Get Church Right: Is Church Irrelevant? (A Mustard Seed Musing)

I’ve had one of those conversations, the kind that makes you stop and think. A young adult (seriously, is that twenties? thirties?) asked me some questions that you wish everyone would be willing to wrestle with. He obviously thinks God exists, that Jesus is pretty cool, and even expresses some desire to be more like Jesus in his everyday life. But church, “it sucks,” he says, as he gets dragged there by his mother or his grandmother. There’s just not a lot there on the surface that appeals to him. As a pastor, I’ve wrestled with some questions on my own, but lately, these keep coming back at me. Namely, in the person of a young adult with lots of questions.

The young man first approached me after worship. He’d obviously been digesting things we were studying as we learned more about Jesus’ ministry and the movement from Christmas to Easter. He asked if we could meet, and I agreed to meet up at a local coffee shop, outside of the confines of my 1960s paneled office. (Hey, you go with what you’ve got.) After some niceties, like who won the game last night and what March Madness would look like this year, he dove into a consistent line of questions I’ve heard, over the course of a series of meetings.

“Can’t you do church on your own? (That’s the least worrisome question to me, but it’s one I hear quite frequently.) “Can’t I just read the Bible and pray? Why do I need to go anywhere?” Well, I reasoned, for me, church isn’t a building, or a place, or even a way of doing something. It’s a fellowship, a community, of believers who want to be more like Jesus, and for whom Jesus is the head of their corporate body. I’m pretty much a Matthew 18:20 guy: Jesus says he’s there where there are people meeting together!

But at least by asking if he could do church on his own, he’s telling me that there’s something about church that is important, and that gives me a playing field to work with. Honestly, from a social perspective, we’re not the center of town anymore, people; most folks don’t have Sunday morning and Wednesday nights blocked off from their work schedules and social lives. We’re foolish if we’re not asking questions from the perspective of someone who hasn’t been raised with church in the forefront.

“Why is the church so judgmental? Why would I want to go to church when the people they were so mean to [my family member]? Why would I want to go to church when that guy on TV said over and over that God doesn’t love [fill in the blank]?”  Hurt people hurt people. The church at its best is a hospital for the sick, an Alcoholic Anonymous meeting for alcoholics. We are all sick, all addicted to something (probably ourselves), and all desiring to be the main thing, when we’re not. If we could recognize our own struggle, the plank in our eye, we might actually respond to other hurting people, in church and otherwise, differently. Because as long as there are people, people will be saying and doing stupid things to each other. Followers of Jesus just learn to ask for forgiveness faster.

Sure, there are standards: Jesus didn’t tell us we could do whatever we wanted. But Jesus made it really clear that God’s grace was greater than the rules and regulations.

[The corollary to recognizing that “hurt people hurt people” is that church folks need to recognize that their bad day at church, when shared out of context or to folks who don’t recognize the above truths, serves as some of the worst PR that the church can get. Pastors are not exempt.]

“What’s in it for me? Why would I go to church when they don’t sing music or say prayers that make any sense to me? Why do you ask me to do stuff to help, when I can’t see anything I’m really getting out of it?” The truth is, the church isn’t “ours.” That’s a truth that old and young people need to learn. It’s not as much of an issue for an unchurched person as it is for a de-churched (formerly going) one or one like this young man, who isn’t sure why he’s there to begin with. The church is the body of Christ, and yet, even those who claim that the church is where they want to be, find ways to pick it apart and criticize it. “I’m not fed” or “I don’t like the music” are just ways of formulating that the church didn’t make us feel good, when it was supposed to be first about us worshipping God. Sure, no one wants to attend a church that isn’t emotionally, mentally, and spiritually stimulating, but what have you done lately to make that church rock? What have you done to make sure someone else feels fed, comfortable, or loved in church?

