I have spent my whole life within your structures. Various denominations, various buildings, even a stint with a home church that actually met outside. However, in all the various forms, I haven’t always loved the church. It has hurt me. A lot. I watched it burn my mom and dad and vilify my sister. I watched my closest friends in high school be ostracized from our faith community for very different reasons. I have at times hated the church, but I love Jesus and I believe that he calls his own to community and accountability, so I keep coming back.
I have been in faith communities that challenged me and edified me simultaneously. They stand as pillars of example for what Jesus would think “
doing (being the) church” should look like. And yet, even those communities didn’t get it all right. For instance, the last one gave so much away it couldn’t keep its doors open anymore. Apparently, you can be too generous. Having moved we are now, “shopping” for a church. We are three weeks in. And I am having waves of ALL the feelings. Last night I read the Word and prayed and cried trying to trust that we will find our new home. Because, unfortunately, churches are NOT one size fits all. Demographics matter. And when I say they matter I mean, I do NOT want to go to a church where everyone looks like me. I want a church that reflects the Kingdom, in age, race, gender and…..socioeconomic status. Theology matters too. We (Nathan and I) are theologically conservative; leaning for biblical inerrancy and such. There are plenty of denominations for that. However, I am a woman who feels called to serve in ministry and has a desire to be ordained. And we are in the South. For anyone who knows anything about denominational lines these two issues create a conundrum. And while I firmly believe there is grace for your beliefs on say, how or if, God employed evolution to create the world (because I don’t believe that these issues determine salvation), I don’t really want to be part of a denomination that will choose to demonize a minister for suggesting that God actually created Adam & Eve or a Sunday School teacher for saying Jesus is the only way to heaven. (If you don’t believe that fine, I’m not trying to argue with you, but I don’t think you should call yourself a Christian). And these two examples are NOT hypothetical. I know where and when they happened. And…. Style matters. Nathan prefers a traditional service. I’m not sure what I prefer, but I agreed with him after our latest visit when he sighed and said, “Can’t we just sing the Doxology…”
And after having the millionth conversation with friends and realizing this was ALL I really want to talk about….. I think I should talk about it. And my best friend keeps saying, “Cody, write what you know”….and I know church.
- I’ve been in church since I was a week old. Going on 30 years.
- I am an ecumenical mutt. Denominations matter but I have yet to align myself with one completely. I am not going to be bashing one denomination over another; my observations are “ecumenical” or catholic in the original sense.
- I am a preacher’s kid and my Daddy, the preacher, always spoke to me like an adult. So, I learned some heavy doctrine at a young age and I also understand how to navigate church boards, elders, District Supers and church bureaucracy better than the average parishioner.
- I SERVED in the churches I attended. I am not a bench-warmer. I have taught Bible studies for adults, college kids and most recently 3-4 year-olds. I have been a church secretary; navigated membership rolls, created bulletins, and counted money. I developed lessons, I even preached once. I didn’t get raving reviews but I did it.
- I have a seminary degree. Yes. Some solid book-learning, “standing on the shoulders of giants” of how it should look. I am a staunch Wesleyan (not necessarily the denomination, but of John Wesley; I walk a fine line of avoiding idolizing him).
- and most emphatically: I love Jesus. I love Jesus. I love Jesus.
So. Church, here it goes:
1. Louder is Not better. Regardless of your style of worship I have noticed a trend, especially with the contemporary churches to get loud. Not just in the literal sense. I have witnessed and heard horror stories of black walls and strobe lights. That may be appropriate for the youth room…on occasion, but if you want to attract a solid core of parishioners that have the wisdom to sustain a lively church you need people over the age of 40. And I’m sorry, maybe the middle aged folks I know just aren’t hip, but I don’t know too many that can enjoy that EVERY SINGLE SUNDAY! And let’s be very honest: we need to be focusing on authentic worship, not trying to create an emotional high that is perpetuated by adrenaline. I am tired of kitschy thematic droll that is supposed to make me feel like I’m in for an entertaining experience. Stop entertaining. PREACH! The gospel. Anyone know about Jonathon Edwards? He preached, the gospel, calmly and brought revival almost weekly. STOP ASSUMING THE HOLY SPIRIT NEEDS YOUR HELP TO EMOTIONALLY TRAP SOMEONE. Also, on a very real note, I recently had a conversation with a veteran whose wife calmly explained that they stopped going to the church she attended while he was deployed because of this very issue. Church had an awesome kids program but the strobe lights, bass, and sheer volume were too much. Once he started attending, he couldn’t handle it. What if someone visits with epilepsy? Are you going to start posting warning signs for migraine sufferers, autistic children and individuals diagnosed with PTSD? Just saying.
