Five Things Your Church Wishes You Knew
June 21, 2011
As a church leader, we know you do your best to be in tune with the needs of the people in your church community. You probably have programs to address the unique difficulties you’ve seen, you preach on topics that are relevant and insightful to people’s lives and you make every effort to really listen to the problems your congregation faces every day.
But sometimes the culture gap between leadership and church community is wide enough—by no one’s fault—that it can become difficult to understand their needs. That’s why we went to five authors who love the Church, but who have also seen Her problems. We asked them to write to you as church members about the things they face that they’ve seen neglected by church leaders in the past. Their responses are difficult, impassioned and frank—but above all, are centered around a deep love for the Church and Her leaders.
Does Church Commitment Trump Everything?
When I was a kid, my family was at church all the time. Sunday school and worship on Sunday mornings. On Sunday nights, a Southern Baptist boys’ group called Royal Ambassadors, plus another worship service. On Wednesdays, a community meal followed by children’s choir. Summer brought a whole new schedule of camps, events and weekly activities.
My almost-daily church involvement didn’t bother me then. In fact, I loved it. But as a dad, today? No way my family is spending all those hours at church every week.
Don’t get me wrong—we love our church. My wife works with the children’s ministry. I play on the worship team and fill the pulpit when the pastor’s away. We’re involved. But church is not the most important thing in our lives.
In 2009, a study by the Barna Group noted that, while weekend worship attendance at mainline church congregations remained stable, congregants were becoming disengaged with church life overall. Volunteerism at church was down by 22 percent. Adult Sunday school involvement had declined. The report described this as “the underlying problem of softer commitments.”
My wife and I maintain the same faith as we did growing up, but we’ll admit that our commitment to church activities has become “soft.” I can explain this in one word: family.
We have two elementary-aged kids at home, and we’re committed to making the most of our time together. We don’t let our kids join every sports league that comes along. Instead, we focus on one or two activities a year (and we play a lot of basketball and baseball in the front yard). We play Mario Kart or Settlers of Catan on the living room floor. We eat breakfast and dinner as a family. We read together before bed.
We try not to over-schedule our lives with stuff that pulls us in different directions—which means church activities, apart from worship services, aren’t always a priority.
Maybe the Barna Group sees this as a “problem of softer commitments,” but I’m not sure I do. The problem is how we define commitment.Doe Does it only apply to church-sanctioned activities?
For example, is it better for us to put our kids in childcare so we can attend a big church banquet with friends, or invite those same friends (and their kids) over for pizza on a Friday night? Either way we’re experiencing community with Christian friends. But the second option allows us to do it as a family.
What’s a better use of my time: coaching my second-grade son’s public school basketball team, or serving on yet another church committee? If I have to choose, I’ll commit to the one that lets me interact more with Owen, his friends and their families.
Which has more impact: my wife’s hour in the church nursery once a month during worship services, or her time on the PTA board at our kids’ school? Option two helps her get to know our kids’ teachers and other parents.
Some leaders might see these options and say, “Well, nothing’s keeping you from doing all those things.”
Wrong. We’re limiting ourselves on purpose. We pay attention when church leaders talk about the value of the Sabbath and the priority of rest. We’re pursuing a balanced, family-rich life while trying to invest our lives in the people around us, who aren’t always people at church. So that means saying no to church activities.
It’s not because we dislike our church. It’s because we believe the Kingdom of God is bigger than our church.
Pastors and ministers, what we’d love is for you to encourage us in this rather than making us feel guilty for not serving. attending or being active enough. I’m not sure the world needs church members who’ll get more involved in church activities.
I think it needs more Christians trying to lead balanced and generous lives both inside and outside the church.
Jason Boyett is the author of O Me of Little Faith (Zondervan) and other books. Find him online at jasonboyett.com and @jasonboyett.
Can We Trust Church Leaders?
Can I trust you? That’s the question many of us ponder on Sunday mornings as we listen to you talk about grace, mercy and forgiveness. Oh, we like you, of course; we like your charisma, and we think your ability to eloquently move from story to theology to life application is impressive, at times even convincing. But can we trust you? That’s what we don’t know.
Distrust of clergy isn’t a new problem. Ten years ago, a survey by George Barna found that churchgoers’ respect and appreciation for pastors had hit an all-time low. People’s trust in a pastor’s ability to understand and address their problems as well as lead them was in a 15-year downward spiral. Since then, other studies have confirmed that people are more likely to trust police officers and teachers than clergy. But these stats fail to answer the question of why we struggle to trust you.
