my very last rant about the American church

I write the following at the risk of alienating my remaining 10 or so readers who could care less about reforming the conventional American church.  I’m right there with them most days, except since Friday, when I randomly linked to a slick video promoting a church’s building campaign. If you’ll take 10 minutes to watch this video and then read and respond to the post below, I promise this will be my last blog rant about the state of the American church.

This post isn’t about The Branch. It really isn’t. I’ve worshiped at The Branch, have dear friends who worship and lead there, and truly believe God has been at work through that community. The Branch is a church that has stepped out in many ways and led in the last few years.So please don’t hear it as me picking on The Branch specifically when I say that I am so sick and tired of seeing videos like the one above, which I saw quite randomly on Friday after linking to it from a friend’s site. Farmer’s Branch Church just outside of Dallas has outgrown its building, so it recently acquired a 20-acre property with a rather large church building already on the property and the leadership has decided to go to a two-site system. Moneys must be raised in order to maintain the facilities and programs of two suburban Dallas mega-churches now, not just one. Here are a few quotes from the campaign video that stood out to me:

“100 years ago … received a call to build a church.”

“That church now has 1,500 members.”

“God is calling the Branch to grow.”

“Our leadership has discerned that God is calling us to take a major step in an effort to help not just hundreds, but thousands come into an intimate relationship with God in the coming years.”

“From its humble beginnings in the early 1900s, to the launch of a second campus in 2007, the Branch continues to grow and thrive as a community of believers actively seeking God’s will. Now, we’ve been presented with the opportunity to do something truly remarkable for the kingdom.”

“He has entrusted to us those who are very gifted. We have an amazing amount of those who have gifts to be used in the expansion of the kingdom. A lot of people want to be put to work; they have gifts and they want to work. Having two campuses is going to make that possible.”

But again, this post isn’t about The Branch. This post is about the Christian church’s refusal to accept that it is no longer accepted by its host culture. Even in suburban Dallas, the saturation of glitzy shopping malls, shiny car dealerships, smut shops, one-size-fits-all housing developments, and multi-national office parks tells the real story of what matters to most folks in the MetroPlex (hint: the church ain’t it).

If you listen closely, a theme emerges in this video from The Branch and other like it: That it takes a church with a large building (or two), bounteous programs, multiple staff, and — you guessed it — loads of money to “do something truly remarkable for the kingdom.” The truth is, however, that the facts simply do not support that hypothesis. For starters, George Barna found that many of the nearly 100 million “unchurched” people in America are “church-avoiders,” having not attended any sort of religious service in the last six months to a year. Even more surprising, however, might be his finding that “included among the [100 million] unchurched is an estimated 13 to 15 million born again adults and children.” Only half of those Barna polled in another research project stated that they were “completely satisfied” with several areas of their conventional church, compared to two-thirds giving positive responses in house churches.

Interestingly enough, one of America’s most influential evangelical churches — Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago — recently begun waking up to many of these realities the hard way. What began as a small ministry under the leadership of Pastor Bill Hybels in the 1970s has become a multi-campus, multi-national, 25,000+ member institution (I’m confident Bill and his team would agree with my wording here). When one of the senior staff began wondering if the programs the church was spending millions of dollars on each year were actually resulting in more passionate disciples of Jesus, he decided to “poll the audience.” After months of research involving thousands of Willow’s members, the church’s leadership received back some startling data.

Chart1In what Bill Hybels called the “wake-up call of my adult life,” Willow Creek discovered that the premise on which nearly every programmatic decision for the last 30 years had been made — that increased involvement in the classes, meetings, service opportunities, and other activities of the church yielded increased spiritual growth and closeness to God — was simply not true. Furthermore, those who are most unsatisfied with Willow were those for whom God is the center of their lives — the more spiritually mature. (Willow produced the chart above to illustrate how spiritual growth did not correlate with increased church activity)

This leads me to my second beef with the building campaign video above: Its driving assumption is that people’s spiritual gifts will be used, and that most (if not all) of God’s work through that congregation will occur within the confines of a programmatic structure on a piece of church property. An underlying assumption, I’m guessing, is that this increased participation among members will result in more devoted followers of Jesus. Why else would so many congregations spend so much time, effort, and money planning and executing a roughly hour-long worship service each week? The Willow leadership has been discovering, and is currently admitting in churches all over the country, however, that in one of the largest and perhaps most dynamic churches in America, those assumptions are categorically false. (watch two great videos about these “wake-up calls” here) The reaction of the Willow leadership, then, is that they are taking out a fresh piece of paper and using their findings and scripture to change the way they do church. This is certainly a change of tune from perhaps the most influential evangelical congregation of the modern era, and though I am thrilled at the self-reflection the leaders exercised in looking into the church’s practices, I will be curious to see what ends up on the blank sheet of paper in the end.

