Some of you seeing this title may already be up in arms, because you looooove your church. You love your pastor, your small groups, the kid’s ministry and the community you have built.
I get it. And I love that you love it.
Let me clarify that I am not devaluing your church encounters or the spiritual growth you may have experienced. All of that is valid and matters to your story.
This post isn’t directed towards a particular church or denomination – rather, it’s addressing an overall picture that many are choosing to walk away from.
(Please note: there are some really great mega churches that are thriving. Not all reflect the picture we are discussing. However, many churches are dropping in numbers which is what I’m diving into here)
I, too, have spent most of my life inside this model of what church is “supposed to be”. And, as a leader and former pastor, I often struggled with the discrepancy between what I saw in scripture versus what I experienced on Sunday morning.
Let me explain:
When you remove what many believe church is “supposed” to be, what Jesus supposedly looked like (thank you Easter movies), what sermons are supposed to sound like and how Christians are supposed to behave in our culture – when you remove all of that and read Jesus’ story in the gospels – the picture of the mega church quickly becomes a very foreign concept.
As I studied the gospels, the time in which they were written, the friends Jesus had, the things he said and didn’t say – I quickly compiled 6 major differences between Jesus’s gospel and the gospel of many Western American churches.
These stark differences, I believe, are many of the reasons why Jesus’ ministry flourished and why many modern day churches tend to hit an expiration date with their attendees.
Now, I will warn you, this list may ruffle your feathers. This may totally screw with your belief of what church, pastors, sermons, etc are supposed to be like. If you’re okay with that, read on 🙂
- Self-gain, self-promotion vs. the betterment of others. Remember when Jesus went into the temple and turned over tables? I especially remember the unsettling pictures in Sunday school that depicted Jesus with a scowling face as he violently threw tables and sent money flying into the air. NO ONE wanted to do whatever it was that those people did. As kids, we walked away with this understanding: money in church. bad idea. got it. But, as I grew to understand the character of God, I developed a better understanding of what happened that day: the money changers made “church” a place of personal gain and self-promotion. Jesus was the opposite of that. He was focused on the betterment of others – even those who were not inside his core group and often at his own expense.
Sadly, many church goers (and leaders) feel a tremendous amount of pressure to climb the top of the spiritual ladder, be the next big deal, produce the next greatest worship album – all under the guise of “following my calling” or “this is our vision”. They become threatened by anyone who appears to be more “anointed” or poses as a potential threat to their goal. Too often, their goal leaves many crushed in the aftermath of their next “big thing”. This cycle is so incorporated into the Western church culture that those hurt by it often go without much attention or thought.
- Including not excluding. Jesus, by far, is the single most equal opportunity includer listed in scripture. He included anyone and everyone. It’s one of the most baffling parts about his life because that was not the cultural norm. Our culture today is WAY more inclined to blend social groups than that culture, which is what makes this such a big deal.
He included the poor, the rich, the single, the married, the religious, the non-religious, the moral, the immoral, the liar, the thief, the cheat. He was mocked, accused and be-littled because of who he shared meals with. His table was open to anyone and everyone – not just people who agreed with him. And, his inclusion was with the sole purpose of loving, giving and meeting needs.
Sadly, many evangelicals have taken a “them vs. us” mentality. Where we only hang out with, talk with, partner with, socialize with, defend and protect those who agree with us theologically. We do not offer a listening ear to the other side of many arguments. And we certainly don’t invite the other side over for dinner (unless of course it is with an agenda to witness). We posture ourselves defensively with closed fists, instead of open arms. And the moment one of our own does something we disagree with (because we believe we stand for God and no one else can or does), they are swiftly excluded from our core group and placed on the next gossip – eh prayer – train.
- Covering not exposing. Jesus covered people’s weak areas – he did not expose them. A beautiful example is the woman caught in adultery. The religious were exposing her “sin” so she could face her consequences. Jesus did the opposite. Instead, he covered her. He did his best to remove any/all shame associated with her perceived mistakes, by bringing the stone throwers to an even playing ground.
We see this example again with the woman at the well. Another perfect opportunity to heap on shame and/or expose but, he didn’t do either. He spoke to her with respect, dignity and kept her story safe.
