Recently I was in a client’s office talking about church and how it is such a double-edged sword. If healthy, it can be a supportive and helpful environment or on the flip side it can destroy lives. Even though I said these things without emotion or drama, one person hurried out of the room with tears glistening on their cheek. I thought, here is another one. My heart sank just a little lower. I don’t know the persons’ story but I’m sure I’ve heard one just like it.
In the last five or so years I’ve been part of regular church gatherings. We were never mistreated. But when you enter a room full of people that rarely reciprocate your efforts to create connection, or worse yet, never respond to your authenticity and vulnerability, you walk away feeling slightly less valuable as a human. And maybe they do care, but you must pretend to be someone else just to fit in. It’s not acute, it’s subtle, but the feeling grows. All I am in this place is twenty bucks in the plate and another voice drowned out by an overzealous sound engineer. Why? There is better teaching on YouTube, and better music too. “But you need fellowship” they cry. Fellowship…you keep using that word, but I don’t think it means what you think means. If I was experiencing fellowship, then why do I feel so empty inside when I leave?
A few months ago, someone asked me why I think churches are slowly declining in our society. My very stoic reply went like this: “A sociological analysis reveals that the benefits of participation in church life don’t outweigh the cost. Eventually the cost overpowers the leverage of obligation and people start to drift. When they realize that life, on balance, feels better without church, they find themselves enjoying Sunday brunch rather than a Sunday service.”
The churches that are growing have managed to lower the cost and provide a better weekly experience. But even then, it seems most people show up half the time and when they manage to show up maybe half of them sing.
I had a creative idea that would offer people bible college level Christian education for one third the normal cost and it would take place in their building. The response I got from church leaders was “Cool idea, but how are you going to get people to care enough to sign up for it?” I appreciated the abject honesty, but I had no answer for them, so I shelved the idea.
The substance of what we call church is, bit by bit, being hollowed out.