It is tempting to assume that we struggle to trust our church leaders because of the sex and financial scandals involving pastors and priests. But I suspect most of us have more personal reasons.
At least, that’s why I struggle to trust people like you. I grew up in a church that believed a pastor was “God’s chosen,” a title that meant he or she deserved our respect, honor and, yes, trust. To challenge the pastor wasn’t simply viewed as an act against “God’s man”—it was an act against God. The pastors at my church often lied, manipulated, covered up sins and refused to admit wrongdoing, and I watched my parents wrestle with how to confront the pastors and with the belief that God protected His “chosen.”
As an adult, I’ve befriended and trusted various pastors, and over and over again I’ve become discouraged, saddened and even dumbfounded by their actions. I started to assume the worst about all pastors
So yes, when I met Pete, my current pastor, I had baggage—lots of it. During my first months of visiting his church, I carried a truckload of pastoral baggage I’d been collecting since I was a child. My thoughts about Pete were somewhat bipolar: He seems nice, but I bet he treats his staff like crap. He seems genuine, but he’s probably got more secrets than a CIA agent. He seems to relate to what’s happening in my life, but he probably pulls in a six-figure salary and drives a BMW. He seems to be caring, non-pushy and hope-driven, but I bet he’s a right-wing conservative who rallies against health care, gay people and taking care of the environment.
You might be thinking, “It sounds like you’re the one with the problem.” And you’re right—my baggage is my problem. But if I come to your church and engage your community, will you make me (or someone like me) your problem?
Thankfully, Pete was. For the first time since my early 20s, I trust a pastor. He’s not perfect. But he knows that. And I can trust that.
Chances are, every Sunday morning, some people are sitting there asking themselves, “Can I trust you?”* Their reasons for asking the question might be different than mine, but I guarantee those reasons are rooted in stories that are painful, sensitive and difficult to articulate. Remember this: Just because they don’t trust you doesn’t make them bad people—it just means they’re hurt people. They’re people who have encountered a “you” who was arrogant or untrustworthy or an abuser. It might seem unfair that they distrust you, considering they don’t know you and you’ve done nothing wrong. But be humble toward them anyway. They’ve brought their stories and experiences and baggage into your church and sat down: be gracious, kind and help them unpack.
Matthew Paul Turner is the author of 10 books, including Churched: One Kid’s Journey Toward God Despite a Holy Mess (WaterBrook Press).
Next: Rethinking singleness/marriage ...
The Church Needs to Rethink How Singles Are Treated
It is difficult to admit that most of my relationship education happened as I grew up watching TV shows, going to the movies and listening to the latest pop songs and R&B hits on my Walkman. It is also difficult to admit that while I was “learning” about romantic relationships from pop culture, I was being raised in a church where I heard nothing about what it means to love one another as friends, lovers and marriage partners. Except, of course, that sex was for adults, and even then there seemed to be more negative energy around the topic than anything positive and healthy. As a single adult in the Church today, the sad reality is that I hear very little about what it means to hold marriage sacred and to prepare oneself for the marital covenant. What would it look like if your church considered preparing people for marriage as important as any other discipleship class?
I once almost came to fisticuffs with a pastor because the church leadership team made a Sunday school class about healthy Christian marriage available only to married couples. They assumed single people in the congregation would have no interest in or use for that discussion. It seemed like everywhere I turned, some couple I knew was getting divorced, and I believed learning how to navigate the beautiful and challenging terrain of marriage should not be left until people find themselves engaged or married. I wonder how my own past relationships would have been different if I had been raised in a church that made such discussions and reflections normative for high school youth and the entire adult congregation.
A 2008 Barna study claims 34 percent of Protestants and 28 percent of Catholics go through a divorce. That is not much lower than the 38 percent divorce rate of non-Christians. If the Church believes marriage is a vocation, and if we honor marriage as the central metaphor by which we understand Christ’s love for the Church, then shouldn’t we teach about Christian marriage openly and collectively in Sunday school, behind the pulpit and in Bible studies that are a mix of singles, married and engaged folks?
This is not in any way to dismiss the genuine gifts of singleness to which some are called, nor to undervalue the real and necessary spiritual and emotional growth that can occur during one’s single years. But it is to say that it would be a blessing if the Church played a more prophetic and instructional role in teaching about marriage as vocation and sacrament, and encouraging singles to dwell on these notions before and during dating.
Having a church leadership team that makes an effort to dialogue and teach about marriage will send some necessary and clear messages to the people in the pews, even those who are not sure whether they are called to marriage. Both marriage and singleness are gifts, and all of God’s gifts come with responsibilities.
