Why I dropped church and joined The Church

A German Mass during WWII

A German Mass during WWII

Snark MeterrealMID.003I came of age outside of the faith. At eighteen God found me. From that day forward, and with a love that was not my own, I have not been able to help but love Jesus back and work for the welfare of others with the overflow of that love. Yet, even with all that love, I am sorry to say, I did not love church. Oh, I liked the idea of church. I liked lots of people at church. I just didn’t like church.

At least not until I discovered the Church: The Church historic. In the Church historic; orthodox, catholic and reformed, I found something larger than I.

I came to value Christ’s bride when I wandered into an expression of it that immersed me in a different and embodied narrative: the grand story of God’s creation, fall, redemption, and working toward final justice. The Church, described by the Creeds, nourished by the Sacraments, defined by the Scriptures and led by the Holy Spirit through the 3-fold ministry, is something one can stand lashed to when the storms of life come.

Don’t get me wrong, I am indebted to the church of my conversion. The godly men and women of that movement introduced me to faith, fed me on the Scriptures, and challenged me to serve. Now, however, in the Church I am no longer adrift in a world that is a Jesus add-on to a life of my American culture’s creation. In the Church, I am connected to the original eleven “sent-out ones” by touch and by teaching. In the church of my conversion, “The gates of hell,” did, in effect, “prevail against it” from the close of the canon until the Reformation, or maybe the Second Great Awakening, or, for some, the coming of the evangelical explosion of the 1980s.

The Church is rooted in history, unchanging, with worship patterned after that of the earliest Christians. Lancelot Andrewes described the Church of the Great Tradition as bound by “One canon, two testaments, three creeds, four ecumenical councils, over five centuries.” She clarified those creeds in the Reformation. Her lay and clergy were missionaries of the Awakenings. In this Bride, the Holy Spirit is gloriously alive and balance is maintained in public worship by praying the safe, vetted words of the Church. In the Church, the old battles are not forgotten. So they do not need to be refought.

What put me off about church was that it was so like me – feeding me a steady diet of myself: my wants, my preferences, my music. It was quite “relevant.” I came to realize that I actually needed church to be UN-like me: to be transcendent. The Church is unconcerned with “relevance.” It cares not for my preferences. When I ask it to change it grins gently and asks me to change instead. In the Church, when one panics about something and accosts the clergy at the door, the chances are good the priest will say, “We have been in God’s presence in the liturgy. How about we enjoy that for a bit? Call me on Tuesday.”

The Church is maddeningly un-fearful. It is not subject to politics or fads. It does not do focus groups and market research. It is not trying to impress me, win me, or woo me. Instead of bending to my whims, it seeks to conform me to the image of Christ through immersion in patterns: daily in the Scriptures, weekly in Sacramental feeding of the Thanksgiving meal of the family of God, and living out God-time in the Christian Year. As a man of flesh, these patterns marinate me in the Gospel, bringing forth flavors in my life I never imagined.

In church I could write my own wedding vows. In the Church, self-made wedding vows, narcissistic holdovers of the 70’s, are not on the table for discussion. The Church calmly says, “Our job is to be conformed to God’s will and God’s words, not our own, so we will use the vows that have withstood the test of time, thank you.”

Many genuinely love the relevant church, I am sincerely glad for them. But for the growing group for whom church-lite is wearing thin, for whom the four songs and a sermon liturgy delivered by latte-toting pastors in skinny jeans is holding up as well as a Walmart shirt, there is an alternative. That alternative is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. It follows a pattern that was old when Justin Martyr described it in 150 CE. It is both sacred mystery and deep discipleship. A faith in which the words and movements all tell a story. And ultimately, shape lives into the image of Jesus.

A few questions for discussion:

If you are a “relevant church” person, do you love church? Or are you giving up on it? If so, why?

Are you one of the people that goes to an expression of the Church that has a plethora of service options. (One of the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox churches that offer services along a continuum from chanted 1700 year old liturgies to modern “relevant” models.)  If so, do people move between the offerings?

Are you in one of growing numbers of modern churches experimenting with ancient liturgies? If so, how is that going?

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Is the way we are doing youth ministry emptying the church?

My “Cool Church” post has become a love it/hate it item on the internet. One critique is that I am simply wrong in the premise students drop out of church when they leave our youth groups.

What does the data say? Back in 2009 Brett Kunkle gave a good summary of what is now undeniable: 7 separate studies say the same thing – Youth abandon the church after high school. http://www.conversantlife.com/theology/how-many-youth-are-leaving-the-church If you doubt him, how about David Kinnaman’s new book about 2o somethings abandoning church, “You Lost Me.”

Youth worker: Cowboy up! We have to face the facts. It is easy to blame the church, the parents, and the culture. But look at the data carefully:

-61% of churched high school students graduate and never go back. (Time Magazine, 2009)

-78%  to 88% of those in youth programs today will leave church. (Lifeway, 2010)

Think about it: All students leave church at 61%. Students in youth programs leave at 78-88%.  Implication: Students attending a church with NOTHING for them attend church at a 50% higher rate in their 20’s than if they went to a church with one of our youth programs!

Youth pastors, we might actually be harming the numbers for churches without youth programs. We are giving our lives to students and it turns out that NOTHING might have been better for their participation in the body of Christ as an adult. If that doesn’t make the hair on your neck stand up then nothing will.

Please hear me: I am NOT saying we should fire youth pastors and disband youth groups. We know from history and common sense that unled things die. I am also not one of those saying that youth ministry is “unbiblical.” Greg Stier wrote a good rationale for why YM is both biblical and vital; http://www.youthministry.com/articles/leadership/defense-youth-ministry.

However, if we have integrity we will look honestly at way students are leaving the church when they leave our ministries. We need to look at…

-The unproductive segregation of youth away from parents, the larger body of Christ and leadership in the main worship service-something most of us who are pastors would never risk because “excellence” would suffer. We need to help our students become participants, “givers” to the community of faith; not just “consumers” of religious services.

What we count. Do you count “decisions”? “Attendance?” When I was on Young Life staff I kept a copy of all of the numbers our national organization gathered from us: clubs, campers, and conversions. I noticed that there was a fourth number that actually accounted for the other three: the number of leaders we had that went into the world of students. I found a ratio in effect: For every leader that would go to the campus to meet students in September, we had 7 students in “club” by December, 4 campers in June and 1.5 “commitments” by July. Our stellar Regional Director, Marty Caldwell, looked at several years of this data and immediately pointed out a truth: We become what we count. We need to count disciples who make disciples. We need to count the right things if we wish to develop the right things.

Our failure to resource parents – the ones God has actually given “our” students to. Two resources: Steve Wright: ReThink and Rob Reinow: Visionary Parenting.

We can do better. We can teach our students to love doing the things Christians have spent 2000 years loving doing: To read the Bible, study it, live it. To love and serve their friends, and talk about their life and their faith…their convictions and even their doubts. We can model for them participating in and building real faith communities. We can build students who know how and why to pray…who worship and walk with God. We can make students who live grace-filled lives towards others and make different decisions for themselves than they would have because they are amazed at God’s goodness and mercy and love for them. There are good resources for this out there. Ken Moser’s, Programs to Go will give you 18 youth group meetings to get you started. http://www.effectiveyouthministry.com/programs-2-go.html. I have a “What we do in a discipleship group” that I can email you.

To quote Paul, there is “a still more excellent way.” It is an ancient way. A rooted way. A connected way. A way that resources parents and makes leaders “soul friends” to students and helps them live lives of faith and love as they walk with God and serve the church and the world.

Big changes take a great deal of courage and effort. But the fruit will be eternal. And that will be so worth it.