I need a new jacket. It’s freezing outside and I am shivering. So I
head out to Urban Outfitters to see if I can find a stylish one.
I walk into the store. Scene kids and style demagogues abound. It’s not the perfect store, but I occasionally find something I like about it, which is why I keep coming back. I find the men’s section and begin to try on the jackets. I ask myself, "Which one defines me? Which one will fit me like a glove? Which one will send the message to the world I am looking for about myself?" I move from jacket to jacket, but none seems to fit quite right. Should I settle for one that does not define me perfectly, one that does not enhance me in direct proportion for my dollars spent?
Then, a familiar voice interrupts my search.
"Hey, man, long time, no see!" the voice says to me.
It’s a friend from my former church, one I haven’t seen in nearly a decade. This is the same church I left when the pastor was exposed as a embezzler, the same church I left when a majority of the leadership had various indiscretions come to light around the exact same time as the pastor.
"Hey, man! What’s up?" I exclaim. I am genuinely excited to see this long-lost face.
"What have you been up to lately?" he asks me.
"Lots of travel, writing, music, etc. The usual. You?"
"Working, spending time with family."
"Great, man, it’s so good to see you. Have you been going to church?"
"You know, I have really had a hard time finding one that fits me. I was going to Blahblahwhatshisface’s church for a while, but the pastor kind of bored me. And the worship director got fired for some shady activity. The new worship is kind of lame now. I don’t know. I try to get plugged into places, but it just doesn’t feel quite right to me. Do you know what I mean?"
"I definitely know what you mean …" I respond.
We say our goodbyes, and I go back to shopping for the jacket that will define me completely as a 21st-century human male, pondering the conversation I just had. But I don’t find the perfect jacket, and I end up shivering outside on the long walk back to my car in the distant parking lot.
I can’t help noticing the parallels between my search for a jacket and my never-ending, frustrating hunt for a church which will meet my spiritual needs; I usually end up feeling left out in the cold.
I can’t tell you how many times I speak with people who say that they cannot find a place of fellowship, or say that they just left their old congregation for one reason or another, or who are fed up with not being able to "plug in" somewhere. And as the disappointments builds so does our disillusionment …
I left the church I was attending because I didn’t like the pastor’s teaching style.
I left the church because the worship was lame.
I left the church because I couldn’t connect with people.
Still others hop and jump, trying on a different sanctuary every single week, only to find that each and every one is sadly far, far from what they are looking for. The numbers are staggering—thousands and thousands of believers in evangelical culture without a place they can call home, admitting that most weeks they would rather stay home for NFL football than go to a house of worship that is …"less than inspiring." But no matter the individual reason, at the core of our legitimate qualms with local churches is the same basic concern: We cannot seem to find a place that meets our individual "needs." We cannot seem to find a place that offers genuine relationships with true brothers and sisters, while offering solid teaching, worship and a children’s ministry.
Why is it so hard to find a home? Why do churches so often let us down?
There are answers to these questions, my friend. And I promise you the "right church for you" is right around the corner. It just isn’t going to look the way you think it will …
To better understand our difficulty in connecting with a particular congregation, we have to first understand the identity problems that the Church, as a whole, is facing today (and by “the Church as a whole," I mean the body of believer spread throughout the world, in non-denominational, evangelical circles). By identity crisis, I mean there is more division between individual churches in the same denomination than perhaps any other point in history. Why?
Fail to compete, and completely fail.
It’s simple capitalism, and it is the basis for our very existence in America. Supply and demand. A citizenry of purchasers and entrepreneurs and consumable goods is what dominates our lives in this country. We are consumers first, believers second. At least, that is what not only general culture teaches us but Christian culture as well. We lead lives that are fully customizable, from our 12-pump, nonfat, no-foam, single shot of sugar-free caramel lattes to our iPod/DVD enhanced, four-screened, anti-lock braked, automated lumbar control Saturn Scion SUVs. We click a button and music plays, movies play, groceries are delivered to our doors. Church is too much like … work … and to have to settle for one that doesn’t completely "fit" us is something that is completely contrary to everything else in our lives.
Stick with me here. There’s more.
So churches are competing for the allegiance of a culture of people who are afflicted with ADD, and are programmed to treat fellowship like every other part of their lives: as fully customizable. And, to put it plainly, most evangelical churches are about attracting people above all else. This means, in order to be successful they have to be attractive. And they function more like a big business machine than an organic family. And the "successful" churches have gotten it down to a science. Here’s how:
1. Have a celebrity pastor who steers the ship. He must be a charismatic figure, yet possess the everyman quality. He must be a great speaker who entertains as well as he teaches. He must be adept at the skill of storytelling, and must have some comedic skills. He must embody the face of a hero in some form.
2. Big-production, contemporary, classic-rock-influenced worship. This should also include a charismatic "frontman" for the band, so if people don’t want to take part in worship, they will at least be entertained by great sound and lights and acoustics.
3. Catchy marketing, slogans, signs, decoration and logos. This includes everything from the decor in the lobby to the graphics on the bulletin.
4. The occasional Christian celebrity author/musician as a guest. This will attract "newcomers," which are really just believers who might have gone somewhere else to church that Sunday.
5. A ministry for every demographic. Men’s group. Singles. Women’s group. College. High school. Junior high. Elementary. Pre-school. Bikers. Jocks. Dweebs. Burnouts. Cheerleaders. Or am I talking about The Breakfast Club?
6. A youth program complete with a youth room that has 15,000 TV monitors and 38 XBOX 360s and a sound system that would raise Elvis. Must have a catchy name for the group like "The Happening" (yes, based on the movie!) or "The Haven" or "The Underground" (oooh … subversive!).
