Can churches become irresistible?

0177paetechurchentranceI recently came across a web article on the ‘done with church’ generation. When I saw the title, I rolled my eyes a little, expecting it to be yet another whingeing session dressed up as a mission strategy—but when I read it, I was pleasantly surprised. It offered the start of a genuine exploration of why committed Christians, who have been heavily involved in their local congregation, might simply give up on the church as an organisation.

John is every pastor’s dream member. He’s a life-long believer, well-studied in the Bible, gives generously and leads others passionately. But last year he dropped out of church. He didn’t switch to the other church down the road. He dropped out completely. His departure wasn’t the result of an ugly encounter with a staff person or another member. It wasn’t triggered by any single event. John had come to a long-considered, thoughtful decision. He said, “I’m just done. I’m done with church.”

The article goes on to explore the dynamics involved for people who have been in church for a long time, and for whom things feel jaded. Two particular issues relate to questions of learning, growth and discipleship, and the question of participation and passivity.

After sitting through countless sermons and Bible studies, they feel they’ve heard it all. One of Packard’s interviewees said, “I’m tired of being lectured to. I’m just done with having some guy tell me what to do.”

The Dones are fatigued with the Sunday routine of plop, pray and pay. They want to play. They want to participate. But they feel spurned at every turn.

I can see why these issues might be particularly important within certain church traditions, particularly in the States. But they have relevance to a range of church traditions on this side of the pond too.

I followed the links and discovered that the article was by Thom Shultz who has proposed four reasons why people leave church, and the ‘four acts of love’ which will win them back and keep them. If you are thinking to yourself ‘Not another American programme for off-the-shelf guaranteed success and church growth’, just stay with me for a while!

The four reasons (from research) why people say they left church are these:

“I feel judged.”
“I don’t want to be lectured.”
“Christians are a bunch of hypocrites.”
“Your God is irrelevant to my life.”

These are fascinating, in that though they arise from what drives existing church members away from church, they relate closely to issues that keep non-Christians away from encountering church life for themselves. In fact, Thom’s website moves seamlessly from the language of ‘why people leave church’ to ‘why people stay away from church.’

The ‘four acts of love’ he proposes are equally fascinating, and have a lot of resonance with things we are exploring as a gathered, city-centre congregation at St Nic’s in Nottingham:

Radical hospitality:

  • Seeking to understand.
  • Authentically welcoming others and being glad to be with them.
  • Caring curiosity.
  • Being a friend even though it’s not your ‘job.’
  • Accepting, no matter what.
  • Profoundly relational.
  • Something that takes time.
  • Unnerving, surprising, and messy.

Fearless conversation:

  • Seeking to understand.
  • Listening, really listening, before speaking.
  • Asking great questions.
  • Asking ‘wondering’ questions.
  • Allowing others to talk—even in a sermon or Bible study.
  • Using pair shares.
  • Offering nonjudgmental responses.
  • Trusting the Holy Spirit and believing that God is on our side.

Genuine humility:

  • Radically relational.
  • Open to learning from others with different beliefs.
  • Open to learning from people of different ages.
  • Admitting mistakes.
  • Free from churchy, insider language.
  • Putting people first.
  • Communicating directly.

Divine anticipation:

  • Realizing God is actively involved—all the time.
  • Grasping God’s power.
  • Accepting there are things we can’t explain.
  • Trusting the Holy Spirit.
  • Being relevant—and realizing that God is relevant to everyone.
  • Expecting God to show up.
  • Trusting that God will do what only God can do.
  • Telling others—in an authentic, natural way—what God is doing in our own lives and in the lives of others.
  • Allowing people to express their faith in their own ways.

On reading this, I was immediately drawn to them for several reasons.

512c-j9HZCLFirst, they do not read like an off-the-shelf programme of things to do, but some serious challenges to personal and cultural issues within the life of our congregations. They appear to me to tap into real concerns that people have about much church culture, in a similar way to the Progressive or Emergent movements in the US and (increasingly) in the UK.

