Through various blogs and podcasts and talks I’ve given over the last couple years, I’ve made some critical remarks about the church. As recently as last week, I blogged about some reservations I have about how the church (generally speaking) spends its money—or our money—on stuff that doesn’t appear to further God’s mission to share His glory among the nations. I’ve also publicly wondered about the effectiveness of how we “do church,” the centrality of Sunday services, and the lack of authenticity and community that most people failed to experience in the current model of the American church.
In the midst of my wondering—some would say wandering—I want to make one thing very clear. Any critiques I have with the way we go about doing church should not be taken as a critique of church leaders. The leaders I know have generous hearts, authentic ears, forward-thinking minds, and itchy hands and feet eager to serve Jesus and the poor. I’ve gotten to know dozens of church leaders across the country over the last few years, and I continue to be convicted and impressed by their steady godliness and contagious humility. And these pastors aren’t just spiritual Bible geeks. They’re the type of guys I’d still want to hang with if I lost my faith tomorrow.
So I genuinely apologize to any pastor or leader who has felt like I’ve criticized the work they are (or aren’t) doing. My primary question is and always will be: Is our current way of doing church the most effective and biblical way of cultivating disciples who make disciples? All my critiques of church are fueled by my love for the church—the called out people of God living as communal exiles in a foreign and hostile land.
To be clear and concise, here are some of my main questions I have about the current model of church. Obviously, these are generalizations and there will always be exceptions to the norm. It’s the norm that I’m questioning.
First, it appears that most of the church’s time, energy, money, staff, building, is focused on producing church services on Sunday. And yet it also appears—and many different surveys and studies have shown—that Sunday services play a small role in producing and sustaining long lasting discipleship. Someone once compared Sunday services to an “on ramp.” That is, they aren’t the best place for community, relationships, and discipleship; rather, they are the on ramp that leads to these things. Be that as it may, I would never hire a company to build a freeway if the on ramps to that freeway sucked up 80% of the budget.
I would love to explore ways in which our church structure and culture are centered on discipleship and mission, where Sunday gatherings celebrate that mission but don’t become the mission.
Second, and related, whatever “primary” gathering we focus on in church, it should incorporate the gifts and voices of the congregation as a whole. As it stands, our primary gatherings (Sunday services) are often dominated by 2% of the Spirit’s gifts that occupy the room (the preacher and the worship team) while the rest of the gifts lie dormant.
Third, I’m tired of hearing about committed Christians going to church and yet not finding any real, authentic, Christ-honoring community in church. At least 8 out of 10 people I talk to say they don’t have genuine community at their church. So many Christians are disconnected, lonely, isolated, depressed, struggling with life and marriage and drink and porn—and no one in their church knows about it. If I had a penny for every struggling soul I encounter, who has no one at church close enough to be real with, I’d have at least enough cash to buy a decent bottle of Scotch.
Vibrant Sunday services can’t fill he void of the intrinsic human need for relationships. Until the church elevates such need as an upmost priority, we’ll continue to fail to make disciples who make disciples. We might have to invert the entire way we do church to ensure that our primary needs are kept primary.
I have several other thoughts on the way we do church, but that’s not the primary point of this blog. My main point is to celebrate and acknowledge the impressive work that church leaders and pastors are engaging in. After all, they—you—are the primary ones who are exploring these concerns with me. We’re all after the same goal: Cultivating Christ-centered communities that live out the radical ethic of the New Testament together as a body. I’ve yet to meet a pastor who doesn’t want this.
Let’s figure out how to get this together—even if it hurts.