Something is wrong
My latest column at Christian Week: It was a proud moment. The church had just welcomed eighty-three new members. The pastor began his sermon. “This is great, isn’t it?” he began. “But before we get too giddy about new members, let me ask you a question: Why should we bring eighty-three new people into something that isn’t working?” The pastor, Bill Hull, describes this as the first time he had unmasked himself in thirty years of ministry. “Something his wrong,” he said. “All the formulas, strategic planning, mission statements, and visionary sermons are not making disciples.” In his book, Choose the Life, Hull comments, “We were stuck in the same rut in which so many churches find themselves – religious activity without transformation.” Almost everyone agrees As I listen to people, I get the sense that almost everyone agrees something is wrong in the church. I recently sat in a room full of pastors of churches, and you could sense the despair in the room, even among those in churches that appear to be successful. In another meeting, a Canadian denominational president observed that the denomination had “islands of health in a sea of dysfunction,” and nobody reacted with shock. Then there is the pastor who silently prayed as he began his sermon, “I’ll take it from here God. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like for you not to be involved in this one. I’d like to see what happens when I do this by myself.” Nobody noticed a difference in his preaching. Facing a shifting culture To be sure, churches are facing challenges as they encounter a shifting culture. Canadian church attendance has dropped from 67% in 1946 to 20% today. The church is thriving in Africa, Asia, and Latin America just as it declines in North America. But perhaps the problem is not just out there. Perhaps we are, at least in part, the problem. I recently received a call from a new friend who has been through a tragically difficult year. A year ago, she had no time for God. She has suffered so much since then that she is now desperate for him. One day she called me and said, “I need to know if this Christianity thing is real, or if it is just a game that Christians play on Sunday. I don’t have time for anything but the real thing.” In other words, she doesn’t have time for “religious activity without transformation.” She’s not alone. In The New Faithful, Colleen Carroll argues that attempts by churches to appeal to young adults by diluting the message or softening demands seem to backfire. Young adults are not repulsed by demands; instead, they clamor for community but are repulsed by its counterfeits. High commitment needed Authentic Christian communities that pass the “sniff test” of young believers are not always easy on adults. They are sacrificial, incarnational, intimate, evangelical, and demand high commitment. “Faith communities with those characteristics,” she writes, “rarely want for members or momentum.” The real challenge, then, is not a quick methodological fix or fad, nor is it perfection, which is an impossible goal. The real challenge is for churches to be authentic Christian communities that pass the sniff test of those who won’t buy our marketing slogans. Perhaps the real challenge is the re-conversion of the church. Dallas Willard, author of numerous books on discipleship, argues that there is only one solution to the crisis facing the church. It is to make “spiritual formation in Christlikeness the exclusive primary goal of the local congregation.” It is to move beyond all the discussions on architecture, styles of music, and structures, and focus all of our energy on bringing “all those in attendance to understand clearly what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and to be solidly committed to discipleship in their whole life.” This goal, he writes, would have to be approached gently and patiently with existing groups where “people have not understood this to be part of their membership commitment.” Willard is right. As Ray Stedman wrote years ago, “God’s first concern is not what the church does, it is what the church is.” A post-Christian world, skeptical young adults, and God himself will not settle for anything less.