Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Quitting Church, by Julia Duin

Duin's book is one of a parade of books coming out during the past few years on how people in the tens of millions are storming out of the evangelical church. Unlike some other authors, Duin is a professing believer, but like many others, not attending a church during recent years.

Her book exemplifies the paradox Christian leaders face today. The complaints raised in interviews with ex-church people present a contradiction: On one hand, people claim they don't have time to make the commitment to attend. They're too busy. She cites research predicting that people are just going to get their spiritual food from the internet and form what Barna calls "a church of one." The world-committed consumer Christian is exemplified perfectly by this guy:

“I want to go back. But it takes such a lot of effort to go there after working all week and doing errands all Saturday. And if you do go, you want something back. You need your batteries charged. …Church is not like that anymore. You get no return for what you put into it.” Page 33
This quote shows two of the biggest problems we face today. First is the fact people are so committed to the world system that it takes all their energy, so there isn't much left for God. Next is the fact that this is consumer Christianity--the bottom line is always "what's in it for me?"

But God sends us into the church for what we can give, not for what we can get. Accommodation to the world and to consumer Christianity is a bottomless hole that will never satisfy anyone, and betrays God's instructions.

At the same time, they complain that church is impersonal, doesn't connect with their lives, and superficial. These quotes are typical:
One of the top reasons people give for their leaving church is loneliness: the feeling—especially in large congregations that no one knows or cares whether they are there. Page 50
Duin comments:
Many churches have become like supermarkets or gas stations: totally depersonalized arenas where most people no longer feel a responsibility to be hospitable to the person standing next to them. … As for those who drop out, no one notices. Page 52
So, the superficiality I wrote about earlier combines with accommodation to produce a situation that makes everyone sick. At the same time, she points out that "The people I talk with who have found true community and then must leave it, due to family or job reasons, pine for it for the rest of their lives." Page 50

So, again, we see two problems. One is that people just "must leave it" (which is to say in most cases the world system demands they leave so they can make more money). The other issue is that true community is so awesome it should be worth giving up other values to keep it.

When will we stop trying to out-soft each other to compete for worldly-minded members, and call people to the New Testament standard for real body life? Wouldn't it be better to have a smaller church that had real serving community than a bigger one that's so bland, superficial, and disengaged that people wonder why they're there?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Why Church in America Cannot Succeed

American culture contains constraints on churches that spell doom. Perhaps the most devastating result today is superficiality. In a superficial reading of the New Testament, leaders construct a church outwardly similar to the early church, but missing the key aspects that involve calling their people to sacrifice their time. The result is like a race car with all the lines and paint and tires but NO ENGINE! I've written on this problem before for my leadership class.

Superficiality - American church leaders tend to interpret the biblical picture of church planting in very superficial and non-demanding ways. They see leadership in a home church or small group as something that must not significantly interfere with typical bourgeois American middle-class living. American culture is placing increasingly heavy time demands on the modern family. Most American families are convinced they have to:

  • work long hours;
  • be available for any travel demands their careers may dictate;
  • belong to sports leagues;
  • keep their houses and yards immaculate;
  • clean and care for their late-model cars;
  • shop for the latest styles;
  • maintain their hobbies;
  • keep up with several weekly TV serials;
  • take their kids to every sports league and activity available at school;
If we add attendance at one or two church meetings per week, who has time to do any more?

When we compare American living to the early church, we see a striking contrast. In the early church they were "day by day" having meals together and meeting near the temple and from house to house. (Acts 2:46) This expression suggests Christian community took up a very large part of people's lives. Deep community like that described in the New Testament requires significant time investment into relationships. We can't drive up to the McDonald's window and demand community be handed through the window!

I have already argued that the "one another" passages in the New Testament become a dead letter apart from heavy time investment. Likewise, the training needed to become competent as Christian leaders takes a great deal of time investment. Becoming a man or woman of God ready to lead a flock for him will certainly interfere in a massive way with materialistic and entertainment pursuits that so dominate the schedules of adult Americans today. Like the rich young ruler, many American church members must turn away in sadness at the New Testament picture of radical Christian living.

The result of the divergence between the radical commitment of the New Testament church and today's convenient approach, where only our leftover minutes are devoted to spiritual growth and community is
superficiality. Church leaders try to patch together some form of community outwardly like that in the New Testament, but without the devotion and investment assumed in the New Testament. They feel they don't dare call on their people for their time (or, they realize whether they call on them for time doesn't matter, because they aren't going to get it anyway).

But simply introducing a structure involving home groups to a church is not going to produce New Testament-style fellowship, let alone a church-planting movement. Although such groups may superficially resemble New Testament house churches, the heart of the matter is missing—men and women of God sold out to each other and the non-Christian world in the love of Christ!

In superficial groups people who aren't really close at all try to act like they are close. Likewise, superficial groups may substitute a scripted approach to ministry for real ministry. Leaders are told what to say and do during a meeting and during personal encounters because they don't understand the Bible or other people well enough to respond to situations creatively and spontaneously.

People who are seeing each other in a personal setting for the only time that week, or even the only time in two weeks cannot be expected to know each other's needs or how to meet those needs. The demands of personal discipleship virtually always are too high for today's superficial approaches to home group ministry (unless personal discipleship is also redefined in superficial terms). But without effective, deep discipleship we see little prospect of multiplication, either of disciples or of home churches.

In my next post, we'll discuss Julia Duin's new book,
Quitting Church--yet another expose of the amazing stampede away from church today by tens of millions of evangelical believers. No matter how many of these exposes I read, I'm still amazed to see how little response there is in the evangelical church. I've decided to finally write a book on the church, but I'm feeling discouraged as to whether anyone will be willing to read it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

What is normative church involvement?

I've been studying the "one-another" passages with some students, and it makes quite a strong case that we are nowhere near biblical standards for time and effort devoted to the body of Christ. Consider this one:

Let the word of God richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another
This is a direct command given to all believers in the body of Christ. What would be necessary before this instruction could possibly be more than a dead letter?

To be sure, people would have to take the time to have the word richly dwell within them--so that would be a significant level of training. I doubt that any 5 or 10 week class can accomplish this goal. Probably several years of discipleship and learning are implied.

Then comes the part about teaching and admonishing one another. Would you take admonition from somebody who doesn't know you? How would that be possible? You would have to know someone relatively well to even be aware of what they need admonition for. This admonishing each other assumes that we know each other. And that knowledge would have to be way beyond the superficial level of relationships we see too often in the modern church, where everyone is too busy to spend time investing into relationships.

Let's remember, this passage isn't referring to the example of the early church, which we could possibly dismiss because our culture is different than theirs. This is a plain moral injunction that is not optional for Christians.

So, when I hear leaders arguing that "our people are just too busy for that," I can't accept that we are preaching in a way faithful to scripture. If our people are too busy to do what God calls on them to do, it's probably because they have too many idols in their lives. Their entertainment schedule, their aspirations to drive their kids to become super-kids, their fussing with their house, these are the things making them "too busy" to do what God says.

On every side, people are bemoaning the low state of the church today, but nobody seems willing to consider a change to the level of involvement seen in the New Testament--that's just too extreme for modern people. But we need to see that we are not just dismissing the time-bound example of the primitive church, but the New Testament itself when we say this.

If the "one-another" passages are too demanding to expect modern people to live them, then the New Testament way of life has lost all credibility in our world. If it's not too hard, then we should stop making excuses for our people and call them to the high standard envisioned in scripture.