Last week, I posted an entry on my visit to a men’s conference in Lodi (if you missed it, you can catch up here), where I expressed my frustration with the seeming inability (unwillingness?) of the leadership in the American church to supply its parishioners with anything other than the same basic messages that have been served up for decades. I compared the growing number of frustrated believers to a big dog that was tethered in a yard on too short a chain — one that eventually the dog will pull loose if our leaders don’t offer us more variety, more challenge, more “meat” to use the Apostle Paul’s analogy. And I said that in my spirit, I was hearing the “clink … clink … clink” of that chain being pulled to its limit over and over.
But there was one part I didn’t get to, although I hinted at it. From the second paragraph of that blog post:
I’ve heard that sound twice in the last two months, not in my ears but, as it were, in my spirit.
The men’s conference was the second time. Now to deal with the first.
The first time was a men’s ministry breakfast hosted by a large congregation that meets just outside of Stockton, and the same friend who invited me to the men’s conference also invited me here. The food was typical for a men’s breakfast, in my experience — lots of meat, eggs and potatoes, no pastries — and attendance was good, about a hundred. The level of fellowship was what I’ve come to expect from a congregation: people talking with those they already know, visitors (like myself) mostly ignored or given “church-friendly” five-second greetings. After breakfast was mostly eaten, there was a time of music, several announcements, a testimony or two and a time for prayer requests and praying. I can’t recall if someone did a sermon or not (which, if they did, tells you how memorable it was).
Something struck me, though, during the announcements. The leaders were going over upcoming events in the congregation, but the way they were doing it was rather odd. They kept emphasizing the food that would be provided for the occasions, and the opportunities for fellowship — even for events like an in-depth Bible study of the Gospel of John, or for the upcoming men’s conference, which was expected to be pretty intense (it wasn’t so much, but it was more intense than a men’s breakfast). It was like the leaders were trying to soft-pedal the coming events, as if they were worried that a more Jesus-focused or Bible-centric emphasis would scare people off.
This goes back to what I discussed a week ago, that the people in charge of the American church are supplying its charges with too much milk and not enough solid food. I am confident that there are more than enough men out there who would come to these meetings even if no food was provided, if the only selling point was to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ. Would the men’s conference in Lodi a couple of weeks ago have been empty if attendees had been asked to “brown-bag” it? I know I and my friend still would have been there, and I suspect that the absence of tri-tip and chili wouldn’t have trimmed the attendance numbers much at all. Tri-tip’s nice, don’t get me wrong — but you can get a tri-tip sandwich anywhere. You can’t get three Christian speakers, live music and a chance to get together with several hundred brothers in Christ at your local stop-‘n-rob. Maybe I’m overestimating the men of the church, but I don’t think I am. We can’t ALL be that shallow, can we?
And in the midst of this, I sensed God’s voice:
There are entire congregations waiting to be trained and released to minister — IF their leaders will train them AND un-leash them. It comes back to the leadership, and whether they will let go (of their congregations) and let God (use their congregations). Jesus led, people followed. Paul led, people followed. Luther, Wesley, so many others — all with flaws, all imperfect — but when they led, people followed. If today’s leaders will let go and let God, people will follow. If they don’t, few will do it by themselves.
Right now, the might of the American church, the large number of people ready to go into the world and “turn it upside down” like in the book of Acts, is being held back. It’s being held back by a system that gives the vast majority of ministry opportunities to very few people and discourages anyone else from creating more. It’s held back by some of those very few, who worry that chaos will ensue if they delegate responsibilities to anyone outside their small circle. It’s held back by a top-down, preacher-and-audience, one-size-fits-all style of ministry (I’m referring here to the way Sunday and weekday meetings are held) which cannot provide the depth of teaching or interaction that will enable young believers to grow to maturity. Our congregations could be a force multiplier (to use the military term) for the advancement of God’s kingdom … only we don’t use that advantage. An outsider might suspect that maybe the leaders don’t want the kingdom of God to advance. I hope that isn’t the case.
But what we have right now in the American church, by and large, is leaders doing the same things they’ve done for decades, preaching the same messages with the same lack of depth, with only minor changes in music style and technology used. They’re spending so much time and energy keeping things the same when what a huge portion of the church wants is for things to change. It reminds me of a comment Andrew Greeley once made about his own section of the American church (Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, as well as a sociologist, novelist and op-ed writer), that the American Catholic cardinals were doing their best to assure their people that things wouldn’t change too fast — when most of those people were complaining that things weren’t changing fast enough. And Greeley said that in the 1970s, so you get the idea of how long this has been going on.
So, to the pastors, to the denominational officers, to the ministry coordinators and parachurch presidents, this is what I (and I think millions of others) have to say to you:
We’re bored. We’re tired of doing the same ol’ same ol’ every week, and seeing absolutely no change in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ, or our potential brothers and sisters in the world. We’re tired of sitting through sermon after sermon that we can’t remember an hour later because it was full of things we either already knew or don’t apply to us.
We want to grow up, just like little kids want to grow up. But little kids need the help of their parents to do that. And we need your help.
We’re asking you to challenge us. Teach us the tough things you’ve never taught us before, because you were afraid you’d run us off. Get to know us and find out our passions, what God is building in us and wants to do through us. Spend time discovering our weaknesses and help us to shore them up. Find out what we’re capable of — through personal interaction, please, not another half-arsed “spiritual gifts survey.”
And then point us toward work to do, based on what each of us can actually do, not what the denomination says we should emphasize. Give us opportunities to preach, to lead, to organize, to break new ground. When we come up with ideas of our own, encourage us and guide us to resources that can help us carry them out. Let us make mistakes, so we can learn from them and do better the next time.
Don’t spend so much time crafting that sermon that no one will recall. Don’t forget that Jesus’ ministry was mostly spend pouring Himself into a handful of people. Don’t be discouraged when some of those people turn on you (after all, even Jesus had Judas Iscariot), but rejoice in the ones who don’t. Most of all, don’t keep doing the same things everyone else does, because they aren’t accomplishing much either.
We love you, and we trust you — but we want more than you’re giving us. We want to be able to minister too, but where are the opportunities? We’ve read the Great Commission in Matthew 28 and God’s gifts to the church in Ephesians 4, and we believe them. We want to be equipped for works of service, and sent out to preach the gospel and make disciples. We know from Scripture that is what we are on earth for. But we want — need — your help to do that. Please, lead us, train us, and release us to go into the world and shake it up. Take off the chain that holds us in the yard of safe, complacent “Churchianity”, that keeps us from fulfilling our nature as Christians.
Please, pastors; please, leaders of the church — we’re begging you. We don’t want to have to break out of the system to do God’s will. We will if we have to — God the Holy Spirit’s will has to come before any man’s — but we’d rather go out marching behind you than bowling over you. Lead us, please.
Clink … clink … clink …