By Matt Reffie
In America, it seems an increasing number of Christians are having a hard time finding their place in the Church. Long-time membership in a single congregation is no longer the norm, and church attendance in general seems to be in decline. While the changing culture around us often seems to be an obvious cause for blame, our own inability to receive one another well might be what is keeping us from the richness of full and diverse fellowship in Christ. Whether you’re happily established in a local church or out in the wilderness, there is a lot going on today that we can do better to learn from as we each seek to grow the Church and pursue our particular calling in Christ.
The decline in many American congregations is not a new topic. There is a lot of good information out there analyzing the reasons and offering a variety of solutions. We typically try to understand why people leave our churches from two points of view: 1) our institutional structures and programming, and 2) the departing believer’s lack of spiritual health. Sadly, we often begin and end with #2. We quote 1 John 2:19 to ourselves (“They went out from us, but they were not really of us…”) and summarily determine they simply were not right with God, otherwise they would have stayed. But if we’re being honest, this often isn’t the case. By God’s grace we sometimes have the sense to continue trying to understand the separation and try to examine our church structures and programming. Why have three long-serving families moved on recently? What can we adjust to better serve and retain parishioners without changing who we are? What in the world will it take to get our children to remain with us beyond youth group?
While there are some good conversations happening within both of these typical responses, I think we’re ultimately asking the wrong questions and coming to the wrong conclusions about how to keep fellowship. The key seems to be in our desire to ‘not change who we are.’ The hard truth is we’re too in love with our own conception of the Christian life. This shouldn’t be surprising. The faith we’ve come to enjoy personally and the style of church we have thrived in is a natural place to start in helping others enjoy the same. Much of our Church life is centered on replicating our own positive experiences, which is why we’re so surprised when it doesn’t seem to be working. (Actually, when you’ve got something so good and someone rejects it, it is quite hard to not take it personally.) But we need to take note that Jesus didn’t make ‘cookie-cutter’ disciples. He raised up believers who lived out the Gospel with their own unique flavor and talents, and it is in the mixing of those flavors and talents where the Church has been grown and preserved up to the present. In my experience, many earnest believers are leaving their churches today not because they ‘were not really of us,’ but because their unique seasoning has not been fully welcomed to mix with the existing flavors of their church.
Especially lately, there have been a few hard examples of this playing out in churches across America. The most obvious is the lack of millennial Christians involved with their home churches. It seems a big part of this is the lack of genuine participation and ownership offered within the life of the congregation. It is too often the case that young believers are merely invited to participate in ministries that have been long decided without them. Instead of taking full advantage of the flavors and talents born into the Church this way, churches often strongly focus on preserving the existing mission and flavor, rather than expanding their variety of ministry. Instead of making disciples in the manner of Jesus, we try to make our young brothers and sisters fit a pre-existing mold, and often do harm to their Divine calling in the process.
Similarly, there is a growing trend of adult believers leaving their long-time churches as well, because they no longer feel genuinely welcomed and heard. This extends from the casual parishioner to the most deeply committed teachers and lay leaders within the baby boomer generation. Even pastors are not exempt. Evangelical leader Francis Chan, for example, left the church he founded because he felt he could not be both what the church expected of him and what God was calling him to be. Regardless of how deep their involvement, some believers are finding their flavors and talents welcomed in other churches and traditions. However, much like millennials, many are opting to shine their light outside the confines of any church at all. Thousands are finding some semblance of community on social media, getting together in small groups, or trying to form house churches as they seek to fulfill their particular callings. Yet many thousands more are left in a wilderness period, waiting to find some fellowship that does more to encourage their calling than attempt to conform or reform it.