2. First Impressions Matter. Does your church have a “First Impressions” Team? The church we left was SERIOUS about this. I always thought it was silly until we left. I now appreciate its purpose and their drive. Does your “Team” do their job? It is not the job of the visitor to impress the church. That may seem silly to say, but I have spent the majority of my life believing this. I always felt like I had to make the church LIKE ME… so that they would ask me to come back. That is wrong. And I am embracing the truth that I don’t have to impress anyone. I have to honor Jesus.
Church 1: When we walked in the greeter said, “Good morning. Glad to see you.” And then he cocked his head and asked, “Is this your first time here?” HE NOTICED that we were new. He had a grip on who usually came through the door. Before you ask if there were only 20 people, this was church with two services and probably 300-400 members. After confirming, he walked us over to the welcome desk where three different people became involved in letting us know what to expect. While we waited for the service to start, another three people came over to introduce themselves, one of which WAS THE HEAD MINISTER. And two days later, we received a letter in the mail that was actually signed by said minister (NOT A STAMP).
Church 2: Same size, same town, different denomination. The greeters barely noticed us. “Oh Hello. Good Morning” was all one said as three others chatted to each other. In the service there was actually a “greeting” time where three people turned around said, “Good Morning” shook our hands and that was it. Early in the service, the associate pastor said, “If this is your first time we have a gift for you.” But no one mentioned where to go, and NO ONE in the congregation seemed to notice we were new or at least they didn’t acknowledge it. They sent a survey wanting to know about our visit.
Which leads to 3:
3: You are asking the wrong questions. The survey wanted to know what the best part of our visit was, and if we had suggestions. Oh, and our age demographics. It felt like if you said you were under 40 they would dismiss your suggestions. Sadly, all Nathan and I came up with for the “best part” was the traditional communion. I suggested away… mentioning that it felt like we attended a business meeting for a company we weren’t part of . Honestly, Kroger’s online surveys do a better job with asking questions about your experience in their stores.
So what are the wrong questions?:
“What was the best part?”
“How do we appear cool?”
“How do we attract a younger crowd?”
“How do we get people to give more money?”
Or really ALL the questions, boiled into one: “How do we make everyone happy?”
You should ask: Are we JESUS? Well, in a literally sense, no. But figuratively? What if Jesus showed up to your service? What would He notice and what would He say? IS JESUS HAPPY WITH YOU?
You can change those questions to fit your particular church… because every congregation has strengths and weaknesses, but really, if Jesus were standing in the back door or sitting in the front pew….. how would He react?
4. You can get too big. Now, I know this is loaded, because the whole point of growing the Kingdom of God is supposed to lead to a large church. I get that. But how are you continuing to shepherd your mega-church flock? I have wrestled with sharing this openly online, but we attended a church of roughly a thousand people for the last three years. We served, we tithed, and we did all that we could to be a part. And I got hurt. A lot. For a lot of different reasons. First, when we decided we needed to take a break from serving to focus our own walks and honestly, get our junk together…. folks weren’t so understanding. They were at first, but when we didn’t come back they didn’t check on us, and seemed to stop caring all together, except to ask when we would be back to serve. 1000 people. 6 ministers. When we moved, NO ONE from that church showed up to help us on moving day. Not one minister called to say good luck, or we are praying for you or anything. Now, see the thing is…they DID do this for other people. I watched it happen…. And yet we never made the club. 1000 people. I can only assume that each person thought someone else would reach out and they didn’t need to. Or that because I didn’t walk up to head minister our last Sunday and say, “Seeya!” how could they know? Now…(deep breath) I know this is personal. And I know that there will be people that read this that automatically go on the defensive…. But it is truth. And this is what I wish churches would realize: The church is FULL of sick people. That is who Jesus came for. And inthemidst of that sanctuary of triage, the people who need affirming, or prayer, or help the MOST….. are not going to come forward and ask for it. It’s UNIVERSAL. I’ve watched it. I’ve lived it. Shepherding and ministry is almost an art form in the intuitive nature it requires. So while, I’m using my example, if someone TELLS ONE PERSON(!) that something is up….. there needs to be a systematic network for meeting those needs. The small group concept is wonderful except it is murder on the shy. Please don’t assume that your small groups will do your job or that the people who need help will even tell their small group what’s really up. If someone quietly disappears, or becomes quiet, or changes IN ANY WAY, please notice and reach out. I promise you’ll be glad you did. Actions, people. Not words.
