Sometimes my life seems like a constant string of reevaluating opinions and attitudes and stupid things I say. Sometimes they’re things that I’ve been taught and never really thought too hard about. Sometimes they’re things that seem obvious on the surface, but there’s a lot going on underneath that I ignore. Sometimes it’s not that I’m wrong, it’s just that I’m just arrogant and graceless and went too far in what I said.
I’m not sure where this falls on the spectrum, but for the past few days, I’ve been thinking more and more about the Pew Research study (supposedly showing the decline of American Christianity) and the spins that various media outlets are giving it. The popular consensus seems to be the one that Ed Stetzer puts forward: that committed, or “convictional” Christians aren’t going anywhere, while “nominal Christians” (Christians in name only), or Default Christians as I put it in a recent post, aren’t checking the box any more. That’s basically what I said, and I likely wouldn’t have bothered saying it if I’d already known the number of much “larger” names saying the same thing.
In a nutshell, I said that it was a good thing. I said that nominal Christians shouldn’t be called Christians anyway. Then I went another step further to say that there are still a lot of nominal or default Christians in our pews that should basically go home and stop pretending. I said that if they did, then our churches would be more free to follow Jesus. I compared them to the fat of the church. Sometimes I’m an ass.
It’s not that I’m entirely wrong in what I said (I don’t think). Having pews full of marginal and uncommitted people who aren’t willing to commit to following Christ—becoming “real” Christians—does “weigh our churches down” and leave a less effective witness. I’ve been convinced, though, that my attitude towards it is unChristlike.
A big part of that was a reevaluation of Jesus’ “outreach” program, particularly as referenced in Matthew 9:11 —
When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
and, lest there be any confusion about exactly what kind of people these Pharisees meant, Matthew 11:19 —
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’
Those passages are nothing new to most Christians. I’ve heard them a million times. I’ve quoted them and taught from them. I think about them as I think about the people that to all of the obvious things that we assume people outside of the Church do… those filthy “non-Christians”… the sweaty unchurched. I think about Jesus going into bars and building relationships and teaching them grace. I think of it as an example or a metaphor for us going out into “the world” to “reach people” for Jesus.
The thing is, that’s not what happened.
By simple arrangement of geography and priorities, Jesus rarely, if ever, hung out with the “unchurched.” If we want to look for examples of outreach to the Gentiles, we need to look at Paul and the post-ascension apostles. Jesus, in his own words, came to seek and save the lost sheep of Israel. The tax-collectors, the drunkards, the whores and the sinners, they were Jews. They were people that knew God, born and raised in the synagogues, but lived contradictory lifestyles. They were backsliders. They were the nominals. They were the default Jews.
I don’t know what went on behind closed doors. I don’t know what Jesus looked like at their feasts and parties, and I’m not going to presume to. I do know that Jesus wasn’t rejoicing over them leaving. He certainly wasn’t coming down on them with God’s own thunder for their “sinfulness”. He loved them. He spent time with them. He was Jesus to them.
So much of the time my grace runs out at the door of the church. When I look at nominals as a pastor, especially long-term nominals, I get frustrated. I have a get-in-or-get-out mentality. I want to pour my effort into the people that seem to be “getting it,” and not waste it on the people that don’t. I want them to drop their crap and commit so that I can lead them. I’ll give all sorts of room for non-Christians to be messy. It’s expected. Sinners gonna sin. When it comes to people that have claimed the Savior, though, I have different expectations, and I don’t know what to do when my expectations aren’t met, so most of the time I ignore them. If I don’t ignore them, I want to preach at them so they’ll stop frustrating and embarrassing me.
Because it’s about me. My frustration. My embarrassment on God’s behalf.
Apparently Jesus has a lot more grace for nominals than most of us do. Maybe instead of wanting to clear them out so that the faithful can move forward to reaching the unchurched, we should be “coming to seek and save the lost sheep of Christianity.” Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what that would look like. I do know that it probably looks like something that could get a “good Christian” a bad name or a pastor a reputation for lackadaisical faith.
I know that there are plenty of times that scripture calls out the “lukewarm,” and Jesus calls for extreme commitment, but there’s something else going on too. It’s something I need to learn and explore. I know I’m going to tend to waffle around between extremes, but a pursuit of Christlikeness means continually adjusting my aim. Right now, I feel like God is reminding me of something important.
Jesus, friend of nominals, loves them. I can’t throw them under the bus.
As a pastor, I sometimes have trouble in “the ministry” because I don’t look like a pastor. There’s something in my demeanour that doesn’t scream “pastoral”. Despite being 32, people often place me at 24 and treat me younger. I blame my complete inability to grow decent facial hair. Also, my hair is kind of green right now, but that doesn’t count because it was dyed for a youth retreat last weekend. I lack a certain gravitas and probably always will. Such is my lot in life. I get some cred as a youth pastor though, and have been told that I’d fit in well leading one of those young churches… maybe a university church. I might be able to play it off in a specialized role at a mega-church. Young people would like me.
