Confessions of a Prodigal Vagabond

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Sometimes God doesn’t show up.

Sometimes prayers aren’t answered our way. Sometimes we lose, fail, stumble, break and never find restoration, healing or blessing. Sometimes bad things happen to good people for no reason. Sometimes people die, cancer spreads, finances fail, careers end, injustice prevails, evil wins and all seems lost. Sometimes life is Hell and salvation never knocks. Sometimes prodigals never come home.

But that’s a short (and shallow) view of life.

God is ALWAYS working a Purer Plan, weaving my blues into His Majestic Quilt. Ultimately, it isn’t about my puny prayers being answered to MY good or for MY glory, but rather to HIS Grand Desire and Great Design for my life. Therefore, I don’t need to be right, first, avenged, healed, placated, patronized, lionized, or have all things work out to my needs, desires or purposes. I believe in God even if there is no blessing, no healing, no reconciliation, no restoration. I believe in God even if all I ever experience is Hell on earth.

The secret of life is there is no secret. If anything, maybe it’s answering a simple question: Do you know YOUR birthright? 

For whatever years I live, with whatever blessing I enjoy, I am but a homeless heir to a tycoon Dad desperately wondering where in hell I am. I am a filthy rich vagabond, sometimes selfishly lost in my own agendas, ever seeking God through my own rose-colored glasses, but always positioned with a Father patiently waiting my return. I just have to remember MY place and keep walking Home.

Because what is won’t forever be. Someday this wretched and weary, tried and tested, soiled and surly soul will top eternity. Someday I will stand before the King who haunted my heart. I will praise the God who pursued me relentlessly and recklessly, willing to harbor the grandest hypocrite and secure the greatest sinner. Someday I will completely understand the Mystery, fully recognize the Reality and absolutely accept the Promise.

That’s when EVERYTHING will make sense and my Reward finally revealed.

I will, in that moment of Truth, see my life for what it was, what it is and what it will be.

That’s when I know I’m Home.

That’s when I will relish how God used me for HIS good, for HIS gospel, for HIS glory…,even in my trials, troubles and tragedies…even in my poor choices, pathetic sins and pitiful perspectives.

The truth: I am not the center of any universe.

I am merely a moon that reflects the Son.

But what a moon I am! And so are you.

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Designed to Leave: Creating Space in the Church for Postmodern Generations

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The world is changing, Church.

Blockbuster Video is down to it’s last store in Bend, OR. Toys R Us closed it’s doors in June 2018. Meanwhile, Sears and KMart continue their selloff. Everywhere you look there’s change and if we can’t adapt in this new culture we’ll fare no different than Kodak, Betamax or Tower Records.

Maybe that’s why this New York Times article caught my eye: “Sorry Power Lunchers, This Restaurant is a Co-Working Space Now (July 9, 2018).”

I was particularly attracted to this quote by the Millennial co-founder of Spacious, Chris Smothers:

“Actively consuming isn’t what we want to do with the space in our neighborhoods anymore…Retail spaces are designed for you to come in, make a transaction and get out, and that’s why you feel weird in a coffee shop all day, because all of these spaces are designed for you to leave.”

As I read that last sentence all I could think about was what “church” has become in the past thirty years, especially those of the evangelical non-denominational type.

After all, thanks to the “megafication” of the Church in the 1980s and 1990s, churches of all sizes and stripes reimagined their Sunday mornings into an event (featuring a full-band worship and culturally-relevant sermon). These events were specially-hosted inside an auditorium that’s “designed for you to leave.” Pews were out, theater chairs were in. The larger churches, with multiple services, are particularly prone to this mentality. It’s why we build performance halls, hire specialized staff, study people flow and focus on traffic patterns. We need to get people in and out…fast.

I call it “drive thru” churchianity. We’ve designed “church” as a space to come…and leave.

This shift, led by a Baby Boom generation returning to their spiritual foundations in the 1980s, turns out to be nothing more than adoption of consumer culture. We built our churches on biblical purposes that were guided by business principles. It’s why we focus on body counts, offering totals and ecclesiastical CEOs. We mass disciple like we mass market. Our facilities look like warehouses, our services like concerts, and our programs like fast food menus. This attractional model certainly was successful with boomers and many Gen Xers, but has fallen flat with Millennials.

Millennials aren’t looking for a passive show. They seek an active experience. They want to interact, collaborate and share. They were early adopters of social media, from Friendster and MySpace to Facebook and Snapchat. And now these same Millennials are reinventing the workplace, especially through companies founded by Millennials (Spacious’ co-founder Chris Smothers is 30 years old, by the way).

But I still can’t get that quote out of my head: “designed for you to leave.”

Is that what we did to the Millennials? Is that the type of Christianity we gave them? It seems so. We designed a faith experience that was easy “to leave.”

Maybe it was the gimmicks we used (and still use) to motivate Millennial faith development. Instead of leading them to memorize God’s Word, attend Sunday School or bring their Bibles because it would be helpful and beneficial to their faith as adults, we bribed them with candy and prizes to invoke their participation. As a result we gave them a faith that was easy to leave. After all, if the prize is no longer “helpful and beneficial,” then let’s move on.

Maybe it’s how we programmed Millennial youth ministries. In the 1990s, we shifted from a discipleship (Sunday School, small group, retreats, personal discipling) to an entertainment model (Wednesday night worship and preaching, festivals and large youth conferences) to better reach this postmodern generation. Consequently, we reduced Millennial’s biblical learning to clever PowerPointed messages packed with hip clips from movies, grooved by youth culture lingo, and delivered by cool dudes (and dudettes) with grunge fashions, body piercings and tattoos. As a result, we gave Millennials a fashionable faith that wore terribly thin when reality bites.

But it’s not just the Millennials who have headed to the door. Gen X is just about “done” too. For decades they’ve waited in the wings for their opportunity to lead, suffering through various battles and changes that Boomer elders engineered to create the ideal church. But now, as aging Boomers overlook Xers for younger voices (especially to hire), Gen X has grown apathetic, disillusioned and tired.

A lot of Gen Xers and Millennials now stay away on Sundays and prefer to find faith community in small Bible fellowships, spiritual mentoring and Christian service. Faith, they have found, is better lived out on Tuesday nights, Thursday afternoons and Saturday mornings. If they follow a particular pastor or church, it’s done so through live stream, vidblog or podcast.

Remember, if we created spiritual spaces that are “easy to leave” then we shouldn’t be surprised when people no longer come.

What’s happening in the urban restaurant industry is something churches should heed and consider. Essentially, Millennials aren’t taking lunches like their elders and the lousy noon time crowds have dried up the profits for local eateries. Enter Spacious. It’s a company that reimagines a restaurant into a working “office away from the office” space for individuals and small groups. Now these struggling restaurants are booming with Millennials sweating away on smartphones and laptops.