Why won’t the church leaders do anything new? This goes hand-in-hand with the church’s fear of change from the “traditional” (whatever we’ve done more than once) and its need to cling to the “way it’s always been done.” Honestly, I think the church is like this because it has some misguided sense sometimes that God needs our ‘protection’ from liberals, conservatives, women, gays, pentecostals, the Smurfs, etc. (You name it, we’ll ride on a Crusade…) There are certainly traditions that matter to the life of the church like baptism and communion but too often we get the baby and the bath water (pun intended) confused. When we get our traditions (i.e. comfort levels) mixed up with our standards of faith, we become just like the Pharisees. And consider how Jesus felt about them. Sure, we can make new things all the time (some of these non-denominational churches that pop up) and watch them fail to grab ground and grow deep, or sometimes, recognize that a new way of doing things actually allows us to grow (when a church plant or church initiative makes a difference and brings people to Christ).

“Why doesn’t the church serve others? Why would I want to go to church when the church doesn’t do anything for young people? Why can’t I just help the Ruritans or the honor society volunteer, and keep my Sunday clear? Why does the church care more about membership than taking care of people?” Christians shouldn’t do good deeds just to feel better. We sometimes lose sight of what it means to actually be disciples of Jesus, a costly discipleship where we place everyone else ahead of us in importance. We can’t go to the homeless shelter or tutor a kid once a month and figure we can wash our hands of it. We can’t just “throw money at the problem” and figure that we’ve actually made a difference. We need to live a lifestyle of service. And we can’t lose sight of being like Jesus for the sake of maintaining dying buildings and congregations that won’t change… It’s not actually about the money (even if some churches will have funds for something specific still in existence, and unspent, when Jesus comes back). We shouldn’t ever put the numbers before the people, whether they’re dollars or behinds-in-seats or membership rolls.

The truth about this young man’s questions is that none of these questions find that the church is relevant at all. That’s on the church, not on him. And while the church matters to me, because it’s a place where my faith has been nourished, and comforted, challenged and pruned, I worry that one day, one of my children could be asking these questions as they leave the sanctuary for good. It’s a scary day for me to consider that someone, anyone, could find Jesus’ church irrelevant. This young man is one of the people walking out the door and not looking back for twenty years, or ever.

Paul wrote in I Corinthians 12: “Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.” Paul understood that the church was made up of different kinds of people, even the ones who ask all of the questions, even the ones who feel disenfranchised by church but who stick around. Paul knew that when church started to look like a homogenized pattern, that church was losing its “stickiness,” it’s effectivity, it’s relevance.

So here’s the argument I made for church.

We need church because we can’t do it all on our own. The church is the place where you experience and recognize that Jesus died on the cross for you. The church is the place where you see that God wants big things for your life so that you can be a blessing to others. The church is the place where you can learn from Jesus, about yourself and those around you. The church is the place where your burdens should be lightened because other people help you carry them. The church is the place where people hold us accountable to being better than we’d be on our own. The church is the place where Jesus is the central point and the rest of life rotates around him! The church should be all of these things but unfortunately, it is not (always) who the church is.

So, now what?

Pray, pray, and pray some more. If you’ve made it this far, thank you. If you’ve made it this far, you’re someone who wants to get Jesus, to be involved in reforming and reframing the beautiful mess that is the church, the cruel mistress of many a pastor. It doesn’t have to be like this, but we can’t change our attitudes and those of our churches until we make God the decision-maker in our lives. I urged this young man to pray for guidance about what God would have him to do, whether it was in my church or another. But I told him he needed to be going to church.

Get involved. Seriously, whether it’s Vacation Bible School for a week or teaching a kids’ Sunday School class, there’s no better way to learn what you don’t know than to teach someone else. And there’s no better way to see that you matter to the church than to take some responsibility for what happens in church. If you believe in God, if you know Jesus died for you, then it shouldn’t be all about what you can get out of it but what you can give. Honestly, I am encouraged as we move into Lent because if Jesus would die for me and you, and you, and you,… then Jesus would die for the church. The church is worth it. This young man may not get it but he’s part of Jesus’ body, Jesus’ church, God’s plan for our community.

I told this young man a story. A preaching professor, Mike Pasquerello, told me over a decade ago that the church was broken, and that many people would leave it for something else, but that some people would choose to stay to be part of fixing it, to bring it back to what it was supposed to be. Isn’t that what Jesus did for faith, for the Jewish belief system? Didn’t he come and stay to fix it? Wasn’t he bent by it… but never broken?

