Lessons Learned While Staying Home from Church

It had never happened to me before: Blairlee and kids heading over to church while I stayed home. That may not seem so out of place for some of you, but considering I’m the pastor of the church, believe me, I felt way out of place. Granted, recovering from surgery is an excellent excuse to take a Sunday off. And I had no worries, either. An awesome guest preacher and a well-abled group of laity lead things along just fine without me.

But I’m glad an oddball couple of couple hours on a Sunday morning didn’t go to waste. In fact, they opened up an opportunity I otherwise wouldn’t have had, especially if I was simply away on vacation. My friend Bill came over for a while. Before he came, Bill asked me, “Hey, you’re not going to drag me over to church are you?” I told him not to worry. After all, the pastor’s on medical leave.

I’ve known Bill for almost four years now. He’s in his 20’s, a maverick, extremely intelligent with an entrepreneurial streak, and a natural ability to affably connect with people of all kinds. I’ve always deeply enjoyed our conversations. His keen insights and quick mind never fail to keep me on my toes. And I think more than most any person, Bill has taught me well about the gifts and perils of  today’s church.

Bill was raised Roman Catholic and after getting completely fed up with the church sometime in his teen years, he quit going and became fiercely agnostic. Then, when Bill was 17 or 18, a youth-young adult pastor from a local church befriended him, loved and accepted him, and over time led him to Christ. Bill’s passion, talents, keen mind, and people skills quickly led him into ministry opportunities. He became an effective youth and young adult leader, teacher, and mentor.

When I met Bill while working in my extension office (Starbucks), he was discipling well over a dozen guys in his house, guys who were either Christian, marginally Christian, or just curiously spiritual. Few of them had any kind of church affiliation, but they loved and trusted Bill. If there was anyone who could befriend and engage young guys like these and disciple them to follow Jesus, it was Bill. I always marveled that God was using this guy to reach and disciple people I’d never even have a slim shot of reaching.
But Bill’s keen insight and maverick streak never let him sit too comfortably in church. If there’s even a shadow of inauthenticity or insincerity, Bill will sniff it out, then resist it or leave it. In that way, he resembles most young adults in today’s post-Christendom culture. Turned off by self-perpetuating, non-Christlike attitudes and ways of the church and church people, they’ve either abandoned Christianity altogether or are being disciples of Jesus on their own, often in alternative modes like informal small groups or house churches (without calling it “church”).
As Sunday School and worship carried on as usual at my church, Bill and I sat together in my home talking about faith and church. He’s struggling right now, and I try as best as I can to be in the struggle with him.

On the one hand, Bill has discovered and still rigorously embraces the biblical message of Jesus Christ. He loves philosophy and the historic thinking and writing of great Christian thinkers, particularly in the Reformed tradition. Bill even believes in the Holy Spirit-ordained and created collection of Christ’s disciples called “the Church.”

Yet Bill is completely disgusted with just about all the current manifestations of congregational-style church and wider church culture (such as Christian marketing, retail/publishing/media industries, and a lot of parachurch organizations). To put it another way, he rejects the concept of an “organized religion” church most people think of: a church building, a structure of leadership headed by a pastor, and the kinds of values, goals, and approaches programmed into the DNA of most such congregations. This is true whether these congregations call themselves traditional or contemporary, old-style or modern, denominational or non-denominational, established or newly planted.

More often than he probably knows, when I think of my church’s ministries, aspirations, methods, and attitudes, Bill’s face and voice come to my mind. I ask myself, “How would Bill react to this? Would he dismiss it as just more-of-the-same churchiness or would he find something authentically Christ-centered?” Now let me say, I love my church, passionately so. I dearly love our people. Our church does a lot of incredibly valuable work that impacts and changes lives, both inside and outside its walls and membership rolls. Yet conversations with Bill continually remind me how far we have yet to go. That reality doesn’t discourage or embitter me so much as keeps my senses sharp and my heart tender to never forget the struggles and challenges of non-believers, young Christians turned off by church, or even my own pre-Christian, unchurched roots.

