Why Does the Church Keep Failing People? (Part 2: Moving Forward)
Updated: Jun 6, 2022
There I was, sitting in a plastic lawn chair, surrounded by strangers who were singing and dancing, and I couldn’t decide if I should join in.
I was with my friend Peter on a Sunday morning, and we had decided at breakfast to go to the Anglican church down the street. The church was simple yet beautiful, but you could tell it still needed a lot of work. You could actually still see the bare cinder blocks that the church was built out of from the outside. The church had a dirt floor, and there were plastic chairs instead of pews.
But let me tell you, the service was lively…I mean it was a party. A few different choirs sang and danced during the service. There were guitars, drums, and a keyboard being played by a band off to the side. There was an impromptu baptism, a few healing prayers for another family, and then after all of that, there was communion.
But I noticed that the priest walked out of the church right after communion before the service was over. I asked Peter why he left, and he told me the priest had to get to the next church service on the other side of town. That church was waiting for him before starting their service. We had been at church for three hours, and the poor priest was headed to yet another three-hour service. That short dialogue with Peter was actually the first English I had heard since walking into the church. The whole service had been in Swahili.
That lively, three hour-long church service in Dodoma, Tanzania taught me a lot about the joy and love and energy that can come from worshiping God. After that experience I’m not surprised that Christianity is growing faster on the continent of Africa than it is in most other parts of the world. A study says that 40 percent of Christians will be located in Sub-Saharan Africa by the year 2060 while North America will likely have only nine percent.
What made that worship experience so powerful for me, along with the other services I attended in Tanzania and Kenya, was the authenticity. You could tell the service really meant something to those who were leading the service along with the congregation. The words of the hymns and the liturgy were not something they just said, it came from a place deep within their soul. When they came to church, they laid it all out. Their joy and pain, their thanksgivings and petitions poured out of them effortlessly through worship. Worship was not something you witnessed; it was a small experience of God’s love and joy and freedom.
A few months ago, my wife and I were in Italy for vacation. We would spend our days walking around the town we were visiting for the day: Pisa, Venice, Florence, or Rome. If you know anything about these great cities, it’s that they are home to some of the most beautiful churches in the world. During the Renaissance the sky was the limit when it came to church architecture. The money was there, the artists were there, and thus a plethora of beautiful and massive churches were built in each of these cities.
But time rolls on and things change. When Megan and I were in Venice we stumbled upon a beautiful church tucked away in a neighborhood. Much to our surprise when we walked into the sanctuary, we saw that it had been turned into a museum dedicated to musical instruments. Behind a display of trombones was the original church altar with a crucifix above it. I was a little surprised that they weren’t even trying to hide the fact that the space used to be a church. Clearly, over the years due to a number of reasons the church could not sustain itself. But there is no doubt that declining Sunday attendance and church membership was one of the major reasons that the baptismal font was replaced with a gift shop.
While in Pisa we were walking in a downpour, and the only place where we could get out of the rain without paying for anything was a church on the other side of the square. We ran in and were literally the only people in there. They had a sign asking for donations, and it detailed how they were in serious financial trouble. The church needed some major repairs, but there wasn’t an active worshiping congregation there anymore to fund the project. The church felt neglected. It was dimly lit, massive, and hadn’t been cleaned in ages. Yet it was also peaceful and quiet. I thought about all the prayers that had been prayed in that space for hundreds of years. It was holy. Yes, slowly falling apart, but still holy.
That church is a relic of bygone years. Soon trombones or something else will likely be displayed in that holy space just to bring in some revenue. Sadly, many of the churches felt that way, even the ones that had a good worshiping congregation. Tourists came there not to pray or to worship, but simply to look at the architecture or take pictures of the beautiful paintings and mosaics inside. They treated the church as a museum. There should have been a sign by the front door saying, “Here is where Christians previously met to worship the one true God.”
I had a very different experience in Italy than I did in Tanzania. While in Italy I was inspired by the church buildings-their sheer size and the artistic beauty that surrounded them. But in Tanzania I was inspired by the people in the church building. Both have their place, but only one gets you excited about the future of the church.
Over the past month I have been amazed at the number of people who've reached out to me about Part One of this series. I’ve talked to people who have felt like the church has failed them or forgot about them, or that the church just doesn’t have much to offer to them.
I also talked to a number of people who are still in church, but who’ve seen family, friends, or even their own children walk away from the church for any number of reasons. Many of these folks love and serve the church but are lost for words about how to get their loved ones to return.
These comments reminded me of a conversation I had not too long ago with a friend who used to lead a church. There were a number of things that made him leave the ministry, but part of it had to do with his faith in the church. The life had gone out of the church he was serving, the energy was lost, what he was preaching didn’t speak to him anymore, and he wasn’t sure if it was speaking to anyone else. It was partly a crisis of faith, but it was also a crisis of where he saw the church going.
We wondered out loud what makes concerts so magical, sometimes even mystical and holy? How can you be with a group of strangers and feel this deep connection as you listen to your favorite band? If you’ve ever been to an amazing concert, then you know the feeling. It can almost feel like worship in some ways. It’s more than just listening to your favorite band. In some way you are invited to participate with them, to engage with them along with all the other people in the crowd who are singing along too. It’s authentic and for my friend that’s what was missing in the church.
