, it was a success. I saw people paying more attention and taking notes. Better yet, I saw younger people with their heads up and eyes facing forward.

“Why PowerPoint and digital projection?” you may ask. We’re in a postmodern world. In our postmodern world, most people are visual learners. Immersed in an image-rich world of computers, TVs, vivid advertising, smart phones, and gaming, many of us connect and learn from others through our eyes. Arguably, so much visual living has diminished our capacity to learn and connect by using our ears. Nevertheless, more of us function and absorb information in visual formats.

Most traditional churches, on the other hand, still operate in the older “modern” world of auditory learning and communicating. We come to these churches and must hear the announcements, hear the music, and exclusively listen to a 20+ minute sermon. That asks postmodern visual learners to carefully focus on the primary medium of sound in order to receive the Word of God. No wonder I see many people with blank expressions on their faces or fidgeting doing other things while trying to “listen” to a sermon. In settings like these, I could be the most charismatic and profound preacher and still see people tuning out.

So, I began some much-needed, corrective steps last week and yesterday. A lot of people saw it as a welcome change. They commented how much easier it was for them to pay attention and walk away with more from the message. As a preacher, I was able to share more detailed, substantive information knowing that people would be able to see and follow along with my points. They could visualize how all these points come together into one whole. They could see the ideas I shared. In other words, it was much harder to get lost in information overload because I gave them a multi-sensory message from God’s Word.

But here’s what got my goat: the unhelpful negative comments from some well-intentioned church people. While I keep myself open to listen and learn to anyone, here’s what some people said:

“It’s just a gimmick.”
“I feel like I’m in a classroom, not church.”
“This is a dumbing down of worship.”
“This stuff doesn’t belong in our historic, sacred sanctuary.”

“You may be trying to get younger people, but going to chase away us older people with that kind of thing.”

I even had one person tell me that as long as I use digital projection, they would not come to our worship services!

Franky, it astonishes me how easily the church’s churchiness gets in the way of making new disciples of Jesus Christ. The use of technology is no gimmick. It’s not “church-lite”. I’m trying to stay in step with people like Jesus and the Apostle Paul who knew how to communicate the good news of the gospel in a way that people can both understand and retain. My interest in using technology in worship is not an ends in itself. I want to share the Word of God and form followers of Jesus, and I’ll use whatever means necessary to do it.
lost-sheepIn this discussion or in any other concerning the church’s ministry, there are two hallmark questions we church people must ask ourselves:

1) To what lengths are we willing to go to make new disciples of Christ?

2) How willing are we to sacrifice our own sensibilities and wants in order to reach new, younger people for Jesus?
Asking these questions illuminates one of the major barriers we face in making new disciples of Jesus. That barrier is none other than the churchiness of the church. What is churchiness? It’s the inflexibility of a “me first” approach to ministry. It’s the attitude that worship and ministry revolve around the wants and desires of church members rather than the vast neediness of a lost world. It’s the arrogance of assuming that the world must conform to our church culture in order to have a chance at being disciples of Jesus. To put it another way, it’s when the church thinks of itself more as a club who tends to the wants of its club members and less as a missional people of God who will stop at nothing to bring their world to salvation in Jesus Christ.

Whew… I got all of that off my chest. The rant is over.

But in all seriousness, I love the church I serve and the community I live in far, far too much to allow anything or anyone, myself included, to be a stumbling block to people coming into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. I also know I need to keep my own churchiness in check, too. I have a lot to learn in order to become a more missional and mission-leading pastor. Some of that means learning to take hits from folks who resist needed change to the church. But, I’m confident we’ll get there and that God is able to use us, even in spite of ourselves. After all, God will not rest until each lost child of God’s discovers how Jesus Christ died and was risen for them. I just pray my church and I can keep up!

