Most of us in ministry would agree that the state of the church is not so healthy. The latest Pew Research states that half of Americans attend church regularly, but the composition of this group is unstable at best. Only 23 percent of U.S. adults say they have always attended worship services regularly. It is true that interest in things spiritual is up, but allegiance to a religious institution is down, and has been for some time. In the craziness of schedules, and the distractions of a culture overly satiated with information, many are too busy or disinterested to attend regularly. And if they do, what will they find?
For any of us paying attention, nothing is new in this report. But it should reinforce in us a passion to sort out what needs to change. This past weekend, I attended a church in another state. By all appearances, it is a rather typical evangelical church. But this is what I noticed. It had the smell of a fairly incased church culture. There was little notice that someone from the outside had just walked in. Finding a place toward the front, I realized I was sitting where most people avoid sitting. The worship team came out and invited us to sing. The songs were good, and the atmosphere was warm. But I couldn’t help but notice there was little enthusiasm in the pew. Many came in late, some in shorts and flip flops, and everyone was spread out to maximize comfort. The front three rows had the appearance of reserved seating, though–as mentioned–no one sat there. There were a few announcements, an awkward moment to greet, a sermon on the church, and a brief benediction. And then everyone made haste for the coffee counter. No one came up to the pastor to engage in what he had just spent 35 minutes communicating–which was why he believed in the church.
A similar story is played out in many evangelical churches every week, which might help to explain this recent research. As I got in my car, I could not help but ask myself–If a total unbeliever walked in, would he come back? Would she get in her car and say to herself, ‘There was something those people had, that I want. There was a sense of the transcendent that shook me, a force, a power that I cannot explain. There was a sense of community that goes way beyond any riotous family party at a wedding rehearsal dinner. These people were about a cause, and their affection for one another was contagious. They are on a mission I don’t understand, but I want to experience something of their missional fervor.”
A Vision of the Church
Recently retiring from my church, where I was almost always up front, I am getting a fresh glimpse from the other side. I am sure some guests, who have visited the churches I have pastored, could write a similar blog. I don’t have all the answers, but I can see a vision of what church should, must be:
- a place where there is a sense you have walked into the kingdom of God (something the Orthodox get). One senses something of the Holy, and a foretaste of the kingdom on the other side – rather than merely an auditorium where, after the preliminaries, someone will give a talk.
- an ethos where people are connecting over things that transcend the day to day – “How was your journey with Jesus this week?” “What opportunity to share your faith was seized – or missed?” “How did you experience the evidence of the Spirit’s power?” “What broke your heart this week?” “What prayer can I make that might radically change your life?” Far better than hearing someone’s prediction of the Super Bowl or another congregant’s recent experience at Starbucks.
- a message from a pastor that clearly says he has spent time in the counsel of God, and a worship that responds precisely to what God has just said. Words that comfort my heart and shake up any lethargy, that expand my vision of God and His purpose for my life, that renew my hopes and chase away my fears, and give me a taste of what I want to pursue in the six days in between. A prophetic word that stretches my thinking and brings me into new places – that compels me to come to my knees, step forward for communion, and prompts me to maintain a dialogue once the service is over.
- an environment where the unbelieving come away convinced. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul was observing the church and its worship. He noticed things that troubled him, beginning with a behavior that sent a message to the unbelieving that these people had lost their minds. So Paul gave them a vision of what it should look like – “The unbelieving walk in on a service, where people are speaking out God’s truth, words that probe their hearts. Before you know it, they are on their faces before God, recognizing that God is among you” (I Cor 14:25).
Years ago, Sally Morgenthaler wrote Worship Evangelism, making this same point – that the church’s greatest evangelism is a church experiencing authentic worship. The world steps in and comes away convinced there is something of God in this place.
The church can be this unstoppable, transformational force that it was created to be, fleshing out Jesus, and sharing the gospel. But it will take a fresh breath of the Spirit, and all of us devoted to praying every day for this to happen. It has to.