If you believe people like the pollster George Barna, the Church as we have known it is in trouble. Big trouble. He estimates there are almost 20 million Christian believers who have given up on Church. He says people are turned off by the Church. He and others say that many people view the Church not only as irrelevant but an impediment to solving our social problems. The Church is seen as sexist, homophobic, anti - environmentalist, and right wing. Many non - Christian people fear the Church (that's the way Christian ethicist John Stackhouse puts it). If you plug the word "so" into Amazon.com's search engine, "So You Don't Want to Go To Church Anymore" pops up immediately. This is a book by Wayne Jacobsen whose publishing company also published The Shack. While The Shack was mildly anti - institutional Church, Jacobsen's book is a primer on how leave the Church. It's almost like an addiction that he is helping you to recover from. He goes on record at the beginning saying when he left the church as if he was liberated from it. He believes he was.
This is not good news for the Church. My denomination is hemorrhaging people. Most of the churches are small and growing smaller and that's not by choice. Missions programs are cut and missionaries salaries are slashed. Pastors are sought who can add people to the rolls. Most pastors are simply trying to survive. These are tough days to go to church.
Todd Hunter has been a pastor, church planter and missionary for over 30 years. He is also an author and his latest book is: Christianity Beyond Belief. Over the years he has seen the changes in our society and in the Church that have given the Church an identity crisis today. He is very concerned but not despairing.
He finds an outline to guide the Church's mission today in Matthew 28, the so-called Great Commission. In Hunter's paraphrase, Jesus calls his followers to be cooperative friends of Jesus, living in creative goodness, for the sake of others, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
He says there is too much focus on the church itself and not on what the church is for. Jesus, in Matthew 28, spoke about what the church is for in his last words before he ascended into heaven. Go! He said. Into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them everything I have taught you. Disciples, discipling others. Learners who are learning from Jesus helping others learn from Jesus. It is a humble task. Pointing people to Jesus so they can learn to live from him. This is what we are sent out to do. Hunter with over 30 years experience as pastor and church leader says that we have confused church with the place we go on Sundays rather than the community, or group we participate in. He says, church meetings are not "the game". They prepare us for the game. All teams meet to prepare for the game. Christianity, is not fully expressed within the walls of the church building but in the routines of daily life. Further, "our current lives are the place we practice our Christianity ...we don't need to add a bunch of religious stuff to an already full life in order to be the church or to please God."
This is a problem because lots of Christians, it seems to me, see what happens in the church facilities as the focus of their Christian life. Lots of those churches are dying. Maintaining, just surviving, is not the reason the Church exists. It cannot support itself for long. The Church exists for others, for mission. In Hunter's words, "we want things for others, not from others". That small sentence makes a tremendous difference in what the Church becomes.
These voices are telling those of us in the Church that we need to change - we need to focus on our mission and our mission is not maintaining the way we have always done things. It is tempting to ignore those voices. To become defensive. To point to all those churches we know of that are big and growing. But, even one of the first and largest megachurches, Willow Creek, in a self study last year discovered that although they were seeing lots of people at their services, few were becoming disciples of Jesus.
We also need to pay attention to the Church's critics outside the Church. They are telling us how the Church is perceived today. For too many people the Church is defined by what it is against. Stackhouse says, our society is dubious, leery, distracted, and jaded when it comes to the Church. Not a pretty picture. Past time to change the focus. And we can.
Even at a time when many people are turned off by the Church, it is still God's chosen instrument for working out His purposes in our world. Jesus did not leave a blueprint for the Church ( you would think he did when you listen to the choir of protests every time some change is presented!). But He did leave the Great Commission. Jesus sent us out. Our Churches are designed for sticking around. Jesus Commission to us was simple; we tend to make it complicated and get mired down in minutiae ( how many meetings to decide on chairs or pews in the sanctuary, or what hour to hold a worship service, who is going to clean up the mess in bathroom - all pressing issues in God's reclamation project!) As Hunter says we get stuck in the rut of seeing Church in terms of the place we meet and how our meetings run. Jesus calls us to be learners who come alongside Him and others in the learning process. The best apologetic today is for people to see a "God - inspired, consistent life of creative goodness.." (to use Hunter again). People need to see and experience the love of Christ in and through His Church. They need to see that following Christ makes a real difference in the way we live our lives and they need to see that the Following Christ way of life is good - for us and for them! Hunter reminds us that in our 24/7, spin me, sell me, manipulate me, exploitative world, actions speak louder than words for millions of seekers.
Christianity was never meant to be a private matter. It was never meant to be "just so I can be saved". In the Upper Room before Jesus went out to be crucified, he washed his disciples feet and said now you go and do what I have just done. What if we did that? What if we streamlined things at Church so we are not just adding more religious stuff onto already busy lives and formed small groups to wash each other's feet, and the feet of those walking by and around the Church every day? What if we opened up the Church during the week and gave away stuff people really need, like diapers, infant formula, etc? What if we held classes on basic nutrition, basic car repair ( what if we repaired cars for free?), childcare, learning English? What if we encouraged everyone to be in a small group of 6-12 that had to have a mission emphasis? One might focus on the persecuted Church, another on refugees, another on the homeless, and on and on and on, however the Lord of the Church might lead?
Hunter warns: The American Church may be at the make it or break it point for introducing others to Jesus.