Many church cultures are built on shame – we hide our weaknesses based on shame (for fear of being exposed), we point fingers based on our own shame (knowing if someone else is exposed, we might not be), we post on social media to cover and hide our own shame (making sure we have the right image so anything that could be used to shame us is hidden).
There is a tremendous amount of pressure in many Christian circles to expose our weaknesses, bring them “into the light” and confess them to eachother. This is only healthy when we are exposing to people who will carry our stories safely. Often, our stories are not carried well. They are exposed, exploited and swiftly met with a team ready to fix – eh, heal – you, deliver you, etc. These experiences often leave people with more shame than what they started with.
- Mercy instead of judgement. The resounding theme in my first three points can be summed up in this one statement: Jesus extended mercy instead of judgement. Over and over again, when he had the option to judge, he chose not to.
When Jesus was asked OUT OF EVERY RULE OF GOD which was the most important, he replied: Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. No one wants to be judged, shamed or condemned.
I love it that he said first to love God. This was a genius set up to the love-your-neighbor part, because to love God is to admit that you are not God. To love God is to posture yourself humbly; admitting you don’t know everything and don’t have all the answers. Loving your neighbor as yourself comes fairly easy once you let go of playing God. You are then free to act like Jesus did towards everyone – even those whose choices and beliefs you disagree with and those who you don’t understand. One could say, this is the simple gospel of Jesus.
- Not many fear speeches. When you read the gospels, Jesus doesn’t talk all that much about hell. He doesn’t close every ministry moment with a you-better-get-your-life-right-with-me-now-or-you’re-gonna-burn clause. He doesn’t lead people through salvation prayers, instructing his followers to “invite” him into their hearts – it just wasn’t a thing.
Today, there is a high fear in many churches of not “saving” enough people. It’s so normal that we don’t even think twice about this practice, yet Jesus didn’t seem to be led by a fear of hell.
In the majority of his interactions with “the lost” healing, feeding, giving, protecting, defending and loving were his primary focus.
- Small and safe instead of big. Jesus created a small, tight group of friends who he could connect with, talk with, debate with and teach. This is the model of pastoring he used and it worked brilliantly. Those in his group felt safe, included, heard, loved and ultimately felt a sense of belonging not only to God, but to eachother.
When you view Jesus’ behavior, you can see why this group was not only eclectic and diverse but grew spiritually deep. People thrive when they are loved, included and have permission to be free thinking.
Churches today try to re-create this by encouraging small groups. And, for many, this is where real church (if it is found) happens and where real pastoring, conversation, growth and connection blooms. Yet, even in these settings, many find that their vulnerability with Christians is met with judgement and their free thinking thoughts are not welcome unless they are being corrected.
Jesus lived (and loved) a very different gospel from what we often see modeled. This is why many are leaving – because they crave Jesus’ gospel, not man’s.
This brings me a tremendous amount of hope.
For many, their faith journey began inside the walls of church, but has since outgrown those walls. They have developed their own experiences and understandings of God and scripture; they are not leaving church because they are walking away from the faith, but because they actually have incredibly deep faith. They now hunger for a space where they are free to continue expanding their own personal journey with God.
For many, their journey has evolved into something like this:
I am free to have private space with God where he and I are in communion outside of other’s opinions of what that should look like and what they believe God would or wouldn’t say to me.
I am free to love others without being afraid I’m not doing a good enough job in “changing” or converting them. I am free to defend those in need, even if we share different beliefs.
I am free to embrace other cultures and ideas and not be threatened by them. I am free to encourage someone else’s personal gains because I’m not trying to promote my own. I am free to be happy for others and free to not worry about the choices of others.
I am free to love, embrace, protect, defend and care for whoever is in front me – no matter our differences. I am free to give and extend healing to those who are in need with no strings attached. I am free to hold other’s stories safe and keep them covered. I am free to follow where God leads me without needing the approval of others.
I look forward to the day when this perspective is welcomed inside our churches. But for now, I hope that this stirs the waters for some much needed change. #changeisgood #allarewelcome #thegospelisstillgoodnews