If I have to see one more article on “why millennials are leaving the church,” I think I might scream. Well, not really. Those dramatic days are (mostly) behind me. But really. The younger generation has always been leaving the church … I remember hearing the same lament back in the 70s when I was just a kid.
The thing is, as much as I grow weary of seeing post after post, blog after blog, on the topic, there’s always a bit of truth to them. The church NEEDS to grow, needs to change with each generation. It’s not a matter of staying “relevant,” like some kind of marketing gimmick to attract the newest set of consumers. It’s real life. Society changes. Culture changes. The needs and demands and focus of each generation will be different from the last, and if the church doesn’t address those changes, if God isn’t presented as having answers to those changes — or even being at work IN those changes — then why should anyone bother to listen to what is coming out of the pulpit?
For me, it’s not just the sermon topics — as if pastors and preachers needed to act like John Stewart engaging hot topics in the news. And it’s not the liturgy or worship style — whether we’re singing 200 year old hymns or the latest repetitive ditty from the latest pop Worship CD. For me, it’s about substance. Real, spiritual substance. And all the questionnaires and “10 Reasons Why” articles seem to indicate that too. People want the real thing. We’re tired of talk. We’re tired of show. We’re tired of what passes for “faith” these days.
Give us the real thing, or please, Please!, shut up and go home.
What that “real thing” is could be parsed out in several components: from genuine worship, genuine prophetic messages from the pulpit, to genuine love expressed in the pew and outside the walls of the church. But the foundation of them all is genuine spiritual reality — power — behind our religious experience. And it begins with our church leaders. So let me start there.
The church is anemic because of anemic church leaders.
Leaders more focused on numbers and popularity than on maturing in their “call” and fulfilling that call. Leaders addicted to power and titles rather than actual ministry. We have become imitations, fakes, charlatans, stepping into the shoes of the original apostles who moved with genuine authority because they were in touch with the reality of their call. As a result, the church is sick. Sick because we feed it junk food, full of artificial ingredients that can never replace what it was designed to operate on: authentic spiritual ability.
So, as a fellow member of the Church, sick from the “form of godliness without power,” let me challenge you. If you’re genuinely called by God to serve his people, then …
If you wear this label, you don’t need to hear that your role did not cease to exist after the first century. God has placed you in the church (Eph 4) to be a pillar. But here’s the thing: an apostle is an emissary, a messenger. An ambassador. Empowered with full authority of the Crown to deliver messages and revelations from the Royal Throne. And it is accompanied with full spiritual power. Look at your forbearers, Peter, John, James, Paul. They spoke the living words of God, they plowed hard ground and produced a crop, they not only planted churches and birthed new congregations, but they fathered and mothered those congregations. They had an encounter with the risen Christ, and their inspired words changed the direction of the church forever. You, when you speak, do your words carry divine power? When was the last time you brought forth new revelation from God for the people he entrusted to you? Are you delivering canned sermon after sermon, spouting recycled messages you heard growing up in church? Have you seen the risen Christ — has Christ appeared to you and delivered this charge to you personally? Has he given you a commission and a message to shape his people for this generation, for this time and place? If not, then please go back to him who sent you and get a fresh assignment from the King, … or just quit and go home.
I see so many of you on Facebook and social media. You wear the title like a prize and seek special pulpit time at conferences. Yet what do you deliver except sound bites and feel-good pabulum that do nothing for the people. If all you are saying over and over again is “This is the year of your break-through” or “your time of waiting is over” or some other quotable nugget that might be found in a Stephen Covey book, then … please go back to the Throne and get a real message. People are hurting. People are seeking guidance in this hectic world. People need to hear from God, and that is your job. Generic positive, encouraging words are nice. There’s even a place for them in the church. But they are not prophesy. Get a specific word from God for the specific situation, be able to assert “For the mouth of the LORD has spoken” … or sit down and shut up.