Following up with Sunday’s visit, I asked Bill to think of three things that would help churches be less churchy and more like Christ. Here’s what he said, raw and unedited:

1. Consistency/Authenticity/Empathy. No matter how hard Christians try to pretend they’re accepting and open, there’s always hot button issues that make Christians turn their nose up, as though they don’t have their own vices or doubts. In a coffee shop, over a private discussion, most Christians are a lot more down to earth. But on a Sunday morning, it’s like a brooding pool of self-righteousness. It’s not always the words that are used (e.g., We’re all sinners… etc.), but more the attitude. Christians need to understand that even their best attempts to be welcoming turn sour because the skeptic or the non-beleiver can feel right away that under the facade, the congregation looks down on their unbelief. Christians have to have empathy for the unbeliever, and remember that not believing is a reasonable position. It doesn’t make them stupid or delusional.

2. Substance. It’s very un-church like to deliver messages tackling, or at least attempting to tackle, challenging issues. But that’s what I want, that’s what my generation wants. Substance.

3. Showmanship. The whole process of church is a production. In the landscape of our culture, church almost always looks like a wonky, low-fi version of a preachy high-school play. How are people in attendance supposed to respond with honesty to something that looks, feels and sounds like entertainment. I’m talking about everything, from the size of the congregation and their seating arrangements, to the posture of the preacher, to the stage, to the lights, to the sound-system, down to the fact that people are seated in an audience, looking foreword at other people ‘leading’ something that is supposed to be for God, but to any objective eye looks more like a show. Why aren’t all these things out of sight? If ‘church’ is all about Jesus, then it should really, really be all about Jesus. Include only those things that support that end. And no, watching someone on stage ‘worship’ is not a viable excuse. It’s a crutch. (e.g., perhaps painting helps me worship, but where is the worship if I need to paint to do so?)

So, I stayed home, but I think Bill and I had Church together in a way I don’t often get to enjoy. It was brutally honest, painfully sincere, and truly all about Christ and one another. I can’t speak for Bill, but I certainly parted with him closer to God and encouraged. So, thank you, Bill, for bringing Church to me while opening my eyes a little wider to the pitfalls and potentials of being the Church of Jesus Christ in 2011.


Filed under Church Culture and Leadership, Cultural Trends, The United Methodist Church

9 Responses to Lessons Learned While Staying Home from Church

  1. Hi Chris- very interesting thoughts! My seminary friend Emily has been working on many of these ideas and issues in a “dinner church” she founded last year in NYC. You might enjoy her blog: http://sitandeat.typepad.com/blog/. (Also, in case you didn’t see, you were the star of my blog on Jan. 26th!)

    • Alicia, it’s great to hear from you! Before responding I read your blog and then visited and introduced myself to Emily, too. Thank you for those blessings, and they truly were. Alicia, I think you’re very much a part of this conversation, too, especially considering who you are, the experiences you’ve had, and the people you work with. Keep shaking that tree! 🙂

  2. Yve Evans

    Object lesson duly noted.
    Divinely inspired and delivered.
    Thank you… for your obedience.

  3. Nicole Horner

    Hi Chris,
    A few thoughts on why Christians need to belong to a Church besides the fact that Jesus established the Church.
    It is a lot easier for Satan to tempt a Christian who does not have a loving Church family (there is no such thing as “Lone Ranger Christianity”.
    Why wouldn’t a Christian not want to get to know and love the people that he/she will be spending eternity with? The people of God can be difficult to love but that causes us to grow in grace and conform more closely to the image of Christ. Everyone is a sinner and there are those that might think that their sin is not as bad as another’s but we can’t let that stop us from fellowshipping and worshiping with others. Trust that God is working in the hearts of believers who think that way. Let God handle it – a believer’s job is to love that person anyway. Jesus promises that being a Christian is sometimes extremely uncomfortable and trying.
    It can be a challenge to find a Church but it is worth it. Especially in the Baltimore/DC area, there really is no excuse. Good churches exist – I happen to belong to one.

    • Nicole Horner

      I think I put a few too many “nots” in one of my sentences. I meant to say that a Christian should want to get to know the people that they will be spending eternity with. Sorry!

