I got annoyed again.
Okay, maybe this trend says more about me than about the Church, but from what I’m reading in the media and from the mass exodus of millennials from organized faith services, I don’t think I’m just being cranky.
One of our problems within the Church is our self-delusion.
By the way, I’m using “Church” with a capital-C to indicate a universal problem, not just a single church. Perhaps that’s not fair, because what I’m talking about happens mostly in Protestant denominations, especially independent ones.
There are so many reasons people stop going to church. And there are a whole subset of reasons why our approach to mass worship is completely unappealing to the current generation. And I’m not talking just about “the Millennials”. Not just “Gen X or Y”. Most people who are even remotely self-aware have experienced the nonsense that goes on under the guise of pious talk, and have become weary of it. Or, to put it simply, they’ve simply gotten sick and tired of the fakeness.
Can we, for the love of truth, please! stop lying to people to try to get them into our doors? My recent annoyance came at seeing a local pastor post an advertisement for his latest sermon series on Facebook. Ignoring for the moment the fact that the topic was completely uninspiring, he branded it with the slogan, “You’ll never be the same again.”
Really? How many times have we heard that before?
Does he really think people believe that? Has he just slipped lazily into religious cliché? Or is he perhaps delusional, actually believing his sermon will profoundly impact the lives of his audience forever?
Hey, I wish that last one were true. It would be fantastic if we regularly heard sermons with the life-changing power of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount or his Kingdom parables. The radical change in how God is presented, how God relates to us and how truly powerful his influence in this world is – those were the messages of Jesus, and they were paradigm-shifting. People were never the same after hearing him. Well, at least those who listened with open hearts.
All are Welcome
There is a whole book full of clichés churches use to lure people into the pews, to pretend that they’ll find a home, a place of love and acceptance. “Where everyone is welcome” is so common that it’s become meaningless. Especially when those who don’t fit the mold walk into the doors. A black man into a predominantly white congregation. A homeless person who hasn’t bathed in months into most any affluent church. A tattooed, pierced and gauged, wild-haired youth (or not so youthful!) walking into most conservative evangelical services will feel the warm, loving stares of the regulars. The lesbian couple with kids might sneak under the radar as long as they don’t engage in any PDA, but the gay male couple, wearing matching rings, who might not “pass for straight” … well, we all pretty much know how that’s gonna end.
But honestly, this is just human nature. It’s not necessarily a horribly hypocritical thing. We are all more comfortable around people who are just like us. And that’s probably fine (isn’t that why there are so many denominations?). And ultimately, as society grows more and more diverse, so will our congregations. But what isn’t fine is that we pretend that that’s not the case, and we keep insisting the all, no matter how different, are indeed welcome into the brotherhood.
Such a lame religious cliché not only does not fool anyone, it actually makes us look ridiculous.
Even blind or delusional. And unless your congregation is actually practicing outrageous hospitality — from the leadership down to the pew-sitter — it’s false advertising. It’s a lie. And we need to stop doing it. The church has lost credibility, and the unavoidable consequence is the loss of people.
You’ll never be the same
For me, though, it’s not just the bait-and-switch advertising of a loving community, it’s the false promise of a divine encounter.
We routinely make promises of “Hours of Power”, of “Anointed Worship” or “Prophetic Message,” of “Truth that sets free.” We claim the weekly presence of Jesus himself there, touching, healing, moving. We promise a “fresh move of the Spirit,” “a word direct from the Throne”. Oh, God, how I wish that were true. And sometimes – thank you, Lord – it is. But more often it’s not.
“You’ll never be the same?” Let’s ask the people who regularly attend your service how different they are on a week to week basis. Are they making leaps and bounds in spiritual progress, power and maturity after hearing your sermons or listening to your praise music? Are they growing in love for the stranger, or even towards their brother or sister in the pew next to them? Or are they the same people, week after week, who loyally drag themselves to church (good for them, at least they’re making an effort), and week after week walk out the church door completely unchanged, unmoved, exactly the same?
Here’s the one thing that will invalidate everything I just said. A seeking heart will hear God no matter how crappy your sermon is. A sensitive spirit will experience the presence of God no matter how awful your worship choir is. But that’s a reflection on them, and on God, not on your church. That same genuine seeker would hear God speak to them through a tv commercial – because that’s who God is. He speaks to those who have “ears to hear.”
Our churches are opportunities for people to encounter God. And that’s because of God’s own promise: “where two or three of you are gathered in my name, I will be there with you.” God is there. Love and acceptance can be found there. But more often than not, it has little to do with the sermon, the songs sung, or the handshake of the greeter – little to do with us. And that’s unfortunate.
Until we change, people will continue to view the church as a dying institution. Until we become the people we claim to be – and are continually growing and being transformed into the actual likeness of the model Jesus lived – and until our messages actually contain the prophetic power, derived from an actual fresh word from the Father of All of Us, we need to be a bit more humble in our boasts.
Realistically, touting the new slogan “Hopefully God will show up” isn’t going to fill the seats. And considering most of us attend out of routine and less out of genuine seeking, even the line “come seek God with us” will fall flat.
We’re human. We fail. We are not the vessels of divine power we should be. Rivers of living water, unfortunately, flow out of too few of us. Genuine love and acceptance is in too few of our hearts. Can we at least admit that to ourselves, and stop pretending that we have the monopoly on a divine encounter? Can we stop lying about who we are? And stop making false promises about what people can expect when they walk through our doors?
The sad truth is, we are the people of God. We are the light of the world – at least to the extent that we are trying to be true imitators of our Lord.
It has to start with us. We have to look into our own hearts and ask if we are genuinely seeking. Are we really hungry for God’s presence? Are we really stretching ourselves to become “the light”? Do we really believe what we say about God and about ourselves? Do we have the “ears to hear”? Are we looking to speak words that flow from the One Who Sits Above All, or are we just doing a job, going through motions? Are we trying to break out of our comfort zones and actually love people different than us?
I hope so. Until then, we’re not fooling anybody. And those trite religious-sounding promises will reek of insincerity and fakeness, of hollow religion, empty words and no power. And nobody has the stomach for that anymore.
STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.