Why are people disillusioned with the church? There are too many reasons. In a short video, Mark Vanderstelt (Soma Communities) shares insight from a couple in his fellowship that had become disillusioned with church. I summarize the reasons he shared below and offer a few ideas from my experience that can keep people from similar disillusionment.
1) They came in expecting to find a loving, welcoming family in the church. They expected to connect with people with whom they could do life. But their experience of church was something else, something less. Their expectations went unmet.
2) The messages they were hearing didn’t translate into action. Problems were identified, but no one did anything about the problem. That fed the sense that the church was hypocritical.
3) They couldn’t see the relevance of the gospel to everyday life. They did not have a sense of how their experiences at church connected with their work, family, health, marriage, getting along with neighbors, etc. So church began to feel like a waste of time.
There are more reasons, for sure, but that describes the experience of many people I know. The thing is, many people who are disillusioned with the church are still in the church! They hang in there. So this isn’t just about those who’ve left or attracting people in and keeping them – this is about fostering a more vital Christian experience for the people we know and love in our churches.
What can be done? I offer three ideas.
1) Create extended family size groups in your church around discipleship AND mission. That can present a tough challenge for church leaders in established congregations. To start with, there are probably existing extended family size groups in your church. Groups like this form naturally. Some of these groups may have a sense of affinity and purpose that the members like, but is distracting from the work of mission and discipleship. If you aren’t careful, existing groups can feel threatened and judged when they hear you talking about groups centered on mission and discipleship. They may feel that creating new groups will displace them or take away from their number, or that their unifying purpose isn’t as acceptable as it once was. (I’ve got a few painful stories I could tell you about mens breakfasts, youth groups, quilting guilds, car clubs, and women’s circles…) If you are facing that, be patient, love the people, reassure them, pray hard and invite others to pray for you and your church. But don’t settle. Learn how to lead change. Get help. And work on the problem. The people God has brought into your life and ministry deserve to have the experience of living in a loving, welcoming family of fellow believers.
2) Start fostering intentional discipling relationships (and if you don’t know how, summon the humility and take the time to learn to make disciples who can make disciples. Like me, you may need to discover/rediscover what discipleship is. It’s worth it!) And then disciple people with all your passion and purpose. A little more than two years ago, I started gathering people into huddles and using Mike Breen’s Life Shapes as tools to help them live as disciples who make disciples. The coolest thing was how people began to learn how to be disciples and how to make disciples. And, because it was clear, they began to see how discipleship could make a difference in other places in their lives. By teaching discipleship, I have seen families make more time for family. I’ve seen sports coaches coach better. Mom’s have found new skills for mothering. A high-school senior found insight for vocation. A husband gained insight into how to talk with his wife. A doctor became willing, skilled, and confident for praying with patients. No one in those discipling relationships has said, “I don’t see how this is relevant.”
3) Emphasize connecting people to ministries that will help people experience church as a loving, welcoming family centered on Jesus. To emphasize those kinds of ministries, you will have to stop emphasizing the thing you probably emphasize, which is…
Before I give it away, let me be clear (and this is especially for church leaders and preachers) this is not about changing the message. If you – or your preacher – faithfully shares the truths found in the New Testament at all, people will come to know that church is supposed to be a loving, welcoming family. The problem isn’t the message. The problem is that the thing your church pours its energy, resources, and leadership into is a ministry that doesn’t help people experience church as a loving, welcoming, Christ-centered family.
The ministry you will probably have to emphasizing is the worship service. (I hope you will keep reading.)
In my earlier pastoral days, I worked so hard to plan excellent worship services. I would focus every aspect and movement of the service in order to communicate the deep truths of the gospel, and to promote doctrinal clarity and faithfulness. It took a lot of work, a lot of my hours. It blocked out other things. One time, a man in the church asked me to spend a day with him fishing. I couldn’t do it, I said, because I had to spend that time preparing for the worship service. Wow, I wish I could have that day back! I now view the chance to invest in a guy for six to eight hours as one of the most valuable ways I could ever spend a day. My sermon may have suffered, but my life would preach better. And the his might have, too.
Today, I involve members of my missional community in planning worship and we still work at the service because we want our worship services to be an acceptable offering to God. But I no longer emphasize getting people to worship. I try not to measure it. It’s not the first thing I invite new people into. It’s no longer the event into which I pour most of my energy because emphasizing it does not foster anything like the New Testament community of disciples. Gathering with others for mission and discipleship does.
Lost thing, as I read the Bible, I don’t see Jesus getting people to worship. He seemed to assume they would. Rather, he emphasized making disciples, loving one another, loving our neighbors, and loving God. Discipleship, loving one another, and loving our neighbors involve face to face connection with other human beings. A brief greeting to neighbors, sitting in rows, listening, and singing misses that. And if we love one another better, I wonder if we won’t love God better, too.
So to review, I offer three ways to prevent disillusionment.
1) Create extended family sized groups around mission AND discipleship.
2) Start fostering intentional discipling relationships (and if you need to, learn ways to make disciples who make disciples).
3) Emphasize connecting people to those extended family size groups organized around mission and discipleship.
And pray for your people!
Did this stimulate any ideas? I would love it if you would add to the conversation.