Secondly, they appear to be rooted in genuine theological and biblical reflection, and have significant theological implications. The radical and challenging nature of Jesus’ hospitality has underpinned recent work on ethics, such as Richard Burridge’s Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics and Luke Bretherton’s Hospitality as Holiness

But this means that these ideas, whilst being ‘far from theoretical musings’ and ‘practical acts [which] show Jesus’ love to people who crave it’, actually have significant implications for how we think about faith, community and mission. The idea that teaching in the church needs to be conversational and involve listening isn’t just about good pedagogy—it also challenges rigid notions of truth as something settled and certain. As I have commented elsewhere:

Why should we presume that the truth about God (or even about the physical world, like the nature of light of the working of gravity) can be expressed adequately in human language? If the Word was God, (John 1.1) then we can say enough in language to make meaningful statements about God. But if God’s ways are higher than our ways (Is 55.8), how can we presume to pin down the truth about God in what we say? (‘There are two things which are infinite: the universe; and human stupidity—but I am not sure about the universe.’ Albert Einstein.) We have to say, then, that all our statements claiming truth about God are provisional. This is not (contra postmodernity) because there are no absolute truths, but because (contra modernity) we can never state these absolute truths with absolute clarity. God cannot be measured.

As an example of how this works out in practice, one of Shultz’s recent blog posts reflects on the perennial discussions about sexuality in churches.

While speaking before a group I mentioned that the debate around homosexuality will present some complicated issues for the church. A man in the back of the room disagreed.

“There’s nothing complicated about it,” he said. “My Bible says homosexuality is a sin. Period. End of story.”

But for the people around him, it was not “end of story.” It was, however, the end of their conversation with him.

After a short exploration of the way ‘The Bible says so!’ closes down discussion, he offers these five principles for engaging with contentious issues:

1. Remember the goal. The real goal should be to help people grow in relationship with the Lord. Winning a doctrinal argument at the expense of driving someone away from God is not a win.

2. Use fearless conversation. Allow give and take. People want to be involved in the conversation, especially with sensitive issues.

3. Let scripture speak. Absolutely, include applicable scripture in the discussion. But also allow others to include additional scripture and their perspectives on context and interpretation. Accommodate a robust biblical exploration of the issue–even if it makes the issue more complicated than a simple proof text.

4. Invite questions. Create an environment where people know it’s safe to ask difficult questions. And ask some good questions yourself, such as, “What does this scripture mean to you?” Use the occasion to direct some of the questions to God. Including God takes the conversation to a higher level.

5. Exercise humility. Sometimes it’s best to say, “I have questions too. I don’t have all the answers. Only God does.” Posturing absolute certainty on difficult issues often undermines a person’s credibility.

51Xdo+eQz6LPerhaps the most interesting thing about this approach is what it does not say. Shultz might agree with the Progressive/Emergent movement in their the diagnosis of the problem with contemporary church life—but he does not appear to agree with the remedy. A Lutheran, he appears to believe that leaders like Brian McLaren have thrown the theological baby out with the cultural and social bathwater. He still wants to get to an orthodox/traditional belief about God and Christian discipleship, but is proposing a refreshing and different way to get there.

Shultz has kindly agreed to send me a copy of his book, Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore, which I will post about. In the meantime, do these ‘four acts’ resonate with you? Have you come across this yourself?

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22 thoughts on “Can churches become irresistible?”

  1. Yes, these ‘four acts’ do resonate with me, Ian!

    I just want to add a couple of reasons I know of why some people don’t go to church in the first place:

    ‘I’m not good enough.’
    I’m not going to sit there and listen to them telling me I’m a sinner.’

    Thank you for another great blog.

  2. Sorry to be anonymous but when you read this you’ll understand that I don’t want to give my name.

    I’m someone like John in the first example – been a christian for 30+ years, know the Bible reasonably well, heavily involved in the same church for a long time, given a lot over the years. And recently I’ve felt like walking away from it all (but not from God).

    The main reason why is because I’ve realised that many people in leadership roles (be they laity or clergy) are control freaks who are in it for themselves. On numerous instances I’ve concluded that they have no real desire to listen to people and allow decisions to be made collectively. And when things go wrong there is no accountability or admission of fault. It’s not just in my church, it’s in many other churches as well, and I have several friends who feel the same. I’ve also seen a total failure to tackle well-documented instances of bullying and abusive behaviour. I’m at the point of regarding church as a religious system that seeks to self-perpetuate for its own ends.

    What I feel ties in with the third point – genuine humility – it seems to be lacking.

    In america, there seems to be increasing numbers of christians who say “none” when they are asked what church they go to, because they have had too many unpleasant experiences in churches.

    On the subject of people “wanting to play”, whilst that relates to participation, I think church life also lacks the sense of “play” as in having fun together. By way of comparison, I have Jewish friends, and in the Jewish community there are always celebrations happening. How many parties do we have in the church? Not many, in my experience. I’m not suggesting we go to the other extreme, but I think there are some deep cultural issues within christendom.

    • Dear Anon, thanks so much for sharing your story—and I quite understand your staying anonymous.

