Last Sunday: "National Back to Church Sunday"

There was a big online media push for "National Back to Church Sunday" several weeks ago, which culminated on Sunday, September 12th.  The day after September 11th - a coincidence?  A play on people's anti-Muslim sentiment as a ploy to help aid dying churches across America?

The website (http://backtochurch.com) read:

"National Back to Church Sunday is a special day set aside each year on the second Sunday of September. On that day, thousands of churches will open their doors and welcome anyone who would like to rediscover church.
National surveys indicate that there are many reasons people stop attending church. In fact, the top two reasons people stop coming to church are that they feel that they are “too busy” and others feel the burden of family & home responsibilities. We understand that. Those are very real reasons, but those are probably the top two reasons why you need to be in church. Wherever you’re at, a local church community is there to support you. Maybe this is the invitation you have been waiting for. Get connected with a group of people who are making a difference. Grow in your faith; give your children a Christian foundation; learn to be a better parent; get marriage help; and reconnect with your community and with a God who loves you."

I'm not so sure that "too busy" is the chief reason folks aren't going to church.  I think it might be that what the church in America is offering just isn't very attractive.  

I haven't invited a friend to church in a long time, and that's not just because I've jumped to and from several churches over the last 5 years.  It's because as much as I want my friends to discover what I have found in Jesus Christ, I have no idea where to send them that will help them follow Jesus in a meaningful way.  A lot of my friends that don't go to church aren't interested in the mess we've made, the arguments we're having, or the cheapened subculture we've created.  

I grew up bringing friends to church.  I even did it in my early twenties, and remember feeling deeply embarrassed at that point by what was coming from the pulpit, and the pews.  It wasn't arrogance that made me want to differentiate myself from the altar calls, salvation prayers, tithe-pushes and culture-attacks.  It was the look on my friends' faces.  Fish out of water?  More like civilians ducking artillery fire.  I don't want to put them through that, and whatever I have to offer in the Way of Jesus, I still don't have a great way to direct them after they've met Jesus.

I recently found out that an old friend had become a "Born Again Christian."  For the first time in my life, I realized I was internally cringing at the subject of salvation.  Because I know what kind of church she's now going to.  And I know what that means...

In celebration of National Back to Church Sunday, I didn't go to church.  Or maybe it was because I was just tired.  

Look, I don't think church is bad.  I still love THE Church. But church can't save America (if, indeed, American needs to be saved).  Church attendance isn't the problem, but it certainly isn't the solution.  I pray instead that we can discover a solution to saving the entire world.  I believe that inevitably must involve the Body of Christ, but I'm not convinced we've properly made a distinction between being a member of that Body, and simply getting "back to church" - back into pews to consume (weakly) a weekly message...

14 comments:

Al said...

If you hear a symphonic chord coming from up my way...
it's because I am resonating on several levels.

The reasons why people stop attending church? Do people stop eating or working just because they are too busy? No--because some things automatically take top priority. Church attendance, not so much. I agree with you. Church attendance just isn't attractive. Not that we haven't tried to make it so, and have designed a whole sub-culture around the attraction model of kingdom building. If you build it, they will come... (or will they?)

Inviting a friend to church. The last time I remember doing that, it really felt like it backfired. Of course, God can overcome the negative vibes, but why do we work so hard at making things weird? We can have such an insider kind of language that it's like a different country inside.

Born Again/salvation/atonement theories/the Gospel--maybe when we realize what the Kingdom of God actually is, and start working towards building it (instead of our own little empires), then people will want to be a part of it.

I will never stop wondering how The Church became a building/one hour meeting instead of the Kingdom of God. How do you attend the Kingdom? How do you leave and need to return to the Kingdom?

One of these days I will have the nerve to honestly answer questions like:
So, where do you go to church?
Go to church? What do you mean? The church is people, not a place you go.

No, I mean where do you worship?
Wherever I am, with whoever is around me. My life is worship.

No, like what church are you affiliated with?
God's Kingdom, wherever, whoever, whenever.

But where are you Sunday morning?
Out bringing love to some of God's favorite people--the poor. And then I'm probably drinking coffee somewhere, maybe having a great conversation with another person who isn't in church either.

Do you get the impression I agree with your post?

Peter J Walker said...

I'm sorry we're in such conceptual opposition Al... please try to respect my difference of opinion ;) j/k.

Very cool. I like your indictment of attractional churches. The problem with that model is, there can always be a better show in town. It might be a church - so churches become opponents of each other, fighting over congregants. But sooner or later it's going to be REAL art or REAL entertainment that we lose "viewers" to, because they're being honest about what they are. When the church tries to be entertainment, or even when it tries to be art (typically, although there may be potential there) it fails miserably - coming off as a cheap knockoff.

Yeah, the last time I invited someone to church, I just kept feeling sorry and cringing for doing it.

"How do you attend a Kingdom?" Good question. It's like suggesting I'm American or you're Canadian certain times of the week, but other times we're somehow neutral. Or perhaps even deeper: sometimes we're male, when we're attending "male-specific" events. Otherwise, we're androgynous.