Church, did you hear that? Once struggling restaurants are attracting (and growing) with young people because they moved from a delivery and sales model to a communal, interactive experience.

You see, Faith was never intended to be a ninety-minute once a week presentation (which is one of the reasons postmodern generations find the Sunday-only event so spiritually anemic). Rather, authentic Faith is best experienced within a dynamic collaborative “working” environment. Which begs a question: What if Sunday morning looked more like a gym or practice field (with coaches and mentors) than a concert and lecture hall? What if our worship experiences resembled what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14:26:

What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.

Paul’s description reveals the collaborative, interactive and experiential nature of the first century church. It’s a far cry from what we see delivered on most Sunday mornings. After all, Church was meant to be more than one person from a stage with a microphone.

But there’s another kicker: What if a church reimagined itself into a collaborative space the rest of the week too? It’s a shame that we have buildings that sit empty Monday through Saturday, except to house the staff and an occasional meeting or extra service.

It’s critical that we get more “spacious” in our gatherings to reach postmodern audiences.

The Church of Christ is alive, moving and interactive.

And that’s attractive to any generation.

Sticky Church: The Rule of Threes

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I love sticky stuff.

The world loves sticky stuff. From Velcro to Gorilla glue to duct tape we like to stick things together. And yet, one of the least sticky things on the planet is Sunday morning church. For whatever reason, we prefer Teflon tactics and smooth strategies that slide people in the front door but also skate them right out the back door.

The problem is we don’t understand the “Rule of Threes.”

These standards are the social “stickers” that guide and guard how we attract, retain and empower individuals. It’s how we draw and join them into authentic community. All of these “stickers” are deeply rooted to human needs for grace, relationship, ownership, worth, laughter and security. Meet the right needs at the right times and you will naturally be “sticky.” Do them long enough and you’ll grow your small group, Sunday School class, children’s/youth ministry and church like crazy.

3 MINUTES (FIRST-TIMER):  When a first-time visitor darkens the door of your church (or class or small group), you only have three minutes to scratch the two most primitive human needs: security and pleasure. People want to feel emotionally and physically safe. And they long to participate in enjoyable experiences.

I attended a church recently for the second time. I knew few of the unique traditions of this church. Other than personal family, I knew nobody else. I was handed a bulletin with an order of service and sat down. I needed to visit a restroom but didn’t know where it was. Nobody gave me any instructions. They just expected me to know.

And then the church service began and, frankly, it was one of the most boring experiences in my life. They sang songs from hymnbooks like funeral dirges. They gave long announcements about stuff of no interest (even to the faithful). There were few smiles, no laughter and little joy.  Seriously, it was that bad and boring.  I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

It only takes minutes for a visitor to decide if he or she will return. It’s why guest relations or “front door evangelism” should be a church’s highest priority.  If you can’t get them back, everything else is for naught. When a church fails to meet the security and pleasure needs of visitors it produces discomfort and that’s enough for anyone to look elsewhere. The “one and dones” are sending a message: you’re boring and I don’t feel safe (emotionally, physically or spiritually).

3 VISITS (FOLLOWER): When people enjoy their visit and sense security, they’ll return, but it”ll take these returning guests three positive and productive experiences to decide to “camp.” And that means a new need starts to surface: the longing to belong. We all hunger to connect, collaborate, cooperate and commune. We want to go, as the old sitcom “Cheers” used to promote, to a place “where everyone knows your name.”

Followers are doing just that: following. They’re interested, but they’re not fully committed. They’ve got one foot in and one foot out. What they’re looking for is a friend. Humans are wired for relationship and we naturally seek community. Unfortunately, churches are more interested in producing a “service” or a “show” on Sunday morning. We’re lousy at connecting people. And it’s why we lose so many guests. They like what they see but don’t like what they feel.

When a church fails to create social connections and spark friendships, it generates disconnection and early exits.

3 MONTHS (FRIEND):  If a church can get a person to attend faithfully for three months, a “member” is created. People feel a part. They understand and agree to the basic rules, traditions and doctrines. They probably have made a friend (or two or three.) Of course, the problem today is many church growth analysts define a “regular” member as someone who attends Sunday services once or twice a month, but this isn’t true.

The reality is regular, faithful attendance shows a deepening commitment to community. Such individuals sense security, enjoy their experiences and have found friendships. Now the needs shift to grace and dignity.

To be honest, this is the stage that many churches, including celebrated megachurches, fail. Many, perhaps most, churches are pretty good, even excellent, at attracting newbies and fostering irregular guests, but when it comes to producing a committed regular member, they fall short. It’s because these congregations fail to meet a person’s deepest spiritual need for freedom and forgiveness (grace). We preach these topics well but don’t live them well. Instead a lot of churches can foster judgmentalism and legalism in a process that only creates clones and robots. We also fail to meet our deep need for dignity. Every regular member wants to know: Is this church a place where I can be me (grace) and be valued (dignity)?

It’s why churches must exercise caution in rushing people into leadership roles too quickly. These “regular members” (of only a few months) might be energetic and enthusiastic but they haven’t been tested. And if they aren’t prepared well for service, they’ll burn out fast. When churches fail to scratch our deep spiritual need for grace and our desire for dignity and self-worth, they produce disappointment. And that means bad attitudes, complaining, criticism and unexpected departures.

3X3 or NINE MONTHS (FAMILY):  In reality, if you can groom and grow a member to be a regular part of the church for nine months, you now have an individual ready for leadership roles. This is a person who not only understands the routines, traditions, core beliefs, traditions and values of your church, but can communicate these ideas and ideals to other people. After nearly a year of regular attendance, a person feels a part of the family.

A “family” member senses security, enjoys attending and feels connected in the community. They feel safe enough to make mistakes, fall short, create messes and miss the mark without getting judged, criticized, condemned or excommunicated. They also sense they’re liked, wanted, valued and appreciated. So now the need shifts once again to empowerment.

This new “family” member wants to know: Is this a place where I can grow, contribute and make a difference? And, once again, a lot of churches (especially larger ones) surprisingly turn these potentially productive persons around and point them to the door at this juncture. It’s all a matter of politics, personal agendas and cliques. Every church has it’s political forces and if a “new family member” doesn’t see a pathway into leadership and contribution, they’ll begin to disengage and retreat.

3 YEARS (FAN):  The most productive churches know it takes three years of positive contribution and leadership to create a raving fan. Jesus clearly modeled this discipleship time frame. He worked with his troops for three and a half years before they were ready to reproduce the values and vision He inculcated into their lives.

For a lot of churches, this is too long a frame. We want to microwave faith and discipleship. We want things done fast and immediately, but spiritual growth (like physical development) isn’t something you can engineer. Spiritual maturity happens on it’s own time and in it’s own contexts. Churches need to exercise patience as they grow people in their spiritual communities, otherwise a person can lose heart, discourage, tire or burn out.

