We need to stop sucking.
This is part three of my series on things I learned when I spent four months visiting different churches, and, frankly, it’s the one I tried to convince myself I didn’t need to write.
I don’t aspire to rock the boat too much on this blog, so this one is a bit hard for me, especially since I LOVE churches and I don’t want to sound critical, or self righteous, or like my home church has got everything figured out. But I can’t shake the conviction I need to write this one, so here I go, with no small amount of trepidation.
“What did you learn as a pastor from visiting fourteen churches over four months?”
I learned that we have GOT to do better.
(Or, if I’m really being honest and saying what I’ve actually said when people ask me this in person: I learned that we have got to STOP SUCKING).
I don’t mean that we need to have higher quality musicians for music or that we need to hunt for a preacher that will draw the big crowds.
If you’ve ever been to my own church, you’ll know that our music is led by volunteers and that this preacher hasn’t attracted too many masses over the last thirteen years.
I’m not talking about adding smoke machines or bigger parking lots or flashy websites or fancy production teams to create swanky slides and graphics.
When I say that we, as the church, often SUCK I mean that we struggle to do the one thing every church is called to do: Make a space where people can meet Jesus exactly as they are… and not as we think they should be.
My time visiting churches made me wonder if most of us are willing to do that.
Over the last four months, I visited lots of wonderful churches that I would recommend to any Christian. However, I did not find many churches that, in good conscience, I could send someone who was new to church, discouraged by faith, or trying church again after a long time away. This is not because I went to bad churches. It’s because most churches have language and customs and ways of doing things that no one explains to people who are on the outside.
More than that, our pattern as churches these days seems to be to keep doing what we have always done and HOPE that people will jump on board with doing things the way WE like them so we can keep doing church that way that makes US comfortable.
And then, when we find that our churches are shrinking in size, or our kids and grandkids are totally disinterested in doing church with us, we blame THEM. We blame SOCIETY. We blame the WORLD – because that’s easier than looking at ourselves.
When I visited a large cathedral on my travels in the United Kingdom I got talking to one of the volunteers who was offering tours. She explained that she was a member of the church and that the only way they could afford to keep running the building was through the donations of people who came for the tours. She explained that their membership had shrunk from thousands to just a few hundred and then said: “But what can we do? No one goes to church anymore.”
Well, I didn’t say this to this very sweet lady, but I wanted to say: “Well, you can do SOMETHING.”
Friends, do not believe the lie we tell ourselves as church goers that people don’t care about God anymore. It’s NOT TRUE. It literally only takes two hours and one glass of wine with any of my friends who aren’t Christians for the conversation to turn to faith. They WANT to ask about God. They WANT to talk about their questions and what really matters in life and how it all fits for them. Yes, sometimes they are angry. Yes, sometimes they are cynical. And almost always they don’t want to “go to church.” But that doesn’t mean they don’t want God. It doesn’t even mean they don’t want some form of church.
It means they don’t want to stand and sit at certain times and sing songs they don’t know. They don’t want to get up early on a Sunday morning. They don’t want to hear lessons on topics that have nothing to do with their lives. They don’t want to recite words they don’t understand. For many, this is all that church is to them – a boring hour of something they might have been forced to do as kids, that they may or may not be willing to attend at Christmas time to make their Grandma happy. Often, if people are blunt, they will say: “I went to church and it kind of SUCKED.” Well, after visiting fourteen churches, I can say that sadly there were times I had to agree with them.
There were times no one talked to me, there were worship practices I didn’t understand that made me feel lost and teaching that had nothing to do with anything in my life. There were times I kept looking at my watch waiting for it to be over. I’m not trying to be mean here, but, can those of us who are church-goers reading this agree that we really don’t want someone who is looking for God to feel that way if they work up the nerve to try church for the first time?
When Jesus came to earth, he shook things up. When people pushed back on what he was teaching, this is what he said to explain what he was doing: “No one buys new wine and puts it in old wine skins.” Wine skins were pouches used to store wine. Obviously, after a while a pouch could become brittle or stretched, which made it prone to bursting. No one would put GOOD wine in something like that, right? Basically, he was saying that if you’ve got something amazing, you’re not going to put it in something that might burst and ruin it all.
I think sometimes what we do as churches is like putting new wine in old wine skins (or a broken bottle, or rusty container, or a glass with holes in it or whatever more modern analogy makes more sense to you).
We’ve got this amazing thing we have found in Jesus and often we try to deliver it in something that just isn’t working…and then when no one wants the wine we blame the PEOPLE instead of the wine skin! “Oh, people don’t want WINE!” we tell ourselves. “What could we possibly do about such a thing?…” And we wring our hands and plan another fundraiser to fix the roof.
Well, we CAN do something about this situation. We can try a different kind of wine skin, because I promise – people still want wine.
I’m not saying this means all churches need to use praise bands or throw out liturgical readings or try and be like any other congregation.
What I am saying, after visiting fourteen totally different congregations is this: let’s not be scared to try some new wine skins. Let’s make space to be innovative, open, and engaging. Let’s be willing to try some things that might not work until we find some things that do. Let’s listen to thirsty people about what kind of wine skins would make sense to them. Let’s be open to tweaking things, and open to overhaul. Let’s be willing to try new or go back to old. Let’s start small if we have to. Let’s not see it as “giving up” or “losing” when we ask ourselves what ways we can do things differently.
So what can we do?
There are lots of things we can do! There are a few ideas to get started.
We Can Explain Things
We can tell people how to find things in the Bible if we are asking them to read along, and we can give the backstory for passages that might not make sense and we can use words that are logical to people and explain why we do things like collect money and baptize people and sing songs together. I have friends who attend an Anglican church that has a formal, tradition service that I have loved attending. They have beautiful booklets they hand out to everyone with the service printed in it, and in a column alongside the service are descriptions of each part of the service and why they do it. They have put some thought into how they are delivering the wine. It’s fantastic.
We Can Change Things
Sometimes it’s time to look at some new ways to deliver that wine. Sometimes that is a change in music styles. Sometimes it is a change of when the service happens. Sometimes it is getting totally innovative and having “church” at coffee shops or in people’s homes or in places where people feel safe asking hard questions.
We Can Relax About Things That Don’t Matter That Much
This may be hard to believe, because it still shocks me, but do you know one of the BIGGEST things that almost EVERY SINGLE new person that comes to our church says made them feel welcome? “I liked that I could bring my coffee into church.”
I have been to churches where I have seen people asked to throw out a coffee before they can come inside. I went to a church where the FIRST THING the minister said when they welcomed everyone was: “A reminder to please use your cell phones for reading Scripture only and not to be texting or reading email in church.” Listen, if someone is at church for the first time, and they want to send a text, is it a big deal? And if we have to clean up a coffee spill, would it matter all that much? (And if you want to say right here “But people should show respect in church by not drinking a coffee!” please just go back to the beginning of this post and read the whole thing again. Please).
Let me be honest in saying that my church hasn’t got it all figured it out. I know there are lots of times people have experienced things at our church that have made them say “That SUCKED!” We do not have the perfect “wine skin.”
But, as I go back to pastoring after four months of experiencing life as someone on the “outside” of a church, I feel even more certain that we have got to keep trying.
So we will.