If we're citizens of the Kingdom of God, that citizenship follows us everywhere, into every endeavor and situation, all the time.

Well put, Al. All of it!

Multiple Facebook Responders... said...

I posted this POST on a note in facebook and some good dialogue came out of it. Here's a synopsis:

Adele Sakler
RIGHT on Peter! You said what's in my heart!

Chad Holtz
word

Jared Quinn
I love how you articulate what I can't. My message ends up coming out in a rage-fueled angry diatribe directed at Christians who are 'doing it wrong' and I sound like a lunatic berating Christians for doing the right thing the wrong way, or for the wrong reasons.

David Golden
As a "church professional" I survive in what I think of as a "Prairie Home Companion monologue" aesthetic: however flawed, embarrassing, misdirected, misguided, and ineffective we may be, we all mean well, we're doing our best, and we're all in this together. But I still don't invite friends to church, unless I'm sure they know what they're in for.

Jared Quinn
David, I don't think that it's directed at any one person/thing/professional entity, it's more... on a whole, the Church (not just Pastors, staff, counselors, musicians, or members, but everyone collectively) give off a very elite, members-only, very cold-shouldered vibe to non-believers.

Nothing says you have to pray a prayer of salvation with non-believers to 'win' them... no mention of a membership, nothing at all about fixing sin before acknowledging a savior; give someone what they NEED in Jesus' name. What they NEED according to THEIR point of view, not yours. I'm not talking about paying everyone's rent when they come begging, there's a difference between benevolence and naivety. The example Jesus used is to give someone a drink of water. Jesus lived in a desert.

Too often sinners come to Church and what they need is for Christians to show them that love is real, that it's free, and that it doesn't matter who they are or where they came from. That's it. Draw the line there, don't 'use' love to 'draw them in' just love them. If a sinner stands in a group of people who love each other and sees that love freely shared, you can bet the farm that they'll want in on it, right now, no waiting, not next Sunday, not during the next Altar Call, right now. However, when they walk into Church and see gossipers whispering, insiders laughing about inside jokes, outcasts sitting at the side of the room grimacing, cute little messages about how "This book will keep you from sin, but sin will keep you from this book" and the like, they don't see love, they see, well... the world. This is further compounded when the preacher wags his finger at Christians for not paying their tithe... when the same 50 people have been in the pews for 20 years; The Great Commission is to save a lost world, not to pay tithes and offerings... If you think that I'm saying tithes and offerings aren't important, you've missed the point herein.

America will get 'back to Church' when 'the Church' gets back to the basics and starts loving, unconditionally, because it's love, not because it's outreach.

Multiple Facebook Responders... said...

Jared Quinn
By the way, that's not directed at you, just sharing my heart, not articulated as well as Peter's original post.

Peter J. Walker
No, well put, Jared. I think I hear you. The message I get here is that the church has been inwardly focused, maintaining its walls, pews, membership a.k.a. infrastructure. And the Gospel is all about going out into the world and living a kind of love that society calls reckless and naive! We still need to grab that coffee, dude.

David, I really liked the way you wrote: "ut I still don't invite friends to church, unless I'm sure they know what they're in for." This requires a rare amount of self-awareness that often dies when we seal ourselves in religious echochambers. Good work for keeping perspective.

David Golden
You've got a lot of good points. And just to be clear, when I referred to "church professional" I just meant that I HAVE to show up, unless I don't want to get paid. The comments were meant for "we the church." And let me say that I have big problems with the current semantics around tithing. Churches love to say "pay God's 10% first." However, what I read from Jesus is that God's share is 100%, and the way you pay God is not by paying the temple, but by sharing with those who are in need. And then I feel like a huge hypocrite, because if a good number of people DON'T tithe to the church, then I've got to learn how to sell used cars or insurance. I am beginning to think we need to do pledge drives like NPR. Rather than saying "paying us is the same as paying God," we should say "this hour of worship and the ministry during the week was made possible by a grant from our denomination and congregants like you."

Chad Holtz
Just before Peter posted this I posted something on tithing. Would welcome anyone's thoughts.

http://chadholtz.net/?p=1530

Sam Morales
Peter, I've actually been shopping around for a new church for my family to attend (the Mrs. wants the kids to grow up in a Christian environment). I personally don't get much out of church (20 minutes of meditation does more for me than a couple hours at church) and the closest thing to a church I find rewarding is when I'm with the Unitarian Universalists. There is one thing I noticed immediately from my adventurous church hopping and that is the unnerving bittersweet feeling of walking into a car dealership. Everybody's friendly but they all want to sell you something, and all I want to do is Look.

Multiple Facebook Responders... said...

Peter J. Walker
David, I like the NPR idea. As much as I support pastors (because so many of my good friends are pastors) I'm not sure I believe in the system of paid ministry. Well, I do believe there will always be a place for it, but I think bi-vocational pastors is where the future is - maybe for better AND for worse.

Nice piece Chad, thanks for the link.

Sam, kids change everything (or so I'm told). When we have kids, I do want them to have SOME kind of church connection... your car dealership analogy is very fitting.