A “fan” is a highly committed, productive leader. They exude enthusiasm and energy. They spark attention and affection. They invite others to embrace the vision and fan the flame that replicates this “sticky” process. They are a church’s most valuable (and sticky) people, essential to it’s continuing growth and success. After all, when a church no longer has “fans” (and many don’t today), it begins the death process.

The Rule of 3’s.

It’s how a church becomes and stays sticky.

When Love Came To Town

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Two thousand years ago human history was friended by God.

For three and a half years, those who followed this Galilean guru saw the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk and the dead rise. With a word this man could calm seas, feed thousands, forgive sinners and call out demons. No one who met him left unchanged.

And yet, the religious elite didn’t believe him. The lawyers sought to trap him. His hometown didn’t want him. Even his own disciples betrayed, denied and left him.

Nevertheless, this man still loved everyone regardless of his or her status, religion, circumstance, behavior or past. He loved the outcast, the forgotten, the despised, the prejudiced, the homeless, the young, the old, the injured, the oppressed, the sinner and, yes, even those critics who didn’t like, want or understand him.

He loved because he was LOVE in the flesh.

Then one dark Friday this man who claimed to be God surprisingly, willingly and purposefully gave up his life. He was charged with crimes he did not commit so one day the truly criminal (you and me) could enjoy Freedom. He was abused with obscenity so one day the horribly profane (you and me) could experience Peace. He was punctured, beat and whipped so one day those who get crucified by life (yes, you and me) could embrace Healing, Joy and Hope.

Basically, he died so that you and I could truly LIVE. For those who accept this Truth and follow His Teaching, death no longer stings. Death no longer separates. Death no longer has power. And that makes LIFE worth LIVING.

Yes, many religious leaders have proposed to know the way to God, but Only One Man claimed to be The Way. Many prophets have proclaimed they had found special truth but Only One Man professed to be The Truth. Many spiritualists have promoted soul work to improve your life but Only One Man testified to be The Life.

How do I know? Because This Man did something they couldn’t.

He backed up his claims of Divinity by His Own Resurrection. I know, that’s crazy, right? But He did. Check it out for yourself. His tomb is still empty…He has RISEN. Indeed. And He is still Alive!

Jesus of Nazareth was fully human and fully God.
He is the Messiah. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords.
You can believe it, reject it, deny it or mock it.

But everyone will one day will face the Truth.

No one gets out of here alive.

Except this Jesus…and those who trust Him as Lord and Savior.

It’s unbelievable to consider. It’s amazing to comprehend. It’s beautiful to embrace…and IT’S OUTRAGEOUSLY TRUE!

That’s why if I was the last voice to confess Jesus is alive, I would. If it meant losing everything to share Jesus is The Way and Truth, I would. If it meant dying to proclaim He is The Life, I would. What can anything or anyone do to me? I fear no man, no weapon, no challenge, no demon, no trouble and no circumstance. My Faith is in GOD alone. My life is not my own. My sin is forgiven. My Calling is clear. My Joy is complete. My Hope is secure.

I believe with all my heart that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.

Do you? Will you? Can you?

I hope so.

Today is a very good day to start.

It Is Finished (Why Good Friday is so GOoD!)

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What’s truly “good” about Good Friday?

Could it be something as simple as three little words?

“It is finished.”

It. Is. Finished.

These three words were proclaimed at exactly 3 p.m. on Friday of every Passover week. The Jewish high priest stated these words after thousands of lambs had been slain for sin sacrifice on behalf of the Jewish people. They were the words of a religion that operated by rules, revealed imperfection, demanded justice and offered sanctuary. This phrase of “it is finished” signaled both the END of the week’s sacrifices and the Passover festival itself.

It is finished.

These words also carried heavy memories.  Its utterance reminded Jews of an ancient story of deliverance. It taught the Israelites that no captivity lasts forever, even a brutal slavery four centuries long. God instituted the Passover as an eternal reminder of His Power, Provision and Protection. Every plague leveled against mighty Egypt was an attack upon one of their “gods.”  The final plague attacked the favored first born, who enjoyed special privilege. The Israelites had escaped every plague to that point. Now they were commanded to generously swab lamb’s blood across their door frames, prepare a frugal meal and be ready to leave the land. With this deadly plague, Pharaoh finally let the Israelites go…and Israel plundered Egypt of its riches when they did (Exodus 12).

It is finished.

No more slavery. No more Egypt. No more Pharaoh. No more pain and suffering. No more longing for something better.  “It is finished” were words of freedom, victory and fresh starts. These three words gave Jews a sense of shalom, a presence of Peace. From that point forward God dwelt among them, as a cloud by day and fire by night. He rescued them at the Red Sea. He fed them manna and quail in the wilderness. He supplied water from a rock. He gave them the Law on Sinai. God fought their battles and gave them a new land, flowing with milk and honey. The end of Egypt meant a new beginning for a young Israelite nation.

It is finished.

These three words were also the last words uttered by Jesus upon the cross, but they were certainly not the last words He would breathe as a human.

It is finished.

Jesus said these words at exactly 3 p.m., just when the high priest would’ve proclaimed the same inside the Holy of Holies. Jesus, the Lamb of God, was now the Final Perfect Sacrifice. It’s no wonder that those three little words had the power to tear a thick temple curtain, to split the earth with an earthquake and even open tombs to resurrect dead people (Matthew 27:50-52).

“IT IS FINISHED.”

With Jesus, those words signaled the END of the sacrificial system. The END of the Old Covenant. The END of a system of religion. The END of captivity by sin and Satan. The END of the way things used to be. Ironically, just forty years later (the same amount of time the Israelites wandered in the wilderness), Jerusalem and her temple would be destroyed by Rome. Jesus prophesied the end was coming for those who rejected Him and the religion they held so dear. Since AD 70 the Jews have not had a temple, a Holy of Holies, a priesthood or a sacrificial system. God had left the building.

IT WAS FINISHED.

From that point on, Jesus has been “making all things new (Revelation 21:5).”

Jesus was creating a better Covenant with man, a new Covenant of Grace. We are now His temple. We are the resurrected ones participating in a Kingdom not of this world. Jesus has opened a New Jerusalem for His People to enter, experience and enjoy. A Heavenly Jerusalem that lives up to its name: City of Peace.

IT WAS FINISHED.

Similarly, when Jesus’ blood is applied to the door frames of our heart, the “death angel” passes over us. Death no longer carries a sting. The grave no longer holds. We LIVE eternally. We LIVE with God as His People. Like Adam and Eve in the garden and like the ancient Israelites, God now dwells personally with His People, the Church of Christ. We are a Spiritual Nation with no boundaries. All people of all nations are welcome. We are free. We are protected. We are blessed.

IT. IS. FINISHED.

And “it is finished” means it was finished.

