Congregational Journey recap: the trip so far …

Well, Part One of my Congregational Journey has been done for a couple of weeks now, and I’ve had a chance to reflect on what I’ve seen and heard. If you haven’t been following along the whole time and want to play catch-up, you can click on the Congregational Journey link in the CATEGORIES box to the right – it’ll have everything and then some. The short version, though … I felt God was guiding me to visit twelve different congregations in my hometown of Stockton, California, to get an overview of the church in this area (and by extension, in the United States) and to see where I could contribute to the life of same.

Well, I visited the twelve (plus a few others along the way) and I’ve been able to draw a few tentative conclusions. Strap yourselves in, and please keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times …

1) The most important assets for any congregation are people and relationships. You’d think that would go without saying, wouldn’t you? But I visited so many congregations where I was treated like a piece of unwanted luggage that I feel it ought to be stated. At some places, I was greeted, invited to participate, had my questions answered and was generally welcomed and treated like a guest. At others, I was largely ignored and made to feel like I didn’t matter. Guess which congregations I’d be interested in visiting again?

It’s a shame that this has to be said, but … when you see someone in your congregation that you don’t know, take a minute or two to get to know them! Now, if they don’t want to be known, if they give you monosyllabic responses or turn away, it’s okay to let them be; maybe they’re uncomfortable around strangers, or are just having a bad day, or whatever. But until you make the effort, you won’t find that out. And most people – even socially inept introverts like me – still want to make connections with people. Almost everybody wants to do that, almost everyone wants to form relationships. If you’re willing to take the time to do that, you’re far more likely to see that person again – and who knows, they might come to Christ because of it! If you’re not, that sends a message that the love of Christ may not be as present in your congregation as you’d like to think, because Jesus didn’t turn away from anyone.

And when I say “take a minute or two to get to know them,” I mean at least a minute or two. I don’t mean “five seconds, a handshake, a ‘gladyou’rehere’ and a quick exit.” I got so many of those (perhaps a hundred or more) in my twelve visits that I actually coined the term “church-friendly” to describe the experience. At three of the twelve, I was met by a designated “greeter” at the door, who shook my hand, said hi and immediately turned back to the door, even though:

  • I was still standing there (usually with my mouth open because I was prepared to continue the conversation).
  • There was NOBODY ELSE AT THE DOOR!

And those are the designated greeters, the people whose entire job is to welcome strangers! In two of the three cases, that was as good as it got. Does it even bear mentioning that I won’t be visiting those two places again? And I’m left wondering how many people have walked into those places, gotten the same cold shoulder and decided that this Jesus thing wasn’t for them. After all, Jesus said they would know we are His by the love we show to others …

2) Possibly the largest obstacle to forming relationships in the church is religious ritual. This was most dramatically demonstrated to me at one congregation where people were incredibly friendly before the service began, then flipped like a switch the second the music started. For the most part, the congregations I visited – all of them evangelical or Pentecostal – had liturgies as rigid, habitual and closed to change as any Roman Catholic rite. About half of them had their liturgy written down right in the bulletin. If the Holy Spirit wanted to come in to most of those services and do something different, would He even be allowed? My suspicion is no.

And what does that liturgy involve? Singing along (or not – more on that later) to music chosen and played by a few people on the stage, and played so loudly that you couldn’t interact with anyone else if you wanted to. Listening to announcements for events chosen by the pastor and his staff. Watching the pastor talk for forty-five minutes to an hour. The only chances to actually relate to anyone are a few minutes’ “greeting time” allowed by the staff in mid-service (and not all congregations even do that) and what moments can be stolen before and after the service before everyone flees home. That’s not much to build on. And then we wonder why people church-hop and aren’t loyal to a single congregation? When do they have the chance to build that loyalty? When do we have the time to love one another, which according to Jesus is how people will know we are His disciples?

