Let’s start here. I love Jesus. I love pastors. I love my brothers and sisters in Christ. Until recently, I was an every-Sunday churchgoer for over four decades. I believe every Christian needs to be connected with other Christians. I believe in the church.
Don’t bother me with your ministry
Ephesians 4 makes it clear that the role of Christian leaders is to equip people for ministry. Yet many churches I’ve experienced seem to convey this message: The only ministries that matter are those that happen within the four walls of our church building. I’ve seen people in the congregation with a passion (and even a ministry) to heal marriages, to set up community-based recovery ministries, to set up food pantries, to rescue people caught in human trafficking and more—I’ve seen these people marginalized, ignored, forgotten, while the pastor gets up front week after week to beg people to work in the nursery.
In many churches only three or four things matter—in trailing order of importance: the pastor’s sermon, the songs, the offering and the kid’s program. Try to get even fifteen seconds of stage time on a Sunday to promote a para-church ministry or event, and you quickly figure out where the real priorities are.
Don’t take away my money
I’ve heard pastors say that they don’t want to allow missionaries to speak at their church because they’re afraid that people will give money to the missionary that the pastor believes should go to the church.
While we’re on that subject of money, let’s think about church buildings. If a church is successful, it fills a building for a couple hours on Sunday, then most of these buildings lie empty all week long. Meanwhile, the congregation is saddled with mortgage payments and maintenance expenses. Look at your church’s budget. Where does the money go? Once pastor and staff salaries are paid and building expenses are made, how much is left over? Why can’t the building be used during the week to generate the income needed to pay the mortgage so the congregation’s money can be used for other kingdom purposes?
I think it’s very important to give generously to God’s work, but I understand why people don’t want to give to the church. It can feel like so much money is spent perpetuating an institution, and so little money is spent actually advancing the kingdom of God. How many churches spend even five percent of their budget helping the poor and needy? Where’s the budget for helping members of the congregation launch new kingdom endeavors?
Does it really make sense to center our churches around sermons?
In most evangelical churches, the sermon is the centerpiece—it’s the main course of the main event. Some pastors are incredibly gifted in this area. Some are not. I’ve listened to thousands of sermons, and it’s pretty rare that I hear something in a sermon that I haven’t already heard many times before.
Making the sermon the centerpiece made a lot of sense in another generation where nearly everybody went to church, almost everyone in the community shared the same set of values, and there was no access to television, radio or the web to listen to any number of sermons anytime anyone wanted to. But today I question the strategic usefulness of making a sermon the center of everything church.
To be honest, I object to the approach taken by many pastors. Many preachers, like the disciples in John 9:2, seem to be on a sin hunt. They aren’t satisfied until they’ve uncovered at least one area where you’ve sinned and “need to repent.” In some cases, pastors go so far as to accuse their listeners of committing specific sins when the pastor would have no way of knowing if the members are guilty of those sins or not. This all brings to mind Job’s “friends.” And, if I’m not mistaken, the role of “accuser” is already taken.
Some pastors seem to preach the same sermon over and over every week. It all boils down to a sales pitch where you are instructed to “make a decision for Christ.” How does that help the person who “made a decision for Christ” fifteen years ago? In other churches, the sermons seemed designed to reinforce the values of a smug and insular group so that the members can walk away with the assurance that they’re right, and everyone else is wrong.
Don’t get me wrong. Some sermons can be wonderfully inspiring. Some wake us out of our apathy and complacency. Some are dripping with the presence of God. Sermons can be a great tool. But should they be the centerpiece of the church? Should every church service be a concert followed by a motivational speech followed by a brief Christian cocktail party as we pick up our kids and make our way to the car?
Sermon-centered church ignores the reality that God gave different people different learning styles. What about those who don’t learn well from lectures? Where are the visuals? Where are the labs? Where are the small group discussions? Why can’t that be part of the Sunday morning experience?
Sermon-centered church also seems to assume that one person not only has all the answers, but telepathically knows which questions everybody is asking even before they verbalize them.
The missing piece here is dialogue. I’ve seen research to suggest that this is why an entire generation is walking away from church: all monologue, no dialogue. There’s no opportunity for individuals to process their own spiritual journey, to ask the questions that are burning within them, to explore their own and one another’s faith experience.
I know what many readers will be thinking. This is why we have home groups. The reality is this: Most home group meetings are tightly regimented. There’s little opportunity to step outside the curriculum, the agenda, for a conversation about what’s really going on. Which leads me to my concerns about relationships in the church.
What about relationship repair?
If the kingdom of God is mostly about relationship repair, why are those who don’t know how to do relationships often left to fend for themselves? Why is it that some people can attend church for years, and still feel lonely, isolated, marginalized and unwanted? Why are people like this blamed instead of helped?
Sure, we say, “Join a home group.” How well is that working? I’ve seen churches heroically champion home group ministries month after month, year after year, and the result is this: a whopping twenty percent of the congregation enrolls. What about the other eighty percent? And could it be that the people who need the home group the most are the least likely to join?
Years ago when I was a student at a Christian college, a friend said to me, “The problem with the Christian church is that there’s no community.” A member of the dean’s staff overheard the remark and rebuked the young man who said it, assuring us that there’s all kinds of community in the church. I’ve thought about this many times over the years, and I’ve concluded that they’re both right. For those who know how to go after it, you’ll find many good friends in a church. For those who don’t, churches are very lonely places.
Where do we go from here?
Hebrews 10:24-25 makes it clear: We need to meet. We need to use that meeting time to encourage one another to love and to do good. Church as we know it is the Christian community’s best attempt to carry out that requirement. I hope my words here will encourage Christian leaders to explore incremental ways to improve how we do what we do. Pastors, you are loved and appreciated.
After decades of faithful church attendance, I stepped away from the traditional church for the time being. That doesn’t mean you should. You should do what you are sure God is telling you to do. In my case, I do a home church with my sons and their friends when we’re not visiting traditional churches. I attend a weekly home group. I reach out to people through face-to-face and online friendships. And I’m exploring new ways to connect with those who have disconnected with church but remain interested in exploring a faith journey. If that’s you, please contact me here or on Facebook. I’d love to talk with you.
I hope that my words will also encourage you to look for meaningful ways to connect with Christians, talk about your faith journey together, and go out into your world and make a difference.