I pray today for the church, and for you, dear reader. May God challenge the parts of your soul that are too comfortable and comfort the parts that scream with pain. And may we be healed by the love of Jesus Christ, together.

Leave your stories of the best and worst that church can be below. Consider how you can make your church better! For more reading, check out Dan Kimball’s They Like Jesus But Not The Church or Graham Standish’s Becoming A Blessed Church. Get involved in a small group or at least start the conversation!

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About Jacob Sahms

I'm searching for hope in the midst of the storms, raising a family, pastoring a church, writing on faith and film, rooting for the Red Sox, and sleeping occasionally. Find me at ChristianCinema.com, Cinapse.co, and the brand new ScreenFish.net.
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6 Responses to Get Church Right: Is Church Irrelevant? (A Mustard Seed Musing)

  1. Greg Wright says:

    I’ve been a part of conversations like this at three different levels — as the kid on the way out the church door, as the disenfranchised and skeptical twenty-something darkening the door once again, and as the pastor talking with other such young people years later.

    All of your counsel is both very wise and familiar, Jacob. Excellent post.

    About all I could add would be my realization in “Phase Two” that, even granting good reasons for all of my frustration with the church, the people in it, its leadership, and the world in general, I was still the only one I could expect to change — and that, only with God’s help.

    And my realization in “Phase Three” that just about everyone lives in crisis of some sort — even Americans, even in the lap of luxury and privilege; and, in extending the hospital metaphor, that people in medical emergencies very often need prescriptions that vary from the “usual treatements” — even if it means getting the hell out of the hospital for the time being (or being sequestered in isolation), because hospitals are terribly dangerous for patients with suppressed immune systems and because some patients carry dangerous communicable illnesses.

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  2. Jacob Sahms says:

    Thanks, Greg. Somehow, I’ve never been the first two. I’m always the one who ‘stays.’ It’s a blessing and a curse. But the travels for education have taken me to many different churches and locations,so it’s not like I’ve only seen ‘one right way.’ I think the American church is going to have to face up to something about its own privilege- when church in other countries is growing like wildfire. But yes, I’d agree that the church’s problem/blessing is that it’s a place where sinners gather, so anything ‘out there’ is also ‘in here,’ sometimes in condensed quantities!

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  3. Tom Lester says:

    One thought I have, Jacob, is the church (and not only the ‘nonchristian’ generation) is too inwardly turned. In reading “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” it is evident that relevance is created when persons create relevance, i.e., to become so involved in a positive endeavor that time and tide become irrelevant to us. I think the church is afraid to admit that some persons can and do exhibit Jesus-like behavior in activites that are not considered church, or at least sponsored by one. We’re afraid that Jesus will stamp someone “saved” that hasn’t been granted the rubber stamp (or the scars) of the church. When we truly do all the good we can, in all the ways we can, for all the persons we can, etc., we lose the church identity and take on the Christ identity. And, in the process, we need each other in true community in order to fulfill our mission to the fullest of our potential. Or something like that …

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  4. Jacob Sahms says:

    Tom, that’s good stuff. I think there’s a lot to be said about church mentality where we want to do the stamping. If we didn’t care about that, would we have multiple denominations? It seems that even when we try to practice orthodoxy, we get sucked into being more Pharisee and less tax collector. If people can meet Jesus but they don’t need the church, then we get paranoid and wonder why we’re here… forgetting all of the people who meet Jesus through the church. Maybe a difference in purpose doesn’t mean we’re purposeless?

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  5. Holly Bashaw says:

    I wonder if the brick and mortar church has suffered declining numbers because people now have access to excellent Bible teaching in the multitudinous selection of books, radio programs, nonlinear resources, and the like. We used to have to go to church to learn about God. Now we can learn and not have to deal with the people, as we increase in an isolationist wo
    rld.

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    • Jacob Sahms says:

      Holly, I think that’s probably fair. With our ‘advances’ in technology and the spread of resources, we’ve become disconnected in lots of ways. The movie ‘her’ highlights how we think we have relationships with our technology rather than people; there are folks more comfortable with Facebook and Twitter than with actually speaking to someone. Why should we expect church to be different? Maybe to get church/society where we should be, we have to focus on community first.

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