Trust me, those three little words truly change everything.

It’s what makes Good Friday GOOD.

(Still) Stuck: What Church Leaders Need to Know About Gen X (Part 2)

 

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In the early 70s, Stealer’s Wheel had an AM radio hit titled “Stuck in the Middle With You.” There were clowns to the left and jokers to the right but the singer was still “stuck in the middle.”

Yes I’m stuck in the middle with you,
And I’m wondering what it is I should do,
It’s so hard to keep this smile from my face,
Losing control, yeah, I’m all over the place,
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you

It could be Gen X’s generational theme song.

As I documented in my last post, Gen X (b. 1961-1981) is the “Jan Brady” of American generations. It grew up sandwiched between two great American generations: the older Boomers (b. 1943-1960) and the younger Millennials (b. 1982-2004). Stuck in the middle is never easy and Gen X has naturally grown up a bit chippy and grumpy.

As leaders, particularly elders of local churches, it’s critical to understand the generational dynamic of a congregation. As you survey your church do you see a predominant generation? If you’re like many churches today you’re probably seeing more gray, white, blue and no hairs. In my studies of churches in the past 35 years I’ve noticed when the average age of a church exceeds 50 that it’s a potential sign of decline. Healthy churches mirror the contextual age of their community and unless you’re in a retirement community you need to stay below that “age” watermark.

Which brings us to another sobering generational truth: while the fast-graying Boomers are finally retiring and the 20- and 30-something Millennials play their entitlement cards (with some success), Gen X is now getting passed over.

It’s very evident in the job market. The Great Recession (2007-2012) hit Gen X the hardest. The emerging digital and cyber economy shuttered middle management and ended industrial-era employment. Many 40-something Gen Xers lost full-time jobs and never got them back while Boom elders worked past the traditional retirement age of 55. To survive, Gen X downsized, moved, and chose bankruptcy. Unlike the Depression generation, who eventually recovered, in a post-modern, post-industrial world Gen X can read the writing on the wall.

In the church this truth is equally evident.

The Boom generation first tasted leadership (as elders) back in the mid-1980s thanks to a leadership vacuum left by the retiring G.I. Generation. Many of these leaders were still in their late 20s and early 30s when they assumed eldership roles. These young Boom leaders launched an ecclesiastical revolution, sparking the infamous “praise versus hymns” worship wars. Boomers, particularly in megachurches, reinvented Sunday morning into an “event” where PowerPoint, bands and pulpit-less communicators took center stage.

Like good middle children Gen X complied and applauded these ecclesiastical cosmetic changes, then waited in the wings for their turn. By the 1990s, as Boomer senior ministers still held tightly to their pulpits, frustrated Gen X youth ministers launched a new “emerging church” brand that featured hipper music, better visuals and TedTalk sermons. The reason was simple: Gen Xers (unlike the Boomers) was AWOL from church and they wanted to get their peers back.

During the ‘2000s, a new reality emerged: the Millennials shocked everyone and left church altogether (becoming known as the “nones” for “no spiritual affiliation”). A decade later, Gen X grew restless and is now leading a new absentee cohort known as the “dones” (as in “done with church”). In many congregations Boomers are now the predominant regular attenders-aging fast and passing away.

The best solution is to reenergize Gen X, but that’s not happening.

Instead the American church is passing over Xers for the younger Millennial creating both angst and anger. Furthermore, countless older Gen X pastors, still capable and desirous, are tragically overlooked to lead as elders or hire as preachers or staff.

The Boom-led congregations want youth and Gen Xers no longer fit the mold. Meanwhile Gen X-led churches are also hiring the Millennial, even over their own peers (more affordable and moldable).

Gen X is caught in a proverbial catch 22.

So what can church leaders do?

First, aim for balance in your leadership and church staff. If one generation is dominant, there’s room for change. Second, survey the generational attitudes of your congregation. What’s the older Boomer wanting? What’s Gen X thinking? What’s the younger Millennial seeking?

It’s also time to think differently about Gen X altogether, especially those 50-somethings who’ve been out of work for awhile. They may be your best hire. They’re experienced, willing, capable and enthusiastically affordable.

Yes, Gen X is getting long in the tooth but that doesn’t mean they’re done or can’t lead a church to its best days.

The “stuck in the middle” Jan Brady generation just wants the chance.

 

Stuck in the Middle: What Church Leaders Need to Know About Gen X

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Gen X is the “Jan Brady” of American generations.

And for leaders, particularly elders, in the local church this is a significant insight to understand. How we view a generational cohort impacts the way we lead, the decisions we make and the legacy we leave.

Jan was the middle Brady Bunch sister, stuck between the popular, beautiful Marcia and the innocuous, precocious Cindy. Jan was constantly trying to fit in, speak out and move up in the family dynamics. She created new personas, chose compliance and voiced dissidence. Nothing worked.

In fact, as a middle sister she was frustrated, hurt and angry.

Gen X (born 1961-1981) knows that feeling well. We’ve grown up as a cultural “Jan Brady” between two great American generations.

As kids of the 70s and 80s, Gen X watched the Boom Generation (born 1943-1960) relish their popular status in American culture. These post-WW2 “Spock” babies were celebrated Disney kids—donning coonskin caps and Mickey Mouse ears—who later fueled a rock ’n roll era that produced beatniks, Black Panthers, Jesus freaks and flower children. Later, the Boomers enjoyed a 1980s Reagan economic renaissance fostering yet another moniker: yuppies (young urban professionals). They also found Jesus and seeded a megachurch movement that reimagined American Christianity.

Everything the Boomers did was big…and the shadow was long.

The problem is Gen Xers grew up beneath a different American psyche. Gen X was labeled and libeled as slackers, goonies, exorcist kids and bad news bears. Abortion, the Pill, the latchkey, daycare and divorce tattooed this 70s and 80s generation as did cultural events like Watergate, Iran hostages and the Challenger explosion. Consequently, Gen X has always nursed a cultural chip on their shoulders. Gen X was widely defined as cynical, lazy and snarky and so they’ve always felt like an outsider. To a breakfast club generation reality bites.

And then those innocuous Millennials came along in the 1980s.

Like precocious Cindy, this “baby on board” generation (born 1982-2004) was everything Gen X wasn’t. They were wanted, protected and venerated. With a cultural blessing from Hollywood to the White House, the Millennials could do no wrong. They were suckled on Disney, celebrated as “Spy Kids” and enjoyed “Home Improvement” family ties. The church showered Millennials with the best in children’s and youth ministry programs, events, curricula and facilities.

And now older Millennials are beginning to assume church leadership roles.

So, what do these generational contexts mean to you as the leader of a church?  Actually, quite a bit.  Take a look around your leadership “inner circle,” particularly your eldership.

How many are over the age of 56?  These are your “Marcia” Boomers.

