For the past 8 or so years I worked for a medium/large contemporary church. I loved my position, I believe in our cause, and I admire the community. I can’t wait to be back. While being engaged in church work for a time I began to see some patterns among church-goers and the church structure itself that I never felt comfortable bringing up. Sadly, the Kingdom oriented body of church has become enamored with the business principles of markets. Because the organization of church operates on donations, and donations come from people, churches compete for the finite number of people in a given area. We design and build programs to entice people to come to our services. The winner ends up being the church who can have the coolest building, most inspiring speaker, and provide the congregation with the highest amount of “spiritual warm-fuzzies” (self focused, emotionally charged moments). In so doing we lose sight of what makes us a global and historic community, we demonize our competitors, we starve and stunt our intimacy with the divine, and we encourage the consumption based approach to being a part of a church family. Congregants no longer see church as a privilege or as a family, but rather a place to spend their “spiritual capital”, where the market of churches must prove that it’s deserving of a person’s time and contribution. Usually the coolest, slickest, biggest church wins while the health of the larger community suffers.
Why it wounded me
In my time at our church I watched many families and friends become caught up by their consumption based appetite for spirituality, leading them away from our community (which was at one time the hip/cool/cutting edge church), to a church down the road that had a younger speaker and Starbucks coffee. To be honest, it usually hurt when people left. Some of those relationships were years old, filled with memories, personal investment, prayers and time. Sometimes their move was veiled underneath an apparent frustration with the lack of “depth”, or a “questioning of leadership” but was usually just about feeding the hunger for “warm-fuzzies”. While some issues are valid to bring up, their approach to resolving their frustrations was typically immature at best. Instead of finding a way to serve and get more involved, or have a conversation with leadership they just left. Just like a middle school dating relationship, one minute they were singing the churches praises, the next they were MIA, with no explanation offered. What’s most frustrating is that many of these individuals were significantly impacted by the church, often it was the place that first welcomed them into a faith community, and for many it was the place they became Christians in the first place! Unfortunately, most of those people were amnesic when it came to how their faith began in the first place and the immeasurable amount of sacrifices others have made to make that possible. It’s like the suburban kid who was given everything and then in their teenage years complains that they have nothing.
Family vs a Show
This is not how family works. Your family is something you cannot just get up and leave, or at least you shouldn’t. It seems like modern social phenomena like divorce and child abandonment are seeping into the way we view our commitment to a church community. If you aren’t feeling infatuated with your wife anymore, then it has become socially acceptable to trade her in for a new model. This appears to be true with the modern american church as well. Lost are the long-term commitments and scars that come from years of being intrenched with a certain group of broken people and their needs. Instead we’re continually occupying ourselves with the surface layer, light shows, pop songs, and shallow 5-minute conversations.
When we choose the best sound systems, shows, and convenience over the challenge of remaining committed to a relationship with a church long-term, everyone suffers. The health of the church suffers, the new-comers who might learn from the more seasoned congregants suffer, and the next generation suffers. At one point during my time working with kids I had a student in my group who was connected and growing. He was actively pursuing his faith beyond just showing up to the service on Sunday mornings. Even though this young man seemed to be thriving, his parents seemed to be bored with the adult service. Instead of finding ways to get more involved, to serve, or to “self feed” (something I believe we’ve neglected in training altogether in favor of getting more and more people to just show up), they just up and left after years of friendship and memories. Naturally this hurt. I had gone above and beyond to reach out to the student and his parents, but regardless of this, they saw church not as a family, but as a commodity to consume, and we weren’t the best product on the market anymore. A few years later, after consistently trying to reach out to this student, he showed up and described how he has neglected his faith, mostly because he didn’t have the same depth of relationship with anyone at his new church. Even though I really like the church he was going to with his folks, any church without community is powerless.
Who’s to blame
As I reflected on this, both then and now, I think the blames first lies with the larger church. Leaders, cross-generationally, cross-culturally, and cross-denominationally, need to come to terms with the fact that to a certain extent, we are perpetuating the consumption based church model. Once the leaders stop putting on commercials each week and start communicating the value of church as it is, in addition to what it means to be covenentally committed to a church community, then we can address individuals when they leave the church for reasons of vanity. With this said, I also think that the blame lies with the individuals who have not done the work of remaining connected to a church even through rough seasons, making the church your family.
So what do we do?
I think it’s time to stop seeing church as a spiritual buffet, where we can sample everything we want, and continuously consume. It’s time we pick one community, accept it for it’s inevitable flaws, and grow roots in the trenches of our new family. When leadership changes arise, when programs get cancelled, or when we stop feeling the “warm-fuzzies”, we should remain committed, and it is then that I believe we we reap the fruit of weathering through storms that will most certainly come, realizing deeper intimacy with our church family, ourselves, and our God.