    • Hey Nikki- Excellent points you make, and thank you for taking the time to make them. As a pastor, but more importantly as a disciple of Jesus, I’m deeply aware of our (and my) need to keep and grow a vital connection with fellow disciples. That’s Church! And in keeping with Paul’s description of the Church in as the Body of Christ in 1 Cor. 12, our Holy Spirit giftedness and role within that Body is essential for the living work of Jesus Christ to be done here on earth. We are his embodiment in far more than a figurative sense.
      I think, however, that most Christians have a strong, particular image of Church when they rightly believe and teach Christians need to be a part of Christ’s Church. That is the congregational model we’ve inherited. So, it follows that if you’re a Christian, you “go” to church on Sunday mornings for a highly organized, formalized worship service, become a member, tithe, serve on some kind of committee or team, do your part, and hope that the church grows with more members. While this is the predominant model of church, and obviously the one I serve and lead in, it’s not the only legitimate model, and for a growing number of people, it’s probably not the best. I also predict that within the next several decades this congregational model of church we’ve inherited will either be faced with some serious reform and restructuring or will crumble and die. The need is upon us now, and I can only we hope enough of us, myself included, have the vision, courage, and love to discern what that is and do it, come what may. Yes, our world has changed that much, yes, even though the gospel of Jesus Christ made known in the Word of God has not. In other words, modes and methods of how we as Christians embody the church, strengthen each other as disciples, and invite and form new disciples must radically change.
      I think people like Bill bring that kind of awareness as a helpful corrective, if we’ll become humble enough to listen. I cannot deny his story and his experiences which mirror the same for a great and growing number of young people who love Jesus, want to be his disciples, but feel alienated by the predominant mode of church most Christians have traditionally chosen to practice. Again, they have legitimate hang-ups we would do well to heed if we want to become more authentically Christ-like and Holy Spirit filled and less of a merely human institution whose values, activities, and goals are about power and self-preservation conveniently justified by a spattering of biblical metaphors.
      People like Bill want to be connected, desperately so. And that is the tension that feeds a much needed conversation about what it means to be Christ’s Church in 2011 and beyond.

  4. Nicole Horner

    Hi Chris,
    I agree with your first paragraph. I would like to say that church seems to be the perfect place to discover and hone a person’s spiritual gifts and we certainly have the responsibility to do that.
    God tells us in the Bible how we are to worship Him. All forms of worship are to be checked with the Bible before we can call it legitimate. We can tell that worship is something that God takes seriously. He painstakingly told Israel how they were to worship Him and the people who disregarded Him were put to death and rightfully so – they disobeyed God. Praise Him that He sent His Son to atone for our disobedience so that we don’t have to follow the sacrificial laws and we can boldly approach the “holy of holies” without worry about being struck dead. I know that I deserve condemnation for not worshiping how God wants me to all of the time. However, God still expects us to worship Him as he requires. I am talking about formal worship mostly. I know that we are called to always be in worship in our daily life and that doesn’t mean that we are to sit in a church building (or wherever the formal worship takes place) every day and all day.
    Certainly throughout history God has overcome human attempts to tarnish and distort the visible church. The Reformation is a perfect example. He will continue to do so. But it will be a change not for the sake of change. It will not be a change to conform more to how people think that they should worship God. It will be a change to bring His people/the true Israel/true Christians back to Himself.
    In response to how Bill feels about “traditional church” he would have to be specific and I apologize if I overlooked the specifics in your original post. I will read it again with that in mind. If he has been turned off by a physical church in general or by church practices that call themselves “Biblical” but really aren’t that is one thing. On the other hand, if he is turned off by things that really are Biblical then that is quite another concern. Speaking of humility, it is up to him to find out how God wants to be worshiped and only the Bible (not Bill, not Nikki, not anyone) has the authority to say what that is.

    • Nikki, Bill is pretty well steeped in the Scriptures and would spar with anyone quite well, actually. Interestingly, much of his reservations with the current state of the church, including the ways it worships, derives from his understanding of what the Bible teaches concerning discipleship and ministry, in which worship is central. So, all that to say that his thinking isn’t just subjective, touchy-feely, cultural appeasement. He would argue that most churches who claim to be operating biblically are already unwittingly enculturated.
      I don’t pretend to agree with every conclusion Bill makes. But I listen because voices like his offer a much needed reflection point that does get me to question how authentically biblical and Christlike we are. How much of what we’re doing is simply traditionalism that serves to maintain an institution? When was the last time we questioned some of our long-held assumptions about methodology, ecclesiology, and even some of our theological assumptions to see how truly biblical they are? (Lots of people who have passionately quoted the Bible have been known to be wrong.) How much fruit are we truly bearing, and is the fruit we’re looking for truly fruit?
      Again, without automatically assuming that everything your church or mine does is inherently right or wrong, it’s good to have voices like these which ask the questions and make observations that could truly help. And if they’re not helpful, then we can ignore it.
      Either way, a voice like Bill’s doesn’t hurt and might actually help if we’re open, loving and humble enough to listen, which Christians have historically not been nearly as willing to do as we’ve needed!

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