Lack of Relationships

I am now in the midst of a blog post series attempting to name Why Church No Longer Works. In addition to the introduction to the series, I have stated that one reason is the church has a Lack of Authenticity. Today I share my second observation which is the church has a Lack of Relationships.

Some of you may want to disagree with my observation by stating that you witness all types of relationships in the church. Your arguments might include that everyone at your church is friendly with each other and know each other on a first name basis. Another argument might be that the pastor knows every person and makes a strong point in meeting new individuals who may be visiting or new to the neighborhood. You may even state that you have been at the church a long time and watched some young adults as they have grown up, maybe even be able to tell about when the children were baptized. All these arguments, and more that I am sure you can make, certainly appear to show that there are relationships in the church. I would even agree with this point but would argue that these are only surface relationships.

What I mean by surface relationships are those type of relationships where one can state easily observable characteristics, traits, or highlights about another person but there is not a deeper knowledge. We experience these types of relationships with our co-workers, employees of a business which we frequent, or maybe even some of our neighbors. What these relationships lack is anything beyond the basic facts of a person’s life. There exists no understanding of what the individual’s hopes and fears might be. You are unable to name what struggles the person has overcome or may even still be experiencing. An ability to articulate why a person believes what she/he believes does not exist. No depth in the relationship is found.

I am sure that some of you reading this post could state to me the names of one or two individuals with who you have more than a surface relationship. However, I am confident to say that this is the exception and not the norm regarding relationships in the church. Connected to my earlier post dealing with authenticity in the church, a majority of relationships within the church are not authentic.

Why is a lack of relationships important?

In my study of the Bible and the stories about Jesus, I am convinced that it is all about relationships. We hear stories of the relationship between God and God’s creation, especially humans. There are stories about the relationships between humans, both family and strangers. Jesus spends a great deal of time discussing relationships and demonstrating how to be in relationship with others. Even our theological concept of the Trinity as interpreted from Scripture is about relationship. This indicates to me that relationships are a central theme in the Christian belief system. So relationships should be very important to the church.

If relationships are so important in our faith, the lack of them leaves us with something hollow. When we do not take the time to go beyond the surface in someone’s life, we communicate that the individual is not that important to us. Having a feeling that I am not important to others can encourage me to leave that setting in search of a place where I do feel I am important in another person’s, or group of people’s lives.

As I have read articles about what brings value to a person’s life, I have often come across statements which show a strong desire of individuals to feel like they belong. A desire exists to feel connected and meaningful in the lives of others. We were created with an inward drive to be in relationship. Humans will search long and hard to find some way to feed this drive. The drive requires more than just a sense of being known on the surface.

When the church does not offer a place for and strong encouragement to develop authentic, deep relationships, people will walk out and search elsewhere. My observation as I read through the Book of Acts and the letters found in the Bible is that these were the type of relationships which existed among the followers of Christ at the beginning. The gatherings were small and intimate. There was a sense of knowing the deep desires within the hearts of the people. A meeting of the needs of all people was emphasized, including the need to belong through relationships.

In order to correct this situation, the church is going to have to work on some important goals:

  • Create a place where trust can be established and protected
  • Remove the judgment from our structure, our sermons, our liturgies, and our statements
  • Encourage and develop times for relationships to be established, grow, and sustained
  • Practice grace above any and all rules, polity, and traditions
  • Follow the example of Jesus, the Christ

Jesus was all about relationships, maybe it is time that the church learns from Jesus and does likewise.

Lack of Authenticity

Today I am beginning my new series entitled, “Why Does Church No Longer Work?” For background on this series, please reference my post from last week. The response that I lift up to you today is that the church lacks authenticity.

The definition of authenticity is “the act of being authentic.” A Google search for the definition of authentic produces this — of undisputed origin; genuine. For our purposes, I am going to focus on the last part of that definition, the word “genuine.” My view is that the church is viewed today as not being genuine. This is very important because we have come to discover that one of the most important characteristics that Millennials seek in a person is authenticity, or being genuine.

Author, Karl Moore, writing for Forbes an article entitled, Authenticity: The Way to a Millennial’s Heart states this:

“The authentic self is a goal for all four generations alive today: Seniors, Boomers, Xers, but most especially, Millennials.”

Karl Moore

He continues by quoting from a book written by Sienna Zampino which discusses what authentic leadership looks like and why it is so important to Millennials. This is important to the church because we know that Millennials are exiting the church at a very high rate. In the search for reasons, a sense that there is not authenticity within the church appears to be a strong reason.

Is this a fair claim?

I would say that it truly is a fair claim. One reality which our current generation has inherited is the great fear of being seen as unworthy in the church. I was raised with the value of being best behaved whenever I was in the church building. This value is not a wrong one on the surface but it can create a misguided view that those within the church walls must be perfect, at least in behavior. Striving for perfection can be a noble effort but can lead to a masking of some true realities. When people feel they must be viewed as perfect within the church walls, a group of people with a lot of masks comes into existence. No one wants their flaws and imperfections to be known, so they hide their true selves. This leads to incomplete attempts at healing, reconciliation, growth, and honest worship. We put on our best clothes, best faces, and a surface friendliness then head off to that church building for an hour or so of making attempts at our best performance. It is not genuine, it is not authentic.