When will other Christian leaders around the country wake up to some of these realities? We have churches full of the “healthy,” when Christ came to heal the “sick.” So many churches thrive simply on the participation of those long-time members and lifetime believers in their midst and are completely irrelevant to the rest of the world. Think about your church for a minute: How much of its energy and money — including programs, classes, and service opportunities — are expended on those farthest away from God?

My personal observation is that the larger a group of Christians gets, the more insular and maintenance-minded it becomes. What often begins in early days of a budding congregation as a sent, praying people whose lives are spent daily for and among a broken creation, too often becomes an institution that must appeal primarily to its core in order to grow or even survive. This is where some people would say, “Steve, isn’t that one of the functions of the church? To continually nourish its members and provide opportunities for service?” Well, if Bill Hybels was sitting in, he would quickly jump in: “What’s happening to people the older they get [spiritually], the more they are expecting the church to feed them when in fact the more mature a Christian becomes, a Christian should become more of a self-feeder.” In other words, church members have become reliant on the institution for spiritual nourishment (and they are often disappointed), and have never learned how to be and act spiritual away from the church. Basically, it seems we’ve been starting and maintaining enabling churches with dependent members for quite a while now, starting with Willow, the biggest powerhouse of them all.

So, taking all this to heart, here are my questions, folks. First, what would it take to finally admit that the conventional Christian church has lost favor with its host culture, much the same as the early church was not accepted by the Roman Empire? We are not a “Christian nation,” and the marginalized and lost will not come just because we built it. How might this admission inform our congregational identities and identities as individual believers, and then our strategy and mission?

Second, what if Bill Hybels is right: That personal spiritual disciplines and rhythms, not church involvement in programs, will yield greater intimacy with Christ? Might this realization change how we set out to “do things” for God in the kingdom? Given that many leaders’ livelihoods depend on the institutions behind these strategies, would they have the courage and prophetic imagination to admit a mistake and move into a new season of centering in on God and his mission — regardless of the sacrifice?

Or will most of us continue to go on doing the same sorts of things but expecting different results?

End rant.

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14 responses to this post.

  1. Steve,
    Wow that willow creek graphic says a lot. The very thing that the modern evangelical church is banking on, leadership participation and leadership development, doesn’t actually make people more like Jesus.

    It actually makes people into Pharisees, in that they do the right religious things (tithe, evangelism, serve) but don’t grow in love for God or for other people.

    This is really sad.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Dan on October 21, 2007 at 8:25 am

    So what is the solution?

    Reply

  3. Don’t stop.

    Rant away.

    Reply

  4. Posted by Steve on October 21, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    Dan –
    I’m the one asking questions here! =)

    I don’t know if there’s one solution, but I have a sneaking suspicion it might involve death and rebirth into something no human could ever strategize, design, lead, or predict.

    What do you think might be the/a solution/s?

    Reply

  5. One would think that we would have realized by now that we are out of favor with our culture, but most believers still treat the rising swell of anit-religious sentiment as an aberation. I am not sure what is going to wake believers up.

    As to what to do if Hybels is right: i’m afraid that the response of most churches would be to start a “discipline ministry,” thus rendering the whole point moot. But I could be wrong.

    Reply

  6. Posted by chriscchris on October 21, 2007 at 5:54 pm

    JustjuJust as I would not expect the Roman Empire to embrace the early church, I would not expect the dominate culture to embrace the church today. As a practical matter, I don’t see how house churches could work today.
    AsAS

    Reply

  7. Posted by Steve on October 21, 2007 at 6:37 pm

    ChrisChris – Your comment about house churches is fair enough, but I would recommend doing a little research on the house church movement in the West. I think you’d be surprised at just how practical it really is, and how quickly it’s catching on in many places. I’d start with http://www.house2house.tv if I were you.

