Why the Church Needs to Change
and why I’m not going to shut up about it
For several years I’ve been raising questions about how we do church (lowercase). I struggled against the Church (uppercase) before I joined, but then as my faith grew stronger, I sought ways to help the Church change from the inside out. While I had some limited impacts in this endeavor, my efforts eventually lead to the termination of my career and the loss of our house, home, and earthly possessions.
After processing through the pain of that experience, and wandering a bit, I’ve been trying to engage the conversation again. But with limited results. It appears that Church leaders don’t want to admit (publically, or privately) that there are problems in the Church. And most members are content with the way things are. Meanwhile, people are leaving The Church in droves and church growth isn’t even keeping up with biological growth, it seems most are willing to ignore the changes needed to address this hemorrhage.
My calling from the wilderness (via social media) is embraced by a few, but I get a lot of pushback and vitriol. It seems most solid church leaders and members would rather I keep quiet. There are three reasons I won’t.
- First, I believe The Church is God’s appointed vessel of love, mission, and service. I believe God has high expectations for The Church and it is our collective responsibility to strive for excellence.
- Second, there are obvious problems in The Church, but like a dysfunctional family, we’d like to hide those problems and avoid talking about them. This creates an artificial veil of secrecy and a layer of inauthenticity that creates deeper issues.
- Finally, many in our society have given up on institutions (eg; government, media, church, etc) and are leaving those institutions for more organic community forums. They are seeking to connect and serve through less structured and superficial groups that love and accept people on their face value.
(I’ll address these below)
The Church (uppercase = the global Christian culture) has existed in many forms since the dawn of humanity. The Church, as we know it, has its foundational roots in Jesus’ life and ministry, but didn’t really begin to grow until after Jesus’ death. It wasn’t until the third century when significant Roman and Catholic thoughts influenced how we “do” church (lowercase = practices). There have been many changes in the past 17 centuries and significant influencers (eg; Martin Luther, et al), but our basic format and structure hasn’t changed much in the last 100 years (or so?).
In most churches, a traditional format is followed for the weekly worship service. Usually there is a gathering for children and adult Bible study. This is followed by a more formal church service consisting of scripture, prayer, congregational singing, and preaching. The elements vary, and some services are more contemporary than others, but for the most part, congregants meet at 9:30am for Sunday (or Sabbath) School and 11:00am for “church.” From what I understand, this paradigm corresponded with our agrarian-based culture. We arose with the sun, milked the cows, went to church, and then ate a large afternoon dinner — retiring for the night after one more milking.
Interestingly, we are no longer an agrarian society, and our urban centers revolve around the clock — barely slowing down over the weekends, but we still do church services as if we lived in the pre-industrial age. For this reason alone, it should be obvious that we need to change.
For some, admitting that change is necessary is admitting they were wrong. I don’t really understand this point of view. I see truth (lowercase) as progressive and organizations as evolving. As we travel the paths before us, we learn and grow and develop new ideas about how things could/should be done. For instance, in the prologue above, we understand why church services were typically held in the mornings and started at 9:30am. This gave families time to complete their morning chores, eat a healthy breakfast, and get cleaned up for church.
However, with less than 1% of Americans engaged in farming activities, this may be an outmoded concept. I’m not saying we should, or should not, change the time we do church — but I am saying we should examine our perspectives, motives, priorities, and analyze why we do what we do. This doesn’t mean our church ancestors were wrong, it just means we are remaining situationally aware and adapting to our circumstances.
Learning is what excellence is all about. Asking questions, making collective decisions, and doing what’s best for everyone involved — all within a biblical and godly framework. Asking questions is not bad, and it doesn’t mean we are wrong. In fact, they are just questions. But, let’s pursue excellence for the sake of excellence — not just because we are too afraid to change what used to work really well.
My point is that what used to work really well in a pre-industrial, small town environment, may not be working as well now. We shouldn’t throw any babies out with the bathwater, but we can live an examined life and be meaningful to the largest group of people possible.
Often we make decisions based on the people present in the room. The church board votes on the carpet color they like, the deacon’s committee designs the order of service based on their own preferences, and the pastor preaches a sermon based on his/her favorite topics. We’d like to believe we are open to our prayers for wisdom and guidance, and that we are completely open to the Holy Spirit, but the fact remains, we are weak.
Maybe we should be basing our decisions and styles on the next 100 people to join our church — not the 100 who have attended for the past 30 years?
