What is really wrong here?

Trinity Pres Church copy

The right tool fits the job. You wouldn’t try to drive in a nail with a tape measure. Even if you tried to do that, failed, and then complained, “This tape measure is no good!” your evaluation wouldn’t be valid. Hammers, drive nails, and tape measures give you a good read on size and dimension.

When it comes to critiquing the Church, it’s open season. Think of a category, and someone can give you (often reasonably) an example of how a church has failed and that someone should do something better. Church-bashing is so constant now that young leaders are no longer pursuing pastoral ministry because they don’t want to face the incessant (and often bitterly public) ridicule.

In a new book, The Great De-Churching, authors Jim Davis and Michael Graham identify prevalent trends across our culture of people who are moving out of church. Overall they show many reasons for these trends. What is clear is that distinct demographic groups make up the de-churched and many people who used to attend corporate worship with some regularity simply no longer do.

On the one hand, if many sense that “Church” should give them some hope or perspective, and their congregation had drifted from the Gospel, then it makes sense that some would give up and leave. What is given little press today is a different consideration. What if a lot of the critiques of the Church of Jesus are like my hypothetical critique of my “bad” tape measure above?  They’re measuring the Church against tasks or goals it was never intended to pursue?

There has been mission-drift. Where churches have drifted from the Gospel, their only alternative is to move into an alternative mission and message. 1) If they move to the right, they move into moralism — like the Scribes or Pharisees of Jesus’ time. Performance and rigid adherence to some moral code is now the standard by which people are “acceptable” and “hope” is found only when people can live up to the standard. And 2) if a church moves to the left, they move into relativism — like King Herod or the Romans of Jesus’ time. Standards stay vague and morals are not too rigid, except to insist that no one exalt any one standard above all the others. This is, after all, why Romans persecuted Christians in the first few centuries after Christ, because they wouldn’t play along with Roman multi-cultural standards. Exalting Jesus above all the others was outrageous to them, just as it is to multi-cultural adherents today. These two trends are wide-spread in our culture today!

How can we find hope?  First, the Church of Jesus is HIS. It is not firstly ours. If the Church is defined in its mission and message by Jesus, then He gets to say if a church is good or not so good (and He did just this, in the second and third chapters of Revelation). He said that He would build His Church and that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. And He established His people in gathering habitually around Him (“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them”).

What the Church does offer that stands out today is 1) clarity in a profoundly confusing time. There is so much now that is up-for-grabs in morality, identity, sexuality, and spirituality. In such a deeply disputed time, Jesus gives us stunning clarity — and an eternal perspective. And 2) community in a desperately lonely time. People are more isolated now (especially after COVID) and the pervasive fracturing and arguing of our time is driving people into even more and more time by themselves. Yet, Jesus calls us to Himself and to one another with a level of care and motivation that literally no other gathering on earth can offer. And 3) transcendent hope in the midst of pain and death. Remember that the term “Gospel” literally meant “good news." Jesus offers hope to anyone who would turn from their self-will to trust Him as their God and Savior — literally for anyone, across any history, any struggle, any ethnicity, or any failure. No one else offers that!

I do not doubt that many people (if not every single person) can cite instances where they were disappointed by what happened at a church. But if you have a bad meal at a restaurant, I doubt that you swear off food. Learn from what has been done poorly, but also take ownership for how many times that Church has been less than it could be because you withheld from God and His people the gifts and graces that He freely gave you. Be free to point out how something could be better, but then be part of the effort and solution to make it that way.

If you would like to read more about this trend in our culture, you may find this article helpful, from The Gospel Coalition.