Which leads to 5:
5. Stop telling your people no. I have a dream for ministry. I’m tired of being told no…..because I am a woman. I am even more tired of being affirmed face to face only to see doors being closed when I pursue something. (Positive words, negative actions.)
There are even more talented women, men and children who have been given gifts from GOD that we don’t recognize or allow to grow because we are afraid of them embarrassing us. So what, if the guy who is slightly awkward asks to sing in church…..”make a joyful noise unto the Lord…” and the lady with NO organizational skills asks to help for VBS….. in the kitchen no less……. God puts desires in our hearts that no man can explain. Sometimes, God leads us to things so that we fail and return more surely to Him to find His direction for our lives. My wise Daddy (the preacher) told me one time that “The Church should be the safest place to fail.” Read it again… “Safest. Place. To FAIL.” Where else can we have the FREEDOM to try something out and realize that it not our forte? OR, realize that we need some coaching, mentoring and systematic growth before this skill or gift we feel smoldering can ignite into a fire that cannot be extinguished. I know some incredible singers who only sing in church. And only sing in church because they felt comfortable singing in a GROUP CHOIR and the choir leader said, “Oh my! Here is a solo for you….” And now they have the confidence to sing on a praise team. Conversely, I also watched a young lady with a lovely voice give up trying to lead small group worship because she kept getting brow beat at rehearsal for her ‘lack of technical skill.’ I witnessed teens that participate in VBS only because THE YOUTH LEADER MADE THEM! And suddenly they realize that Jesus is CALLING THEM to be ministers. When it comes to service, the church should almost always say YES. Do a little research on interacting with or ministering to introverts. Let me tell you, there is some serious psychology behind making them feel safe (Spoken as an INFP). Sometimes…children (or adults) should be dragged kicking and screaming; Corbin and Gabriella will be serving in soup kitchens, on mission trips, and singing hymn duets at the local nursing home before they leave this household. And occasionally, I will give in to Gabriella wanting to set up a free lemonade stand in the neighborhood “because Jesus wants us to love our neighbors” even though I get hives at the thought of ALL THOSE PEOPLE. Always say yes when someone sincerely wants to do something for Jesus.
There is a growing movement in the Western world to move away from traditional church. Traditional churches seem to be dying or becoming less than traditional in a desperate attempt to be RELEVANT. We want to be ATTRACTIONAL and MISSIONAL but that has turned into an arms race of who has the freshest graphics and slickest praise band. And a lot of smarter, wiser, Godlier people have written more words, books, and mantras on why this matters, or doesn’t matter, and what we should do next. I told Nathan that I was considering offering my services as a “mystery churchgoer.” I will visit any church and write a comprehensive report on what you’ve got right and what needs some constructive “truth in love” from the eyes of a first time attendee. I love the church. I love the people who make up the church…and on occasion I have come to truly love the buildings we meet in. They become home and you become family. The church has sustained me in times when I could not sustain myself. And let me be clear, the congregations we have been part of and have visited are doing A LOT of things right. For instance, size and number can make it possible to do AMAZING things for the community and world. But size and number can lose intimacy. Cool music and lighting will attract young folks, but young folks aren’t usually spiritually seasoned. Asking your teens what they think their friends would like at worship might attract more teens but you also might have a social clique that lacks substance. And the interpretive dance might make you uncomfortable to watch but I guarantee that there are angels dancing in unison. This is not a statement of disenchanted permanent disconnect. I LOVE YOU CHURCH. ALL OF YOU. Even the ones that make big mistakes and make the news. Because regardless of my feelings, Jesus loves you too. So. I love you. These are the observations of a frustrated, faithful, follower who is fervently seeking a church home. I hope you will listen.