    Also, I’d like to hear how, specifically, you see conventional churches “working” (and what “working” means) better than any other model that exists. Teens and twentysomethings are not staying in the church, a growing number of mature Christians are dissatisfied with the spiritual nurture they receive at their church, and new disciples are simply not being made among those with no religious background. Bukus of data backs these statements up.

    Odgie – Good point. I thought Willow’s response to the data — “personalized spirituality plans” for all its members — was a good start but still rather programmatic in nature. It’s what you’d expect the religious mall to produce. If churches’ response is simply to add another program, then something is dead wrong.

    Thanks for the comments. I’d love to hear more.

    Reply

  8. Posted by CHRIS on October 21, 2007 at 6:56 pm

    IIIIIII

    Reply

  9. Posted by CHRIScccchris on October 21, 2007 at 7:13 pm

    I ii seemccI am having trouble with my computer so hope this comes out readable. I consider my local church conventional. It started 20 years ago with a hundred people and now we have about 1600. We supported a group in Africa who over a period of years established over 20 churches. This takes big bucks, no living room church could do this. There are always going to be people who are not satisfied with anything but I would say it is a minority in the church I attend. Perhaps it takes both kinds.

    Reply

  10. Posted by priest on October 21, 2007 at 11:02 pm

    I think Dan’s posture gives him away. The big institution on the block will say that If you can convince me that what I’m doing is not working, then you must give me a solution to my problem. It’s a thoroughly modern pragmatic way of perceiving reality: problem + solution = no problem. What about faithfulness here? Are we being faithful to the mission of God? Are we reflecting God’s life, God’s convictions, God’s heart? It’s not about what works/what doesn’t work, or “fixing” church. It’s about faithfulness, no?

    CHRIScccchris also gives himself away. For Chris, more numbers = success and success = faithfulness. Where did the 1500 new members come from? If your church is like the thousands of other churches that Barna polled, that 1500 was not unchurched. Your church simply did a great job of attracting Christians from other smaller congregations that lacked the programs/slick marketing/lights/sound system to compete with your church. Now those smaller churches are bankrupt and your members are commuting 45-90 minutes to get to the campus for an hour and a half on Sundays.

    Reply

  11. Posted by chriscccccccchris on October 22, 2007 at 12:01 am

    keep it upI

    cchri

    c

    chrri

    cc

    Reply

  12. Posted by Steve on October 22, 2007 at 8:01 am

    A worthwhile link and a quote to continue the conversation:

    Oh, for more Dead Churches

    Quote from Fred Peatross:

    “I hate to say it, but we have a bad case of ecclesiolatry. Our phrases tell on us. We don’t love Christ, we love the church. We don’t partner with Jesus in an effort beyond-the-church; we serve and work for the church. We don’t tell people about the crucified and risen Lord, we tell them about the church.”

    Jimmy Shaw comments on both

    enjoy.

    Reply

  13. Posted by Steve on October 23, 2007 at 8:30 am

    Here’s another worthwhile link to check out. It seems folks really get hung up on church forms (myself included). When I hear “megachurch,” I’m hung up. When others hear “house church,” they get hung up. Roger Thoman does a good job of describing how the conversation and practice of new “forms” are meant only to support a new (or “ancient”) way of looking at the Christian life. It’s about simplifying the church experience so we can live out the Christ-life more effectively where He has put us.

    Too often, our church activities take us out of the places and away from the people where and in whom God is hardest at work.

    Oh, here’s the linky: http://sojourner.typepad.com/house_church_blog/2007/10/life-must-prece.html

    Reply

  14. Posted by Daughter on October 26, 2007 at 11:21 am

    I’m wrestling also. I left my previous church a year and a half ago. I visit other churches, but do not want to commit, for many of the reasons you named. However, on my own, I struggle spiritually with doubt and ungodliness. Visiting other churches gives me a chance to worship, which I need. (I know, worship is your whole life – but the chance to be a part of an organized worship service helps my heart).

    But I also know that I need other people in the journey with me, that visiting churches doesn’t allow people to know me or me to know them in any kind of way that makes fellowship meaningful. I also have a young child, and I work full-time. During my off-hours, I want to spend time with her. It’s very hard to do that and spend time with adults, unless I’m with others who also have young children. (Young children, or my daughter at least, don’t play alone very well. If other young children aren’t available, she wants Mommy to be her playmate).

    Yet even house churches seem too organized and insular to me. (I am speaking from what I have read. I have never been a part of one). Many times I feel hopeless about what to do, where to turn.

    Reply

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