Your job no longer exists in tent crusades or hopping from church to church, collecting your love offerings. Your job is in the streets — and not shouting into a bullhorn on the corner. Your job is in the housing projects or in corporate board rooms. To the individuals hungry, seeking something beyond this physical existence. Your job is to help them answer the longing of their hearts for connection to the Living God. You don’t need a business card for that. You just need a heart.
You have the hardest work of all. Tending the sheep is the highest calling. But are you more concerned with what suit you will wear next Sunday, or if your bling will reflect in the light, than you are with going after that stray parishioner who’s having a hard time right now? Do you answer your phone at 3:00 in the morning when one of your flock just lost a loved one in a car accident, or is in the hospital for emergency surgery? Do you make time in your busy schedule to have coffee with the lonely guy who just needs to talk with someone? Are you too busy to actually love on — to physically touch — the people God has put in your care? If so, then maybe you are not really called to be a pastor. Maybe you are a teacher, or just a preacher, or (God forbid) just an entertainer putting on a show. Please, if you believe God has called you to pastor his people, then go back to the Throne and ask for a heart that loves the people. Be there for them. Like Jesus said to Peter, “if you love me, tend my lambs.” Or, please … stop talking and go home.
You are entrusted with the words of God. You are entrusted with life-changing truth. You cannot afford to just wing it Sunday morning or Wednesday evening with a lesson out of the denominational quarterly. Your life will probably be filled with drama and all kinds of real-life experience. You will undergo tragedy, and you will have questions, many of which you won’t find ready answers for. You will spend much time seeking God, reaching out, exploring the heavens, asking for light. Why? Because how can you teach what you do not know? How can you lead people into deeper understanding of who God is and how they connect with him, if all you know are the clichés and bible stories from Sunday School? Like the prophet, you need fresh revelation from the Throne, to “bring out new treasure as well as old” (Mt 13:52). Don’t be complacent. Don’t get lazy. A vast treasury is yours to plunder — for the benefit of those who sit at your feet.
You are a pastor to pastors. You have been entrusted with over-seeing, super-vising, the flocks and those who lead them. Red robes and collars are yours if you want them. Honor will not be denied you. But your work is not done. It is not time to simply sit at the head of the table or on the platform. You too must answer the 3:00 am phone call. You too must be in the dirt with the shepherds under your care. Who can they talk to but you? And you too must invade the Throne Room for daily wisdom, fresh guidance and instruction from the Chief Shepherd so that you can administer God’s people according to God’s current plan and wishes. Do not get soft. Do not get comfortable. A life on the road may be your inheritance. But “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life” (Lk 18:30). Your inheritance includes the riches of relationships with an unimagined number of children who will love and honor you. If you stay faithful.
You were not called simply to sit on committees and to vote. You were called to serve. You are the arms and legs of the pastor, the extended strength of your congregation. You are the table-servers, the ones who clean up the mess. You tend the physical needs of the community. You feed them, you clothe them, you are God’s answer when they cry out to him to meet their needs. Make sure your heart is in the job or do not accept the title. It is dirty work. It takes tough hands and small egos. And you too must be “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom,” honorable, and able to fulfill your responsibility (Acts 6). People are counting on you … and so is their God. But what reward awaits you when you see the King! “I was hungry, and you fed me! I was naked, and you clothed me!” And that’s better than any title in this life.
There is no such thing as a pew-sitter in God’s Kingdom. Everyone has a role, everyone has gifts to use for the benefit of others. But those called to specific functions in God’s family have a divine obligation and duty which cannot be fulfilled without authentic spiritual empowerment. And if the church has become stale, artificial, having only the appearance of ritual and religion without moving in the Divine Flow, if people are leaving because all they see is empty words without action, without heart, and without power, then the fault lies first and foremost in church leadership. We either need to get real, or shut up and go home.
photo credit: “The Apostles preaching the Gospel, ” Fr Lawrence Lew, OP via Flickr, cc.
This post originally appeared in IMPACT Magazine.