      I am sorry to hear of your experience, and you are definitely not alone. It is something I have experienced myself—and I would love to say that it is something that I have never been guilty of, but I am not sure I can.

      One of the reasons I was drawn to these 4 Acts is that they do contain a personal challenge to all of us in leadership. We are going to be working through them in our mid-sized group in our church.

      On your final point, one thing that comes out of UK church growth research is that churches that laugh are usually growing. Mind you, we probably don’t need research to tell us this—just humanity!

  3. Yes, these ‘four acts’ do resonate with me, Ian!
    Not because they have any merit in themselves but because they seem to me to be Christ like.
    Their appearance (like another list of things to do) repels me but the character that they represent draws me.
    The aspiration to Christlikeness and to the seeking of God’s kingdom rule is at once simpler to express, more fulfilling for a lifetime of exploration AND, possibly, less likely to become a seed of idolatry (where the letter is obeyed but the spirit (of God) is not).

  4. Yes, these four acts resonate with me. I just have one big question as well:

    If, at every point, you state your understanding of truth “provisionally” and allow other, divergent or opposing views to be voiced and heard, how can you be sure to arrive at an orthodox/traditional belief about God and Christian discipleship? It sounds to me that on certain topics you will have to remain provisional and ambivalent, because of the culture’s push back.


    • Wolf,

      I think that you’ve nailed an interesting dilemma. When we say that statement about God are ‘provisional’, what do we mean?

      Very often, those who use this word mean that we cannot fully describe the transcendent. While true, that itself places a limit on the ability of God to condescend to guide His creation at the level of human experience.

      I would suggest that we should explore this question by asking: ‘provisional to what? Most of those who use the word in this context, actually want it to mean ‘tentative’ and that parts of NT witness should be superseded where it doesn’t tally with the reasoning of progressive theology.

      The gospel, as articulated through the prophets, Jesus and the apostles, is not provisional, i.e. tentative to post-apostolic notions. As Paul said: ‘though we or an angel from heaven preach any other gospel, let him be accursed’.

      Of course, the counter to this is that the abolition of slavery and gender equality are post-apostolic concepts, despite proof that the principle of equality was emphasised through the gospel, that ‘God is no respecter of persons’ and that if there is a moral trajectory (gender equality and anti-slavery), it is plainly enunciated in the New Testament.

      In contrast, the progressive trajectory is an attempt to syncretise Christianity with re-hashed man-centred philosophy. It sees no difference between indiscriminate and anti-discrimination. It also ultimately contradicts significant parts of what was revealed to the apostles.

      When Paul mentions the partial nature of NT revelation (‘For we know in part and we prophesy in part’), the apostolic gospel is only provisional to the resurrection vision of God Himself (‘When that which is perfect is come, I shall know as I am known’) it is not a license to supersede scripture.

      While we may invite questions, the allowable exploration for Christians is to ‘search the scriptures’, and ‘lean not to our own understanding’.

  5. In the Diocese of Guildford, we use a presentation entitled ‘Closing the Back Door’.

    Interestingly, it uses the Parable of Sower to throw light on the subject of leaving the parish church when there’s considerable difference between those who abandon God’s word and those who leave a congregation that marginalizes them.

    Usefully, though, it itemizes eight key reasons for leaving:
    High cost of commitment
    Parental influence
    Changing Social Values
    Stages of Faith Development
    Loss of faith
    Changes and chances
    Feeling marginalised
    Unfulfilled expectations.

    The four stages of leaving are:
    First doubts – Critical of service style; Moving towards the exit; Attends less often; Finds sermon irrelevant

    Seeking alternatives – Building support networks outside the church; Trying out other scenarios; Feeling they don’t fit; Doing something to get out of going to services;

    Turning Point – Specific events crystallize thinking; Last straw; Time related factors; Excuses; Where a choice must be made; Knockbacks

    Developing a new sense of identity – Transition stage, Relocation.

    The turning point is when a person becomes bored of activities that expect them to be:
    A. Receptive vessels to be filled or resonate with the leadership’s position on all aspects of church life.
    B. Maintenance crew and staging technicians (sound, video projection, lighting, chair/table/decoration arrangements)
    C. Heavily scripted event participants (Christmas choir, bible drama, bible reading)

    At some point, some people will attain the maturity in discernment and faithfulness to the word required to teach others. Despite this, I have rarely witnessed a sermon echoing the biblical reproof for not attaining the maturity to teach others: ‘In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!’ (Heb. 5:12)

    I enjoy the freedom of commenting extensively on blogs like yours, Thinking Anglicans, Peter Ould’s An Exercise in the Fundamentals of Orthodoxy because I’ve made a choice.