Do you have any elders younger than 35?  These are “Cindy” Millennials.

The rest in the middle, in their late 30s to early 50s, are the “Jan Brady” Gen Xers.

From my long observation of churches in America today, if your church is under 300 members and at least 15 years old, chances are the majority of your elders are Boomers. Rural churches tend to lean towards boomer elders too.

Larger churches that were birthed pre-2000 tend to lean Boomer while emerging churches of the past decade tend to have Gen X and even Millennial elders.

All of these generational contexts are critical to how a church is led.

A primarily Boomer eldership will be more neo-traditional whereas a Gen X eldership will be more progressive. Boomer leaders and elders view change as a necessary evil while Gen X leaders and elders view change as inevitable.  Millennial leaders and elders, if they have a seat at the table, remain in the minority but they view change as constant. They are quite comfortable with fluidity and nothing is sacred.

Boomer leadership possesses an optimism that engages and attracts younger Millennial leaders. To the contrary, Gen X elders carry a cynicism that drives churches to think outside older formats, including the “mega” models popularized by the Boomers.

As the Boomers age (and it’s happening quicker now), they are starting to step down as leaders and elders. The problem is, in many American congregations, the Boomers are the only ones left. Many U.S. churches do not have a strong Gen X or Millennial population in their church and it’s created a leadership vacuum unlike anything we’ve seen in three decades.

As Bob Dylan sang, the times they are a-changin.’

He’s right.

And in part two we’ll dig deeper into what this all means.

Jesus Is Enough! My Reflections on a Tour Inside a Mormon Temple

22491747_684903691927_2070161661915870090_nRecently, I had the distinct honor, privilege and opportunity to tour the inside of the new Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) Temple in Meridian, ID on two different occasions, including once as part of a VIP group.  The VIP group was given longer access and featured more interaction opportunities. In fact, my second tour (for the public) was rushed, shuttled, dismissive and forgettable.

For a Mormon this building is a sacred place to perform baptisms on behalf of the dead, seal marriages for eternity and meditate on God’s goodness.

As a non-Mormon, the only time I can see the inside of an LDS temple is during these special previews or “open houses.” Shortly the temple will be dedicated and only Mormons with “temple recommends” (for keeping God’s commandments) will be permitted inside.

Both tours included a 12-minute opening video on why Mormons have temples and a closing reception area to ask missionaries questions (although in the public tour I saw no missionaries in the room). We were not allowed to take any photos or videos, go any place other than a strictly and highly secured path to certain rooms, including the baptismal font (a round pool built on the backs of 12 bulls representing the 12 tribes of Israel), instruction and sealing rooms for marriages and the “celestial” room for meditation.

From an architectural perspective, no expense was spared. Every room featured exquisite and expensive furniture, crystal chandeliers, beautiful paintings and fine carpets. Everyone wore paper booties to keep dirt damage minimal. I was very impressed. It was a truly beautiful building.

With that said, as both a biblical scholar and church historian, I left the experience with many thoughts, mostly due to the claims and statements by our LDS tour guides:

1. CLAIM: LDS TEMPLES ARE SIMILAR TO BIBLICAL TEMPLES. This idea was presented multiple times by different individuals and was mentioned in the literature we received, but it’s simply FALSE. First of all there were no “temples” in biblical times (pagan temples excluded) but only A TEMPLE (in Jerusalem) and it’s purpose was for the Israelites to come and make sacrifices (bloody animal, bird, grain) and offerings for their sins (I Kings 6-8, Hebrews 9:1-10). There is NO biblical or historical example of any marriages or baptisms (for the dead) being done in the temple of Solomon (pre-captivity) or the later reconstructed temple of Herod (Jesus’ time). This is a purely Mormon idea. You won’t find it in the Bible. To be honest, you won’t even find it in the Book of Mormon!

2. CLAIM: THE ANGEL MORONI (WHO REVEALED THE BOOK OF MORMON TO JOSEPH SMITH) IS NAMED IN THE BIBLE. Again, simply FALSE. I actually asked our VIP guide (who made this claim) to tell me where Moroni is cited by name in the Bible and he quickly back peddled. He mentioned a verse in Revelation 14:6-7 regarding an “angel” that the LDS interpret as Moroni but then conceded he was not uniquely named. Ironically, the Bible names a few selected “angels” (Gabriel [Daniel 8:15-27] and Michael [Jude 9], most notably), so if Moroni was such a special and important angel, why doesn’t the Bible mention him? The more difficult problem is the fact Revelation 14:6-7 predates Moroni by four centuries!  According to the Book of Mormon, Moroni is a human prophet and the son of Mormon (who lived c. AD 421). And yet the Book of Revelation was penned in the first century long before Moroni even lived!  Even if you believe humans become angels after death (another biblical fallacy), there’s no way the Revelation angel could be Moroni (as he wasn’t even born yet).

3. CLAIM: THE TEMPLE IS A PLACE FOR PEACEFUL MEDITATION. I will agree it was a “peaceful” and beautiful place. I have no doubt that it’s meditative for my Mormon friends, but I personally experienced no “peace” in either of my visits. That’s because I know, from personal experience and testimony, that this “peacefulness” only extends to Mormons in good standing who possess a temple “recommend” (there’s actually a bonafide black market that exists for “temple recommends” I’ve learned!). I believe a primary reason Mormons open their temples to “outsiders” for a brief “open house” isn’t necessarily for the curious “Gentile” (non-LDS) but rather the countless Mormons who can’t enter their own beautiful temple because they fail to live up to the “word of wisdom” (special LDS commandments), tithe fully their income or agree completely with the “restored gospel” (and there are many Mormons who fit this category). From an orthodox and historical biblical view, this is also a FALSE IDEA. The biblical temple was a place for the “unclean” sinners to come and be made right not a place only for those “recommended” or already living “right” (Hebrews 9:13,18-22).

4. CLAIM: MORMONS PERFORM BAPTISMS FOR THE DEAD TO ALLOW THE DECEASED A SECOND CHANCE FOR SALVATION. Baptism is necessary for salvation (something many orthodox Christians believe, by the way) so what about those who die without hearing that “gospel” or live a reckless life and realize after death they were wrong (and desire baptism and salvation)? This is why the LDS (and only the LDS) practice “baptisms for the dead.” But this, too, is a FALSE idea. Yes, the Scriptures mention being “baptized for the dead” (I Corinthians 15:29) but this single verse is hardly a justification for a “second chance”after-death salvation (and if the entire chapter and thought is read, the reference to being “baptized for the dead” has nothing to do with biblical baptism or Christianity). The truth? Scripture is very clear: you die and it’s judgment time (Hebrews 9:27, Matthew 12:36; Revelation 20:11-12). There are no second chances after death, which makes this peculiar LDS doctrine “comforting” only to the ignorant and insolent. In reality, if the biblical testimony is true, there’s hell to pay for those who don’t take care of business this side of Heaven.

