Occasionally, while talking with other pastors and hearing about the regular migration of attendees out the door of their congregations for greener fields, I’ve joked about installing a revolving door at the entrance for easier traffic flow. For one church it has become a seasonal phenomenon for others it involves a dizzying smorgasbord of often contradictory demands and expectations. One week a colleague heard from 2 departing families – “we’re leaving because you don’t have enough for my kids” as well as “we’re leaving because we don’t believe in kids programs” – how any pastor or congregation that takes the gospel seriously is expected to negotiate that is beyond me. Having preached on the Apostles Creed and enjoying spending time on a favorite subject of mine, the “one, holy, catholic church” I noted some trends in American churchianty:
The Crystal Cathedral, Robert Schuller’s shrine to “Possibility Thinking,” has declared bankruptcy, seeking protection from its creditors, listing $55 million in debt, including a $36 million mortgage. Years ago, Schuller said “no church has a money problem; churches only have idea problems.” Perhaps what’s bankrupt is more than their bank accounts. Earlier this year Saddleback’s Rick Warren had to plead for a million dollar bail-out from fans & followers to cover their giving short-fall. The last 2 years have demonstrated that no bank, stock or industry is “too big to fail” – this also now applies to the ideology of church growth, a consumer & marketing based ecclesiology with an emphasis on providing goods and services and producing the “big show” – all requiring a hefty cash flow. As any other retailer knows the consumer is less willing to put their money down.
The once thriving mainline churches of the 1950’s have fallen on hard times. Most are stuck in cultural isolation, organizational rigidity, theological incoherence, and entropic spiritual maintenance. The “church stuck” tends to claim to be nice & friendly but is inward focused, building-centered and in its behavior and actions demonstrates it would rather die than change. They were built on the model of the volunteer organization – join up, pay your dues, serve time on a committee or board, & work one’s way up the ladder of leadership. Yet they can’t figure out why the younger generation doesn’t want to join in the fun!
“Why bother” has tended, at least in this country, to be a reaction to the other 2. It expresses the frustration many people feel with the institutional forms of church currently offered or experienced & those searching for something more real however it’s expressed. While notably younger in tone it also includes those of any generation who simply have dropped out altogether, reflected in a new publishing surge with such titles as “Life After Church: God’s Call to Disillusioned Christians” or “Quitting Church.” Yet while disillusionment can be a growth opportunity it is easy to never move beyond it.
Truth is I write (or at least aim at writing) not as a critic but as a participant and I hope a lover of the church since by faith and grace I trust I am part of Christ and therefore of his church. I have participated in all the three above that I’ve described (in rather simplistic fashion) and believe there is more than church as we know it. What is missing in most analysis or critiques of church today (mine included) and what I re-discover every time I look into the subject from God’s point of view is that his true “ekklesia” is his work first & foremost – his called out ones, chosen for his purposes – as Jesus used the personal possessive pronoun – “my church (Mt. 16:18) – my flock (Jn. 10:26) – my sheep (Jn. 10:27).”
I find great comfort and hope in the fact that Jesus, having purchased his own people, will be faithful to finish his purpose for his glory in them, for them and through them to all the nations and all creation. I also find strength and encouragement that God has always had, has now and will always have a people for himself, that his “ekklesia” includes all those who are his – past, present and future “called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Cor. 1:2).
I agree with Calvin’s phrase: “ for although the sad devastation which everywhere meets our view may proclaim that no Church remains, let us know that the death of Christ produces fruit, and that God wondrously preserves his Church, while placing it as it were in concealment.” (John Calvin, Institutes:Bk.IV, Ch.1, 2). Even when sinful man conceals the true nature of the treasured people of God, I still confess that because of the plan of the Father, the mission of the Son, and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit “I believe… the church…and the communion of saints.” That cannot be reduced to getting more people in the pew on Sunday mornings or getting them to buy into my religious franchise’s product without bastardizing the true gospel into an illegitimate one and creating a God dishonoring pseudo-ecclesia. There is no other entity that is called or able to accomplish what God has entrusted to it – not Wall Street, Walmart, U2 or Washington D.C.. Only followers of Jesus have been entrusted with announcing the good news and making disciples in his name.
I have had any number of reasons over the years to say “why bother”, yet I haven’t. I still find sufficient reason (in the words of Elizabeth Heywood) to “let the church of God lie near your hearts, it lies near God’s heart” – to pray for, love, honor and build-up his church. I know there will be a final glorious end result – I want to see it. I want to be part of it.