Dear Church,

September 13, 2010

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.

Dear Church,

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?

18 responses to Dear Church,

  1. Your second point so resonates with me. I’ve been a part of a number of different sized churches and different denominations over my life and it really depresses me to see how competitive the church is with itself. I’ve actually got a bit of a blog post brewing on that one already, but yeah. We’re all part of the Body, but we’re busy fighting ourselves. It’s not pretty.

    Great letter Matt!

  2. Thanks Matt, as always, for a thoughtful view of the church. Certainly the church has many problems, but for those that will join Jesus in glory, the old will fall away! 1 Cor 13:10. The wonderful message of the Gospel is that the same has already happened for those that have faith. 2 Cor 5:17.

    I am not so sure that we are all going to come together in unity, or that the great end time harvest will fill every American church to overflowing, but I do know that Jesus will return, and I will spend an eternity with Him and you. :)

    We won’t be sitting around talking about our ministries, the cool programs that worked, or even prayers answered… nope, we will just be there in awe of Him; far more beautiful than we ever imagined. And Jesus won’t be there telling us how we failed, no, just how He loved us through our times of doubt and stupidity.

    I would say to the church today, the will of God for you is not in the Bible, but in knowing Jesus and hearing His voice. Even the Pharisees and Scribes we scholars in the law.

    Many of us have heard hundreds of sermons and still doubt, still are not sure what He wants for our lives… it is in knowing Him, not intellectually understanding the Bible. It is so much more than that!

  3. It’s funny how people want to say they are emergent or radical just by doing church services different and sitting on bean bags instead of pews, while others say they are orthodox because they have a liturgy that is two hundred years old.

    Both are just putting up thin facades, and a jaded, informed generation can see through them both.

    What people look for today is different. We want authenticity and genuine concern. Thanks for pointing out that bigger is not always better.

  4. Nailed it. We’re so busy trying to figure out the secret formula of ‘church’ that we fail to see the only formula is Jesus is Lord! The rest is just fluff.

  5. Interesting thoughts. I think we may not have churches be failures in the traditional term but we will have a rise of CINOs. (Christian In Name Only.) Say they’re Christian but put the values of the world ahead of God’s so they don’t have to deal with any condemnation from the world. That’ll be what destroys the “churches” faster than anything else. Soon you won’t be able to see a difference between the world’s values and Christ’s values in some churches.

  6. Matt–

    I stayed up late last night drafting an article on my own blog talking about a similar heart. It came from a deep place of frustration, yet a heart hopeful that change can and will come. My article talked about the place I have come from trying to change the look and methodologies of church, to a point where I only want to see a church concerned about the personal awakenings of thousands of people.

    I feel kindred to you today since we are speaking from the same spirit of hope for the change of a church, and the cries for a renewal in the North American Church.

  7. Matt…I hope it is alright that I put a link to this post on my (hardly read at all) blog. It fits a theme a buddy and mine are chasing. If you want me to take it down, I surely will.

  8. Matt,

    Thanks for the post. When the Giant Despair is always at my back, it is an encouragement to know that people other than myself are frustrated with the misguided aims of many of our churches today. I think that it’s great that you guys don’t have a church building and that you are able to make better investments.

    My church spends 90+% of it’s income on overhead and staff salaries b/c the leadership is trying to make sure we survive, pack the house, increase the giving, and build bigger buildings…all for the glory of God. I’m on the verge of separating and joining up with some house churches in my area. I just want to make a better investment for eternity and get out of the game.

    Thanks again for the post and thanks to SCDAvis for posting a link to it on his blog.

