So after about a month of not being able to go to church, I get to go to church tomorrow night. And I have the day off so I also get to go with the church in the morning to a Baptism at Lake Whatcom. I am very excited and I think I have managed to guarantee at least one more Sunday this month so my great joy doesn’t ride on how satisfying this one Sunday is (because it is all about me).
But I figured I have at least one more post about not going to church in me. In my earlier installments, I reflected on my own existential angst about my inability to attend church and the reality of how work often prevents those of us relegated to shift work from joining with the Body of Christ in weekly worship and fellowship. Today I wanted to reflect on those who used to go to church, but no longer go because they don’t see the need.
People leave church all the time, sometimes for some ugly reasons (i.e. unhealthy church systems which use and abuse people, burnout from a bazillion church activities, woundedness from church conflict, disillusionment stemming from clergy sexual misconduct, and the list goes on). As interesting (if heart-wrenching) as these reasons for not going to church, I am more interested in those who just stop going.
I have a friend like this. She came to faith as an adult while attending our local mega church (a place I affectionately refer to as ‘the show.’) She didn’t leave in a huff or because of a scandal. She has mostly positive things to say about her time there, claiming that it saved her marriage and she continues to rely on the faith she found their to sustain her through the challenges of life. But when I ask why she no longer goes to church, she just shrugs and says, “Pastor ____ only has about three years in him before the cycle repeats.”
I do not know if her criticism of Pastor ____’s preaching is legitimate. I suspect that it is not, because there are some gospel truths I need to hear much more than every three years. But I haven’t regularly attended that church, so maybe she’s right. Maybe every three years, Pastor _____ dusts off the same sermon, tells the same jokes, and delivers it all with the same cadence and inflection. Maybe they latch on to an idea for the worship service that ‘really works’ for the audience (I mean congregation) and they do it over and over again. Maybe the special effects become lackluster when you’ve seen them a dozen times. Maybe pyrotechnics can actually only take you so far. I don’t know. But for whatever reason, my friend feels that after a three year cycle that church has nothing more to give.
My purpose here is not just to criticize Mega-land churches. Often smaller churches are just as much ‘the show’ as the big ones. We just play small club settings instead of arenas and auditoriums. The question I have is this: In the way that we worship, are we preparing people for the long haul or offering short term encouragement for a part of life’s journey?
I ask this because my friend’s experience is hardly unique. I have another friend, full of church angst who for years attached himself to a mega-land youth group because of the ministry opportunity there. He would tell me that his advice to people was come to the mega church and find Jesus, go to the new believers classes and then start attending church somewhere else so that they could grow as a disciple of Christ. The only problem is, when people left mega-land to pursue God, they didn’t find the churches were appreciably different from where they left. If anything, the quality control was not quite as high.
I also have friends that leave their church every few years (without leaving the Church) to start attending a new church and shore up whatever was missing in their previous worship experience. I think different settings will illuminate the gospel differently and they might have more interesting and varied experience of worship than I do, but in the end they are relationally stunted when it comes to church. They have not connected with a fellowship for the long haul. They just shacked up with a congregation for a little while and when times got tough, they went out to buy cigarettes and never came back.
So here are two suggestions:
- Churches: As important as liturgy is, worship services should never be form over function.* By all means speak in the idiom of the people, be interesting and engaging but make sure you are also saying something. Never sacrifice depth for delivery, because people will not put deep roots down where the ground is shallow. Give people something to latch on for the long haul or get ready to say so long after a little while.
- People: In the long run, what will you sustain you is not a varied and satisfying worship experience, but a community of people who will gather around you and support you through the seasons of life. You need friends who will commit to you for the long term. And they need you, so stop messing around and find a church worth keeping.
In the end it is not as much about ‘going to church’ as it is about ‘being the church.’ That is a different experience and it is harder to turn your back on after a three year cycle.
*The Famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright is famous for two things: (1)Designing buildings which are pretty to look at and (2) designing homes that no one wants to live in. This is the problem with form over function.