What amazes me about this dynamic is that it stands so extremely counter to the Gospel and the example of Jesus. All within the church claim to be, and I would say most are striving to be, following the example of Jesus, the Christ. Yet, here is one area where we miserably fail. I think that one of the significant reasons that Jesus appealed to so many people is that he was authentic. Jesus did not wear a mask. Jesus’ actions and attitudes were out there in the very open. In fact, he spoke against putting on masks or airs.

As he taught, Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”

Mark 12:38-40

“I have spoken openly to the world,” Jesus replied. “I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.”

John 18:20-21

Jesus taught authenticity but the church teaches through actions, and sometimes words, inauthenticity.

The reality is that we are sinners who are in need of the healing and reconciling love of our Lord. Churches should be gathering places where we can honestly and openly admit this truth, not just in a corporate sense found in the worship liturgy with the confession, but in the midst of the relationships we have with one another. A person should come to the gathering knowing they will be there with others who are imperfect, who admit these imperfections, and who experience the forgiveness guaranteed to all in the Gospel. If someone enters the gathering and only sees people who are trying to present a perfect image, how can they ever admit their imperfections and need of God’s grace?

In addition, the attempts to put up a false front does not work, no matter how hard we try. Our attempts to hide our imperfections easily melt away when pressure is applied. Perceptive individuals can quickly detect the fake. An especially wary generation as the Millennials are can see through our facade in a little amount of time. Not because they are any better perceiving than previous generations, who knew all along they were participants along with everyone else in a false image, but because this is a generation which is not afraid to state the truth of what they see.

This pattern of the church MUST change. In order for the church to fulfill the call placed upon it by the Lord, those who are followers of the Lord must strive to be authentic. We must create a space where it is safe to be authentic. Individuals must be able to admit that they are one of those about who Paul writes, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Then together we learn how to be forgiven and to strive to do a better job the next. 

Why Does Church No Longer Work – A Series

I spent some time this week pondering some of the topics which I will discuss in upcoming blog posts. Some weeks determining what I will write about is more time-consuming than actually writing. As I sat with my thoughts, I stumbled upon a question that has haunted me for a great length of time. The question (which I am using as a series title) is “Why does church no longer work?”

The question assumes that the practices of churches these days are no longer working. I am sure there exist individuals who would disagree with that idea completely. For me, watching the struggles of maintaining a level of involvement in the church over twenty-two years of ordained ministry is evidence enough that something is not working. The way in which we attempt to be the church seems to have lost their effectiveness. Even the large, multi-campus churches are noticing equal numbers of people going out the door as they have coming in the door. All this makes me comfortable in saying that “church” is no longer working for a large majority of people in our communities.

I have decided that this challenge requires more than one blog post, so I will be doing a series of blog posts. I admit that I will not be able to exhaustively cover this topic. I also admit that I cannot come close to identifying all the complex issues which lead to my question. At present, I have identified four issues that I plan to discuss in this series:

  1. The church lacks authenticity.
  2. The church lacks relationships.
  3. The church lacks today’s language.
  4. The church lacks action.

Each of these issues will be explained and addressed in the coming days. I hope that you will join me in exploring these issues. I also would benefit from hearing your responses to my posts and any other issues you may name in response to my initial question.

Who Is In My Pew?

Certain words which can be located on church websites, brochures, and documents elicit a cautious response from me. These words include: welcoming, friendly, and accepting. I am convinced that churches who use these words truly do think they appropriately describe their congregations. However, I have come to experience that these words usually have some sort of string attached. Let me be fair in saying that this is not always the case but tends to be true in my experience. I translate these words to include the string…

“Welcoming to everyone who is just like we are.”

“Friendly if you dress like us, act like us, and understand God like us.”

“Accepting if you are willing to be transformed into who we are as believers.”

Even those congregations where they strive to be what they claim can find it difficult to always live these words out and not have if’s attached.

Humans have some natural tendencies which play out in congregations. The first tendency is to gather with people who are like them. Often this occurs without much thought. When you walk into a room filled with people, do you tend to look for individuals who are around your age, seem to dress like you, and have other traits which are like your own? If you are honest, I think you would answer yes to this question. We seem to be drawn to others who exhibit traits with which we can relate.

The other tendency is that we get into routines. If we are in a place where we gather often, we tend to sit in the same place, talk to the same people, and behave the same way. We are comfortable in these aspects, so we return to them over and over. Like the first tendency, this all usually happens without much, if any, thought. This causes a reaction from us if anything upsets the routine.