One very visible example of this is the Christian rapper Lecrae, who recently announced his departure from the modern evangelical movement. As he was moved to speak out against racial injustices over the past few years, he realized this part of his calling was not welcomed in many evangelical circles. He came to the realization that his popularity as a Christian rapper was tied to his conformity to a particular flavor of Christianity, and he could no longer do it. As one of the biggest names in the Christian music industry, even he hasn’t felt fully welcomed to be who Christ has called him to be within a large swath of the American Church. For Lecrae and many others young and old, the unique flavor God has given them simply has not been welcomed in many of our churches.
So, how do we create space for the many flavors of God’s Kingdom within our particular churches? First, we have to clothe ourselves in a newfound humility concerning our own Christian convictions and experiences. This doesn’t mean we fully change our beliefs or give up on our convictions, but we do have to be able to recognize the good work God is doing in others even when it looks considerably different from our own experiences. If we fail to see God in others, then we’re failing to see what God is doing right in front of us, and ultimately, that is a big problem! Second, we need to actively engage and encourage each other’s faith, especially in areas where we differ. When a brother like Lecrae says he doesn’t feel heard or welcomed, we need to take a big step back and find ways to let his flavors and passions impact ours. Better yet, some brothers and sisters need to walk out the door with him and support his ministry in the same ways he has often supported theirs. It is not enough to simply well-wish those leaving to better fulfill their calling and continue on with our ministries unchanged. It should be that “if one member suffers, all the members suffer” with them (1 Cor. 12:26). If the spiritual needs, hopes, and dreams of our brothers and sisters don’t change us in some way and move us to act with them, then we unintentionally discredit their faith and send the message that this part of their faith isn’t recognized or welcomed here.
Instead of encouraging our brothers and sisters to be the flavorful ‘salt of the earth,’ we’ve either insisted, or at least insinuated, that their faith should look and taste a certain way, usually just like ours. The first and hardest step is admitting this to ourselves. In our lack of cultural awareness and humility, we’ve essentially been asking some of our brothers and sisters to stop being their fully flavorful selves. Our little pre-judgements and prejudices against other races, denominations, and lifestyles have often blinded us to the Christ-likeness right in front of us. If we can acknowledge this short-sightedness and own it, God has blessed us with eyes to see anew every day. Then, instead of the frustrating and fruitless task of trying to make cookie-cutter disciples, we might inspire one another to be Christ in unexpected and life-changing ways. As it is now, many wonderful flavors are flowing out of our churches and our own flavorful saltiness is becoming diluted in the process. Don’t let your church lose its flavor without letting everyone know they are welcome, needed, and wanted in the full life of the Church, just as they are in who Christ is calling them to be.
If you’re one of the thousands of disaffected or wanderers who have had to leave your church in order to follow Christ more faithfully, know that you are increasingly in good company. Hopefully you have found some brothers and sisters to journey with. There are many online forums to connect through, and likely others quite near to you who are also searching for a fellowship to call home. As you seek God in this space, be sure to remember, YOU ARE THE CHURCH. No matter how different your calling and walk might look from the tradition you came from, you are loved, you are needed. Like Lecrae and others, respectfully stand up for yourself and the ministries God has laid on your heart. Continually invite others to join you in it, and continue to journey with others in their ministries even if they have not done the same for you. Continue to visit local churches to be blessed by them and to encourage their ministries.
If you’re still connected to a local church, be persistent in finding ways to add your seasoning and talents to the overall flavor of the church. Ask to be involved in budget meetings and share your perspective on what expenses you feel are adding value to the church or not. If you have an idea for a ministry, ask to present it to the church and see if others might get involved. Volunteer to interview members about a wide variety of issues and help their voices be heard and talents be utilized by the leadership and the wider congregation. Don’t be afraid to follow God into some brave new style of church. If you can’t find full fellowship in an existing church, find or create something that works for you elsewhere. I’ve personally been a part of several experimental churches. Even though none of them lasted long, each has added to my understanding of full and healthy fellowship. And that is the goal, glorious fellowship with other believers. Whatever your calling in Christ, there is a place for you to be his Church with the brothers and sisters around you. So have fun finding your place, and do your best to encourage others to find theirs!