7. Varied services for individual taste. We have the rock worship service. We have traditional worship night. We have screamo worship Saturdays. We have no worship Thursdays. We have in-depth study 10 a.m. in the parking lot. We have the short message service for those with Restless Leg Syndrome. And don’t forget the 20-minute workout service, where everything just plays on a screen at double-speed. Twice the spiritual workout in half the time!
8. Hype your own church as the "place to be." Subtly point out through media, announcements and other outlets of communication that although people had many choices of places to attend they chose the "best" one. Make sure to hype your church as being on the forefront of Christian activity in your area. Create hype through advertising your name.
And on and on and on. Why not just have a long list of check boxes on a computer screen for every person that walks through the door on Sunday, where every person fills out a survey, then the computer spits out a list of recommended activities, services, etc., or just gives you a page that says in black block letters "YOU JUST WON’T FIT HERE, TRY THE CHURCH UP THE STREET"?
Now, I keed, I keed. And I probably go overboard for the sake of exaggeration and humor. I know none of these "attraction elements" are inherently wrong in and of themselves, and most of them are inherently right for the most part. But I can’t help seeing the irony in the fact that as evangelical culture tries harder and harder to meet the individual needs of every consumer/believer possible, most of us feel less and less like we are attending the gathering of the body of believers and more that we are attending a movie or a broadway show or a concert—perhaps all three rolled into one. Instead of bringing us together as a body, it feels like we are being pulled apart. We show up, put in our time, leave with a seven-point list of things God wants to do for us this week, then drive home and forget about the whole thing. And though there are so many great people at church, it is so difficult amidst all this to actually just simply make friends and develop real relationships.
All we really want is to have true connection with a group of believers.
Now, I have a question or two of my own here:
What if the way to for a church to "meet our needs" was to go against the cultural trends of consumerism and competition?
What if we, as young churchgoers, are shopping, looking for all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons?
These are questions that are being asked not only by people like you and I, but prominent voices in the church as well. I was able to catch up with Mike Erre, speaking pastor of Rock Harbor Church in Costa Mesa, Calif., and Ken Baugh, head pastor of Coast Hills Church in Aliso Viejo, Calif., recently. Both teach to a congregation numbering in the multi-thousands, whose demographics include a large percentage of young adults. Erre states, on the issue of the "church-shopping/consumerism" dilemma:
"We have reduced the church to one hour-and-a-half event per week; we have reduced the Gospel to cater to felt needs and personal preferences; and we have reduced discipleship to optional private spiritual exercises …We are raised with so many options we are paralyzed by the possibility of something better … God/church simply gets added to the list of things we consume … the problem is that much of the ‘attractional’ church has fostered this understanding by catering to it …"
It’s comforting to know those in leadership are aware that these are big problems, that without connection to a body—a group of communal support—our faith will be choked off eventually. This faith is not a faith built for an isolated, loosely connected network of introverts. We have to be plugged in or we will die spiritually. So, talk of the acknowledgment of the dilemma is one thing. What is the Church willing to do about it? Baugh has an interesting answer:
"I think that Sr. Leadership needs to continually make sure that young adults are allowed significant roles of responsibilities in the church. It’s interesting to me that in the United States military you will find young men and women put in charge of brigades and multimillion dollar equipment, yet rarely in our churches will you find them even allowed to do much more than help out with students or children ministries. I don’t think that young adults should serve as elders because elders are called elders for a reason (they are old), but I do think we need to give them more and more responsibilities in key areas of decision-making and ministry."
Keeping young people on the sidelines and reducing them to observers of the spectacle that is a church entertainment service will do little to foster lasting, passionate disciples. Christ was not a teacher of the masses first and foremost—He was a healer and a disciple-maker, and a person who connected 12 individuals who became best friends. It is the Church’s job not only to teach but to empower us to use our gifts—not to mention giving us the opportunities. But finding those opportunities—which are everywhere if we’ll look—is a responsibility that falls on us as individuals. Baugh states:
"I think the whole mindset of finding a church to ‘meet my needs’ is flawed. As believers, we are to be part of a local body of Christ to serve, fellowship, grow and give to the ongoing work of the Great Commission. I think the question should be: ‘Where can I best become involved in a Bible-teaching church where I can use my gifts and become part of a community that loves God and serves others?’"
Evangelical churches must understand that making the Church relevant through trying to "meet people where they are" is a valid philosophy to attract numbers. But, it is a flawed approach when numbers become the end in and of itself. Relationship should take precedence over the spectacle. And Christians should not be viewed as marketing targets who are to be stolen from other congregations. And finally, churches must stop viewing other ministries as rivals. In short, tone down the bright lights and turn up the message. Do anything and everything to put emphasis on community, rather than entertainment, rather than your particular church.
But we as individual "church shoppers" must realize there are problems with every single church. Let me repeat that: There are problems with every single church. There are lame people in every one. There is gossip in every one. There are weird, awkward people in every one. Pastors are going to screw up, the music might suck and the greeter at the door might turn her nose up at you when you enter. When these things happen, remember that none of those things matter. Do not be distracted by these things. People are always going to be flawed. That’s why they need Christ. And you know what? You are there to bring more of Him to that place. You are there to give of yourself, to humble yourself, to form relationships with people you might not normally associate with for the sake of something greater than you. Offer to apply for leadership. Offer to help with a mission trip. Go feed homeless people. If you go with the intent to give of yourself in any and every way possible, I promise the sucky worship leader or the yawner sermons will not matter.
If we walk actively and raise our voices, we will connect. If we sit passively, expecting to be catered to, we will be left in the cold.