    It’s a choice that allows me to engage in rigorous theological conversations and debates with the likes of Tobias Haller, Professor Iain MacLean and Scot Peterson (Bingham Research Fellow in Constitutional Studies, Balliol College). It refines my skill in communicating important concepts within the faith..

    Perhaps, as a vicar, you can show me examples of those within your parish put forward to the DDO with whom you have openly ‘disagreed well’, but respect the gifting of their critical thinking faculties.

    I’ll only believe that there’s a CofE ‘environment where people know it’s safe to ask difficult questions’ (however tactfully and seeking to avoid offence) when vicars are no longer given the personal license (a.k.a. abortive discernment process) to withhold even mentored teaching opportunities from those who are viewed as rivals for the ‘crime’ of asking difficult questions.

    Clergy in all denominations can promise to deliver nonjudgmental responses and still mark that questioner for exclusion from any possibility of teaching participation. More’s the pity. They’ll look elsewhere.

    For me, until this changes, the four Acts of Love will remain four elusive Aspirations of Love.

    • David, thanks for your continued engagement—and great to meet you on Saturday!

      I am not incumbent in my parish, so am not the formal gatekeeper in recommending people any more. But I continue to meet with, advise and encourage people with a range of perspectives theologically, and of course when at college was responsible for training whomever I have been sent.

      • Ian,

        It was truly a pleasure to meet you in person at the ‘Common Ground: Listening and Engagement – The Church and Current Issues in Sexuality’ event in Guildford.

        On a subject of such sensitivity, I was happy to witness the Lord’s redemptive generosity at work in your sermon. It effected a wonderful combination of nuanced expression, iron-clad reasoning, humour and pathos.

        I’m hoping that we’ll soon gain access to an on-line recording or transcripts of all three presentations.

        Best regards,

        PS Also praying for Andrew Goddard’s speedy recovery.

      • Ian,

        ‘Christian Origins and Hellenistic Judaism: Social and Literary Contexts for the New Testament’ contains a chapter written by Carl Mossier called Discussion and Prophecy in First Century Synagogues.

        He presents a convincing case that demonstrates that the early church inherited the first-century Sabbiath instruction format of scripture reading, initial teaching and then open discussion.

        It was this period of open discussion that allowed Paul and Barnabus to participate as strangers and share their ‘word of exhortation’.

        Mossier carefully explains that the early church adopted this format and that Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian church reflect this: ‘Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy…Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. (?1 Corinthians? ?14?:?1, 29-33? NIV)

        The issue today is that there is little opportunity for current liturgy to permit open discussion durimg which the prophetic reflections on the reading by non-clergy could be heard and evaluated for comfort, edification and exhoration.

        Our modern liturgy is devised by those who can’t help but promote the role of the clergy while marginalising the participation of the congregation in instructive, prophetic discussion.

        Hasten the day when most churches might permit the decent, orderly and open prophetic discussion in their services that Paul encouraged in Corinth.

  6. Ian,
    I read this with interest, though I was put off by the title! It resonates with my own approach to church and my role as church leadership. I strive to lead our church family in a way that together we welcome anyone and everyone without fear or favour, while at the same time remaining committed to a traditional orthodox Christian faith. We don’t always get it right but time and again I have been approached by those who might be considered to be on the margins of society for all kinds of reasons and yet who say that they know that they ‘belong’ to our somewhat messy and sometimes frankly embarrassing church family.
    It also resonates with the approach that my training institution Ridley Hall had during my time there of ‘roots down, walls down, bridges out.’ This is shorthand for being securely rooted in an orthodox evangelical heritage and from that position of security engaging with the rest of the church and indeed the rest of the world without fear. One shouldn’t mistake this security for arrogance, it is a security that allows open-hearted hospitality and loving engagement. Again, I don’t always claim to get this right either, but then admitting mistakes is part of humility, which is part of your post in the first place.

  7. The challenge Shultz describes can be seen in many churches. Perhaps it is well described by James Fowler’s Faith Development theory stages, which depicts the movement from stage three to stage four as being from conforming to a collective viewpoint, towards reflecting and forming ones own perspective on faith.

    The problem is, of course, that for an individual to ask questions is very challenging, both of those in leadership, and of the community around. All the more so if they were previously steady and unquestioning – of course, then, it LOOKS like they are changing for the worse, doubting and perhaps even backsliding, whereas in fact what we are watching is the outward signs of someone trying very hard to let their faith grow.

