The Fragile Church Community

churchesI can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who don’t go to church for some reason or another, who stay away because the church is “hypocritical,” or who disdain those lofty cathedrals because churches have been places of spiritual or emotional abuse rather than places of healing.

I’ve served Christ’s Church for nearly 16 years, and I can’t say that I blame people for having those sentiments.  Church is indeed a messy, often conflict-ridden community.  But for those who are willing to give the church a second (or third, or more) chance, I’d like to outline some things to keep in mind when it comes to participating in a fellowship of believers.

First, church is nothing more than a fragile human community hanging on by the thread of God’s grace.

Sometimes we Christians let go of that thread and try to do things on our own.  When we do, things go awry.  We go down paths God never intended for us to go, and we say and do things that are hurtful.

People say that they don’t go to church because of some pastor who was unfaithful with money or with another person, but in most cases, the entire community loses its way and turns from God.

I had a professor who once said that people not only like to sin, but they like to sin together.

Yet, in a healthy community in which people are trying their best to following God’s will, it is a fellowship filled with just as much joy and reconciliation as it is with failure and hurt feelings.

Throughout the Bible, Jesus never cast out his disciples for failing; he did, however, rebuke them for lack of persistence in staying the course.  Just read Revelation, and see how many times Jesus encouraged the churches to “endure.”

Second, churches don’t like change, so it is hard to get anything done with efficiency and expedience.

Consider our world today and the rate of change taking place.  There are changes in healthcare, neighborhoods, schools and families, and in the economy.  Uncertainty creates a culture of paranoia and fear, and our fears often breed depression and soul-sickness.

We expect the church to be the one place where we can feel at home in a sacred space that is consistent, dependable, and safe.  Any change, even if it is positive, intimidates a community who has lived into a certain comfort zone.

Some churches have stopped trying to change altogether.  These are often stale places that look more like social clubs than communities who are called by God to reach their neighborhood for Christ.

Most churches, however, do change, but at a snail’s pace.  This may lead to impatience, miscommunication, and bureaucratic ballyhoo.  But it’s worth the wait, I assure you.

Third, churches work best when everyone is participating in the life of Christian discipleship.  If you go to church only to analyze, critique and observe–without understanding that you are a part of the church–then you will be disappointed along the way.

Each person is the very vessel through whom God works in community.  Each person must try to resolve issues in the church rather than run from them.  We are all responsible for our churches, and all of us must make the effort to grow.

With all of the things that happen in church life, many have given up and asked why its even worth their time to be a part of a community.  That is a valid question.

Yet, for all of the things I’ve seen and experienced in church life, I can’t find a more beautiful, holy, and hope-filled community that welcomes me as family and is always there when I fail or fall.

Without my church family, I would have grieved alone after my father’s death.  Without them, I would not grow in maturity in Christ because I need the mentoring and friendship of others to help me find my way.

Without the church, I would not have a song to sing or a story to tell.  I would not have the means to hear the stories of others who know this faith better than I.

Blessed is the church, the very womb of the Holy Spirit–for it is a sacred place in which the Risen Christ still walks, works, dwells, and commissions.

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Holy Week counters the “overprotective church”

jesus-is-my-homeboy_19689_In a recent article, author Hanna Rosin claims that our culture is being so overprotective with children that we are hindering them from growing up.

She wrote, “One common concern of parents these days is that children grow up too fast. But sometimes it seems as if children don’t get the space to grow up at all.”

I’ve begun to wonder whether our Christian faith has not fallen into this trap: In what ways have we held people back in the maturing of faith by protecting them from following a Jesus who triumphantly entered Jerusalem, confronted injustice, submitted to the cross, and challenged his disciples to do the same?

I experienced this “overprotection” early on in my church going.

In high school, I joined my first youth group that really engaged my faith.  It was captivating, and I rarely missed a worship service.

Then, three years later, I was too old for the youth group.  I had to transition to “big church.”

In big church, I had to learn new songs, sit through sermons, think about my faith on my own terms, and join committees.

I met Jesus in youth group, but in “big church” I learned how to follow Jesus with my life.  It was hard work to be a Christian.

Years later, when my wife and I were visiting churches the summer before moving to Georgia, we decided to attend a popular church known for its stadium seating and big productions.

It was entertaining, but it was also like being in youth group for adults.

The church protected us from following Jesus in many ways.  We were sheltered from its internal politics (no committees to join).  We didn’t have to negotiate a budget to fix leaking faucets.  We didn’t have to commit to any missions or ministries.  We were anonymous.

Our only responsibility was to be a spectator of a faith that included drinking lattes, managing our bank accounts, and going to the beach after Sunday service.

Writing for Christianity Today, three authors surmise that many Christians have been “inoculated” from discipleship and have become “nominal Christians.”

The reason? Christianity has become too safe.

Jesus told his disciples one time, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

When he said this, Jesus did not mean for us to protect us from the realities of cross-shaped discipleship.

