Writers and researchers who look at “the state of the church” often fall into the erroneous and unhelpful fallacy of reducing our faith to the simplistic dualism of “churched” and “unchurched.” This ignores the fact that many church members are Christian in name only, while a large and growing segment of active, devoted Christians are unaffiliated to any organized church. However, there is one segment that I believe bears some serious attention: those who,
- are currently unaffiliated, but
- would love to find a church with which to join, but
- have been turned off by the congregations they have visited, and
- are on the verge of giving up on church forever.
It might appear that this would be a very small group, but analysis of hundreds of interviews, and thousands of surveys, with Christian spiritual seekers in the U.S. indicates that 27% would like to find a faith community, but they are unimpressed with the options available. These are not cranks and cynics — these are people seriously pursuing a life of Christian discipleship. They reject the church not because it expects too much, but because it demands too little.
A common dilemma we face in The United Methodist Church is that we want new members, but we don’t want to change. This is an unresolvable paradox. New people automatically bring change. A more honest claim would be that we want new members who are exactly like our existing members — then we get the best of both worlds: greater numbers with no need to change. For the most part, people who are dissatisfied with our current congregations are not welcome. They demand too much of us.
Here are a number of quotes from a diverse group of “outsider seekers.” Note that they are representative of thousands (tens of thousands) of the people we say we want to join us.
“I’m not looking for a place where ‘I can hear the Word,” or merely learn to understand the Word. I want to find a place that helps me live the Word – and the whole Word, not just words arbitrarily picked out to create some pseudo-Christian mini-cult. Whenever I find a church with promise, I find that people like to talk about the faith, but not put faith into action.” (Rick, 35 year old, African American)
“I know I am in the minority. My friends have found a church they love, and they drag me there from time to time. It bugs me that they like it so much. What bugs me about it? The church tries to make everything simple and easy. They have repetitive singy-songs, they read from this “Sesame Street” version of the Bible (The Message) that sounds like my mom wrote it, and they preach these ‘be good, be happy, Jesus died for you, God loves you’ messages that don’t really mean anything. If faith is so easy, why do we need the church?” (Tina, 27 year old, Korean American)
“You need to understand. I want to find a church. I have visited dozens. People tell me I am being too picky… and maybe I am. But what I need is a challenging, demanding environment where I will be faith-trained, where I can learn to be spiritual at the very core of my being. I need to explore and wrestle and talk to people about the big issues of life. I need to wrestle with the angels, not have somebody spoon feed me answers and get mad at me when I disagree.” (Beth Anne left the church because she strongly believes that God loves homosexuals, convicted felons, and scientific research.) (Beth Anne, 50 year old, Caucasian)
“Yeah, I’m a consumer. And, yeah, I’m the product of my American culture – only the best for me. That’s why I wouldn’t be caught dead in a big church. I’m just not interested in some Wal-Mart style knock-off. I want the best scholarship, the best preaching, the best teaching, and the most committed, demanding leaders possible. I want to be a part of a team-in-training to change the *****’ world.” (Ben, 24 year old, Cuban Asian American)
“My girlfriend is really into this huge church. I will admit, it is fun and there’s lots of stuff to do – but nothing I can’t do other places. The only difference is that there’s this ‘Jesus-thang’ going on. It feels like a movie set: it looks really good from the front, but its all façade. It’s all surface, no depth. It’s obvious that they don’t need me, and sadly, I don’t need them. This church does absolutely nothing to help me grow. I only go because of Kim.” (Jacob, 25 year old, Caucasian)
“I attended <a church> for six years. I was welcomed, I was busy, I was really engaged and active – but after six years I realized, ‘I don’t know God any better now than I did when I first came here. This church does good things. It was full of good people. But good only goes so far. No one there seems to want to be better.” (Josh, 34 year old, Caucasian)
“This will sound really pompous and judgmental, but the last two churches I went to were like, “We’re really into Bible study and dealing with heavy issues,” and I was like, “Cool. This is what I need.” But then I got into it and I found out that it was all really simplistic stuff. What they considered deep I found very basic, and frankly, simple-minded. They made a big deal about a ‘eight-month long Bible study,’ you know, like it was really a BIG deal, but it was like a remedial high school class. Unless there’s at least the hope for a college level class, you won’t appeal to me or most of my friends.” (Manuel, 28 year old, American of Puerto Rican descent)
“We went to this big ‘What Would Jesus Do?” church and all I could think was, “Why Would Jesus Care?” I’ve read the New Testament now nine times, and I can state with almost no reservation, <church> is not what he had in mind! What would Jesus do? Run as fast as he could from <church> and go out and do something worthwhile.” (Emily, 41 year old, Asian American)
“What about prayer? Oh there are written prayers, and the pastor prays, but when do the people pray? I asked people about prayer, and you know what one person said? “We don’t talk about prayer here. That’s private.” Prayer is treated like an item on a checklist — class begins, say a prayer – check, okay, on to the next thing. There is a prayer group. I attended it. Six older women and the pastor! Out of a church of over 800 people! Six people to pray. What’s up with that? If I can’t find a church grounded in prayer, I’d rather not go.” (Margo, 44 year old, Jamaican)
“I finally found everything I was looking for in a church in a spiritual mentor. She is someone who asks me hard questions, guides me to deeper thinking and understanding, challenges all my assumptions, but supports me as a person. She encourages me, and she expects me to put what I learn into some form of action. She prays with me, for me, and reminds me to pray for others. She models authentic discipleship. We worship, study, serve, and practice spiritual disciplines together. Two other people have joined us recently. Because of her, I became less anti-church, because she showed me what – at its very best – church might be. But recently, it came out that she is gay, and her church — her congregation since she was born — rejected her. She’s left the church, and I have left with her. I deal with mean-spirited hypocrites all the time in my work. I just don’t need to deal with them at church.” (Cambell, 23 year old, Caucasian)
It’s one thing when we struggle to find ways to reach those who are not interested. It is quite another to realize that we often fail to reach those who want to join us. Church leaders at all levels of the system need to contemplate and discuss the lives we fail to touch because we adhere so stringently to our own “flavor” of belief. When people need to fit our system before they can “belong,” we lose a significant opportunity to stretch, grow, and mature. Many “outsiders” are asking the questions that we no longer think to ask ourselves. “Insiders” tend to settle for the status quo, accepting what it true in their experience as “normal.” But maybe, just maybe, “normal” isn’t good enough, and with new sets of eyes, we could be “better.” It’s worth exploring.