© 2014 John Casimir O'Keefe

All This Talk About Church

Yesterday I read an article that got me thinking, and to be honest, I love what that happens. The article is by Catlin Deyerle, Millennial Goldilocks and the Perfect Church [here]. The premise of the article, or at least the premise I got from the article, is “accept the dysfunction of the church because people are dysfunctional, so deal with it.” Now, that may not be the premise the author desired to get across, but it is what I read. Catlin says…

But what you say is true—it often seems like the church our generation would really connect with does not exist, and I am a bit sensitive about this fact. I am a bit sensitive because some of the things you say turn you off about other churches I know are true of the lovely, quirky, organ-music-filled church that I serve. I am just as frustrated as you are that no place seems to be that perfect combination of the right sort of people and the right sort of music and the right sort of theology for many millennials to feel perfectly at home; but I wish you could see how much goodness and love there is in humble, imperfect churches like mine.

But the question that always comes to my mind when I hear that a church is filled with dysfunctional people is, How changed are we? You see, Jesus calls us to be a changed people, people made whole in relationship to the Divine, and to simply accept our brokenness and not strive to become whole, seems defeatist to me. Besides, people I have talked too about church have little to say about broken people, but they have a great deal to say about the abuse they feel from those who are broken, and simply desire to pass their brokenness on to others.

At this point in time, many of us have read the books, reports, the stats and bazillion articles about church growth; yes, people are leaving many churches. By now, this fact should not be a shock, come-on we have been talking (some of us screaming) about it for years, everyone and his brother has written an article on how the church sucks, and its falling apart – I know, I wrote some of them myself. Many of those articles have focused on music or style – usually in context of traditional vs. contemporary – but to be honest with you, I find most of that (of late) to be a red herring, an idiom used mislead us from the relevant or important issue facing any Community of Faith. The whole traditional vs. contemporary debate is a fallacy of logical; it leads us towards a false conclusion that style is the issue. But, I do believe Catlin brings out a very important issue facing the church, our inability to seek healing and wholeness through Christ and our desire to simply excuse abuse as “being human.”

Before I go deeper into why I think people are leaving churches, let me share with you a few things about labels:

First, I am not a big supporter of labeling people, in that I am especially not crazy about labels like Millennials, Boomers, GenX, GenY or Nones.[1] One reason these label grinds my spins is that they strive to define people in a homogenous way that defies the human condition. Out of all those labels, the one that I hate the most is Nones. That lable says (or implies) that those who select this option don’t have a faith, it says they believe in nothing – and from what I have seen firsthand, this is not even close to the case; they have a deep faith, a deep spirituality, it might not be yours, and it might not fit comfortably into a category, but they still have a deep desire to know the Divine, and they are open to hearing what Jesus has to offer – they just don’t want to play your game.

Second, many people strive to use this group of Nones as a generational label (GenX, GenY, Millennial, or some other). But the reality is, people are leaving the church across all generational lines. People leaving any Community of Faith are people of all ages, all backgrounds, all traditions, all economical realities, and ethnic backgrounds – some attended a Community of Faith as a youth, some did not. Some were active in a Community of Faith for years, some for just a short time.

So, to clump any diverse group into one label seem disingenuous to who they are, and what they believe.

Now, what I want to do is share with you things I believe any church can do to move from “church” to a Community of Faith, and yes, break the trend of decline. Granted, many of these are not going to be easy, and many will challenge your core beliefs. But, for any Community of Faith to move ahead, grow and reach the world with the Love of Christ, changes need to happen.

First, to quote the great theologians Cheap Trick, “I want you to want me.” You need to realize people desire to be wanted, not just accepted. The reality is if you accept me into your Community of faith, what you are telling me is that you will tolerate me, at best. I don’t desire to be part of a Community of Faith that will tolerates me; I desire to be part of a Community of Faith that wants me. When you want me, you want what I have to offer, you want my diversity, you welcome me as part of the Family of Christ, regardless of who I love, who I see as friends. When you accept me, you might not accept some of the things I do, or say, but when you want me you are open to my views, my ideas, my doubts, my questions, my partner, my friends, my misunderstandings – you simply want me. Wanting me does not come with conditions.

Second, we have turned the church into a poorly recognized imitation of Let’s Make A Deal. We need to step back from the ideas, theology and focuses of the Consumer Church. To be a Community of Faith that reaches out to the community you need to stop asking yourself “what’s in this for me” and ask, “How can we help others?” Those outside, are looking for a Community of Faith that produces a faith that is put into action, not one that simply talks about what others should do. Plant a garden to feed people, open a food pantry (even if there are other food pantries in the area), open a thrift shop, open a restaurant that feeds people, mow the lawns of the elderly, or homebound, in the community, figure out a way to get out of fortress and into the community. Become a Community of faith that lives in praxis.

Third, stop being obsessed with sex; too many churches tend to oversimplify a very complex issue and become very judgmental in the process. I tend to think that sex is an issue in the church, because people in America are driven by talking about sex. I know a pastor (actually, many pastors) who refused to perform a wedding because the people lived together, and had a child “out of wedlock” (forgetting that Jesus was born out of wedlock). To be honest with you, I am so tired of hearing people talk about others sex life – we are so concerned with who others are sleeping with, and to be honest – that’s freaky to me. If all you can do is talking about who others sleep with, or don’t sleep with, I have to wonder what is on your mind. I know of three Pastors, no matter the topic can turn it into who is sleeping with whom.

Forth, you need to become a safe place for people to ask questions and encourage those who wrestle with doubt. Doubt is good; there is nothing bad about doubt. What I have found is that many people who are not involved with a Community of Faith have a ton of questions – and a ton of doubt. Your Community of Faith needs to be a place where they feel safe to ask the questions, and make sure you do not feed them with a company line – be honest, open and expressive – share your doubt, your questions.

Fifth, don’t be anti-science and anti-tech. There is nothing wrong with science, noting wrong with evolution – nothing. To deny science seems so weird to me. I love science, and if all you want to do is bash science, bash evolution, bash tech you lost me from the start.

Making a shift from a church to a Community of Faith, you need to make changes. Changing from an abusive environment to one what truly loves and wants others. One willing to embrace change, one willing to express those changes.


[1] Those who select “none of the above” when given a survey that asks what religious group they belong to

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