There is a growing group of people who identify themselves as those who “love Jesus, but not the church.” Popular hashtags declare #EmptyThePews and #Exvangelical. Statistics show a drastic decline in church attendance in North America. This is troubling for church leaders, who consider this mass exodus a moral crisis for faith and for Christianity. There are new books and DVD video series from teachers on “how to get your child back in church.” But I see very little deep introspection on behalf of church leaders who consider that maybe, just maybe, something ought to change about the way we are doing church. This series of blog posts (I don’t know how many it will be, yet) will address why church as an institution seems to be dying in the West and why church (as a collection of people) is booming in the Global South and East. What sort of DNA leads to healthy community and spiritual vitality? What sort leads to unhealth and diminishing spirituality? In short what sort of gatherings make people genuinely desire to be together and what sort increase the sense of dread?
My goal in this series is to add a positive spin of hopefulness into the conversation. For whoever you are, whether you are a staid believer in traditional church or a frayed beleaver who’s searching for a new way of church, this blog is meant to encourage you and hopefully convince you that there’s something very, very good going on here. There is something extremely exciting about this season of reconsidering and deconstructing. But, as popular as the term is these days, I don’t like the word “deconstruction.” It sounds so…destructive. I prefer to use the term “Renovation.” There is a Renovation underway and it is not just happening in your local church. It is happening across the globe. Simultaneously. And like all renovation, there is a season of demolition. If you’ve ever walked into a kitchen or bathroom during the demolition phase, it can be very disconcerting. Just after demolition (before rebuilding starts), you can hardly even tell that it used to be a kitchen or bathroom. It looks naked, shameful, destroyed…unusable. Perhaps, that is where some of you are in your journey with church. Take heart. It’s functionality is not determined by its current state but by its identity and destiny (to be a kitchen or church or whatever). There is renewal and reconstruction just around the corner. But it’s going to take some soul-searching and some hard work to sift through the debris, to sufficiently process it and discard it, and to find the right new materials to rebuild. We will rebuild something. I believe it will be more authentic, deeper and fresher for our generation and the ones after us. To launch into this, I’d like to share a bit of my own story and then address the church-Stayers and the -Leavers.
I live in a large city in Asia. I am part of a community of people here who love getting together (not just on Sundays!). We help each other. We have fun together. We feel belonging around each other. We each have long lists of people we could call on to drop by for a visit. We work together. We are real with each other. We support one another. We regularly pray for one another. We host worship events and prayer events together. We do service projects together. We dream together. We simply love doing life with each other. When we have family or friends come to visit, we often hear things like, “your community is so cool,” “what you guys have here is so attractive and unique,” and “how did this happen?” Well, I’d like to try to attempt to answer that with this series of posts, because what we have shouldn’t be unique. It should be normal. Deep affection and connectedness should be standard. Being a part of a community where every person feels seen, known, celebrated and an integral part of the whole should be everyone’s experience. No group is perfect and human relationships will always be messy, but I believe there are some simple things, when understood and practiced, can lead to better community.
Really, it’s all about community. Church leaders have understood this to some degree for a long time, but many then tried to build community (cell groups, small groups, etc.) within the church, but that only siloed good people into artificial community. Whenever a committee assigns people to, or makes decisions for, a group of people, you might have a work team, but what you don’t have is a community. What if community was what it is supposed to mean: the people and families (of all ages) that you are tied to relationally, have some proximity to, and share a responsibility for the betterment of your communal living and work space. That could be your street, your apartment building, your neighborhood, your office or factory, or your church (in the traditional building sense). You see, church should fit inside your community, not the other way around.
But I've been using a narrow definition of "church." I’d like to expand it. I want to make sure we don't just define church as that building on the corner of 1st Pres. Rd. and 2nd Baptist Avenue. This is very important, for depending on your definition, the church is either dying or exploding, something you are or something you do, something wide and global or narrow and exclusive, something wild or something tame. Despite all of our previous experience, church isn’t something you can bottle up in a statement of faith or a building or a collection of buildings. Church is loving your neighbor. It’s serving your community. It’s joining forces with the industries in your city to create a place that will shine. Church is stopping, turning around and picking up that garbage, removing the dangerous object from the street, engaging that person with a question, inviting others in from the cold of brokenness, loneliness, or abandonment. Church is knowing there’s a solution to every problem and finding it just takes a little love and patience. Church is the place where the Spirit of God dwells that isn’t a place. Church is the knowing that everyone belongs and everyone has a significant part to play. Church is the container for beauty and inspiration that isn’t a container. Church is a people, a place, a time, an event, that can’t be boiled down to any of those things. Church is an event, an experience, an earthquake, an epicenter, which has already happened and we are still shaking in the aftershocks. Church is the intangibles that come through the tangibles. Church is the understanding that lets go of understanding for the sake of togetherness and brotherhood. Church is the family that every person can claim inheritance from. Church is the vehicle, the model, the framework and the filling, and like donuts can come in all shapes, sizes and flavors. Church can work with or without instructions and, like Legos, can be put together in an infinite number of ways, because love is the royal law. Church is the enjoyment of God and each other and self. Church is loving self as a way to love others and loving others as a way to love self. Church is the bent of the universe toward compassion. Church is the energy of all life and love and beauty. Church is. And no matter what denominational leaders may tell you or statistics may predict, there’s never been a lid on it and there’ll never be an end to it’s growth.
But…there is a Renovation…of meaning, of principles, of experience. We will set out to discover the new and hold on to the good. We will only get angry at things that continue to hijack and steal from others experience of love. We will hold with affection the training wheels and teachers that, out of love, have helped us to grow to become who we are now. We will keep the baby and toss out the bathwater. We will Unravel into freedom and Rebuild something useful and beautiful with helpful language and better principles informed by love. Will you join me on the journey of discovery? Will you come along as we find out what God is doing in our day? Whatever it is, it is for our good and for the good of the world. I don’t know about you, but I’m excited!