I’m done with church…at least the way I’ve known it. Let me say up front, I’m a church lover not a church hater. Though I’ve been involved in traditional churches for the last twenty years, I love and value the Church, God’s bride, in all its varied forms. So, I’m not approaching this from the angle of a cynical and disgruntled Christian or pastor. Rather, I want to let you into my journey over the past couple of years.
Before getting to some of the questions like what is church and why does it matter I need to give you some background. My story began in 2017 as I was wrestling with some of the dynamics of church life in an urban setting. In a small town or suburban environment, about 10% of people will transition out of a particular church in the course of one year. If you are in a college or university town, that number rises to a 20% turnover rate each year. And for a church in an urban environment that number can be 30% or more.
That’s 30% of a congregation that will turnover every year.
That can be a difficult barrier to overcome. Pastors in my city call it “The Annual Heartbreak.” Whatever you call it, it’s a struggle to see people you love and have invested in – sometimes for 2, 3 or 4 years – move on to some other place. Over the years, we’ve had to adjust our posture to remember:
We are not losing people, we are sending and sowing them.
This is in line with the original vision God gave me many years ago while in prayer. In the vision, I saw a huge heart beating; it was placed over a map of Boston, and it was pumping life in every direction.
To date, we’ve sent out way more people than we’ve kept. It’s just part of the rhythm here.
Those we’ve sent out are beautiful people with beautiful stories. You can read some of their stories here.
But 2017-2018 was more intense when more than 60% of the people who at one time called Journey home transitioned out for one reason or another, including one-half of our twelve person leadership team. Some graduated college, others moved away for work, and a few left without a great reason because that’s just what people do. And if I’m honest, a few probably left because my leadership was deficient in some areas.
An exodus of people also meant a shrinking budget. During that time, our budget dropped by 60% or more.
And God did miracles.
This is one of them. In May of 2018, both our personal finances and the church finances were nearly exhausted. When we asked the Lord what to do He gave us this verse of Scripture:
But Moses told the people, “Don’t be afraid. Just stand still and watch the Lord rescue you today. The Egyptians you see today will never be seen again. 14 The Lord himself will fight for you. Just stay calm.” (Exodus 14:13-14 NLT)
So we waited. And at the proverbial midnight hour, He gave us a miracle. Without asking, a generous who had previously attended Journey gave a $75,000 gift to the church. It was the largest single financial gift we have ever received, and it sustained us for more than six months.
Though we experienced miracles, it was also a soul searching time for me, my wife, and our team. It’s tough for any church to lose that many people , but for a small church, it was nearly fatal. As you know,
It tends to be the hard times that define you.
It was during this time the Lord began to lead me on a journey to walk according to John 5:19,
So Jesus explained, “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does. (NLT)
Each day I would spend time asking him what He was doing. And whatever He was doing, that’s what I did. Some days it was as simple as, “I am refreshing you, Kent.” It took so much pressure off me – not only in my personal life but in ministry too. You can read about it here.
During this process, I began asking myself some difficult questions about church. You see, I have always been involved in traditional churches. Traditional meaning you go to a building, sing some songs, hear a message, sometimes take communion and have some prayer, and maybe do a small group during the week. Not that it was bad. Overall, my experience with church has been good, but after being in leadership for nearly twenty years in different capacities, I found myself asking, could there be more?
Doing church in this manner and in a transient urban context felt like a whole lot of output from a few people and for a small number of people. Not that those people weren’t worth it, but I started to wonder if my time could be used to build them rather than doing a lot of set up, tear down, and sermon prep. And even if the numbers were greater, could I justify a lot of people’s gifts being used to highlight the gifts of a few?
It’s not that God wasn’t in it, He was, but I was tired. Tired of catering to American consumerism. Tired of hauling a trailer every week and four hours of set up and tear down for a 1.5 hour service. Tired of trying to motivate people to do things that they really didn’t want to do (nor did I if I’m really honest). Tired of putting in so much work to set up a space. Oh sure, I said I was doing it for people, and I was – to a degree, but a large part of me embraced the lie that if I build it people will come. I was more focused on the people that weren’t there yet than building the people God had brought. I know some modern day church planting gurus teach similar things, but it felt wrong. I also felt like I was putting on a show for everyone – not in the sense of acting – but in that a few of us were doing all the work so others could consume. How does that fit with the scriptural concept of the Church being a body?
I began to ask myself why are we doing this and do I want to keep doing this?
Maybe it would have been different if we had explosive growth, but explosive growth has its own challenges. I’ve been a part of larger churches in the past. Numbers don’t make challenges go away, nor do they always resolve the nagging thought that there must be more than this.
After all, every church must ask, are we actually making disciples who make disciples?
What Is Church Anyway?
As we talk about the Church, I think it’s important to define it. What is “church” anyway? Is it a building? An institution? An organization? Far from it.
In these posts, I will refer to the Church capital “C” as believers everywhere and the church lower-case “c” as a community of believers. Think extended family vs. nuclear family. But to be very simple and specific,
The Church is God and people. Period.
Yes, many times there are buildings and there is organization to it, but those things are secondary to God and people. The Church isn’t defined by a building or it’s structure, it’s defined by God and people.
You can’t have the Church without God and you can’t have it without people. Those are the two limiting factors. Though a space to meet together can be helpful, it’s not a limiting factor per say. The question isn’t whether or not to have a place to meet, but rather does the meeting space – whether a house, coffee shop or some other public space – serve God’s agenda for building people for His kingdom? Or to put it more bluntly, what is more important, the building or the people? I think the answer is clear.
The Biblical term for Church is “ekklesia” or “ecclesia.” The word predates its use in Christianity. It first referred to a political assembly of citizens in ancient Greece who came into the public square to debate. In the biblical sense, it refers to a society or assembly of Christian believers (i.e. people) – either in a local sense of a congregation or in a broader universal sense.
But more than an assembly, the church is a family, a body, and people who are being built into a spiritual house. (see Eph. 2:19-22, 1 Cor. 12:27, 1 Peter 2:4-5)
You Are NOT the Church
If you’ve been a Christian for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard it someone say, “I am the church.” I believe that statement to be inaccurate.
If the Church is a body, made up of many parts, how can one person be the church?
It’s more accurate to say, we are the church…together.
And while I believe in “being the church,” it’s something we are together whereas if I am alone, I am simply a follower of Christ.
Does that make sense?
This article is way too long to put in one blog post, so I’m going to break it up into two or three posts. Next time, we will take a deeper dive into what church is and is not, the lies we believe about the church, and the truth about church according to the Scriptures. In these posts, I hope to ask some deeper questions about the modern Western church, shed some Biblical light on the church, and let you in on my journey over the past few years – believing it will be helpful in some way to the body of Christ.
What are your thoughts? What do you see God doing in the Church? Is there anything you have been chewing on that has been helpful or enlightening to the conversation?
Fair warning: this isn’t meant to be a church bashing discussion so any comments in that vein will not be posted.