5. CLAIM: MORMONS SEAL MARRIAGES FOR ALL TIME ALLOWING FAMILIES TO BE “FOREVER FAMILY.” Personally, I find this a beautiful idea and who wouldn’t desire to be with their family forever. The problem? It’s again unique to the LDS faith. No other expression of Christianity promotes this idea. In fact, Jesus himself said there would be NO MARRIAGE in heaven when expressly asked about it: Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:29-30). Jesus is right. Most of the popular ideas about what will happen in heaven or hell (and after death) are more Hollywood imagination, Dante’s Inferno and wishful thinking. Maybe all dogs do go to heaven (I don’t know), but I do trust Jesus when he says marriage isn’t forever. The problem is most people “do not know the Scriptures” or the Bible (and that includes the LDS).

Now, if you’re still reading, I want my Mormon friends and family to know that I don’t share these “claims” and counterpoints to argue, defame or hurt. I have great respect for faith, values and goodness. Some of the finest people I know are LDS. The Mormons I know live impeccable lives, strive hard to be “perfect” and are great friends, co-workers and neighbors. Many are genuinely “happy” people. But that doesn’t mean their religion is right and, let’s be brutally honest, none of that stuff means a hill of beans on the day you die. You don’t get extra credit or special points for temple work, good deeds and looking nice. Ultimately, it’s what you believe about JESUS.

And I believe JESUS IS ENOUGH.

The Apostle Paul wrote the Galatians something I think we all need to hear, but particularly my LDS friends and family:

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven (Moroni?) should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! (Galatians 1:6-9)

Now some of my readers might think I’m picking on the Mormons here. In fact, I suspect some of my good Mormon friends and family might feel I’m judging, criticizing or attacking them. That is simply NOT TRUE. I have nothing but LOVE for all people, regardless of what they believe. But that doesn’t mean that what every belief or doctrine or faith system is TRUE or RIGHT or of GOD.

Like I shared with a beautiful LDS “sister” missionary on my first visit: if her house was on fire she would want me to tell her. She was affirming to that notion and I suspect you would too. If I have erred in anything I’ve penned here, please correct me. And if my own spiritual house is on fire (heresy), I give you permission to rescue me. That’s what friends and family do.

And that’s all I’m doing in this post. I’m not attacking the PEOPLE–the good and wonderful Mormons–who believe they need a temple and must do special works (baptisms for the dead) or be sealed in the temple (to be “forever family”). I have no doubt that such ideas and “works” give comfort, peace and hope.

But that doesn’t mean these “endowments,” “sealings” and “rites” are BIBLICAL ideas (even if you attach biblical “proof” texts to them). For, again, they present a DIFFERENT GOSPEL (way of salvation) from the rest of Christianity (and tend to look more Masonic in origin and type than Christian). Regardless, it’s very clear that Mormon theology rests on “works” to be saved (as evidenced by the need to be “recommended” to perform more “works” to reach the highest “celestial heaven”).

Christianity is about GRACE alone (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Essentially, JESUS IS ENOUGH.

So I guess this is my way of knocking on the door (with love) of both my Mormon friends and anyone considering converting to Mormonism with an invitational and revolutionary idea: you don’t need a temple or a “recommend” or to do any more “good works” to gain or better your salvation.

You don’t need a church, a code of conduct, a word of wisdom, a living prophet, a priesthood, a recommend or any other golden ticket.

All you need is JESUS.

When Jesus died on the cross the Jerusalem temple veil was torn in two, opening the way for ALL men to have access to the Father through the Son (Matthew 27:51). The book of Hebrews particularly addresses the reasons why temples, sacrifices, priests and other human rituals are no longer necessary (Hebrews 10:1-18). This physical Jewish temple was destroyed very shortly after Hebrews was penned (AD 70) and has never been rebuilt (and I believe never will)…because it is UNNECESSARY.

Simply: JESUS IS ENOUGH. Just read (like a child) the New Testament. It’s very clear and simple.

In conclusion, after my own tour of this beautiful edifice, I would echo Paul’s words to the people of Athens (Acts 17:23-25):

“For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god [for me this was revealed to me in the “Celestial Room”]. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives EVERYONE life and breath and everything else.”

Yes! JESUS IS ENOUGH! Amen and Amen!

(Matthew 12:6, Hebrews 7:22-23).

The 9.5 Theses for a (Radical) Restoration of the Church

nbcM9a9TyrfWdcpD9mEKqirFToday is a significant day in Christian history.

On October 31, 1517—500 years ago—a German monk sounded a clarion call to reform the abuses of the medieval Church he loved. Martin Luther purposely chose All Hallow’s Eve, the night before All Saint’s Day (a revered day in his Roman Catholic tradition) to hammer 95 thesis statements into the wood of a Wittenberg church door. Luther’s act inspired the Protestant Reformation and ignited countless other movements—from the Great Awakening to the Jesus Movement—in the next five centuries.

I am personally a product of a nineteenth century “restoration movement” (Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone) who sought to restore the Church to ancient principles and practices. I have a deep respect and admiration for my ecclesiastical forefathers who worked tirelessly to restore biblical Christianity. Unfortunately, even this great fellowship of churches eventually adopted secular models over sacred expression, whether in church leadership or worship service or preaching style.

In other words, the “Restoration Movement” didn’t restore the Church, at least not fully. Rather, and to be brutally honest, it became a “nondenominational” denomination in its own right. And today this once dynamic movement has stiffened into a monument in many places. Too many of my dear brothers and sisters prefer to divide over non-essentials, battle over unnecessary causes and alienate over pet interpretations.

So today, in honor of Martin Luther, I pick up my own hammer and offer more than a reformation, renewal or even a reimagination. What we desperately hunger for is a true and complete biblical restoration of the Church.

And I think this (RADICAL) RESTORATION is easily captured in 9.5 statements:

THESIS ONE: The Church of Jesus Christ is Essentially One. We are not the only Christians but we must seek to be Christians only. When the Church operates in the unity that Jesus prayed (John 17:20-23), we are an unstoppable, unbelievable and undeniable Force for good and God.

THESIS TWO: The Church is the Kingdom of God on Earth. The Church is not a “plan B” or some ecclesiastical or eschatological after thought, as many preach and teach today. The Church is God’s Best Idea (along with a Messiah). It is the Kingdom predicted by Daniel (Daniel 2:44-45), revealed by Jesus (Mark 9:1, Luke 17:20-21) and promoted by the apostolic Church (Acts 8:12; 19:8; Colossians 4:11; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; Revelation 12:10-11). It is a Kingdom of Salt that seasons, a Light that reveals, a Joy that pleases, a Grace that releases, a Power that energizes and a Hope that inspires.

