Have you noticed all the “zero sugar” sodas out now? Not “diet,” but “zero sugar.” All the flavor, none of the calories? I am seeing some unpleasant parallels with today’s church…
- All the pretense, none of the commitment
- All the judgment, none of the compassion
- All of the benefits, none of the costs
- All the trappings, none of the substance
- All the bells & whistles (and candles), none of the meaning
- All the consumerism, none of the Christ
Too harsh? Sadly, I think not. I was out of the local church pastoral ministry for almost 30 years, working denominationally and at the Annual Conference level, and here are some of the things I have heard over the years:
- Any service over 30 minutes is too long
- My kids shouldn’t have to sit through the boring parts of the service (referring to prayers and the reading of scripture)
- I like churches that don’t expect anything from me
- I go to churches that give stuff away
- They shouldn’t let “old people” sing praise music
- Why do preachers think sermons are necessary?
- I refuse to attend on communion Sundays
- I want the offering after the sermon so I can give what I think is appropriate each Sunday
- I don’t volunteer; I give money that pays for the church to do ministry
- I don’t care what denomination it is as long as it’s a Republican church
- The best thing about the pandemic has been that I only have to tune in church when I want to, if I want to
Seriously, I could easily go on another hundred lines, and the scary thing is that so many leaders take these thoughts to heart and are adapting church to accommodate this “zero” attitude. One pastor told me, “Making people comfortable is our primary concern.” Really? Which gospel is THAT in? Another told me, “I don’t worry about attendance or membership anymore. I’m good if I see someone in church a few times a year. I know it means they care.” Care about what? People tend to engage in things that matter to them.
What other organization allows its members to determine the standards by which they attend? A health club does, as long as you pay your membership fees they could care less if you ever show up. Colleges and universities do; they get your tuition money whether you attend class or not. But you can see the parallel here, right? If you don’t show up, you don’t benefit. You don’t get what you pay for; you get what you invest in. If we keep lowering the bar for what it means to BE church then we become as irrelevant as many say we are. Yes, discipleship has its privileges, but it also has costs, demands, responsibilities, and accountability. Keeping people happy, making them comfortable, while allowing the least mature and most biblically bankrupt among us to be judgmental, condemnatory, small-minded, bigoted and biased, has shot our credibility all to hell (pun intended).
The tragedy here is that while many wish for a free ride, just as many, if not more, are starving for more. Many people actually want to grow. They want to be challenged. They aren’t looking for a ticket to heaven or the easy way out. When we raise the bar, there are many who will do just about anything to clear it. At a time when we need a fully motivated church and a vital body of Christ, we insist on pandering to the least committed.
John’s gospel contains a humbling, but honest picture of discipleship. While dozens followed, hundreds did not. Many went away from Jesus unwilling to commit. He didn’t chase them, he didn’t entice them, he simply let them know it was worth the investment and then let them choose for themselves. We need to do that today. It would be swell if everyone stepped up and chose the path of discipleship, but many simply won’t. Instead of continuously trying to water down discipleship to make it more palatable, we really need to hold fast with integrity to the higher standards, and pray that more and more will come to desire it. If we don’t, it won’t be long before there is nothing worth pursuing, and Church Zero will live down to its name.