Let’s face it. If you say the word “church” a less than enthusiastic response is likely to follow.
True, there are some glorious exceptions, but by and large those who have never been part of a church tend to express views that have been shaped by the press coverage the church has been receiving (almost uniformly bad).
While those who have often launched into a story of feeling let down, disappointed or even betrayed. Many will tell you that they now embrace a churchless faith, one which is real but which effectively says “Jesus yes, church, no!”
Others will tell you of how hard they have worked to keep their local church going and how exhausted it has left them feeling.
For those of us who have spent their lives as a pastor or representative of the church (as I have) it is more than a little disappointing.
Or is it?
Imagine a new type of church
In an age when an ever-increasing number of people are willing to define themselves as “spiritual but not religious” we need to move from defensiveness (“Those are not competing categories!”) to curiosity (“Why do so many people say this?”). Could it be that in the midst of the antagonism towards the church there are gems to be spotted and guidance to be found? Perhaps there is even a new category of church that could be imagined – for want of a better name, “church-lite”.
Church-lite could be church without 12 minutes of advertising and marketing at every service to make sure you buy into the additional religious products that are on offer (often very worthy ones, but I suspect most attend the service hoping to hear more about Jesus and less about the extras). Church-lite could be less church centric (where the emphasis is on how to keep this Church buzzing) and more interested in how to follow Jesus in our non-church, Monday-Saturday world. Church-lite could be deeply spiritual – about being together with others who are trying to hear the voice of God. Church-lite could help me to examine my life in the light of if I am a good neighbour, or work colleague, or family member or friend. Church-lite could help me reflect on some of the big questions of life. Church-lite could introduce me to some important spiritual disciplines like prayer, and listening to Scripture, and confession, and gratitude. Church-lite could leave me less suspicious of others and more open to simply being a companion or friend. Church-lite could accept that church is primarily supposed to be about God and could make God the focus.
Do we need a ministry for every demographic?
In practice, is a minimalistic version of church possible? Do we need a ministry that focuses on children; and youth; and young adults; and women; and men; and the elderly; and the addicted; and… Well I know churches that boast of over 40 ministries all targeted at particular groups. And I can see the need for some, but at what point are we simply becoming over-complicated and creating a version of church that consumes more and more of our time, leaving us with less to follow Jesus in the world. What if saying yes to a church program means saying no to a neighbour?
Am I being too vague? Perhaps an example might help. In a church where I was pastor (I will leave it unnamed, and this is certainly not an attack on the great work they have always done) a man came to me to apologetically announce that he would no longer be attending the church small group he was part of. We encouraged everyone to be part of a small group to help them to grow in their faith and knowledge of scripture and – well you know the wonderful work small groups often do – so I felt a little disappointed. “Trouble is,” he said, “I’ve only got 24 hours in a day, and I have 4 children and I’m coaching my youngest son’s soccer team. I am building a great relationship with the kids and their parents and feel that God wants me to serve there rather than to chat about my life each week with a group of likeminded Christians – lovely though they are. I hope you don’t mind or feel that I am falling away from Jesus, but I really don’t know how else to balance my time and still be a good husband and dad.” He was (is) a wonderful man – and in his own way he was pleading with me to be relaxed with church-lite. Actually, I suspect that if everyone in the church had been like him our impact would have been 2, 3 or even 10 times as great.
So here’s the question. Could it be that church-lite turns out to be church heavy, not because it focuses on the church, but precisely because it doesn’t? Perhaps if we trust Jesus with the welfare of the church, and focus a little more on following Jesus in the world, some false barriers between church and world will fall down, and those who are curious about God will know some Jesus followers they can chat to.
Article supplied with thanks to Brian Harris.
About the Author: Brian is a speaker, teacher, leader, writer, author and respected theologian who is founding director of the AVENIR Leadership Institute, fostering leaders who will make a positive impact on the world.