Families that struggle with abuse or mental illness will often isolate themselves from friends, family, and neighbors. The shame in the home is so great, they can’t bare being exposed to the light of scrutiny. As a child in the first few years of school i had a good friend. I was never in my best friend’s home though. He’d meet me on the porch and we’d play, but I never met his parents, never used his bathroom, and never sat at his kitchen table eating snacks. It wasn’t until later in life that I realized something odd about that arrangement. I realized there were secrets in that house.
My friends who grew up in homes where substance, sexual, or physical abuse were occurring, tell me about the shame in their households. They tell me how they used to try and paint a rosy picture to their friends and family. They lied about the pain, the scars, and the tragedies they witnessed. It wasn’t safe to share those stories.
People who have escaped (or are trying to escape) from abusive and fundamentalist church environments share similar stories. The secrets run deep and often their are primary perpetrators of control and spiritual abuse. Regular church attenders and members who don’t want to rock the boat are often cooperating with those bullies. There are dozens of enablers — all of them operating with the best of intentions.
And then there are the marginalized folks on the other end of the bell curve. They don’t leave because they’ve been taught that church is where one must experience Christianity.
These dynamics play out in larger and more healthy churches also, but often in the shadows that a person with less intuition may not notice. There are cliques and clubs and groups and pecking orders that almost have more latitude in larger churches. Certain groups within a more healthy strata of the church may never be exposed to the hurting and broken people who are not a part of their clique.
I believe these healthier socioeconomic groups don’t even see or notice the pain occurring within their larger church body. Most of us do a pretty good job of faking it, but not always. During a time of stress and pain for our family, most church goers simply avoided us. They didn’t know our marriage was crumbling, that depression was crushing us, or that we were about to be homeless and unemployed. It seemed as if they didn’t care.
If I could have ingratiated myself to the stronger groups, maybe they would have embraced us -- despite our pain? However, as it was, I felt ostracized, ashamed, and socially unacceptable. Having lived this experience for several years, I can now see how some have lived their whole lives, alone, right in the middle of what most people call a very “friendly church family.”
We have to open our eyes to the pain, dysfunction, and abuse (spiritual, emotional, sexual, and political) that is occurring within our churches. We also must be more open to embracing people who are struggling with abuse, mental illness, and poverty (financial, social, emotional, and spiritual) within our ranks.
This is why I won’t shut up — this is why I will continue to be a voice in the wilderness.
There has been much written about what millennials and postmoderns are looking for in their churches — and The Church. I’m not going to detail that here. Just suffice it to say, it isn’t about programming, music styles, a certain version of the Bible, or the style of church services. It isn’t about dress codes, the time of day when the church meets, or any other superficial, outward issue. It is about attitude.
While the above issues may lower the barriers for church, they won’t necessarily “fix” The Church. What we really need is a healthy dose of reality and transparency.
People crave intimacy in their gatherings, they desire making a difference, and they certainly want to be real. When those within The Church can be real, authentic, transparent, and experiential, they give courage to the blind, poor, and spiritually naked. Healthy church goers make it safe for outsiders to pursue health. They don’t feel judged or ashamed around people who are focused on Jesus — and nothing else.
Oh yeah, one PS — when the church talks about their struggles openly, it builds trust. While some may be scared away by this depth of honesty, many see people actively pursuing excellence and not talking down to them from their hypocritical ivory towers. Even better is when the leadership of the churches/Church ask the outsiders to help them solve their problems.
There are many ways to express our health, and I’m not going to detail those here — again, there has been much written on this. But until people realize that we could be doing this better, there’s really no point in discussing how to do it better. Until people are open to the fact that we could pursue excellence better, then why should we even talk about what that would look like.
Just because we need to change, doesn’t mean it was wrong in the past. We’re just learning to do things differently and to better meet people where they are in their journey. People and our culture are radically different to what they were 100 and 200 years ago.
If we could learn to listen to the needs of the marginalized…
If we could learn to model real faith and love…
If we could learn to help people overcome their shame, their addictions, and to escape the pits they’ve fallen into…
Well, maybe we could become the kind of Church we see in Acts 2, Matthew 25, and John 17. Maybe all of our truths (lowercase) don’t add up to one solid Truth (John 14:6)?
Maybe we should listen to the naysayers, the Jeremiahs, the Hoseas, and the voices crying in the wilderness?