By: Brian Harris
A friend, a very committed Christian, recently said to me, “This church thing, it’s just not working for me.
The kids are bored, I’m bored, a lot of what happens is silly, and I experience God a lot more when I’m out in nature than when I’m forced to sit still and listen to endless jabber from the front – all in that rather drab building.” My instinct was to tell him why he was wrong, and to think of a way to help him reframe things. But even as the shape of a few rebuttal sentences formed in my head, I remembered this wasn’t the first time I had heard this. Not those exact words of course, but very similar sentiments being expressed from far too many people. And then there are all those who’ve never said anything, but I assume their irregular attendance (or for some, permanent absence), means that they feel something similar.
So – is church working for you?
Disclaimer. It actually does work for me. I have absolutely no intention of changing the pattern of a lifetime – one where the weekly rhythm of worship with a local community of God’s people has ensured I have time out to reflect on what matters most, to pray, to worship, to become still and remember that God is God. I have also appreciated being part of a community where our efforts are pooled for a greater good, and we have been able to achieve things none of us on our own would have. Of course it has helped that on the majority of Sundays I’ve been the head at the front doing the talking, and have only myself to blame if the message is dull – but I also greatly value the Sundays I’m not on, and simply take my seat along with everyone else. I’ve also had the benefit of preaching and worshipping in literally hundreds of different churches, so I have a rich range of experiences to draw from. Many have not only encouraged me, but have inspired me as I have seen the depth of commitment of godly people all over the globe. True, I have my horror stories of sermons that went far too long – one lasted over 3 hours (no, I was not the preacher). We were allowed a toilet break half way but as there was no obvious escape route, we had to return for the very lengthy second half. In the final hour I was mentally repeating “This too shall pass” – though afterwards I discovered I was wrong in thinking that is a Bible verse.
Overly long sermons aside, my positive experience of church appears not to be that of many, for church attendance statistics tell a consistent story. Attendance is lower and those who attend, attend less often. Why? Well, I hear my friend saying again, “It’s just not working for me.”
I’ve started to think about the people who find it’s not working, and have tried to piece together common threads. This is what strikes me…
Most of them are genuinely committed Christians. Their faith has led them to ask some very serious questions. By and large they have not found these questions to be either addressed or welcome. They are deeply perplexed by some of the issues facing the world. They don’t understand why their local church has (what seems to them) at best a superficial concern. They have formed real friendships with those outside the church. They find the caricatures of “worldy” people false, and the whole “them/us” dualism in church disturbing. They worry that church is about church, rather than about God and the world God loves. Some love the music, others don’t. Some find the triumphalism in much of the singing to not match their lived experience, and say they feel hypocritical claiming something in song that is not true in their life. Many say they don’t find anything spiritual in the service, and lament how little prayer and Bible reading there is in most services. While many long for deep friendship and sharing, they complain that superficial cheerfulness is the only product on offer.
And so they go on hikes, and private prayer retreats, but they aren’t really satisfied. And they wonder if it isn’t possible to be part of a church where these deeper needs are met. And as I listen to their concerns, I always think – surely that isn’t that hard to find. After all, that’s just church being church.
And I wonder if church just being church wouldn’t work ever so much better.