(This is a little off the subject, but: It’s ironic that the style of worship used in most of these congregations is one born out of the “Jesus Movement” of the late 1960s and early 1970s. That movement, the last large-scale revival in America, was characterized by a reaching out to those outside the church, specifically hippies and other young people. Today, we’ve so institutionalized that style of ministry that its appeal is largely to people who can remember the Sixties. An entire generation has grown up on Facebook and MySpace, YouTube and a bazillion chat rooms – collaborative efforts that emphasize forming relationships and sharing resources. We’re trying to attract those people to a set-in-stone, forty-year-old formula whose main charge to new arrivals is “just sit there, listen and participate when and how we tell you to.” No opportunity to collaborate, share or relate, just to accede and follow. Funny, I don’t think it’s gonna fly. Actually, that might a good segue to …)

3) There is a growing disconnect between the “worship music” in the church and actual worship. It makes sense if you think about it. To worship, after all, is to ascribe something or someone as worthy of one’s attention. As a campus pastor I used to know put it, worship is “paying attention to God.” But in a typical evangelical or Pentecostal Sunday service, we have a rock band playing music at a very high volume, a projection screen showing the lyrics, and increasing the use of colored lights and graphics. What is the average person going to pay attention to: the invisible God, or all the noises and bright lights and people on the raised stage. Exactly. I can’t help wondering if a non-Christian observer, like a sociologist, were to see the average American church doing “worship,” they would finally conclude that the church leadership is doing everything possible to distract people from paying attention to God rather than turning people toward it.

And I think it’s working. Aside from the lack of spiritual depth displayed in much of the American church (evidenced by study after study showing no real difference in behavior between believers and non-believers), there’s the behavior I observed at the services I visited. In all of them, when the music was playing there were anywhere from one-third to two-thirds of the adult attendees not participating at all. Not singing, not clapping, not even trying … just standing (or sitting) there, often with their arms crossed, with a resigned expression on their faces as if they were just waiting for the onslaught to end. Maybe a few of them are actually worshipping, tuning out all the Sturm und Drang in order to focus on the Almighty. But since the powers that be are certainly not encouraging that, I suspect the number is low.

My suspicion is that this trend will continue until either almost no one is participating (no matter how much the “worship leaders” try to pump it up) or leadership will wake up to the flaws in this system and reform things. Which will happen first, I don’t know.

Another aside on the same subject … actually, this deserves its own point. Call it:

3a) Keeping children in the adult service during the worship portion needs to either stop or be radically reformed. This trend appears to be growing more common in the last decade – the Supermodel’s home congregation began doing this in the last year, and I saw it in action in half the congregations I’ve visited this year. And the results have been a mess in every situation. You have kids sitting there, not understanding what’s going on and with no one explaining it to them. They’re not participating, not singing along, and aren’t being allowed to do anything else, so they’re bored. Which means they’re squirming, making noise, and distracting their parents and the other adults around them, thus keeping them from participating too. They’re usually kept there through the announcements, so people are missing those too. And I have yet to hear any practical reason stated for the practice. (In one congregation, the children were kept in the sanctuary for an entire three-hour-plus service, antsy and often crying, in the presence of a few dozen able-bodied adults making absolutely no effort to minister to them in a way they could understand. There is no way to justify this.)

In my mind, there are two good alternatives to this frankly moonstruck method. Either let the kids go to their Sunday school classes at the beginning of the service (if not before), which is what I’ve almost always seen done until recently. Or, if you insist on having the kidlets in the main service, work with them instead of expecting them to just “get it” and join in when half the adults aren’t. Bring them all in one section of the sanctuary, thus giving the parents a break. Designate a member of the worship team (it doesn’t have to be the same one each week) to stand down at floor level in front of them, helping them join in – explaining what’s going on, why they’re doing this or that (you know how kids love to ask why), what some phrase or gesture means. In other words, teach them! Because if you’re not willing to teach them, at their level, why have them in the service at all?