If your congregation is one which desires to be welcoming, friendly, and accepting without strings. Here are some steps which you can take to move in that direction:

  • Always enter your building with the eyes of a visitor.
    • Is it easy to find your way around the building?
    • Where can someone go to get questions answered? (If you have greeters, make sure that it is obvious who they are and that they can answer questions.)
    • How do I know what to do and when to do it?
    • Am I bombarded by people or are there one or two who make me feel welcome? (One or two is the best answer. Inviting the visitor(s) to sit with them is a plus as well.)
  • Make sure your leaders demonstrate the building of an atmosphere which exhibits the words used.
  • Have regular conversations with those who often attend about how to interact with visitors.
  • Find ways to encourage the breaking of routines.
  • Bring diverse speakers to specific gatherings to help people learn about individuals who may not have similar traits as those who are present.
  • Encourage people to change “Who is in my pew?” from a question of frustration into a question that leads to getting to know a visitor better and gratitude.

I intend these to be some possible suggestions you might wish to try. They do not represent a special panacea to solve all the challenges of creating a place where all will find a place. However, it is much better to try to live into what we claim to be than to only say the words but never make an effort to make them reality.

Purpose of the Church – Part 3

If you have been following my posts about the purpose of the Church, you know that I have identified what I view the Church as not being and what I view the Church as being. (If you have missed them, here are the links: Purpose of the Church – Part 1 & Purpose of the Church – Part 2.) Today, I will share my final post dedicated to this specific topic.

At the end of Part 2, I quoted a passage from the Gospel of Matthew. Here it is again:

“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Matthew 16:18-19

I indicated that the Church has the responsibility to look after the welfare of all people. But how do we live out being this Church? There are 7.7 billion people and a finite amount of resources. What aspects of an individual’s welfare should we be addressing? What do we do about those who do not even believe in God? How about people who are not Christian, do we have a responsibility to them? The Church exists for those who are members, does it not? Questions that are nothing more than a smoke screen of excuses.

Like a multitude of aspects of life, we tend to complicate that which is truly very simple. We spend so much time identifying the hurdles to whatever we may be called to do that we miss the opportunities which are right before our eyes. We think only within what we know and not what could be.

I believe that living as the Church means living where we are now. By that, I mean that we address what is around us and not what is out of our realm of touch. A friend of mine used to always do a benediction which included a line that reminded all the hearers that we are where we now are for a reason. If each of us who claimed to be part of the Church took a good look around ourselves, we would find individuals who have needs which we are uniquely qualified to meet. This does not require us to develop some new talent or skill, we already have been given that talent or skill to address that specific need. We may need to strengthen the talent or skill, or learn how to apply it better to the situation before us. Yet the core is already present within us.

Imagine if each participant in the Church applied themselves each day. The impact we could have in our community and neighboring communities could be tremendous. If this happened in every place and each day throughout the world where people claim to be a part of the Church, the Church would have a global impact which exceeds any of the world’s NGO’s today. The multiplied effect of individuals practicing this simple guidance could change the course of human existence.

Another positive reality of the Church living out its purpose is that when two or more individuals join together to follow this plan, their efforts are even stronger. This is why the Church exists as a community of people on a journey of faith together. Jesus said, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20) I believe that Jesus was not only talking about being together in worship or in a class, Jesus was talking about gathering to live as the Church. We support and strengthen one another as each of us lives out our purpose within the Church. The Church gains its purpose from the ones who join together in looking out for the welfare of all people.

If this is truly the attitude which we take as the Church, then all the excuses mentioned above drift away. The resources needed have already been provided. The belief system of the one in need has no bearing on our actions. The ones who claim to be members of the Church are having their needs met as they join in fellowship and work with each other.

Purpose of the Church – Part 2

In my most recent post, I shared my view about what the Church was not. This begs the question, “What is the Church?” In this post, I will be focusing upon what my definition to the Church might be.

As I was discussing in the last post, I clearly do not see the Church as a building. The gathering of the Church takes place in a building at times but the building is not what defines the Church. I shared that the Church is people; people in relationship with God and in relationship with one another. People who are on a journey which we call life and entwined in that journey are relationships. The Church acknowledges that this journey is communal in nature. We discover together, we learn together, we experience together, we fail together, we succeed together, we laugh together, we cry together, we live together, and we die together.

The Church is where we experience life together. Here is where support should be found. When one of us faces struggles or uncertainty, the Church surrounds that person and walks alongside. When someone is searching, the Church shares in the search by sharing experiences. When an individual is feeling attacked, judged, mocked, ridiculed, the Church embraces that person. The Church looks out for every individual but does not control or manipulate them. The Church shares the wisdom gained by experience but does not impose that wisdom on the person but lets the person use that wisdom within their own story.

One of the misconceptions that I encounter in the Church is the idea that the Church is God. I believe that this misconception comes from the interpretations of Jesus’ words to Peter in Matthew 16:

“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

Matthew 16:18-19

Too many have seen this as Jesus giving the Church license to judge people, exact punishments, and demand certain behaviors. Instead, I see this as Jesus indicating the responsibility of the Church to look out for the beneficial welfare of all people. This does not mean that the Church usurps God as the supreme authority.

I plan on doing one more post about the purpose of the Church. The last post will be sharing thoughts on how the Church lives out responsibilities given to Peter in the passage from Matthew 16.