Most of my life has been spent in and around the church. As a life-long pastor’s kid with all of the bells and knells, as a heavily involved church and outreach ministry volunteer since childhood, and as a Director of Christian Education for a few years in two completely different churches, I have learned more than perhaps I wanted to about what it means to be and not to be the Church.
And right now, I’m not sure what to do about it. Maybe you’re on the fence too?
And of course it got me thinking… a lot.
Thus, my own list of the 7 Death-ly Sins of the Church. Then I read at least ten other writers’ opinions about whether or not the church is dying. And we essentially arrived at almost identical conclusions… though these are not necessarily stemming from my experiences with any church in particular, but from decades of conversations and experiences from a variety of churches, denominations, ministers, priests, congregation sizes, economic backgrounds, and communities.
1. Loss of Christ-centered focus for the existing church and/or lack of Christ-centered vision for the
church’s future – There is so much noise in the world. Voices we should hear and clamor we should shut out and quiet we should rest in. I walk a 10K every day in all weather, pushing a 185lb. triple stroller with little people and their stuff. For the simple reason that both the kids and I absolutely need even a small amount of that 100 minutes to be quiet. To refocus our day and my soul. To talk with God and rest in His presence and crave His vision. The other day I saw a guy swimming laps at the YMCA wearing a swim cap with waterproof earbuds and some kind of audio thingy in a pocket inside the cap. Because swimming laps for 20 minutes without noise would be too hard. I just don’t get it. What is wrong with a few minutes of quiet?
Quiet, the peace that it may bring, and restful focus is vital. Maybe because it becomes too easy to drown in the cacophony and distractions that so quickly envelops us, whether we choose it or not. And focus dwindles. Vision gets lost.
And the same thing can happen in a church. The noise of society – the racial and political tensions, denominational battles and terror threats, and so on – can rattle even the most weatherized of stained glass windows. Which isn’t to say that the church and its leaders shouldn’t listen to what is happening, but rather should possess a filter that minimizes the noise and maximizes the focuses of the external pressures and internal reactions. Which in turn allows the church to respond accordingly, if needed, but to remain within its very well-defined Colossians 1 focus, its vision for the future of the church and its people, and its mission statement from which all ministry and outreach should flow.
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross“.“ (Colossians 1:15-20, NIV emphasis added).
If Jesus is the head of the church, then there should be far fewer distractions that lead churches away from the true purpose of the church – Jesus, God, Holy Spirit – the Trinity. If Jesus’ example, God’s invisible fullness in human form, lived out the calling God has placed on each of our lives, then why do we as the church get so easily swayed by issues surrounding politics and sexuality and race and terror and every other concern that has existed since the creation of humanity?
If we stripped away our biases and personal interpretations of the Bible and of its implications for our lives and churches, what should then be our impetus for vision and mission and the focus of our churches? Perhaps in Jesus Christ, head of the church. Perhaps in God the Father of heaven and earth and everything in between. Perhaps in the Holy Spirit, sent to fill souls with the calling of the Lord. Perhaps we need to find guidance in the whisper of the Lord, rather than in the blustering of the wind and the quaking of the earth and the burning of the fires that threaten to quell His voice and vision (1 Kings 19:11-13a).
2. Lack of Biblical and Christ-centered depth and urgency in church ministries, outreach missions, and preaching – We are all pressed for time. At work, at home, at church. Rushing our kids to activities, fixing dinner, cleaning the house, meeting deadlines, paying bills… The treadmill of life becomes an infernal act of chasing our own tails, too often for what feels like eternity.
Except that we don’t have eternity. We have this moment and, God willing, the next moment. We do not know the hour at which He will call us home. And then the rushing will stop. The urgency to keep up with the schedule and the Joneses will grind to a halt. To what end was it all so important? Because in the broad scheme of things, much of what we do from one day to the next probably does not need to compete at the same stress level as those people who could only dream of such simplicity. When one faces death or sickness or genocide or starvation or malnutrition or trafficking or abuse or neglect or decimation, urgency has a completely different connotation. And urgent really means urgent.