4) The prosperity gospel has gained ground at the local congregational level, and needs to be dealt with harshly. Blab-it-and-grab-it – it isn’t just for televangelists and megachurches anymore! You would think that a congregation with less than fifty people, most of whom live in the slums, wouldn’t buy into a belief system that says God’s desire is to make you rich and grow all your endeavors, since the clear evidence of their lives is that God isn’t doing that. Unfortunately, those seem to be the exact people falling for it – almost as if they’re playing the theological lottery. Both of the “storefront” congregations I visited, the ones with the least resources, subscribed to this heresy. The problem with the lottery, though, is the problem with any gambling scheme: the odds are never in your favor. For every Joel-Osteen-run maximegachurch, there are a thousand wrecks on the side of the road where the supposed “promises of prosperity” never came through. Because, while Scripture says that God will supply all our needs (Philippians 4:13), it never says anything about making us as rich as Warren Buffett, no matter how many verses you wrench out of context.

And it affects everything about the congregation. When you buy into a philosophy that centers on earthly rewards, it’s no surprise when people ignore spiritual matters – I’ve rarely heard sermons so lacking in either the Word or faith as those coming from so-called “Word of Faith” preachers. And when your theology is concerned mostly with personal fulfillment, it will naturally lead to less interest in others. All of the three congregations I visited that pushed this doctrine likewise treated the stranger in their midst (me) with “church-friendliness” at best and complete negligence at worst, and all showed a marked lack of spiritual maturity in their behavior and preaching.

I know that Michael Spencer (aka “the Internet Monk”) has said he’d like to see a church council like the ancient ones at Nicaea and Constance called to condemn this false gospel once and for all. This unfortunately won’t happen because there isn’t enough unity in the body of Christ these days to even form an all-church council, let alone make its dictates stick. But maybe it won’t be necessary. After all, we’re right in the midst of a worldwide economic downturn, maybe the biggest since the Great Depression, and a lot of people who have bought into the “health-and-wealth” horse manure are going to find that it doesn’t work nearly as well as its proponents claim. I expect that if this financial situation continues for much longer, this sinking ship is going to be abandoned and its officers held up to the public ridicule they’ve earned for selling this heresy. At least I hope that’s the case. The last thing we need in this world is more selfishness, especially in the church which supposedly exists for the benefit of those who aren’t its members – or so I’ve been told.

5) Healthy congregations give everyone a chance to contribute. One of the major differences I’ve seen between well-functioning and dysfunctional congregations is the number of people actually doing something besides keeping a seat warm on Sunday. Whether it’s greeting, teaching, taking care of babies, part of the band or whatever, the more people get to chip in with the ministry, the better shape the congregation is in. Never fails. And the opposite is also true: the larger the percentage of pew-sitters, the less content the congregation will be. I’m not ready to say that there’s a precise mathematical relationship between the two … but it sure looks like a workable hypothesis.

See, people want to help out with something they believe in. If you expect them to give their lives to God and then do nothing for Him except fill a seat and throw money in the offering, that’s unrealistic. No one is happy when they have no work to do – doesn’t matter if your three years old, 33 or 83. Not to mention it’s a waste of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives them. Give people a chance to share not only their time but their abilities, and not only will they be happier and more committed, but it’s less work for the pastoral staff, a group who are usually overworked in the best of circumstances. And it helps bridge the artificial (and anti-Biblical) gap between “clergy” and “laity” that has bedeviled the church since the third or fourth century AD. The only downside (if it can be called that) is that the paid staff ends up with a little less control over some of the congregation’s operations. Small price to pay for not getting an ulcer – and for building up the body of Christ.

6) More effort needs to be made to train people to fulfill the visions God gives them. On a similar note, every congregation, every denomination and every pastor I’ve ever seen acknowledges that people have different abilities – that God has given people a wide variety of gifts and skills. I’ve never heard any of them deny 1 Corinthians 12, at least. But not every congregation, denomination or pastor carries that out to its logical application: that people should have the opportunity to use their different gifts in the context of the congregation. Even when it isn’t a standard part of the liturgy. Even when those gifts aren’t the same ones as that of the senior pastor.