As a single person I want to be a part of discussions on Christian marriage because these discussions affect how singles think about covenant, faithfulness and sexual intimacy. I need the Church to point to alternatives to the mostly superficial messages offered by Western culture and society.What if we reflected communally on the role God and community play in how we choose partners in marriage? I want to think together with the Church on how our unions as Christians are about more than just two people and romantic happiness. How do prayer, discernment and community grow and deepen our intimate relationships? Discussions on Christian marriage could lead to other faithful discussions on what it means to be a family reconstituted through the baptized, crucified and risen body of Christ. God invites us to broaden our notion of family in challenging ways often offensive to our programmed sensibilities. As disciples, our first relational commitment is to God and to one another. The purposes God has for redeeming the world are not dependent on whether or not we marry or bear children.
My conversation with the pastor led to a dialogue about why singleness, marriage and family should be topics open to the entire congregation, and the ways in which the congregation can reflect on how our relationships affect one another as the Body of Christ. And by the end of the Sunday school series, participants in the marriage class said they missed the diverse voices and perspectives that they welcomed and respected in other areas of congregational life.
Enuma Okoro writes from Durham, NC. She is the author of Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert’s Search for Spiritual Community (Fresh Air Books) and co-author of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (Zondervan, with Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove). Visit www.enumaokoro.com.
Next: Living with questions and comforting people who are really hurting ...
I Live with More Questions than Answers
Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday represent the hinge of human history. We celebrate Good Friday and Easter Sunday because they make everything else possible. But I think it’s a mistake to miss Holy Saturday altogether. Since sentences are my stock-in-trade, I sometimes think of Good Friday as an exclamation point (full-stop), Easter Sunday as a colon (momentum) and Holy Saturday as the important ellipsis between them. Good Friday and Easter Sunday are dramatic answers; Holy Saturday is about as-yet-unanswered questions. This is why I relate so much to Holy Saturday. It’s also the reason I’m writing to you: because I think you should know I’m living with more questions than answers.
I bring this up because I don’t want you to assume—and I doubt you do—that everyone in the congregation is in the same theological place. I was raised in a conservative evangelical church, converted to Catholicism in my late 20s, lapsed, helped start a couple house churches in Portland and somehow ended up (happily) at our Evangelical Quaker church in rural Oregon. I read books by acceptable theologians, read exactly four Christian magazines and listen to one or two Christian podcasts. But I read the unacceptable theologians, too. My faith has been challenged by art and inspired by science. I have found wisdom studying Judaism, Buddhism and Confucianism. And I can be just as swayed by pop theology compressed into 140 very powerful characters.
So I’m bringing to the community a collection of beliefs as comprehensive and imperfect as any seminary education. I’m packing a lot of questions, too. One Sunday, I remember hearing about the book unChristian, which the pastor had just read on vacation. Early in the book, David Kinnaman, one of the authors, says many young believers bring to Christianity the same challenges, doubts and questions that outsiders do. I count myself among this number. How has evangelicalism become so entangled with conservative politics? Why do Christians seem so anti-intellectual? Why do Christians seem so anti-homosexual?
Our community has gathered in a particular time and setting, and for the most part we share a Christian vernacular. It occurs to me, though, that sometimes the things we think we have in common can obscure rather than illuminate the truth. I’ve also noticed that two people can use the same language—describing Scripture as the “Word of God,” for example—and talk past each other, or talk at cross-purposes, or neglect to deeply consider where the phrase “Word of God” comes from and what are its implications.
I see this as an opportunity. We have the chance to unpack and repack our luggage like experienced travelers, shedding assumptions that aren’t worth their weight, reexamining old artifacts and seeing them fresh in light of the intervening miles. Questions like, “Why do I believe such-and-such?” and, “Why do other people believe such-and-such?” and, “What does such-and-such even mean?” can produce tension. But tension—when handled intentionally, patiently and gently—is sometimes where the energy is. This can come from the pulpit, but it should probably also happen conversationally at the congregational level. None of us knows precisely what the next leg of the journey looks like, but I am bound by membership to you and our church, and I am committed to walking it with you.
John Pattison is the author of Besides the Bible: 100 Books that Have, Should, or Will Create Christian Culture (Biblica). A member of the National Book Critics Circle, he lives with his wife and 3-year-old daughter near Silverton, OR.
What about the people in “The Middle”?
As someone who has previously served on church staff vocationally for six years, and has continued to work with churches for four more, that question is always one that haunts me— partially because I’ve been the one who’s forgotten The Middle, and partially because I am one of the people in The Middle.
