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The Problem with Our Questions

“What’s the best way to attract people to your church and keep them once they come?”

 

Sometimes the problem isn’t with our answers… it’s with our questions.

Written by Bob Hyatt   

 

There’s much good happening in American churches. No model of doing church is either all good or all bad and God is at work in many ways in His body- He’s alive in mega churches and house churches… but I believe that in this place and in this time in church history, God is doing something in terms of making some corrections.

 

My Story This Far…

 

My home was a Christian home, and my churches were always Baptist churches. I attended a small Christian College like many of the other Christian Colleges that dot our landscape and then Western Seminary in Portland. My upbringing and education was thoroughly evangelical.

 

I always wanted to serve God in the ministry and in life… But as I got older, rather than getting easier and easier, it seemed to get harder. Especially when it came to the church communities I was pastoring in. In many ways, what we were doing began to make less and less sense. I saw it connecting with fewer and fewer people who were raised outside of church, and I noticed a huge group of people who left church after high school and never seemed to come back. Maybe some of you who are reading this are in that boat.

 

After pastoring in Europe and in North Carolina for awhile, I had reached the end of my rope. I was burned out. I was a youth and worship pastor who was honestly beginning to wonder if what we were doing was even worthwhile, much less working. Week after week, we would run our programs, people would shuffle in, nod to each other and shuffle back out. In the midst of that, there were some good relationships and some who genuinely seemed to grow, but amid all the fights over things that really didn’t matter, that seemed the exception not the rule. We talked a lot about community- but I rarely saw it.

 

Better Doesn’t Always Mean Bigger

 

It was working in a mega church that opened my eyes to the fact that in many ways, the church in America had pursued a model that created consumers of church primarily and community only incidentally.

 

The church was big- there were programs happening around the clock, all day, every day. And do not get me wrong- good things happened there. But one day I had a conversation with one of the pastors that helped me understand the problem… He was asking me what I wanted to do in the future and I told him I wanted to be a teaching pastor who studied and taught but also spent a good amount of time sitting with people, listening, counseling…

 

I’ll never forget this. He looked at me and said “Wow… I used to do a lot of counseling, but I had to stop. In fact, I tell my staff now, ‘If you sit with someone more than three times, it’s too much. We’re paying you to run a ministry, not be with people.’”

 

And at that moment, I knew I had to get out; out of that system, out of that mentality.

 

Did We Park In Dopey or Sneezy?

 

We had become more a provider of religious goods and services and less, much, much less than a covenant community. We had made pastors into managers and programmers and party planners… and in so doing kept them from being shepherds.

 

The standard model of doing church in America today is primarily attractional rather than incarnational. It says this: “If we get our media right, our preaching right, our seating and our parking right… if we offer great children’s programs and a rocking worship band people will come. If things are excellent, and we offer something for every member of the family -and churches have made an idol out of the nuclear family, but that’s another story… If we do all this, and we market it right also, people will come and we will be successful.“ So what’s the problem with that?

 

The instant you step on that hamster wheel, you are in trouble. Because your band may rocking, but what happens when the church down the street develops one that is better? You’ve got good musicians, but they hire (and churches do this)- they hire studio musicians to come play every week.

 

I know one church in southern California that hired a Disney engineer to come in and build their children’s ministry space to look like a giant mountain- kind of a cross between space mountain and Bear Country Jamboree- but for toddlers. And that’s great- until the church down the way develops a roller coaster ministry complete with laser show and cotton candy machines.

 

I know one church that “resigned” a great youth pastor because they wanted him to “take it to the next level” whatever that means. And he said no- not the way you want me to. I spend time with kids. I sit and listen to their problems. I read the Bible with them and pray with them. I love them and they are growing. I don’t want to spend my time as a glorified activities director.

 

And those of you who are doing youth ministry know instinctively what I am talking about- some of you are serving in small churches, loving the kids God is bringing you… but you are discouraged because your vision is to love kids and teach kids and disciple kids, but the church down the road is doing the X-Boxes on big screens thing and the huge games with the fully outfitted youth band… and you just can’t compete.

 

What Have You Done For Me Lately?

 

And there’s the problem. When we allowed American Church to become primarily attractional in nature, it also became competitive in nature. We send out mailers: “Come to our church! We have ‘great worship!’” “Come to our church! We have Starbucks Coffee™ and Krispy Kreme™ Donuts!” And big churches get bigger as small ones die because the big ones “offer” more and people flock there until the church down the road offers them something even better. It’s Wal Mart versus smaller stores but with special music and kids programs instead of bigger selections and low, low prices. And the lessons that leaders learn from this process is only slightly worse than what the people in the pews learn.

 

We have a phrase to describe the result. “Church shoppers.”

 

Come on Down The Aisle for A Great Deal!

 

There’s a story in the Gospels that has some bearing on all this. In Mark 10 a young man comes to Christ with a simple question. “As he was starting out on a trip, a man came running up to Jesus, knelt down, and asked, ‘Good Teacher, what should I do to get eternal life?’" Notice who his focus is on… Jesus gives him the standard rabbinical answer pointing him back to Moses’ law, and the young man lies and says he’s kept all those commandments… so Jesus says one more thing to him.

 

"You lack only one thing," he told him. "Go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

 

Jesus said to him- do you really want to know what salvation is all about? Do you want to experience it? Then open your eyes to someone besides yourself. And then follow Me.

