It’s pretty great to sleep in on Sundays! I hadn’t had the luxury in many years and I had forgotten how good it could feel. I’ve listened to people use it as an excuse for not going to church regularly and had been a bit judgmental about their lazy attitude toward something so significant as church attendance. And suddenly there I was laying in bed at 8:00AM Sunday morning… a full 90 minutes later than I would have usually been down to the church going over the set up and rehearsals preparing for service. I’d like to be able to say it felt like a guilty pleasure, but it just felt good; for the first couple of weeks anyway. About then I started to feel like a fish out of water. I needed to go to church. I wanted to go to church. But where? I went on the internet and looked for Christian churches in my area. No need to drive all over creation… there’s a church on every corner right? Not so. There really weren't that many to choose from in my area. But at that time I thought it made little difference where we went so long as we could find a place where we could feel we belonged.
My friends who had left the church around the time I did joined with me in the church-de-jour search and it got to be a bit funny. Where are we going this week? The reflections we shared over lunch after church were lively and often irreverent. Usually ending with a promise to never go back to “that” church again.
Dr. Seuss wrote a book called “Are You My Mother?” about a little bird that hatched from his shell and then fell out of his nest while his mother was away. He decided he needed go find her. Since he had not yet seen her face he had no idea what she looked like or how to find her. I felt a little like that baby bird. “Are you my church?” was the question on my heart each Sunday as we visited another congregation.
What we found was, by and large, they are all much the same. Some are more polished than others, but all the parts are there… 15 to 20 minutes of music; a live band usually; the dreaded greeting time where one is forced to turn in 45 degree segments and shake the hand of the person nearest them; turn another 45 degrees and shake another hand until you’d made the full 360 degree turn back to the front when you compulsively sit back down; then came the announcements, the offering and finally the pastor takes the pulpit and speaks for 30 to 40 minutes; a closing prayer and a warm “See you next week”.
Nothing wrong with any of that. But I found myself having trouble connecting. I felt bored. At times I even felt frustrated.
I ran into people I’d known from my previous church from time to time. I remember running into Lisa (not her real name) one Sunday morning. Lisa is one of those fiery Southern Baptists who works like crazy to spread the faith. She speaks at luncheons and retreats and people see her as an inspiration and a role model… but her family is a wreck. Her relationships with her children are broken and she doesn’t mince words when she says it’s because they are “bad”. I struggle with that. I think that a growing Christian being transformed into the likeness of Jesus Christ would be compelled by their own heart to self-examination, self-scrutiny, self-sacrifice, selflessness. God doesn’t write off any of His children. Why would anyone modeling their life after God think it was okay to give up on their own?
I wondered, as I looked around the congregation, who among this group is growing and changing? Who here is more like Christ this year than last year? How many devoted members have stalled out in their process of being transformed into the image of Christ as the Bible describes it?
Church leaders have an agenda. We strive to plan and prepare messages and services that will inspire each and every person who attends to CONTINUALLY grow as fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. I have never met a pastor who didn’t concern themselves with being successful in this area. I have never met a pastor who was satisfied with a lack of spiritual growth or discipleship. I have never met a true minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ who set out to build a church that functioned more like a social club than a sanctuary.
And yet in 14 years of ministry and 30 years as a Christian I can think of more people who have grown little than those who have grown and changed with great measure.
We’re all messed up--- it’s just a matter of degree. We all sin. We all have lied. We all fail. But the life of a disciple is one of continual growth. If I was weak in some area of my character last year and it is still just as weak this year then something is wrong. I haven’t been conformed into the image of Christ in that area of my life. The question then becomes Why Not?
Christians should not be content with their own broken lives. They should not be satisfied with broken relationships. They should not feel satisfied with their progress as a disciple of Christ if they have stopped growing or changing.
After 5 years of visiting new churches I have come to believe that we have largely failed the people who come through the church doors each week. The church has lost its influence not only in the community at large, but in the lives of its own members too. We have bent and shaped the message and its delivery to please the crowd. We’ve settled for form over function. We think we’re doing it “right” so long as we’ve covered the list: 15 minutes of worship, greeting, announcements, offering and message complete with fill-in-the-blank sermon notes. We measure our success by the feedback we receive from those that attend. Did they like it? Did they participate in worship? Are they giving regularly? Are we growing?
But there is a much greater measure. There is this More that we’ve lost touch with. The transformational qualities that are present when one has an authentic encounter with the Holy Spirit. We’ve learned to measure by emotion… when we’re meant to measure by the nature of the Spirit. It’s great when the members become more committed, but far more meaningful when they become more Spiritual.
Imagine if there were no color in the sky. Everything else was just as it should be, but there was no blue sky. Just space. Colorless, space. At first we’d feel like we were missing something. After some time, though, we would cease to notice. It would become “normal”. We could look around the beautiful landscape and appreciate and value the trees, the ocean, the green, green grass…. Never knowing that we were meant to have a blue sky.
I have come to believe that many of our churches are living this way. And it’s been this way for so long now that the members don’t even know that they are meant to be basking in the beauty of a clear blue sky. Something so immense that it can’t be fully comprehended. The beauty of which far surpasses the most spectacular tree, or mountain or lovely field of flowers. The More that they didn’t even know was meant to be a part of their everyday experience.
I’m not really interested in arguing how things got this way. I’m sure there are lots of reasons; Nor am I interested in placing blame.
I am far more interested in finding the churches that are living and growing and THRIVING under the blessing of the big blue sky. I know there are some out there. My heart tells me that if I can find a few of them, I just may be able to discern what it is about them that pierce through the gray so that the immense Spirit of God is allowed to flood in.
And, by God’s grace, articulate it in such a way that inspires fresh hope and new direction for a church on the verge of extinction.