As a youth pastor, I’ve been concerned with young people. I work with them, I love them, and to some extent, I love their culture. I spend time focusing on how to relate to them, how to relate God to them, and how to get them to relate to God. As someone who’s still pretty young myself, I also have my own young person preferences and desires for worship. Sometimes that means I look at the way things are being done on Sunday morning and say “that’s not cool,” with the assumption that we need to make things cool, so that young people will come. Maybe that’s the music. Maybe it’s the volume. Maybe it’s the appearance of the stage (sorry, “platform,” I was recently crapped on by a church member for calling it a “stage.” [Also, I just said “crapped on,” which isn’t very pastoral]). Maybe it’s how the message is communicated. It’s been drilled into me, and into most of the evangelical church world, that “young people are the future of the church,” and if we don’t get them, the church is going to die. So now, many churches are doing their best to make our sanctuaries look like this:
I like that. It’s cool. It inspires me. I want to be on that stage. I want to be in that crowd. I can also pretty much guarantee that there is more green hair in that crowd than grey. This is what church looks like to this generation, and you’d better get on board, because this generation has to be reached for the Lord. We look at most of the “big” churches that show up in church media circles, and we see this as a functional model, because they’re growing. Younger people are flooding through the front doors and experiencing God in new and fresh ways.
Unfortunately, it seems that older people are quietly finding the back door.
There are times when I love watching YouTube videos of Hillsong live recordings, or Elevation Worship, or a giant event that Chris Tomlin is leading. But once I get past how awesome it looks to have so many hands raised to the sky, and so many people moved to tears by God’s grace and glory, it starts to bother me that the camera tends to linger on the same few middle aged people. Maybe it keeps returning to the one grandparent in the crowd. It pans over a thousand 20-somethings and rests on the exception to give the impression that this is for everyone – or at least everyone who can “get with what God is doing now.”
I’ve heard people (to be honest, I’ve been people) who have almost rejoiced at older people leaving the church, because it gave more freedom to do something new. We’ve embraced the immortal words of Barney Stinson: “New is ALWAYS better.” We feel the need to leave behind the old so that we can reach out to the new. It’s more important for us to reach the new than minister to the old because… because. Because new is always better. Maybe because the old are “already saved” and getting people “saved” is the end all and be all of our purpose, so once they’re “saved” we can forget about them and go save someone else. Why aren’t we worried about “saving” anyone over 50? And is anyone other than me concerned that in 20 years, we’ll be the ones shown the back door?
Yeah, I’m a young looking 32, but I’m ageing. The things that I like and the things that I liked when growing up aren’t the things that capture the imagination of the newest breed. My pop-culture references are taking work to stay relevant. Quoting Friends is met with blank stares. Some of the kids I work with have never even heard of Friends! So observe, and tremble. We have our vision of what church should look like, and in the future we cool ones are going to be fighting just as hard for our archaic modes of worship as those we mock today. Culture is changing so fast that we can’t even conceive of what that’s going to look like.
In the mean-time, we’re losing the idea that church is for everyone. We’re losing the idea that the family of God and the Body of Christ includes people that don’t like what we like. Maybe we’ve already lost it… hey, I’ve been on the other side of the equation (and reacted against it) at a church that refused to make any accommodation at all for the preferences of a new generation. It’s like churches are being forced to make a decision about which generation they are going to minister to (or to be so bland and middle-of-the-road that people will just head off to one of their preference-specific congregations anyway), and so one church loses the vigour, passion, and energy of the young, and another misses out on the wisdom and experience of the old.
I’ve become more and more convinced that the root of this evil is the idea that Sunday morning is for saving people, and that the attraction of the church should be the attraction of worshipping God. We’ve come to expect Sunday morning to be the primary point of contact between people and God. We want a place that people will be drawn to with excitement. We want a place where people will want to be because what is offered there is what they want to see. We want it to say “see, God is for you.”
And God is for you. But God’s also for him. And her. And the crying infant in the back. And the toddler rolling out into the aisle to chase their Hot Wheels car. And the embarrassed mother reigning them in, who should’t be embarrassed because God loves the fact that her kid is growing up in church surrounded by people that he is for. Like the 40-something woman in the other row that’s having trouble worshipping because she secretly envies the embarrassed mother because she can have children. Or the guy in his 50s that is completely tone-deaf and can’t keep rhythm to save his life. And his mother and father who taught him to love God with his whole mind and not his voice. And the elder with the walker that can’t decide whether to turn up his hearing aid to hear the music or turn it off so he can’t.
Sunday morning is about coming together as the family of God and the body of Christ, and joining together to worship and grow. And that’s hard. It’s so much harder than breaking off into little (or large) homogeneous groups worshipping in our own superior ways. And we panic, because coming together as the whole messy old and young body probably isn’t overly attractive to the world.
Man, I’ve gone on for a while here… I’m going to wrap it up soon, I promise. I don’t want to end it on this complaint, though, I want to talk about the solution. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wanting to hear it. By now you’ve forgotten that I’ve got weird hair, and my baby-face doesn’t matter on the other side of a wall of text. TL;DR has no meaning for you. Well done.
So here’s my solution: Forget about saving people. Churches should not be in the business of saving people. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be saved at church. I’m not saying that the Gospel shouldn’t be preached. I’m saying that that’s not the primary purpose of Sunday morning. The primary purpose of Sunday morning should be to equip us to be like Jesus. You know why people flocked to Jesus? Because he was like Jesus. You know who else can be like Jesus? Us. The Bible says so. Do you think a church with a congregation full of people like Jesus would do anything but grow? Who cares what the stage looks like. Who cares what the music is or what volume it’s played at. People would come.
People would come because we would be living lives of love that reached out to the people around us rather than insulating ourselves from them. People would come because we’re living holy lives – a holiness not focused merely on preserving ourselves from corruption but instead focused on setting ourselves apart for God – living as the people God made us to be, for the purpose he made us to have. People would come because they’d want what we have. People would come because they want to be like Jesus too.
We wouldn’t have to worry about front doors or back doors on our churches, because doors wouldn’t hold us.
I know… easier said than done. I know I’m not nearly as good at doing it as I am writing it.
What do you think?