It was Peter who encouraged his readers “to crave pure spiritual milk…to grow in the Lord” (1 Peter 2:2).  These readers were persecuted Christians who did not have the luxury of coffee and pastries on Sunday mornings.

Several studies of late show that my generation is becoming more individualistic, and some communities of faith have perpetuated this notion.

The church itself has inadvertently fostered the condition by succumbing to individualism and consumerism. Under such pressures, church becomes primarily about what pleases people and meets their needs. Under such conditions, attendance and even membership do not lead to authentic discipleship—understood as a lifelong commitment to follow Jesus.

Author Russ Douthat, in an article entitled, “The Age of Individualism,” laments:

“In the increasing absence of local, personal forms of fellowship and solidarity…people were naturally drawn to mass movements, cults of personality, nationalistic fantasias. The advance of individualism thus eventually produced its own antithesis — conformism, submission and control.”

Apparently, my transition from youth group to “big church” was a necessary step in my maturation as a Christian.

It kept me from conforming to what has been dubbed “pop Christianity.”  It helped me apply my faith to the larger concerns of life and community.

I think this is what happened during Holy Week so long ago.  The Jews wanted lattes and liberation, and they wanted Jesus to lead the way.

They wanted an easy faith that included tanning on the beaches of Galilee free from the confines of the empire.

Jesus didn’t do that, however.  He went straight to the cross.

When his followers realized that they, too, had to go to the cross, they abandoned him.  They searched for the next shiny object instead.

That faith was too dangerous; and, by the end of the week, only a handful of disciples were left for Jesus to call his own.

New ways to measure church success and growth

Original Photograph by Matt Rich

Original Photograph by Matt Rich

There is an old adage that the best way to measure church growth is by assessing the “Three Big Bs”: butts-in-pews, budgets, and buildings.  According to Kevin Ezell of the Southern Baptist Convention North American Mission Board, this adage is antiquated and may have to change.

In a board meeting last month, Ezell explained, “Success [of a church] cannot be defined based on how many people a church keeps [or attracts]…We must help [churches] redefine success based on how many people a church sends” (“NAMB calls for new definition of church success,” by Joe Westbury, The Christian Index 20 February 2014).

John Buchanon, editor of The Christian Century, echoed Ezell’s sentiment when he recently encouraged readers to “call a moratorium on counting [church] members” (“Being Christ’s Body,” The Christian Century 5 March 2014).

It’s about time too: Nearly four years ago, our church stopped keeping attendance, and we were instantly liberated from all of the anxiety that results from “managing” church as if it is a for-profit business.

At the time, we started focusing on other factors to measure growth.

One factor included measuring spiritual growth instead.  I was doing a dissertation on spiritual formation at the time, and I realized just how extremely difficult it was to determine whether people were growing spiritually.

Questions were raised: Do you count how many hours people pray and read their Bibles?  Do you count how many people worship, attend a discipleship group, and participate in missions per month?

Do you quantify how many times people experience God in some form or fashion per quarter?  And how do you define an “experience with God” anyway?

All of those questions were good ones, but they still included the notion of counting numbers as a valid way to measure progress.

After several years of hard work, we finally discovered that there are more effective ways of measuring spiritual growth in a church: We began to listen (now that we weren’t so anxious!) to how people talked about and reflected upon their faith.

We asked whether people could think critically about faith formation, make connections between the Bible and their life, and intuit how the Holy Spirit shaped their worldview.  We asked if people understood that their life circumstances had spiritual significance and communicated something about their relationship with God.

Instead of punching numbers, we began listening more closely to the personal “narratives” people told about themselves; and, when they had trouble expressing that narrative, we provided a specific “spiritual grammar” that promoted the study of scripture, a life of worship, and Spirit-driven life all couched in God’s very welcome and embrace.

A second factor we used to measure church growth was by doing exactly what President Ezell recommended: We determined how “missional” the church was in the local and global community.  This began, not by counting how many programs the church ran, but by assessing how people engaged in ministry on their own terms.

This required the congregation to redefine itself as a “teaching church” that helped regular folks in the pews (not just the hired help) see themselves as active participants and ministers of the Gospel of Christ.  We encouraged people to see that they were “priests” too, and that no opportunity to do ministry should go unnoticed.

We encouraged people in every age group to see that there is nothing that a Christian does in life that escapes the scrutiny of God’s sacred call.

Even the children are learning the language of ministry, not just the ability to give the “right answers” to Sunday School lessons.  (Hint: The answer is “Jesus” every time anyway.)

This type of philosophy of ministry does not lend itself to “organized” missions or quantifiable church growth, but it does advocate for a healthy congregation bent on meeting God beyond the walls of the church rather than navel-gazing and running around trying to figure out what’s wrong.

Take Ezell’s advice: Ditch the numbers.  Instead, ask if churchgoers are engaging in spiritual practices that bolster their relationship with God while committing to social practices that connect people with wherever God is moving in the world today.