Life and eternity hang in the balance for all of us. Such a valuable and vital responsibility of care about such things and their level of importance is given to us by God, especially as believers and as the church. Churches should be busy growing Biblically deep and spiritually sound disciples who have a passion for serving Christ in a myriad of ways – through learning and teaching about His ways and His Word, through meeting the needs of those in the pews and outside the church walls, through healing and helping and guiding… the spiritual gifts of 1 Corinthians 12. Not necessarily to add to the number of attendees or to the dollars in the budget. Using God’s gifts for any reason other than for God’s glory (ie to survive the numbers game of congregants or to pad the church coffers), is absolutely misaligned with God’s Word. Such things will usually fall into place naturally as a result of glorifying God first, but should not be the main reason for serving in His name.
When sermons and education programs do not fuel the souls of congregation members or attendees of every age, motivate them toward action to pour out the overwhelming love given to all as God’s created and beloved children, or challenge them with Scripture and strengthen them as God’s hands and feet in relationship-building and mustard seed planting, then perhaps the urgency of the need for such messages is missing. As if the news from our neighborhoods, cities, and around the world were not disturbing enough, we each experience personal tragedies and traumas that could best be addressed with faith strengthening and supportive Christian fellowship, rather than by alternative or addictive means. When we do not recognize the pain and hardships around us and within us, we are devaluing the healing effect of Christ in our daily struggles. The need for healing is always now, however great or small the need may seem. Pointing believers and non-believers toward Christ’s comfort and healing in times of trials and triumphs is always a matter of necessity.
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do,whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” Colossians 3:12-17, NIV). It is a lot. A big task of urgent and epic proportions. If the church is not living these characteristics together- at the pulpit, in conversations and in behavior with members or visitors, then what example is being presented to those who desperately need to experience those characteristics through Christ’s use of His people? And how is that glorifying to God?
3. Difficulty with change or adapting to new or existing needs of the congregation and/or community – As simple as this concept is, it is incredible to me how easily churches and leadership can fall into the ruts of the past. I’m certainly not saying that every beautiful tradition within each church community should be abandoned or that every relic of an activity should have life breathed back into it so we can resuscitate it enough to put it back onto the calendar. And I’m definitely not saying that continuing the same old, same old without adapting it as needed is a sign of healthy church activity. Stagnancy is not good – it’s like offering a welcome mat to the mosquitoes of malignancy.
What I AM saying is that there does come a time and a place when it is valuable for both the church and the community to reevaluate the activities, ministries, and outreaches, the motivation and intentionality behind each, the meaningfulness for both volunteer workers and non-member attendees, and even the willingness of the congregation to offer physical, financial, and prayerful support.
What if a specific church event’s time on the annual calendar needs to end? Then enjoy the opportunities that it had presented to those who needed it when it was most helpful and best intended. What if some ministries need to be revamped to meet the changing needs of the congregation and the community? DO IT! Change can be difficult, but certainly not impossible! Oftentimes providing logical, transparent reasons for modifying something allows for more people to offer support when they can validate the rationale behind it. What if new outreach needs are banging on the church door, begging to be invited inside? Innovation and invitation can be amazing partners when coupled together with Christ to create powerful, meaningful, motivated mission work.
1 Corinthians 12:4-6 states clearly, “ There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” What good is limiting God’s call upon the hearts and souls of congregants when He can absolutely use His people as He determines best for the good of all of His children? It is all to be for the glory of God, not for the glory of the church or for its people anyway. Even when God’s glory and His calling can mean change and adaptation to what has been done to see what He could yet do…
4. Struggle to provide intentional, meaningful, helpful, Biblical community and global outreach
ministries – We are living in a brutal world, not much unlike that in which Jesus lived. Many of the same conflicts that existed in His time are still waging wars today, albeit with different names and slightly different modes of decimation. We are living in a world where we fear for our safety and for the futures of our children and grandchildren. Rightfully so, and not unlike the fears that Joseph and Mary held when they looked at the boy entrusted to their care who would become the bloodied and battered sacrificial Lamb for humanity’s ugliness.
