(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on March 6, 2015)
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! (Revelation 3:14b-15, NIV)
I have a dear friend that I meet with almost every Sunday morning before the worship service at church. We have wonderful conversations together and he asks the most interesting, thought-provoking questions. Last Sunday, he gave me a question to think about all week for us to discuss the next time we got together. Here was the question: “What do you think are the top three reasons that people don’t come to church?”
Ooh! What an important question! In fact, if pastors and other church leaders are not asking themselves this question on a regular basis, in the midst of an era of unprecedented church decline in our country (The Pew Research Center on Religion & Public Life is a good resource for seeing the trends), then they are ignoring an important element of their ministry.
So, I have been thinking about it. I will continue to think about it. And I have my top three reasons. But first, as a preface, I must admit that to speak about millions of individual people as though they were all the same is unfair and disingenuous. There are probably as many reasons as there are people. But as a responsible pastor, I do try to have as authentic and honest conversations with people, allowing them to speak for themselves. So my response is limited to my interpretation of such conversations. That disclaimer made, here we go (in no particular order):
1.) People think church is irrelevant. Many people honestly want to know how we are supposed to understand a Bible written in a pre-scientific world while living in the modern, technological era. Many people have urgent, specific concerns with some of the realities of the world. They see violence, poverty, discord, illness, and other varieties of suffering. And when they come into the church, they find messages that ignore those pressing questions. When the world changes more in one decade than it used to in 500 years, how is a 2000-year old institution supposed to have the answers people are asking? Well, while us church folk quickly claim that we are relevant and do have those answers, we don’t communicate them well. I would love to be wrong, but after countless conversations, I’m afraid this is a pervasive reason people stay out of churches. When we don’t take people’s questions seriously and provide honest answers, how can we expect them to show up?
2.) People think church is hypocritical. Actually, they think us church people are hypocritical. And by hypocritical, I mean that they see us standing on a spiritual mountaintop of self-righteousness telling them what to do and what not to do, and then see us unable to live by our own finger-wagging morality.
3.) People think church is impotent. Impotent means “powerless.” Churches may talk very eloquently and passionately about making the world a better place. We might describe in great detail with great urgency how it is the responsibility of the Christian to care for the hurting, protect the vulnerable, embrace the marginalized, advocate for the powerless, and pacify violence. But then we don’t put any action behind our words. And for those people who are hurting, who are abused, who suffer discrimination, who are being taken advantage of, continue to suffer because churches cannot or will not act. It takes power to stand up to the bottom-feeding payday lending industry and demand that they stop taking advantage of poor people. It takes courage to demand that all people are given equal rights in the eyes of the law, even people different from me. It takes guts to go into the prisons and tell those we call “felons” that they are “children of God” first. It takes willingness and sacrifice to spend resources feeding, teaching and caring for impoverished communities. And those who hunger and thirst for a just society have found the church too often bowing before partisan or economic ideology before the Lord Jesus Christ we claim to worship.
So those are my three reasons. If you don’t like my answers, trust me, I don’t like them either. But again, I base them on conversations I’ve had with many who say “no thanks” to church Sunday after Sunday. Conversations I have had even this very week. The church is lukewarm. It is had become irrelevant, hypocritical and impotent because it has lost it’s passion for the people God came to save. Lukewarm.
And here is the great irony, if not tragedy: the very questions, problems, struggles and burdens people carry can be answered with the love of God. I’ll say it again. The love of God is the answer, no matter what the question is. The love of God is the salve, no matter what your hurt is. The love of God is the power to set you free, no matter what is holding you bondage, whether it is the hardness of your neighbor’s heart or the hardness of your own. Furthermore, God wants you to be set free. And the church is the protector of that truth.
I’ll close by saying that because I believe in a God that works precisely at the moment that things seem the most hopeless, I have faith that God is up to something right now. There is a revitalization going on in our churches to reignite our passion for God’s children. To those who faithfully occupy the pews week after week, I beg you to join this revival God has begun. To those who have given up on church, I invite you to bring to us one more time your questions, needs and burdens. May the church be bold enough to offer you the always relevant and powerful answer you are seeking: the love of a God who is forever with us.