I’m often asked about what trends I see within Christianity, both good and bad. So in my ongoing effort to help name trends and offer an alternative way of thinking about our faith, here are the five biggest things I’ve seen that tend to keep us from doing our best work as the living, breathing body of Christ in the world today.
1. Church Buildings — Many of our church buildings were established in a time when Christianity was booming numerically in the United States. We could hardly keep up with the growth happening all around us. Understandably, churches popped up where the people were too, drawing many away from their old downtown churches to a more convenient suburban community. But as our numbers have dwindled – combined with the fact the we’re a much more mobile society now that ever before – many churches are becoming monuments to what has long since passed. They have become an albatross rather than an asset.
In some cases, these financial burdens are being turned back into the soil as they are sold off, repurposed, or given away to those who can do something relevant and exciting with them. For example, our new church start in southern Colorado benefitted from the gift of an old church building that hadn’t been occupied by one of our denomination’s congregations in more than 15 years. In Amarillo, a church finally closed its doors and sold off their property, only to have it reinvested by their region into what is now called Chalice Abbey. With it, they are doing all kinds of nontraditional – and yet creatively sustainable – kinds of work within the community.
But more often than not, we mistake the sense of responsibility to maintain our institutions as necessary to fulfill our call to live out the Gospel. Though this may sometimes be the case, we tend to spend far more time, energy, and money on infrastructure that is no longer needed, rather than knowing when to end a once-good thing and let it be remade into something new.
2. Denominations — It is estimated that there are as many as 38,000 Christian denominations in the world today. For many, their distinction from others like them are so minute that even the members within a given denomination can’t tell you what makes them unique. And if you ask those outside of the Christian faith, these divisions not only seem irrelevant; they are part of the reason they have little or no interest in being a part of the Christian faith.
Why, after all, would someone heed the call to community and reconciliation from a faith that is so desperately fractured and fragmented that few of our denominations are really sustainable anymore? Our administrative systems are still top-heavy from the good old days when we needed more governance to keep a sense of order, identity, and to allocate resources efficiently. But with the trend toward personal and local autonomy taking hold in many Christian communities, there is increasingly less of a reason to keep such hierarchic corporate structures on life support anymore.
3. Worship — Those of us within the church get a little bit obsessed with worship. For a lot of us, it’s the culmination of our week, the highlight of what we do best. And after all, part of our ministerial imperative is to call people to – and to lead them through – the practice of worshipping God. But we’ve gotten off track in a couple of ways.
First, there was a time when people wandered into our churches and all we had to do was welcome them, maybe plug them into a membership class or a volunteer opportunity, and they were “in.” And the time when this point of connection was most likely to happen was on Sunday morning. But more and more people are redefining – at least for themselves, if not as a faith community – what it means to worship. It can take place any time and anywhere that two are more are gathered with the shared intent of communing with God. It may or may not include music (which may or may not sound familiar to traditional church folks), may or may not have a sermon or much of anything else that resembles “worship” to us. And in holding tighter to our traditional notions of worship, rather than to the value of community, however and wherever it is expressed, we end up worshipping our own worship services more than we worship God.
Also, we’re mistaken if we believe that most people still are comfortable with the idea of walking in “cold” to a worship service as a way to get to know a church family. Whereas we’ve tended to see worship as the entry point into our church communities, this really should be flipped on its end today, so that we see invitation to worship as the culmination of a long-standing relationship with that person, built outside of the church, even before we earn the right to invite.
4. Church Boards — It’s understandable that churches feel the need to have some organized type of oversight to ensure that the mission of the church is being realized and that its resources are being used responsibly. But as is the case in most systems involving power, it is in the nature of church boards to stay more or less the same, rather than adapt to more accurately reflect the congregation, or even the community beyond the walls. Those most willing to volunteer to serve in such roles are those who “get it,” who understand the tory and history of the church, and who understand why the governance body is important. Those on the outside of that small group, however, often fail to see the value both of the board’s work and of their possible participation in it. Why, after all, invest so much in a system that seems outdated, slow, inefficient, and that has few (if any) faces that even vaguely resemble mine? So it largely stays the same, as institutional bodies have a bad habit of doing, without being forced to do otherwise.
Our boards also tend to operate on an old (and I’d argue, heavily colonialist) model of rule, based on centuries-old traditions from British Parliament. The notion of working toward consensus or finding ways to creatively integrate a pluralism of ideas all give way to the democratic vote, which only takes a half-plus-one majority to effectively silence the rest. Such a system seems increasingly blunt in a culture that is so dynamic and interconnected with alternate histories, stories, and values.
5. Fear — Too often, our actions in church are governed principally by a response to what we fear might happen, rather than faithfully discerning what God is calling us to do. We assume that the only way to tell if we’re being faithful is if the church buildings are full and the budgets are met. But this mandate is nowhere to be found in the Bible. To the degree that our institutions can serve our call to live out the Gospel, more power to those who are stewards of them. But when the fear of losing them becomes the focus of our work together, they are the idols we’ve come to worship more than God.
We also can let go of the fear that America is becoming an “anti-Christian” nation. When surveyed, only about 5 percent of Americans actually claim atheism, and there are an increasing number of people who either identify as Christian or “other” who feel some connection to God, but who don’t see the value of using church to explore that connection. This is not necessarily an indictment of us as individuals, but rather a wake-up call to help us recognize what’s really important. As Jesus demonstrated, the relationships matter so much more than our religion, and Jesus’ call is to go out among the people, not wait until they come to us.
Sure, it’s scary, because it’s vulnerable and a little bit risky. But Jesus never promised us a risk-free faith. Rather, he offered us a life filled with meaning, provided we would embrace the perfect love he offered that promised to cast out such fear.
Christian Piatt is a Sojourners Featured Writer and an author, editor, speaker, musician, and spoken word artist. He is director of church growth and development at First Christian Church in Portland, Ore. Christian is the creator and editor of Banned Questions About The Bible and Banned Questions About Jesus. His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.
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