 

Then he makes these jaw dropping statements: It is hard for people with money to get into God’s Kingdom. Now Jesus said this, I didn’t… but I want you to think about this verse the next time you drive into your church parking lot, especially if you go to a big church in the suburbs.

 

The disciples are upset. They have given up everything to follow Him, they say… And Jesus responds, "I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return, a hundred times over, houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property--with persecutions. And in the world to come they will have eternal life.”

 

Now if you watch any religious TV at all you know that Jesus is making a promise here. If you put a dollar in the plate (or better yet, send it to a TV preacher’s ministry) God will miraculously give you a hundred dollars back… right? Wrong. No matter how much you try that, it doesn’t really work. So either the TV preachers are wrong or Jesus is wrong. Let’s go ahead and assume that Jesus is right, but the prosperity preachers just have no clue as to what Jesus is talking about. So what does this mean?

 

Jesus is talking about community here… for our purposes, He’s giving us a beautiful picture of church. He says if you lose your family because you are following me… if you lose your father or your mother or your brother or sister… here’s a whole group of people who will be family for you. Here’s a hundred brothers, a hundred sisters. Lose your house? Here are people who will take you in. Lose your livelihood? Here are people who will sell what they don’t need to provide what you don’t have. This is the genesis of the church we see in the book of Acts. Do you see how He’s saying COMMUNITY is the context in which we find and follow Jesus and in which our needs are met?

 

We’ve always thought the problem with the young man was that he couldn’t handle Jesus’ answer. Maybe the problem really started with his question.

 

I, ME, MINE

 

Somewhere along the way we started thinking this whole thing- Jesus, the Gospel and especially Church was all about ME.

 

If the Gospel is primarily about getting my rear end into heaven, then Christianity is a religion for death, not for life. But if it’s more… if Christianity is meant to be the in-breaking of God’s rule and reign into this world and into our lives, that changes everything, not only about how we think of Church and it’s primary purpose, but how we conceive of our lives and our time here.

 

The problem with church today is that we rarely do what Jesus did- ask people to look beyond themselves and their “felt needs” to others and their real needs. If your Christianity calls you out of your individualism and orients you towards others, then it is doing what Jesus seems to have intended it to do… But if by it’s methodology it actually confirms you in your individualism? Then my suspicion and my fear is that it is less than fully Christian.

 

US, WE, OURS

 

So how are we trying to address all this at evergreen, the church community I lead?

 

There’s a lot, but let me just mention a couple of things… the first being that we conceive of ourselves not as a provider of religious goods and services, but as a missional, covenant community.

 

By missional we mean that we are trying to foster a orientation within our community not inward, but outward. Not to ourselves, but to others. We are attempting to be not attractional, but incarnational. What did Jesus do? He preached good news to the poor. For too long I spiritualized that… now I realize that with over 2000 verses in scripture dealing with the poor,, maybe God wants us to pay attention to them. So we try to be concerned about the poor and oppressed in our society. He fed people. We need to do the same thing. He healed people. We want to be a community of healing for people- where they can come with their doubts and questions and find not condemnation but space- space to ask, space to find answers and space to heal. Many of the people at evergreen are people who quit going to church because the reaction they experienced when they had doubts and questions was not a positive one.

 

That’s incarnational- doing the things that Jesus did. We are not about the show. We don’t have a light show or a rocking band. We don’t do big dramas or musical spectaculars. There’s nothing wrong with those things- but we don’t want people to be at evergreen because of what happens on the stage on Sunday morning. We want them there because they sense that our community is a place where they can find God and walk along side others who are also searching.

 

We are doing our best to be a church community where people can belong before they believe- a church for the unchurched and the formerly churched. But that’s hard on the lifelong Christians among us- because we don’t get to have things done exactly the way we would like them. We are trying to think more about the people we are reaching than our own wants and needs.

 

I tell our people: We are not going to meet your needs. Your needs will get met, but by the people sitting beside you, not standing in front of you. Because we’d like to think that when we say “community” we mean it. I have told our people over and over again- you are the ones who will drive ministry here. We meet in a pub. There’s very little space for “kids ministry.” I keep telling them- I am not going to solve this problem for you. This is your community. If you love these kids, you’ll come up with something for them. I’m your pastor, not your cruise director. My job is to open God’s Word, and tell you what I think God seems to be saying through this book to our community. Your job is to figure out what that looks like and works out like. I tell you God’s Word says we should be concerned about the poor and oppressed. You decide whether that means homeless teens, the mentally ill, AIDS Hospice, etc.

 

We’re trying to develop an organic model of community that develops people, not programs, that doesn’t create dependency on a paid… professional clergy.

 

Here’s what I want you to hear in this article. If you consider yourself a follower of Christ- you need to know this. The church is not here for you. You are here for the church, your community, and your community, the church is here for the world. Jesus did not die to make you into a sanctified consumer. He died to bring you alive to God and to a desperately needy world.

 

And if you really believe that, it’s going to change everything- both the way that you do church and the way that you live every moment of your life from here on out.

 

Bob Hyatt is the husband of Amy and the father of Jack. He spends his remaining time as a pastor of the evergreen community in Portland, OR.

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Still Waters is a Grace Brethren Church located in Pottstown PA. We are a different and re-imagined way of being Church. Church is not a building, but God's loving people serving his creation.

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