And yet, the church in large part wants to shy away from the needs that emblazon themselves across news feeds and text alerts. The congregations that want to dig deep and get dirty in the trenches and stenches of society’s leftovers and forgotten ones are few and far between, beacons of hope and help for weary souls that desperately crave and deserve more light in their otherwise very dark lives. It becomes too easy to say that we do not want to become involved in denominational issues or politics, yet we attend rallies and marches that clearly state otherwise. But ask us to build relationships and organize meaningful, dirty faith types of ministries with those who carry the trickled-down weight of the issues and politics, and it becomes too much. Leaders want pretty, bite-size chunks of one-off events that provide happy, albeit good-intentioned activities, but not the hard work and trauma involved in publicly being the hands and feet of God with those who struggle to know how to love and be loved.
It has become too hard to love the unlovable for too many churches. Too many people just want to be able to walk into a climate-controlled worship service, enjoy an hour of soul-filling, and leave revitalized for a week that will bring its own challenges. Adding more challenge might be asking too much. But it isn’t that we wouldn’t dig deep and get dirty if we were encouraged to do so and were built up into God-grounded leaders who could take on the hard stuff of loving anyway and ministering to the unloved as Jesus himself did. We would, even if we might hesitate at first. Because Jesus loved the unlovable. We must do the same because He has filled us with that same love. After all, He died a most gruesome and painful and dirty death for the unloved, just as He died a most gruesome and painful and dirty death for the beloved.
Paul and Timothy even encouraged and supported the Colossians to do the exact same thing… “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people— the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel that has come to you. In the same way, the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace” (Colossians 1:3-6, NIV). What other reason should a church have for not pouring itself out in meaningful, God-centered, Jesus-filled ways?
5. Limitations on the involvement of children of all ages and abilities throughout worship services,
missions, and ministries – I’ll be honest. Kids are my weakness. They are strong and vulnerable and resilient in ways that adults refuse to be and pretend they shouldn’t be. Children possess such incredible willingness to leap when nudged, to fly when asked, to soar when allowed. So why are so many churches keeping kids in quiet rooms, nurseries, or alternative kids’ entertainment during worship services? Why are children of ALL ages and abilities not regularly included in worship as speakers, singers, musicians, dancers, actors, leaders, pray-ers? You name it, and you will probably find a child or teen who is more likely to try being a worship leader or a ministry team member than most of the adults you ask.
And the fact that so many churches try to limit kids, especially young children, to a 2-3 minute children’s message and then shuffle them out of the sanctuary and into other programming for whatever reason has always, always bothered me. A lot.
Why in the world would a child who has little to no awareness of what worship is and how to participate in it, or in mission outreaches or in church activities or in community ministries ever feel comfortable with being grown in discipleship and as leaders? No wonder so many adults are uncomfortable about participating in worship or on governing boards or as Sunday School teachers or as ministry leaders!
If Jesus Christ himself wanted children to be near Him, and even chastised his disciples of all people for pushing kids away, then why are we still sending kids out of the worship services and not folding them into Jesus’ flock from the very beginning?! “People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ (Luke 18:15-17, NIV)
How can the church really expect to grow if the little people, who didn’t learn the fullness of church and the life into which Jesus has called us, turn into big people who can easily walk away from the church, not realizing what and Who they are missing?
6. Lack of healthy leadership traits and behaviors within and/or toward the staff, governing boards, congregation, community, volunteers, etc. – I’ve recently come to the conclusion that it is going to take God’s miraculous interventions to get me to work for someone else again, unless maybe it’s my husband. Maybe it comes from a lifetime of being manipulated by the fears of others and the guilt that accompanied not following the directions and avoiding conflict. Maybe it comes from too many jobs with leadership that was neither healthy nor helpful to work under. And the church can sometimes be no different from working at a restaurant, a school, a summer camp, or a swim club – I’ve done them all and more, and have had similar experiences everywhere.
When the leadership of any organization does not treat the community of employees, clients, or volunteers with respect, value, and appreciation, maybe even with compassion among other healthy qualities, the trickle-down effect of disintegration can quickly become apparent, especially in a church. When neglect of duties or abuse with bully tactics and shaming techniques are used privately and publicly, from pulpits, in meetings, or behind backs, the rose-colored glasses of working or volunteering in the church are stripped away and replaced with the reality of cracked lenses. It can feel hypocritical at best, and at worst become a black hole into which ministries, hope, people, and even faith can get sucked into. However intentionally or unintentionally the neglect or abuse is.