THESIS THREE: The Church is Bigger than it’s Monikers. There is no “one true” denomination and no particular human expression of “church” that is better than another. At best we all see things dimly, in glimpses and partially (1 Corinthians 13: 12). In Heaven there will be no Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Amish, Seventh-Day Adventists, Quakers, Charismatics, Reformed, Evangelical, Fundamental, Progressive, Conservative, Liberal or “non-denominational.” In Heaven, as it was in the beginning of the Church, there will only be one label for all: Christian (Acts 11:26).

THESIS FOUR: The Church was created for Radical Community. The Church is about circles, not squares; community not cliques; interaction not isolation. In Christ we all have a place at the table of Communion in the Eucharist that binds all Christians together. The Church is described as a Body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31) and Bride (Revelation 19:7; 21:2). We are a creative, connective and collaborative Family (Galatians 6:10). Consequently, we lead with forgiveness (2 Corinthians 2:10), love with purpose (1 Corinthians 16:14) and learn in community (Acts 2:42-47). Our gatherings must be immersed in interaction. No one should visit a Christian gathering without being tattooed by a relationship.

THESIS FIVE: The Church is guided by Matters of Faith not Opinion, Interpretation or Tradition. The Apostle Paul has given us the only creed the Church of Jesus Christ needs (Ephesians 4:4-5): we are one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father. Everything else is interpretation and opinion, including end-time positions, views on God’s sovereignty, spiritual gifts, musical style, day of worship, organizational values, leadership roles and any other divisive human tradition. It’s fully time the Church ceased dividing over matters of opinion and focus fully on matters of faith. We need to simply agree with a statement attributed to Augustine: “In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things, love.”

THESIS SIX: The Church is a Body not a Building. For the past seventeen centuries the Church has confined itself within basilicas and cathedrals, halls and chapels, sanctuaries and auditoriums. The vocabulary of the modern church now erroneously reflects “time and space.” Many Christians will say they “go to church,” but this contradicts, even betrays, the inherent power and purpose of authentic ekklesia. In reality, Christians are THE Church. As the Body of Christ, we are a Divine Organism not a human organization.  We are faces not a facility.  When the church devolves into a business, school or any other cultural institution, as it has clearly done in recent years, it creates handicap and dysfunction. It’s why the early church operated from homes not a “temple” or a “house of worship” (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15). God doesn’t live in our building (Acts 7:48-49), but within our hearts (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Consequently, the building should never be labeled a “house of God” or “temple” and neither is it a facility Christians attend.

THESIS SEVEN: The Church is composed of baptized believers only. In our baptism we are “born again” into Christ’s Kingdom (John 3:5). Baptism is our “Red Sea” experience (1 Corinthians 10:1-2), our Divine garment (Galatians 3:27), our spiritual cleansing (Acts 22:16; Titus 3:5) and salvation (1 Peter 3:21). And while visitors, guests, seekers and other interested persons are always welcome to journey in our Divine story, all those who follow Christ must identify fully with His death, burial and resurrection through baptism (Romans 6:3-4). It is a Christian’s mark–a circumcism of the heart (Colossians 2:11-15). This is especially critical and necessary before anyone is allowed to participate in the Lord’s Supper, as Communion or Eucharist is not something for outsiders, the ignorant or unrepentant (1 Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:27-29).

THESIS EIGHT: The Church gathers for discipleship, fellowship and worship. The ancient and Original DNA for why the Church gathers is found in Acts 2:42: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Essentially, we gather to learn the ancient teachings of Jesus and the apostles, to experience connection and community, to participate in the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist and to pray. It’s clear from other New Testament passages that these gatherings included congregational singing (Ephesians 5:19), testimonies (1 Corinthians 14:26), corporate prayer (Acts 4:24-31; 12:12) and even meals in these home fellowships (1 Corinthians 11:20-21). It also infers each “gathering” was small, from a few to perhaps a couple dozen believers. Consequently, these micro-congregations were discipleship-driven, fellowship-based and worship-focused.

THESIS NINE: The Church is led by “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.” Apostles are those commissioned and sent on a mission (i.e., missionaries). Prophets are those who lead the church forward through prophetic message and/or leadership. Evangelists are those who share the “good news” (gospel) of Jesus. Pastors are those designated to oversee and shepherd a group of believers (a.k.a. elders, overseers). Teachers are those called to instruct and equip. Spread throughout the Body of Christ are lay leaders or ministers (males and females) who administrate, serve, repair, maintain and direct specific acts of ministry, a.k.a. deacons or deaconesses (Acts 6:1-6; Romans 16:1; 1 Timothy 3:8-13).

THESIS NINE POINT FIVE: The Church was originally commissioned as a decentralized Body of believers. The centralization of the Church, nearly four hundred years after it’s Pentecostal launching, was never God’s desire (who initially had twelve tribes led by multiple judges, priests and prophets) or Jesus’ model (who discipled twelve men rather than one). The Original Expression of church leadership was clearly decentralized through multiple apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors or elders, teachers and ministers. Everyone in a church enjoyed opportunity, influence, power and control (1 Corinthians 14:26). There were no reverends, vicars, rectors, parsons, priests, bishops, cardinals, popes, lead pastors, senior ministers, executive ministers, associate pastors or any other leadership label that centralized power to a few individuals. Rather there were only general responsibilities to equip [Christ’s] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all [emphasis mine] reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:12-13).

In conclusion, I am not naïve in the knowledge that some or all of these statements will provoke controversy, argument or even division, for no great reformation, revolution or restoration was created without conflict, criticism and complaint. Nevertheless, I can no longer be silent on a clear and simple reading of Scripture, the long testimony of the historical Church and a leading by God to invite all those who love the Church into a conversation on where we’re at and where the Church is headed.  In fact, I would ask that you read the Scriptures linked to each point, please.

If I have erred or unintentionally misrepresented myself, the Church or my Christ, I humbly seek correction. I will never claim infallibility nor boast in my positions. I simply and humbly lay them before each man and woman to consider.

Nevertheless, I will desire, until my dying breath, to initiate a UNITY of the Church of Jesus Christ on planet earth and promote a committed and purposeful invitation to simply be Christians. We do not need denominational labels, human creeds, mission statements, auditoriums, chapels, cathedrals, pews, stained glass, stages, lighting, sound, fog machines, PowerPoint, Apple products, videos, performances, hip sermons, coffee bars, offices, bulletins, websites, special programming or any other human invention. They are tools, but they are not necessary tools.  Nor can we allow the traditions of man to supersede clear biblical teaching.  If the Scriptures say to do it, just do it.

Ultimately, we need only three things, as Paul so eloquently revealed to his Corinthian readers: FAITH. HOPE. LOVE. Faith is our confidence in what was and now is. Hope is our fuel for what will be. And Love is the bond to everything else. It’s why Paul identified LOVE as the GREATEST of the three. For without Love, our Faith is reduced to dogma, tradition and isolation. And without Love, Hope can become abstract, fuzzy and blinding. Ultimately, Love is the “greatest” because it’s the glue that binds Faith and Hope together.

