Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore

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I just read yet another article on why millennials are abandoning church. And honestly, if you’ve been around in the church-world for a few decades, it’s really just the same ole spin, same ole reasons used with every generation: “The young people are fleeing the church — what can we do to stop it?”  Nothing new under the sun.

But at the same time, the points in the article were entirely valid — not because they specifically reflected “millennial values,” but simply because they cut to the core of the whole point and purpose of the church.  What it boils down to is this: People see no reason to join a stale organization that doesn’t seem to serve an important purpose.

The author of the piece puts it in more churchy language: “Millennials perceive established churches to have values that are entrenched in non-missional traditions.” He writes that this generation of 20- and 30-somethings values community, service to others, and a world-awareness, but they see established churches acting contrary to those values.  Churches today seem more concerned about maintaining the status quo — too much “doing the same thing because that’s how it’s always been done” — rather than making an actual difference in the world. And in the process, losing the whole point of the Church in the first place.

But this is not just the perception of millennials. Any person with an appetite for authenticity and spiritual reality will tend to view churches the same way. In years past, “relevance” was the buzz word. Churches were dying because they were frozen in decades past, preaching about issues and sins no one cared about, using out-moded language, not addressing the modern viewpoint. So churches started trying to act “hip”.  Worship music was updated. New lighting systems were installed. Smoke machines were purchased to add effect. Youth ministers dressed in youth-trendy fashions. The suit jacket and tie disappeared from the pulpit in favor of jeans and open-neck, button-down shirts. Even the old bulky wooden pulpits themselves were replaced with transparent acrylic or newer industrial metal lecterns.

And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with any of that. But it’s all simply cosmetic if the heart of the church isn’t renewed, if the church doesn’t get back to its core purpose of reaching out to a hurting world.

The church stuck within its own walls is not a church at all.  It’s a farce.  It is people consumed by religious routine deluding themselves that they are the Kingdom of God.

I heard a sermon online recently where the pastor spoke at length about the Christian obligation to “go into all the world” and “witness,” and it largely revolved around inviting people to church. “Let’s fill this house, let’s pack these pews.”  Really? Is that what Jesus commanded us to do?

Just to be clear, Jesus never instructed us to “go out and witness.” He commanded us to BE witnesses, to make disciples. That’s a day-to-day thing, being a living presence where you are, being a light for those around you to see. It’s about building relationships with people, where you get your hands dirty in their messy lives. Where you walk beside them, being a friend, a help, offering insight where you have it. “Discipleship” is day-to-day influence through one-on-one relationship. If you have to make a special effort, if you have to put on airs or act differently in order to “witness,” you’re really missing the point. It’s about being personally transformed by your own relationship with God, and having that work its way out in the way you interact with people, the way you do your job, the way you view the world. It’s about living a life of love that is so attractive to others that they hunger for what you have. That they want God in their lives the way he is in yours. They are drawn to the light.  But if you don’t have it, you can’t offer it.  And you sure can’t fake it. Nobody falls for that crap.

The church loses each successive generation because it is too tied with the past, too tied to maintaining the building, paying for the heat and light — too distracted with upkeep of the existing building — that it’s lost track of reaching out beyond its walls. It’s become a cycle of self-survival. And when the church turns inward, when it loses its outward focus, it become stagnant. It becomes about “us” and keeping us entertained. As the writer of that other article said, “the established church feels more like a religious country club rather than an outwardly-focused organization.”

So what is the Church?  It is the people of God doing the work of God. Doing. Acting. Interacting. Moving. Motivated by love.

So, you want more millennials in your church? You want more people genuinely interested in the “real thing” that you have? Then get back to the basics. Get back to a heart that cares. Hands that serve. Money that goes to feed the poor, clothe the naked, help the homeless, care for the sick — that DOES SOMETHING. Be a group of people that actively engages the world, that goes to the bars, that enjoys life, that loves on people as they are and where they are — not a group that seals itself off from the “great unclean” world out there, shunning “sinners,” cloistering itself in its own little holy community.

The church stuck within its own walls is not a church at all.  It’s a farce.  It is people consumed by religious routine deluding themselves that they are the Kingdom of God.

So what is the Church?  It is the people of God doing the work of God.

Doing. Acting. Interacting. Moving. Motivated by love.

A friend posted a personal observation on Facebook today about his health.  He hadn’t been to the gym since he’d gotten back from a vacation in Europe, and noticed that he was feeling lethargic with lower energy levels.  Even his sleeping was effected, where he wasn’t sleeping straight through the night. So he returned to the gym, to physical activity — to “movement” — getting back to his cardio workout and yoga practice. Suddenly, he’s sleeping soundly again and his energy levels are back.  He sums it up: “All I did was move! The body is meant for movement.”

And it’s the same for the church. Too many churches have become lethargic, with low energy levels. The self-absorption and lack of involvement with the world around them has caused them to become dull and lifeless — and people are losing interest. People are drifting away.  Like my friend’s body, the Body of Christ is meant for movement. For activity. And like the human body, without it, we become unhealthy.

And the solution is just as simple. “Nothing elaborate — just move. The results are immediate.”

Maybe if we focused less on our shrinking church family and more on the people around us — becoming active in our communities, serving each other, taking care of our world — we wouldn’t be having these perpetual conversations about how the current generation doesn’t seem to be interested in us anymore.


photo credit: Seth Sawyers via Flickr, cc

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STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions 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 is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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Who Cares What the Bible Says?

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Okay, that title is a bit cheeky and misleading, but it cuts to the heart of the issue.