Which isn’t to say that church leaders or elders aren’t human and don’t make mistakes and aren’t deserving of grace or forgiveness. But it is to say that they are held to a much higher standard than those who are not paid or lay leadership, whether or not that is right to do. I’m a pastor’s kid. Believe me, I know all the sides of what that means. I’ve lived it.
That being said, we all do as Christians. We are all called to live a life worthy of the Lord and pleasing in His sight. If we go back to Paul and Timothy and their letter to the Colossians, “For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:9-14, NIV).
Christians are called specially – to be filled themselves with the Holy Spirit’s wisdom and understanding of God’s will, to grow His people’s knowledge of God, to bear fruit in the ministries and outreaches within the congregation and community and world, to strengthen long-time believers and build up new believers with God’s might to bear His duties with endurance and patience and thanksgiving. If this is true of Christians as a whole, how much more so should the leadership be upright examples? How could bully preaching, private shaming, or exclusivity grow faith-full followers or future leaders? Such behaviors are not the example or the calling of Christians, nor is it behavior worthy of the responsibility of church leadership. In fact, it is detrimental and destructive.
7. Misunderstanding of socioeconomic status and/or culture within the congregation and community– Let’s be clear. Church for me has NEVER been about numbers or dollar signs, though I definitely understand that dollar bills keep the doors open and the toilets flushing. That being said, there is so very much more to being the church than just running the church and paying for it. But it all ties together.
To me, caring for the people of both the church and the community will naturally result in an eagerness toward financial giving. When we feel cared about, we care more for others and are often more willing to step out in faith. Simple, possibly selfish in some ways, yet it’s what most of us do. When the leadership demonstrates a clear understanding of the community’s culture and compassion for the socioeconomic limitations that many congregations have, then the church can develop a sense of camaraderie and partnership toward creating financial and social stability.
When a deficit is broadcast publicly on a regular basis, it is not only a deterrent to those who could give because they feel that bridging the gap is hopeless, but it’s also rubbing it into the faces of those who cannot afford to give as freely. Not only that, but when the actual uses of the funds and the reasons for the donations are not as transparently displayed as the deficit or as the latest building project fundraiser, it becomes a lot like the parable of sawdust and plank in the eye from Matthew 7:3-5, “‘Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.'”
Why start a new building campaign when you are not fixing the things that are already broken or are seriously struggling to pay the bills from one month to the next? If the people can’t afford it and don’t see the need for it, resentment builds, trust dwindles, and funding drops. The more often that sawdust is splashed into their eyes, the less often people will want to work harder to see clearly. It will make them want to wash it out and walk away. So if the church or its leadership is looking past its people, the community, and their needs and frankly their actual ability to ante up big bucks into the collection plates or in donation boxes for the endless holiday gift requests or latest big building project, then the purpose is lost. Prayer-filled giving, peace-full offerings are lost. And too often, the church can be lost as well.
So is this the end of the church? Is the church dying?
No, I really can’t believe that the church as a whole is dead. Do I think that perhaps church as we have known it for centuries has faced times of revival, renewal, and reworking and that perhaps it is becoming time to start another one of those phases? Yes.
My kids and I have been studying butterflies lately and just watched five emerge from their chrysalises. I had no idea that caterpillars shed their exoskeletons, molting four to five times before forming a chrysalis or pupa. And then during this pupa phase, the caterpillar completely liquefies and reforms as a butterfly within only a few days. Blew my mind.
What if it is time for the church as individual organizations or as a whole is entering another molting phase, stripping off another layer of exoskeleton, in preparation for the day when it will be stunningly transformed into a beautiful new creation that only God can design?
What if it takes getting through the hard times, the wriggling and writhing of shedding the old to make room for the new?
What if it takes melting down everything we thought we knew as Christians and as a church to become even more like what and who we are called to be by Jesus Christ for his body, the church?
What if the new creation is something more incredible than we could ever imagine, if only we allow God to work in us and through us and for us?