Eighth Letter is an upcoming Toronto conference that looks at the letters to the seven churches in Revelation and asks, “What is your most pressing message to the North American church?” Rachel Held Evans last week invited me to participate in blogging about this topic, and I’m happily obliging. You can check our Eighth Letter, and the blogs that Rachel, along with Ian McLaren and Chris Lewis have compiled here. But before you do that, here we go.
No, not just you guys waving your arms up front, so no one else can see the screen. All of you. The megachurches, the tiny churches, denominational, independent, traditional, emergent, house, cell, the guys in back with their hands in their pockets, and everyone else I can’t even think of…
Wow, there’s a lot of us. Almost feels like we run the whole world, doesn’t it? Feels good to all be here together. Feels good to talk about all the amazing things we’re doing in the name of God, to boast about all the great ways we’re seeing God work. But there’s something that’s troubling me. Even though there’s so many of us, the pollsters and statistics guys say that we’re actually shrinking, that we’re losing numbers, that we’re failing. Some people have even gone so far to call us “the last Christian generation.”
In the student union at my seminary, there was a big display made of metal and wood. It read, “North America is the only continent where the church is not growing.” It was rather sobering. It could have literally said anything else and been less depressing. It could’ve said, “North America is the only continent where the church is not break dancing,” and that would’ve been fine. Every time I’d go to purchase textbooks, I would be reminded, harshly, that I was not entering a growth field. That I was entering a shrinking, failing institution.
If that’s the reality, it’s easy to see why churches would be working so hard to reverse that trend, to swim upstream, fight the current, and break through, to not be failures. Given that reality, I want to tell the church a few things.
The Church is Not a Sideshow
When you feel that you have no other choice, it’s easy to think that anything that will get people into the doors of church is worth it. But the world has enough sideshows. We don’t need any more circuses to stir people up. You may think you’re being “radical” and “relevant” with your media stunts. You’re trying so dang hard to look radical, to convince people that you are relevant.
But you’re not that radical at all.
You don’t know much about being “radical.” In fact, I would go so far as to say many of us are fearful of being truly radical. Some of us are more comfortable being angry than being radical. We’d rather be fearful and protective, and keep on trumpeting our war with our culture, and just keeping saying that we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore, rather than being radical.
The most radical thing in the world is a Messiah that healed people, and then told them to keep their mouths shut, a Messiah who washed his disciples’ feet in the privacy of a room where there was no photo op, a Messiah who loved all the politically incorrect people. The only thing that is truly and permanently “relevant” is love. Without love, you’re old news.
But love is tough. It’s costly. It’s uncomfortable and inconvenient and sometimes gross. A sideshow is easier. Stop trying to compete with Lindsey Lohan and Brad and Angelina for attention. People get tired of those stories. They need radical love.
The Church is Not a Competition
I see some of you with your multi-million dollar arenas. You pity me because I pastor a small church. A church, which you might even call “pathetic.” We don’t even have a building. What can we possibly do? How can we possibly make a difference? Obviously, bigger equals better. And I’m a bi-vocational pastor. Not too many guys feel called to bi-vocational ministry. Maybe you think if I were really called to be a minister, I would devote my entire time to ministry.
I have seen that quizzical look of bewilderment and discomfort and even a bit of judgement in other pastors’ or Christians’ eyes when I tell them about my ministry. It’s kind of like trying to tell a non-blog reader that I write a blog. They just don’t see the point or value whatsoever. It doesn’t translate. You know what I mean.
But I disagree with all of their assumptions of what makes a “successful” church. I disagree that building ever-larger “worship centers” and “campuses” is a mark of success. Statistics show that average American churches spend up to 80% of their income on overhead and staff salaries. I do not believe this marks a successful church. I believe it is the mark of a church that spends too much on sustaining itself, or whose members do not give generously enough.
Meanwhile, my church is debt-free, and we just went on a bonified spending spree, placing thousands of dollars into ministries we believe in. We did it with no disagreement among our congregation, or concern that we could not pay our bills. We give wisely and freely. We have nothing to be ashamed of for being small.
Buildings are fine. Big is fine. But it is not the only way, nor is it the “best” way. None of our ways is perfect. You cannot assume that an old idea will work just because you are in charge. And we are not in competition with one another.
The Church is Not a Failure
We have to face the reality that despite our efforts, people don’t take us seriously like they used to. People are leaving Christianity.
But we should also look at the God who brought us here. God knew this would happen. He knew that Israel would fail him too, dozens of times. Yet, He didn’t let them down. And He’s not going to let us down either. Jesus knew that hundreds of people would leave him behind. It didn’t seem to bother him much. The church is going to look far different in twenty years than it does today. It may be smaller, or have different customs. You may not like it. But God’s already there. It’s going to survive in spite of all of our efforts.
That’s what I have to say to the church today. What do you think? Have we turned the church into a sideshow, or a competition? Are we headed for failure, or is failure impossible with God? What would you say to the church today?