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Filed under Church Culture and Leadership

Beginning with New Questions for a Church in Decline, Part 1

Jabbing and slinging mud at the mainline church has become a new intellectual sport among church leaders, and at first glance, this blog may be yet another fruitless contribution to the worn out question, “Why is the mainline church dying?” It is not. I’m moving on from mudslinging to asking questions that might lead us into resurrection. How can the mainline church enter into Christ’s resurrection, and what does that resurrection look like?

What few church leaders seem to understand is how the negative bantering back and forth has contributed virtually nothing towards the church’s health. My attempts to sound more dire and apocalyptic than you don’t revive a thing. Besides, we’ve all seen the statistics: steep declines in membership and money, aging buildings and church members, ineffective programs and initiatives, an irrelevant vestige of religion from a bygone era, yada, yada, yada, etc, etc, etc… While we must confront the truth head on, break the denial, and accept that Church in the 21st Century takes on a shape markedly different than before, we’re still left asking, “Now what?”. Suddenly the room grows eerily silent. We then realize that those who complain but offer nothing substantive to mediate the problem are the problem.

So, beginning from my little island in the blogosphere, I’d like to offer a new set of questions for the mainline church which I will address over time. (I’m doing so as loudly as I can to anyone who will listen!) My bishop once wisely said that we don’t arrive at the truth by offering answers but by asking good questions. In other words, the mainline church finds itself retreading the same debates over its decline because it begins the conversation with inadequate questions. Let’s take a look at some of those questions and then reword them to be more authentic, biblical, and Christ-like.

Question #1: How can we get our churches growing again?

There are two major faults with this question. First, the question preoccupies the mainline church with institutional survival. Let’s face it, the mainline church, especially my own United Methodist tribe, loves to crunch numbers. We count numbers like worship attendance, the number of new members, numbers of people in classes and activities, how much money is brought in and spent, and on and on.We love it when the numbers project upward because that means the institution is thriving. We worry when the numbers spiral downward because that means the institution is in jeopardy.  But there’s a major problem with this kind of focus: individual souls are just another number which props up the legitimacy of the institution. At the end of the day, what the institution values most is its own viability, not the viability of each person the blood of God was spilled to save.

The second fault is in the word “again.” That presupposes that the same construction and configuration of church we’ve inherited will be an effective means for today and the future. It is not. Pioneering books like George Barna’s Revolution warn us that congregational styles of church may have a limited shelf life, and that we need to rethink what Church is, how it gathers, how it disciples people into the likeness of Jesus, and how it spreads the good news of Jesus to the world. So can we see growth, absolutely! But… not by pouring new wine into old wineskins.

Question #1 Rephrased: How can we build the kingdom of God with new disciples of Jesus?

Notice that the emphasis is no longer on us or on our survival, but on the survival of a lost world. It heals us from our addiction to numbers and moves the growth from institutional growth to kingdom growth, the latter encompassing every local church, every denomination, and indeed our whole world. It mobilizes us outward, looking towards the reign of God and the healing of our world by the blood of Jesus, one person, one family, one community at a time.

Please note that I’m not trying to dismantle or disregard the mainline church. I love my heritage as a United Methodist, and in fact, the kind of thinking that I’m suggesting is more in keeping with John Wesley’s vision than the dead form of religion he feared we would fall into and have indeed become. If there is any hope for United Methodism, we must once again rekindle our love for Jesus Christ, his gospel, and people who have yet to be born again into a new life with Christ and his Church.

Along these lines, I believe the answers to this question make themselves clearly apparent when we simply shift our focus from ourselves to Jesus and the world he died to save. When we do that, we find ourselves simplifying how we carry on as a Church– our worship, study, and engagements with the world around us. We find ourselves gathering together in the outside world where people normally live, work, and play. We realize that we captivate people not with pizazz but with authenticity. We move from being clever, cute, and flashy to being transparent, honest and profound. We see that the world has already heard about God so many times before. They’re not standing around waiting for us to say it again, this time with PowerPoint and a band. If they gives us a chance at all, it will happen when they see us doing what we say we believe and then speaking a message that points straight to Jesus.

To be continued…

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Filed under Church Culture and Leadership, The United Methodist Church