I was once part of a congregation that brought in a new senior pastor who had for decades been a traveling evangelist. That congregation had thrived under its previous leader, training up ministers by the dozen and having a tangible spiritual impact in the community in several different ways. By the time he left to pursue a new type of outreach, it was the third-largest congregation in Stockton. The new leader, however, geared the congregation’s entire ministry to personal evangelism and evangelistic events. Every sermon was an extended invitation to an altar call, every exhortation to witness to people and “bring your unsaved friends.” The vast majority of those trained ministers, officially ordained and otherwise, scattered to the four winds – as did everyone else to whom God hadn’t given the calling and gifts of an evangelist. That congregation is still around, in name at least – but it’s less than one-quarter the size it was, and its impact on the world is almost nil. The new pastor couldn’t – still hasn’t – recognized that not everyone is gifted or called to the same type of ministry that he is. And the #3 congregation in town probably isn’t even in the top dozen today.

Conversely, I’ve gotten the chance to see congregations that recognize there are a myriad of gifts, and are at least trying to help their members along those lines. The most dramatic example was the young African-American lady who shared one of her poems (in a “def poetry jam” style) before the sermon in a largely Caucasian congregation, but I could cite several more instances. The problem is that they’re pretty isolated examples, when they could (should?) be the status quo. In some ways, the American church is a sleeping giant, because so much of its talent is untapped for lack of discipleship or opportunity. A congregation can grow by leaps and bounds simply by actively training and sending out the people it already has, just as the one I used to be part of did. And it can shrink, in numbers and influence, just by narrowing the outlets for ministry to those that fit only with the senior pastor’s personal vision … just as the one I used to be part of did.

The only question is whether or not more leaders will make this a high priority. Quite often, when people have grown into real spiritual maturity in the American church, it’s despite their congregations and denominations rather than because of them. I’ve addressed this problem elsewhere, so I won’t belabor it here. But I think the future will belong to those congregations and leaders whose first priority is to prepare and teach people to use the tools God has built into them, according to each person’s calling – because it’ll be like having dozens of pastors and evangelists on staff, many of which have access to places and people Billy Graham and Rick Warren could never get to, fanning out through the community. A force multiplier, to use the military term. “The priesthood of all believers,” in Martin Luther’s words.

Okay, I ran a little longer than I thought I would … but then I was recapping three months’ worth of activity. Tomorrow, I’ll try to post a few words on what God seems to have planned for me next. Stay tuned.

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3 Responses to Congregational Journey recap: the trip so far …

  1. […] … if I’m now referring to my initial twelve-week odyssey of congregation visits as “Phase One”, it clearly implies there will be a Phase Two, right? So I’ve been praying about what form Phase […]

  2. gabriel snyman says:

    Ray, I “met” you on Naked Pastor and decided to visit. Interesting and insightful tour. I am a pastor in South Africa and all of your findings correspond with the situation here (we have a few extra horrors to deal with though!). I would like to hand this out to leaders in my congregation as food for thought. I’m not even going to ask your permission since you will never be albel to catch me :-)!

  3. dhelmer says:

    Ray,

    Even though I may not identify with your type of Christianity, I want to commend you for your insightful analysis — and the hard work which you obviously spent — in writing your series of reports. It has been interesting reading, and certainly never dull (though it sounds like some of the services were…).

    I do have something to add about your point on the so-called “prosperity gospel” (which I agree is a rather un-Christlike promotion of selfishness and greed). It’s not hard to see where the appeal of this sort of theology comes from; even when the overall economy was doing *well*, there were a lot of people on the margins in American society who were just barely getting by. Perhaps some of these people who belong to churches that preach some form of “name-it-and-claim-it” simply don’t have the theological sophistication to see the “prosperity gospel” hucksterism for what it is.

    On the other hand, evangelical and Pentecostal beliefs also seem to be popular among some of the “upwardly mobile” (middle-class or would-be-middle-class)…and unfortunately, the “prosperity gospel” has a potential appeal for them as well. Those who believe in this “gospel” probably aren’t thinking twice about the contradiction of praying to Christ, who preached selflessness and sacrifice, while expecting to receive material gain and even wealth from the Divine hand…

    Keep up the good work, and thanks again for some interesting reading…

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