    Frustrated Church Bookkeeper,
    Tampa, Florida

  9. Great letter, Matt.
    Your point about building especially strikes a chord in me. Years ago, the church I attended was meeting in high schools, which involved setting up every week, then in an old abandoned movie theatre, which was heavenly because we didn’t need to set up. Then, we were able to buy an old church that was being discarded for a newer, better church and we were esctatic that we would actually have a church and not a dingy, rather ugly movie theatre. We spent all kinds of money, originally pulled together to build a new church, to make the old church beautiful. Ironically, soon after we moved into the building, all hell broke loose between staff members and staff and elders, some of it involving uses of the building. We lost our unity of purpose and unity of Spirit and, worst of all, became complacent because we felt we finally had a “home.” The good news is that God used the horrible circumstances to bring the congragation back to seeking His will wholeheartedly. It is a much smaller church, but it is a church on fire for God again.

  10. Is the Church even recognizable by Yeshua (Jesus) anymore? Does it look more like the world than like the Body? I grieve for what the Church has become and wonder how many will be left when the times of serious testing come. Having “Itchy ears” scratched is a lot more popular than following the Truth. And does anyone really care when challenges to the status quo are raised, as on this blog? It’s a helpless feeling……

  11. I love your perspective. I think a lot of the difference is really each church defining their mission. Is it reaching the unchurched only? Edifying the saints? Teaching and building discipleship? Starting missions? Evangelizing? I think a network of churches, united but broken into each of these needs would make more sense then one church that tries to do it all, but fails in so many areas. Also, it all comes back to the truth – the Gospel is the power, not the rock band, the slideshow, or the coffee bar. When the church can simply and effectively meet the average person on common ground and let God’s truth speak, God will take care of the rest.

  12. Most excellent observations, Matt. More often than not, I feel like the church is just swapping sheep. The church I attend is so hell-bent on being radical and relevant, if it weren’t for the trees decorating the worship area in December, you wouldn’t even know it was Christmas. Heaven forbid anyone mention “advent”. No, we’re much too busy playing carols in a Beatles-like fashion. (And hey, the Beatles aren’t even relevant!) Sadly, we’re another statistic with 80+% of our giving going toward salaries and facilities.

  13. 1.This is probably so cliche…but I hate denominationalism. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my Catholic upbringing; it’s not that I hate that there are variances in traditions (they can be very meaningful and help facilitate and focus worship), but I HATE when people honestly think God likes THEIR worship style or THEIR traditions more than another church’s. It’s caused me a lot of grief in my current dating relationship and in relationships with friends. My boyfriend and I were both raised with strong biases (or at the very least, fear) against other denominations. Thankfully we’ve worked through our differences and fears, and we’ve both grown exponentially because of it. But there have been days that I’ve cried for the Church…I just don’t understand how we let it get this way.

    Rant #2: Regarding my home parish…some Catholic churches these days actually carry what are called “Missals” (not to be confused with missiles,) in the pews. These are books that contain the readings for every week (or sometimes every day) of that year. You know, so people can actually process what’s being read. Our pastor at home removed them because he thinks they’re distracting. He thinks readings from THE BIBLE are distracting during church. Perhaps he’s confusing THE BIBLE with the latest copy of Cosmo.

    It’s because of issues like this, and the fact that Catholic churches are known neither for their thriving small groups nor their pastors’ engaging preaching skills, that I have found myself going to a 100-person strong non-denominational church (The Well). Yet I still really, really miss the Catholic church of my high school days. It’s hard sometimes, to be quite honest…

    2. I stick around because I have hope and faith in Christ. I know he’s SO bigger than the earthly church and our failures. And because I’m blessed enough to have a small group of people who support me in my church-going decisions and even share my opinions in that area. If I were totally alone in all of this (this being not going to a Catholic church very often in the past year) I don’t know what I would have done. I probably would have become painfully disillusioned.

    3. Hmm…honestly I still sort of consider myself a wandering Christian at times. I tend to lean towards a more liberal (for lack of a much better word or explanation) theology in some areas, and living in the Bible Belt makes this hard sometimes. Especially since I’ve recently “ventured” away from the Catholic Church I’ve felt at times very much alone in my search. Growing up in a specific denomination means you end up feeling very secure in that place, and moving away from that was really scary for me. There was a lot of doubt. At times it left me feeling empty and very, very hungry.