George Barna’s new book, Revolution, not yet in print, addresses this phenomenon that is sweeping Christianity and radically changing the face of the church in America today. He specifically addresses some of the frustrations and shortfalls the church is currently facing today. Chapter 4, titled, “How is the local church doing?” looks at the condition of the 77 million churched, born-again Christians in America. Some of the points he makes:
- Worship – the bi-weekly attendance at worship services is, by believer’s own admission, generally the only time they worship God. 8 out of 10 believers do not feel they’ve entered into the presence of God or feel they’ve experienced a connection with Him during the typical worship service. In fact, half of all believers do not feel like they’ve entered into the presence of God or experienced a genuine connection with Him during the past year.
- Faith-based conversations – the typical churched believer will die without ever leading even a single person to a life-saving knowledge of or relationship with Jesus Christ.
- Servanthood – In a typical week, only 1 out of 4 will allocate any time to serving other people. In fact, most of that time is dedicated to volunteering in church programs that serve fellow congregants. Little time is invested in serving needy people outside of the congregation.
- Spiritual friendships – Fewer than 1 out of 6 believers have a relationship with another believer through which true spiritual accountability is provided. The most significant influence on the choices of churched believers is neither the teachings from the pulpit nor advice gleaned from fellow congregants; it turns out to be the messages absorbed from the media, from the law and from family members.
So what is it about the church? So many believers are burned out with activities and programs that take their nights and weekends. Sermons are “the same-old, same-old,” and church budgets are stretched because of building payments, overhead, and salaries. There is little left for benevolence and helping the communities they occupy. “Praise and worship” time becomes more of a production rather than a time of joy and giving to God.
We tend to forget that our motivation for corporate worship is not so that we are the primary beneficiaries, but so that God and God alone would be the primary beneficiary of our worship. That means HE must benefit from our time of worship. HE must be the recipient of our praise; HE must be the focus of our teaching and our anticipation. That one little paradigm shift will make a wholesale change in our relationships, fellowship, worship, and allow the sermons (and the rest of church 'business') to take on a whole new meaning.
Whether we meet in a mega-church with thousands or in a home with a smaller body of believers/worshippers, if the focus is on what we can benefit from church, we'll eventually walk away empty and frustrated. We've been meeting exclusively in homes for 14 years, and our services, as intimate as we'd like to believe they are, can be just as dry and empty when we take our eyes off the real reason for being there. If we want our "church" experience to change, we need to change our focus.
Acts 1:14 gives us the setting in the "upper room" right before the Holy Spirit blew in. "They all joined together constantly in prayer..." There were 120 believers upstairs, all anticipating and waiting for the baptism of the Holy Spirit that Jesus said would come "in a few days". (ch 1:4-5) I don't think they were in a 10:00 a.m. Sunday service with a flow chart that read,
Praise and Worship
Elder's Prayer at the Altar Rails
Discussion and Drawing of Lots to Fill Judas's Vacancy
Usher in Holy Spirit...
No, they were in communion with God, praying, and waiting for the gift God had promised. A supernatural, spontaneous thing happened because they were waiting on God. The order of the service was not scripted, planned, or on a flow chart. The 120 were waiting in anticipation of what God promised he was going to do. Had they had their sights set on the temporal issues (i.e., the order of the service), they might have missed the whole thing. In the flow chart, Peter's sermon and the discussion and drawing lots is found in Acts 1:15-26. I threw in the other stuff because that's what we do at church. Having been part of the institutional church leadership for years, and having written plenty of flow charts and directed many services and meetings, I can personally attest to the fact that many, if not most services could be totally void of the Spirit of God and continue to flow anyway.
Barna said, “It’s interesting that the bible neither describes nor promotes the local church as we know it today. The order of the services, its programs, offices, buildings and ceremonies is neither biblical nor unbiblical. It is 'a-biblical'.” The scriptures mention nothing about the type of institution we traditionally refer to as "the church." I am not just slamming institutional churches. Our non-traditional, small home groups can be just as traditional by focusing inward and people coming to church with the attitude of "what will church do for me, who is there, how is the music?" Although there is a certain intimacy in a small group setting, meeting in someone's living room or at the lake doesn't make the church any more spiritual if the meeting is not intended to reach out and make a connection with God.
Please hear me out. I have been to many services where the move of God was quite evident, peoples' lives (including my own) were changed and victories were won. It was in the "institutional" church where I answered an altar call, made a profession of faith and grew in an understanding of Jesus Christ. It was the teachings I received from my pastor and many evangelists that strengthened my faith and caused me to grow. But overall, the condition and effectiveness of the church has been diminished by our need for organization, tradition, relationships, and programs that are designed mainly for the benefit of the membership.
I am not talking about avoiding structure or relationships. Again, my point is that the focus of corporate worship, meetings, sermons, etc is to make God the primary beneficiary. Community and relationship with each other should be a secondary product of our relationship with God.
Here’s what people get burned out on... self-centered, inward-focused churches that have no life and don't grow, and churches that are totally centered on the ministry of the pastor, the denomination, or a doctrine. While the church should teach sound doctrine for the purpose of facilitating our worship and relationship with God, doctrine should not be the focus; otherwise we are in danger of error, idolatry, or legalism. A church that is out of focus can also foster a high predisposition toward spiritual abuse.
There is a new move afoot, because people are seeking more from their relationship with God, not their church experiences. People are seeking a real understanding and knowledge of a living God that is fresh and full of hope. The image of a stoic Jesus and a disconnected, judgmental God is simply not the answer. A list of “thou shalt not’s” is not attractive. And the churchy, Christianese-speaking, born-again bible thumpers are what so many are running from and want to avoid becoming.
Ceremony, religious acts, and multi-million dollar complexes are not filling the voids that are in people’s souls. Only a real, life-giving and hope filled relationship that offers grace, forgiveness and healing will do. The church is not the hope of the world. God is.
OK, where is the stake, and who’s going to light the fire?