Let’s say you have three people groups in your church. First, you have the “Superstars.” The people who serve on every board, committee, tithe massive amounts of money, teach Sunday school, babysit for you, are on city council and, by some gift of blessing, are truly living a righteous and holy life. Everything really is going OK with them.
The other people group you have is the “Very Broken.” These are the ones who always need care, counsel, assistance. You know, the people who you’ve visited in jail because they got caught with the heroin bag … again.
And then you have The Middle. The Middle is filled with the people who, by every outward appearance, seem to live a completely normal life. They attend church regularly. You don’t get those desperate calls or the unexpected office visits from them. They probably tithe and serve and shake your hand on Sundays. You’d never know anything was off.
But something is going on. And they’re afraid to tell you about it. Their finances are completely wrecked. They’re about to lose their home. Their health is failing. Their marriage is falling apart. Their kids are in trouble.
But the smile never leaves their faces. People in The Middle are great actors. I know I became an expert at smiling when all I want to do inside is run far, far away.
And never tell you about it.
“I haven’t seen you around church in a while,” he says to me.
I knew this moment would happen. My church wasn’t big enough to be anonymous, and I realized the time would come when I’d casually run into one of the leaders and my secret would be confronted. Here we were at a local grocery store, standing in line together.
Even though I was aware this run-in would eventually occur, I hadn’t yet spent the time to formulate an answer.
It wasn’t for lack of time.
It was for lack of energy. Lack of motivation. Lack of will.
And even lack of faith.
Depression has been a demon I’ve dealt with for most of my teen and adult life. And I’m not alone. The National Institute of Mental Health indicates more than a quarter of American adults are afflicted with some type of mental illness like depression or anxiety disorders.
I’ve been to psychologists, psychiatrists, Eastern medicine practitioners, Christian counselors, group therapy and even inpatient treatment. I’ve been misdiagnosed, over-medicated and, at times, left to my own vices. I’ve tried to fix myself with healthy things like exercise and clean dieting—and not-so-healthy things like alcohol and drugs, and self-injury.
My friend’s statement has left me a little shell-shocked. What am I supposed to answer? How much of my problems do I disclose? Do I just come out and say what the last three months have really been to me?
I look into my friend’s eyes and think: I wish I could tell you that. I wish I could tell you how alone I feel and how desperately I need you to just sit with me, to hold my hand, to share some tea with me and listen, even if it’s only about how sad I feel today. If only I could tell you how weak my faith becomes and how easy it is to believe the lies that say I’m not valuable to this world because I’m not as strong as everyone else. I wish I could tell you that I want to be like you—to be able to push through grief and heartache and fear that seemingly have no cause and to come out of it praising and worshiping the way you and your friends do.
But I can’t.
I’m too afraid.
I don’t know how you’ll respond.
And I don’t want to be any lonelier than I already feel.
As I finally determine how to respond to my friend, I take a deep breath and simply say: “Yeah. I’ve been really busy with work and I haven’t been able to make it to church lately. Maybe next weekend?”
He looks back at me and says, “Great—I hope so!” and smiles.
I smile back, but only because I’ve kept my secret safe for one more day.
So many times I’m asked by church leaders, “How can I make my church a safe place?” The only answer is, “You.” You have to be a safe place. You have to first live transparently with others (and by this, I don’t mean air your dirty laundry … use discernment, but be open and vulnerable—even if you are the pastor). By living transparently, others will follow suit. When we share our brokenness with others, we are showing the world there is a God who heals.
After all, if we were perfect, what would we need the cross for anyway? How can we show hope and miracles to a world that is seeking them when we pretend everything is just fine?
My friend Len shared with me that, in Eastern cultures, when porcelain breaks or cracks, they don’t restore it like we do in the West. They don’t try to remove any evidence of breakage or cracks. They do just the opposite: apply a lacquer that highlights the crack with gold. In other words, they feature the cracks with gold, which actually adds to the value and gives the piece a story and a unique character.
May God apply that gold to us, so others may see the cracks in our story and the redemption of His nature, whether we are a Superstar, someone who is Very Broken or a person in The Middle.
Anne Jackson is a writer, speaker and social change activist who lives in Orange County, CA. She is the author of Mad Church Disease: Overcoming the Burnout Epidemic (Zondervan) and Permission to Speak Freely: Essays and Art on Fear, Confession and Grace (Thomas Nelson).
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2011 issue of Neue magazine. To subscribe to Neue, click here.