photo © 2009 Monica Arellano-Ongpin | more info (via: Wylio)Recently I got into a heated discussion with a friend. She claimed that the Pentecostal style evangelical movement was the fastest growing denominational expression in the country and thus must be a movement of God. I shared my belief that the “formerly churched” contingent was actually the fastest growing sector of Christianity and asked if the same assumption could be made, “Does that mean people leaving churches is a movement of God?”
She then proceeded to discount the fact that millions of Christians have checked out of church saying, “You can’t count them. They are all just lazy and would rather play golf than to give time to God.” Well, that got me a bit heated because I have a lot of formerly churched friends and none of them choose not to go to church on Sunday because they are simply lazy.
Most of my “de-churched” friends are still devout Christians and I would put their walk with God above that of most every Sunday church goers. I actually know quite a few folks who have checked out of Church but whose spirituality is deeper now than it ever was before. I know many of my pastor friends are going to hate this post, but stick with me a minute.
Many of the people I know who have left the church did so because they were seeking something more. I actually think much of what I have witnessed among my friends and in my own church going experience is a backlash to the “seeker” movement which bred consumerism within the church.
In the 1990’s, we were told to think about church as business competing against the many entertainment options people have on Sunday. We began to market the church as such. We advertised our amazing “programs” and our “relevant, casual atmospheres.” We sought to make church easier, less demanding, more entertaining and for many this worked. This approach led to the rise of the mega-church phenomenon. I’ll admit, I was a big supporter back in the day. It made sense to my business brain. I never calculated the long-term cost of this philosophy of ministry.
Many mega-church leaders have become master showmen. They are highly engaging, their messages meet our felt needs and they make us feel good just for showing up on Sunday. They ask only for our presence in worship, our tithes, and our willingness to bring our friends to church.
At one point, I joined the missions committee of one of these churches and the most significant request they made of me was that I bake cookies for my neighbors and invite them to an upcoming Easter Egg hunt. I remember thinking, “Wow, Stephen was stoned, Paul beaten and imprisoned and my big sacrifice is baking cookies!?!”
Needless to say, I did not find much fulfillment at that church and we left shortly thereafter. Many would see my “church hopping” as a negative and would say I was treating the church like a consumer product. I guess in a way they would be correct. I was seeking a church that actually expects those who call themselves Christ followers to live in such a way that the world would see Jesus. Perhaps some would answer the question, “What would Jesus be doing in 2011?”, as “baking chocolate chip cookies and hosting an Easter egg hunt.” However, I just could not reconcile the Jesus of the bible with the kinds of Christ followers being produced by these churches.
I know many people have come to Christ in these Churches and I am not knocking them. I am just pointing out that “Christianity lite” is not right for everyone. While I admit that many have left the church out of boredom and are now on the golf courses or at the soccer field on Sunday morning, I do think there is a significant number who left for the same reason I left the cookie baking club. I left because I want to spend my time following Jesus. As I shared last week, following Jesus leads me into times of solitude in the wilderness and times of solidarity with the poor and oppressed. For me, Christianity is deeply spiritual and profoundly committed to social justice. I have found this combination hard to come by in the institutional expressions of the churches I have attended.
Though my question to my friend, “Does that mean that people leaving churches is a movement of God?”, was said tongue in cheek. I honestly think that the answer might be “yes.” Many of the people I know have not given up on following Jesus, they have simply felt called to go deeper in their walk. They are choosing to follow Jesus in ways that are different than our traditional “church going” images. In a way, the church did what it was supposed to do. It made them hungry for more and sent them out into the world to live out their call. Rather than judge that decision, I think we should be celebrating it.
I wish rather than Christian’s greeting one another with the question, “Where do you go to Church?” we instead ask, “Where do you see Jesus?” While I do experience Christ presence within the church walls, I also see Jesus in the faces of the people I work with and in the trees under which I seek God’s presence. I see Jesus in the budding “beloved community” we are ushering into existence in Hillside court and expressed in God’s reconciling work all around me. I also hear it in your comments on this blog and hope you will share with me any thoughts, ideas or insights you have into this subject.