So whether you agree or not with my 9.5 Theses is irrelevant to me.

I will still LOVE all people fully. I will remain FAITHful continually. And I will HOPE incessantly.

Here I stand, I truly can do no other.

The Dwindling (Active) Church Member

EmptyPewHouston has a problem.  So does Phoenix, Seattle, Denver, St. Louis and other cities.

But it ain’t just in the big towns.  Small town and rural USAmerica are experiencing the crunch too.  It’s a problem so big that Thom Rainer, a notable church researcher rightly observed:

“About 20 years ago, a church member was considered active in the church if he or she attended three times a week.  Today, a church member is considered active in the church if he or she attends three times a month.”

In his apologetic, Rainer cites five reasons for this shift:

  1. The local church has been minimized.
  2. Americans idolize their activities.
  3. We take vacations from church.
  4. Members aren’t held to high expectations.
  5. Churches make infrequent attendees leaders.

While I appreciate Rainer’s astute analysis, I do think the real reasons are much deeper, even different.  Yes, times have changed.  There’s no question the local church has lost influence and pull.  For most of two millennia the church was the center of a local culture.  That’s why steeples and bells were needed.  Churches doubled as schools, community centers, voting places and other social spaces.  Many pop historians think the television did more to erode the influence of the local church than anything else.  Television became the new conduit for Faith thanks to guys like Billy Graham, Robert Schuller, Jimmy Swaggart and other televangelists.

And don’t forget a Millennial generation that dined on Veggie Tales.

Do USAmericans idolize their activities over church?  Take vacations from church?  No doubt.  But WHY do they find other social gatherings, events and pastimes more inviting?  Why do people avoid going to church when they’re on vacation?

I have lived both sides of the ecclesiastical fence.  I’ve been both a pastor and pew-warmer.

I grew up in a small church (attending easily 3 times a week) during the ’60s and ’70s.  I loved the community, security and the opportunity my home church provided.  Monthly fellowship dinners. Sunday and Wednesday night church. All night prayer vigils.  All day service projects.  Two-week revivals and VBS.  In my church we had but one paid position: the preacher. Everyone else were volunteers, including janitorial and secretarial. Every child learned ministry as soon as they could help. I washed communion cups as a preschooler, served offering and communion as a child, led worship for Sunday church as a junior higher, preached and took communion to shut ins as an older teen.

In my church we didn’t have a youth minister.  We made ministers of our youth.

But something happened during the 1980s and 1990s. Church went from being a place of mission to a Sunday morning “show.” Even worship pastors think it’s a concert, asking–sometimes forcing–people to “stand” to worship (as if that’s the most “spiritual” posture). Preachers have turned incredibly territorial. Back in my youth I remember elders preaching and lots of guest preachers (missionaries particularly). Today, church has become what one of my grad students labeled just a “Ted Talk and a concert.” In my Christian Church tribe, weekly communion has become a drive-by event.  Anybody remember the pastoral prayer?  In the church of my youth, I recall several minutes reserved to pray for the needs in the body.  I remember elders praying for communion, deacons praying for offerings and even moments of silent prayer.  Not anymore.  Some churches barely have a prayer…literally.

For many it’s practically not worth the time to get dressed for church anymore.  Unless church is on the way to some other Sunday activity, it’s just as easy to catch a few more winks and watch the live-stream service in pajamas.

I’ve been blessed to experience hundreds of different churches, from home-based to megachurch, from rural to urban, and nearly every denominational flavor you can imagine. I’ve enjoyed church in every state except New Mexico and Hawaii (with hopes to knock that latter one off in 2017) and on three continents from South Africa to Tanzania to Moldova to Mexico to Canada.  I’ve talked to countless people about why they no longer regularly attend church and the reasons generally fall into a few main themes related to community issues, pastoral leadership or church vision.

1. WE CAN BAIT’EM BUT WE CAN’T BAG’EM!  Most churches are great at “welcoming visitors” but have no clue for how to engage and assimilate guests into the mission and ministry of a local church. Visitors feel welcomed but many returning guests grow confused.  People don’t need another coffee mug, but they would love a friend.  When guests enjoy the “show” (worship and preaching) but feel no connection or community, they quickly convert to spectators.  And if you’re not feeling up for the “show,” you stay away.

2. THE WORSHIP IDOL!  Most people, even guys, will sing and worship if it’s real and moving, but let’s be honest:  the whole “show” thing is troubling and many Christians–including very devoted ones–refuse to partake. I attended a church for a couple years that purposely hired “worship artists” to lead their Sunday gatherings.  So it was no mistake that church turned into a concert with light shows, high-tech visuals and even fog machines.  Some churches now pass out earplugs for sensitive ears.  But look around and you’ll see very few are singing.

3. THINK “CHEERS!”  We all want to go where “everyone knows my name.”  That’s why bars are packed on Saturday nights and churches are emptier on Sunday morning.  When was the last time you went to church expecting to meet a new friend or improve a relationship?  Simply put, all churches need to create space and time in the worship experience for community. I’m not talking that “meat and greet” thing to waste a few minutes so the musicians can fix/tune/change instruments. I mean, REAL time (up to 10 minutes) where people can connect, reflect, share, pray and discover friendships.

4. BORE NO MORE!  Preachers need to realize in a YouTube, Ted Talk and Twitter culture that less is more and that’s why more are staying away. The 30 minute sermon was a very productive tool in yesterday’s church but today’s postmodern prefers preachers to set the table and let them TALK about it. “I don’t need some guy on a stage to tell me how to live,” one Millennial opined, “I only need that guy to help me understand God’s Word and let me talk it out with a friend.” Preachers could easily do that under 15 minutes and I show you how in my book Sermons Reimagined.

5. A TRUE RESTORATION MOVEMENT!  I’ll confess my choice of churches is limited (at least for regular attendance).  I can put up with a lot of ecclesiastical stuff–including some poor theology, occasional bad preaching, church cliques and other shenanigans–but I have one requirement of the church where I choose to attend regularly:  weekly Lord’s Supper.  It’s more than a tradition for me.  It’s where I connect with Christ in my life.  I look forward to the Lord’s Supper more than singing praises, more than the sermon, more than the coffee and day-old donuts in the lobby.  I love this ancient biblical tradition.  Another one is baptism.  What a beautiful picture of community, grace and new life!  So I’m calling all churches to re-emphasize the biblical sacraments of baptism and weekly communion.

Ultimately, the Church will reorientate, reimagine and, hopefully, restore itself.

It has too.

In today’s 21C culture, one of the few truly radical “alternative lifestyles” left is a conservative, Bible-believing, Scripture-quoting, amen-shouting, hymn-singing Christian.

 

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