    I think many of the approaches Schulz identifies are the right ones for this ‘stage 4’ group of people. BUT by no means all the church will be in this stage, so how do we let some grow through their doubt, while others at earlier stages still want their certainties unshaken…? Will the approach he outlines help people at earlier stages grow faster, or will it just scare them off?

    We’ve just come to the end of Christian Unity week, and perhaps one answer is in different churches working together on this. In my town the different churches and denominations seem to have evolved to fill different spaces. My sons go to a more definite and straightforward evangelical church than I could manage at my stage of life. I can still remember the delight on my youngest’s face when he returned from an early visit there: ‘for the first time I know what it is I believe’, he said. (ouch!). That church suits them in their current stage of faith, and I respect and thank it for that. Sometimes i feel a bit bad about that, but not for long, because I know that both of that church’s pastor’s sons come to my church instead….

  8. Just thought of another angle on this, too, which I was discussing with a senior Pentecostal church leader today. This may speak to ‘anon’s’ experience in the comments above.

    We noted the especial difficulty for a church leader who has arrived at their position of leadership at that ‘stage three’ level of faith: it can be absolutely terrifying for them to feel that next stage calling. The poor church leader can be in quite an isolated position, and may have few people to open up to: perhaps s/he craves the respect of other leaders as much as that of the congregation s/he leads. If they don’t realize how important it is to travel honestly with their doubts, they can bottle them up, feeling more and more of a fraud: its probably at this point that they are experienced by others as ‘control freaks who are in it for themselves.’ Unable to journey through the valley of the shadow of death, they never realize there is exit at the other end. Of course, locked in that position they can hardly help others who are ready to develop, can they?

    This problem can affect leaders of individual churches but also those with a wider leadership or support role, and maybe it accounts for the functional atheism you occasionally and tragically see in bishops, archdeacons etc.

  9. How sad that folk feel that Church cons its of b ring lectured to and judged. As a lay person. church is a community of Christs disciples who meet together tto worship and to demonstrate their love for each other..What’s not to like!.

  10. My story is similar to John’s in the linked article. I just left my church a few months ago. I’ve been saved nearly 20 years. I was a trustee of the church. I took care of the church financial statements. I went on numerous mission trips with the church. I gave very liberally. The pastor of the church and myself were best friends. He was the only in the room with me when my wife passed away at the age of 41 (I was 37). We were tight. I still love him dearly.

    But…I left the institutional church because it’s an institution, an organization. It’s not an organism. The church is Christ, His body. But, traditional church is virtually all about man’s traditions and desires and very little to do with Christ. Just read George Barna’s Revolution or Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity (or any of Viola’s books) and you will get a good feel for the done’s or unchurched.

    I left to pursue an “organic” community of believers that wants to meet around Christ and Christ alone. I left to pursue living by the indwelling life of Christ. It really stood out to meet that nothing in any of the linked articles or your blog post talked about living by the life of Christ. The “four acts” sounded exactly like an off-the-shelf program churches use to attract and/or keep people. Yet, Christ couldn’t even garner one mention in them. That just floored me.

    I still love the people in the church I left. We continue to meet in a Bible study with some of them. So, I have no ill will towards them or anyone in a traditional/institutional church.

    • Steve, thanks so much for sharing your story too.

      I think I shared with you an initial scepticism about this sounding like a programme. But what drew me back was the strong relational sense underlying these ideas. I have a copy of the book, and I hope over coming weeks to reflect on each of these principles in turn.

      I have tried, in my ministry, to constantly move away from the idea of church as ‘institution’ to church as relationship. I have vowed that, if I ever start a ‘fresh expression’ or the like, whatever it is will be called ‘The gathering’, since ‘church’ should be a meeting of people and lives before it is anything else.

      If you are ever near Nottingham, do please be in touch.

      • I appreciate your response Ian. I don’t get to England often but if I do I will look you up.

        I agree the word church just isn’t helpful any more. I like gathering. I believe the Hebrew word in the phrase Hope of Israel also means gathering!

        • The Hebrew word qahal means those gathered together, and some early translations into English therefore use the word ‘assembly’ or ‘congregation’, hence the ‘congregation of Israel’ in Lev 4.14 and elsewhere. The NT Greek word ekklesia is used for this in the LXX, and this led early translators to also use the word ‘congregation’ in e.g. Matt 18. But the bishops didn’t like this as it appeared to undermine their authority! (That, of course, might be deemed a good reason to use it!)

          (Btw, you’re not a former baseball pitcher, are you…?)


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