I’ve got Facebook open most of the day. When I’m at work, yes, I’m working, but I still glance over from time to time to see what’s happening with friends and random acquaintances. And today, a friend posted an ad for a discussion group at a local college on what the Bible says about homosexuality. And the thought came to me: “If you’re going to the Bible for special instructions on how to treat certain people, you’re already asking the wrong question.”

And that part really hit me: “You’re already asking the wrong question.” Because, honestly, we can make the Bible say whatever we want it to say. We’ve done it for thousands of years. In our own recent history, we’ve justified slavery and the oppression of women by it. We’ve endorsed racial segregation. We’ve shunned divorced people. We’ve even justified wars by it. And we’ve had these “Homosexuality and the Bible” talks ad nauseum — and surprisingly, few minds have been changed.

Today I also noticed another FB friend had posted an informal poll on his wall, asking what top 3 things people look for when searching for a church home. Hey, that might be interesting info to know, so I was curious. Not surprisingly, although “fellowship” and “spirit-filled worship” were high on the list, the #1 response was “Word-based” / “Bible-based” as what these guys look for when thinking about joining a church. In fact, one responder put for his three choices: “The Word, The Word, The Word.” And another guy was even more emphatic, “The absolute unadulterated word of God being preached.”

Okay. I get it. People want a church that preaches and teaches “the Word of God.” But I bet if we asked them what that means, we’d get a variety of answers. What is “absolute, unadulterated”? Doesn’t a Southern Baptist church preach the Word, often straight out of the King James Bible? Doesn’t a liturgical Episcopal church that reads from the Bible every Sunday satisfy that criteria? Yet neither of those churches would likely satisfy those responders. Why?

Oh, by the way, these weren’t just fundamentalist or charismatic Christians who were responding. My friend is not a pastor. He’s a fitness coach, and his posts mostly focus on health, workouts and nutrition. And his friends/followers are mostly gay, fitness-oriented, and yes, Christian — of all stripes.

But these multiple respondents all reflect a similar mentality. We place a premium on hearing the authoritative voice of God — and for the most part, that looks like someone telling us what God wants of us based on what’s written in the Bible — a Bible we’ve all probably read countless times already.

Ruled by the Head instead of the Heart

We want an “authority” to base our faith around — to tell us how to live our lives. The problem is, the Bible doesn’t work that way. It isn’t that simple. Just ask any Southern Baptist and Episcopalian the same question, and see what they claim the Bible says. Faith doesn’t work that way either. A spiritual walk cannot be directed or legislated from an outside source. It must be directed from within, from a personal interaction with direction and promptings that come from the Spiritual Voice of God. And you won’t get that from a pulpit — or from just reading “the Word.” It is a spiritual activity.

So, ultimately, it’s not what the Bible says about a topic that is important. It’s how you read it. How you interpret what the Bible says, how you respond to it, what seeds of power are birthed through it by the Spirit. Because a Southern Baptist, an Episcopalian, and a charismatic Word of Faith believer are all going to read the same Bible and walk away with completely different understandings of what is expected of them.

So what then should be the standard we use to evaluate an issue or idea? How about Love? If we call ourselves Christians, followers of Jesus, and the New Testament is the filter through which we view all of Scripture, then we have to believe that the heart and will of God is as Jesus described it. It is demonstrated in the way Jesus lived it out.

So, let’s go to our chief example, Jesus. Look how he handled Scripture. Whenever religious people came to him wanting some technical answer or legal ruling — “What does God command us to do in this situation?” — he responded with “the heart” of the message, not the letter of the Law. He continually turned their cold and callous interpretation of Scripture on its head, and gave them something totally unexpected.

And the answers Jesus gave were always uplifting, forgiving, affirming, full of grace. In a word, full of Love. People walked away feeling they were special, important to God. Jesus didn’t use Scripture to trap people, to restrict them, to justify throwing stones at them. Ever. And the only people he seemed to have a harsh word for were those same religious folks bent on controlling others through “the Word.”

That’s why Jesus could say over and over, “You have heard it said…, but I say to you …” He took the Scripture that religious people were wielding heartlessly, dangerously, hatefully, and showed them the warm, affirming, loving side of it. He brought out the true meaning of those Biblical texts. He read Scripture through the eyes of the Spirit of God. He heard Scripture read through the ears of the Compassionate God. And the lessons he taught were so full of affirmation and love that when some of his followers wanted to leave him, and he asked Peter if he would leave him too, Peter responded immediately: “Where shall we go? You have the words of life!”

“Words of Life.” When’s the last time someone described our Bible-sword-fights like that? When’s the last time someone walked out of your Word-based church and felt they had just been fed the “words of life”?

So maybe it’s time we stop having these conferences about “What Scripture Says About …” and start reading Scripture ourselves — with the heart of the God whose will we claim to value so highly. Maybe it’s time we start looking at our lives, at the controversial issues that provoke us during the day, at the outrageous behavior of neighbors who challenge our religious cultural values, with the eyes of Love — the Love of God. Love defined not by mushy feelings or impersonal religious objectivity, but a Love that says “I wouldn’t want to be treated that way, so I won’t treat YOU that way.”

Maybe it’s time we stop asking “What does the Bible say about …”, and start asking, “What is the Loving way to handle this situation?” Or, “How can I show these people what True Love looks like?”

Christians of all denominations love to measure others by “what the Word says.” But the center of that Word is Jesus; we believe that all Scripture points to him. So maybe it’s time to stop being so “Word-focused” and more Jesus-focused. Maybe it’s time to stop asking for technical, black-and-white answers to everything, and start acting out of the Love that Word speaks of so much. Seems like things might be so much simpler then. And we wouldn’t need to call for so many convocations and conventions to determine how to treat our neighbors.


photo credit: “Open Bible with Pen,” Ryk Neethling via Flickr, cc

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions 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 is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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