Something which really helps me when trying to see the wood for the trees is to look at church over time and try and get a sense of the bigger picture. Things seem to go through this natural rhythm, and I find the trick is to see where I am in this rhythm, but I’ll get to that in a second.
I had a conversation with someone the other day, around the proverbial water-cooler. The person I was speaking to seemed blown away by the idea that even though they don’t go to church anymore, they could still pursue God. They genuinely believed that if you didn’t go to a local church then you couldn’t be someone who is interested in God, and so my ‘water-cooler’ companion had just written Him off. This was someone, like many people, who had been to church as a teenager for youth, and then decided church was full of ‘controlling, anal, pains-in-the-asses’ who insisted they become just like them, and so they left.
The problem seems obvious to me: people have been throwing the baby out with the bath water because Christians have told them that they can’t be ‘Christians’ unless you go to a local church (usually one that looks very much like the one they attend). And the church (God’s people) have written them all off as wrong or ungodly in an effort to avoid the criticism. I told this person that I still thought it was important to walk the road with others in community, but if they couldn’t stomach big institutional church it was ok, find another way. The important thing was to connect with God and find others to walk the road with, not to walk away altogether because people in big churches have made you feel crap about yourself for not liking their culture.
But maybe people leaving churches is about more than we think. Church is always going through cycles of change, and very simply put, it goes something like this:
-Someone takes a look at the bible, listens to God, and takes an honest look at the church, and surmises that things aren’t as they should be.
-This idea begins to spread and people begin to get unhappy with the way things are and vote with their feet.
-The mainline institution closes ranks and gets miffed with those who question; killing them (or socially killing them in our ‘civilized’ day and age).
-Eventually those who see the holes move away and the church is reborn in some form.
-At some stage they become the new dominant ideology and institution forms around that… but it obviously has its own holes.
-One day, someone takes a look at the bible, listens to God, and takes an honest look at the church, and, well you get the idea.
And this has happens over and over again. Which brings us neatly to this weird kind of natural rhythm that church seems to go through every 500 years or so.
For our purposes lets start with Jesus and the early church.
500 years later the church was being formalised under the Emperor Constantine and it goes from an underground movement to the official religion of the Empire.
500 years later the church splits in half and the Greek Orthodox go east and the Roman Catholics go west.
500 years later the Reformation sparks off and a load of new denominations split off from Roman Catholic Church.
500 years later is, well… now.
So are we in for another shake up?
The numbers suggest we’re already in one, and the only people who don’t realise it are those in mainline western churches, whose attendance is on a rapid decline. Check the stats. Its a fact. For example I read an article last week saying that a website had been started in the UK where people could go and download ‘De-Baptism’ certificates, so they could fill them out and distance themselves from the church completely. So far over 100,000 people have responded, and I’m sure the number is rising. Do we just give up on these people assuming they just “aren’t elected or chosen”, or “its the signs of the times, and we just need to hunker down in our our churches”, or some other cliche we use as psychological armour?
Please no! How is THAT what God wants? How can we have the arrogance to just write off the masses who are evacuating our churches, and not at least ask if it has something to do with us, and the way we’re doing things. Simply invoking the idea that we’re God’s church is not a reason to suggest that we’re beyond criticism. History is littered with God’s people needed a kick in the ass. You don’t think its possible that we’re there again?
A friend of mine, Brett “the Fish” Anderson, reproduced my last blog post in his Facebook notes to generate some discussion among some of his friends (which I am happy for anyone to do BTW, just link them through to blog page as well). One girl commented below saying how disturbed she was that so many people are ‘bailing on the church’. She said that she was really frustrated with people who ‘give up’ on ‘God’s church’. Now hang on a minute. I don’t think people are giving up on ‘God’s’ church, they are giving up on ‘your’ church because they don’t think it is what its supposed to be. Many can’t articulate why, but they sense there’s something out of whack. This particular woman said that she loves the church and she’s disturbed that others don’t… but maybe they do. You wouldn’t have said the reformers didn’t love the church, for breaking away from the Catholic Church. You wouldn’t have said the Eastern Orthodox lot didn’t love the church because they broke away. You wouldn’t accuse the Catholics of not loving the church for holding their ground. Hopefully, at their best moments, each of these groups actually made their choices because they loved the church.
I acknowledge that many people just leave because they’re disgruntled and bitter, but even they may have a point if we would just listen.
I think the baseline question for me at the moment is, “Can the Western Institution of Church (and I’m talking very generally here) be sorted out? Can it be re-imagined in time? Can it get back to more of what its meant to be?”
One of my mentors doesn’t think so. He thinks something ‘new’ needs to rise up in its place.
However, reading some of your responses, and listening to many of you over coffee, I feel hopeful, and think that many of us are already on the same page.
Then listening to others my heart sinks as I realise that to change anything many of you have to first acknowledge the holes… and no one wants to see the holes in the thing they love. We want to make excuses for it, cover it up, live in ignorant bliss, because its easier.
The reason I am writing this stuff is that I believe it can be turned around… but its going to take some very big people with some very great humility.
So where are you in this whole thing? Are you acknowledging the gaps in the way we ‘are’ church, or are you battening down the hatches? In this next big shift are you part of the group looking for a way forward, or part of the Institutional defensive line?
But can we at least all agree to stop trying to make people who leave think that they can’t reach God outside of our little institutions? Lets agree to encourage people to pursue God no matter what, and we’ll work the details out as we go.
Its as good a place as any to start.