Before I go any further, I must say a word about chasing this feeling of experience. It can be dangerous if you are running after a feeling. In the Anglican tradition we pride ourselves in using Scripture, tradition, and reason to know about God. Experience is last on that list. Just because I’m not euphoric doesn’t mean God isn’t working in my life. We don’t have to jump up and down or run down the aisle to have a powerful worship experience. When I talk about the church being "authentic," experience is only a small part of the puzzle.
For my friend, worship was not the only thing that had become stale and lifeless-the relationships were lost in a way. They had become a jumble of clichés with no real meaning behind them. There was a lot of “I’ll pray for you,” “Bless your heart,” and “Jesus loves you” without really feeling that he was loved by the church or Jesus.
The churches that are dying (i.e. the ones that continue to wonder why more and more of their younger members prefer sitting in Starbucks on Sunday mornings than sitting in their church pews) should see the danger of inauthentic relationships.
People are yearning for authentic relationships; not the fake smiles and clichés that the church is sometimes known for. And newcomers can smell the bull from a mile away. Like I said in Part One, everyone is still asking the deep questions of life and even God, but they aren’t going to their local church to get those questions answered. We have lost our credibility.
So, where do we go from here? You may remember in Part One I said that many of those who have left the church are still asking the deep questions of life: "Why am I here? Is there a purpose to my life?" Many of them care about their community. They love to volunteer and give back to those in need locally. And lastly, many of them have thoughtful questions about God and Jesus, and if God has a plan for their life. The catch is that they aren’t coming going to the church anymore to get those questions answered.
The list I’ve come up with tries to address these issues as broadly as possible. It may seem overly simplistic, but it has been formed in my mind after a number of conversations with those who have left church, as well as with pastors, churchgoers, and recent research on the topic. The truth is, our job isn’t that hard. Maybe the reason we’ve gotten into so much trouble is because we’ve made a very simple thing too complex. Jesus calls us to love God, love our neighbor, make disciples, and that’s about it.
1) Let’s invite people into an authentic relationship.
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” (John 10:11-16)
I’ve got to be honest, Jesus has changed my life. I would not be the same person without him. I am a more loving person, a more forgiving person, and I think a happier person because of my relationship with him. That relationship shapes my choices on a daily basis and calls me again and again to seek after his will rather than my own. And to put icing on the cake, that relationship has transformed all my other relationships. People matter more to me now that I know that Jesus loves and cares about them just as much as he cares about me. This isn’t pie in the sky kind of stuff for me, this is as real as the ground I walk on.
I think any Christian would say the same thing. The power of Christianity is that it is all about a relationship with God. A God who loves us, who would’ve died for us even if we were the only person in the whole world, and he calls us to walk with him all the days of our life. That’s our message, period. So, we must invite people into that wonderfully authentic relationship. It is a love relationship that starts with the Creator and overflows to his creation.
2) Let’s invite people into an authentic faith community.
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other” (John 15:12-17).
Nicky Gumbel, the founder of the Alpha Course, is known for saying, “The church should be famous for its love.” Love is a powerful thing. Within the context of love there is passion, there is forgiveness, and there is a sense of selflessness. Love doesn’t mean that we don’t have standards or expectations, but love does require us welcome the beloved in. If love is a dance, then we’ve got to be willing to dance with people where they are. And that might mean that we have to bend or be flexible in place where we can bend and be flexible.
The point is that we are inviting people into something special: into a relationship that is built on love. We have personally been transformed by Jesus, and as a community we are inviting people into the life-giving relationship as well. We aren’t inviting them into a club or social organization: we are inviting them to be a part of Christ’s body so that together we may shine his light in this dark and weary world. We are many and yet we are one in Christ.
Too many people don’t feel that in the church. They find the church a sterile place, and I think Jesus would be gravely disappointed. When it comes down to it, we should focus less on the color of the carpet and more on the actual people who surround us in the pews.
3) Sin: We’ve Got the Answer
“From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matthew 4:17).
For some people when they walk into a church all they hear is how bad they are, or how sinful they’ve been. Okay great, I know I’m a sinner and I continue to mess up. I can’t argue with you there. But for some who’ve left the church the mere mentioning of sin is intolerable. I get it, it gets really old, and there is a lot of other things to talk about when it comes to Christianity.
But I must tell you that the only thing the church is really equipped to address is sin. Jesus addresses people’s sins all the time in the gospels, and the good news is that he does so in order that they may have life. We have a remedy for sin, and it’s Jesus. It’s by becoming a disciple: to repent, literally to turn away from sin, and to walk with Jesus. To accept his love and grace, but also his call to change our life and to be more like him. There is judgement in his words, but there is also redemption. You can’t have one without the other in the church, but we can do a better job of communicating that.
Sin is not the end of the story, but it is a big part of where we find ourselves. We get in trouble when we think we can live life without God, or we can do better than God. Our sin reminds us that we need Jesus, and that we cannot rely on ourselves. And we come together on Sunday as individuals who are broken and suffering in need of healing. The church is a hospital filled to the brim with people in need of the Great Physician. If we can clearly communicate that within the context of an authentic relationship with Jesus and our faith community that is rooted in love, then we’ll be better off.
What kind of church do we want to be? Are we going to be a community enlivened and empowered by the Spirit of God, or an ancient relic with a sign by our front door that says, “Here is where Christians previously met to worship the one true God”?
Authentic or cliché?
Warm or sterile?
Love or indifference?
Our message is as fresh and exciting today as it was on that first Easter. The community Jesus started 2,000 years ago is still alive and well, but in need of some love and attention.
What it needs above all is you. It needs you to stay…or to come back… or to give it another chance. We’re just not the same without you.
We love you.