Dan Brunner
Hmmm...you're harder on the institutional church than I would be, although you make some excellent points, Peter. What are you offering as an alternative for planting God's Great Economy (to use Wendell Berry's phrase)?

Peter J. Walker
Oh rats, I have to come up with something constructive?!

Brittany Rose Ouchida-Walsh
Hmmm...you're not as hard on the institutional church as I would be, although you make some excellent points. :)

George Elerick
hey peter! i resonate with this! nice one bro!

@Dan: I think thats a great question, but i do notice not just as christ-followers, we race to find another answer, but also as humans, there is an inherent tendency to want to 'fill the gap'; i am with Zizek an atheist culturl theorist who says answers actually stop us, that we must continue forward because the answers before this point weren't good enough to keep us where we are and so we challenged those answers and came up with more questions. i am weary of 'answers' to be honest. so, how does this work practically? i think for me, it means we can't take our answers as gospel or truth or as the way to do things, but also implant an inherent 'time bomb' within the structure of our response...does that make sense?

Dan Brunner
Ouch, Brit.

multiple Facebook Responders... said...

George Elerick
‎@dan: the ironic humor in that statement is that i am from california, lol!

Liz Dyer
Peter - I'm sad to say that my family haven't been regular church attenders for about 3 years now. Here's what happened - About 4 years ago some stuff came up that made us start questioning some things the church was teaching/doing and we started to experience a disconnect. Up until then our lives basically revolved around the church.
We were never professionals or paid - but we were very involved in everything (attending and volunteering). We started cutting back on some of the volunteering (especially teaching) but kept attending most everything - mostly because of community. But then we moved. We visited churches religiously (no pun intended) for more than a year but we found that we could not be honest about where we were at and connect with a church community and without the community we couldn't muster up the motivation to "go to church". Fortunately my youngest son who is a teen (the last at home) is still somewhat connected to the church where we moved from (it's about 30 minutes from us) and goes to youth choir on Sunday evenings and has continued to go on mission trips with them. The few groups/communities that we have run across that seem like they might be a place for us to fit and connect don't end up having anything for my teen. After trying for more than a year we finally just gave up. We have participated in some community service projects that some of the local churches have done even though we don't attend the church but for all intents and purposes we have physically left the church. I say physically because there is still some sort of attachment that we have to the church (spiritually? emotionally?) It's sad - we miss the church but we don't want to fake it and we just don't fit anymore. We still pray, we still practice loving our neighbor, we still stand up for the least of these, we still practice generosity and hospitality etc. etc. and are committed to living in the way of Jesus but we don't go to church.

George Elerick
Liz: " We still pray, we still practice loving our neighbor, we still stand up for the least of these, we still practice generosity and hospitality etc. etc. and are committed to living in the way of Jesus but we don't go to church." - great examples of why you already ARE the Church!

Liz Dyer
George - thanks - those are encouraging words. I still miss being a part of a local church if you know what I mean.

George Elerick
me too. the community. i miss that.

Liz Dyer
thank goodness we at least have the online community!

multiple Facebook Responders... said...

Peter J. Walker
Yes, I agree George - questions lead us forward while answers stop us.

Liz, I'm so sorry your family went through that. It sounds so familiar. I know a lot of folks who believe that it's not possible to be a "Christian" without participating in church. I simply don't believe that, and George's response is well put.

Thanks everyone!
Jeremiah Lyons
I think every Sunday is a great day to get back to church, as Heb 10:25 says, "forsake not the assembling of ourselves together, as some are in the manner of doing." As the saying goes (and as many of these comments point out) there is no such thing as the perfect church, but if you do find the perfect church, don't join it, because you will ruin it. :)

Peter J. Walker
Ha ha, Jeremiah, that's funny - totally true. I'm sure I've ruined things more than once ;)

Liz Dyer
Jeremiah - You probably do not mean it the way it came across but the saying you shared isn't much help to those who feel like there is no place for them in the local church and it sounds like an excuse not to change. I think most serious followers of Jesus Christ are Christ like and mature enough that pettiness has not led them to leave the church - in other words we/they aren't looking for perfection. What we are looking for is a place that is humble enough about what they can know about truth so that there is unity without conformity - so that orthapraxy is more important than orthodoxy - so that love and relationships are more important than what people believe. The sad truth is that there are still many people sitting in the pews every week (that haven't left yet) that don't believe a lot of what "the church" they are attending is teaching but they are afraid to be transparent and honest because they know how they will be treated - this not only keeps them from speaking out honestly but it also keeps them from becoming a whole, healthy, participating member of the body. The body needs all the parts but the body is oppressing many of the parts.

Peter J. Walker
Really well said, Liz. " they are afraid to be transparent and honest because they know how they will be treated..." I can't count my friends and loved ones who fit this description.

Peter J Walker said...

Everyday Theology
I miss going to a church where the pastor was up front about imperfections - personal and congregational (while not focusing on it).
Where there was an open mic time where "regular" people (that was the joke) could share so that it was not a professional stage show.
and before the offering is was clearly articulated that the church was not after your money - that it was between you and God but here was the practical & spiritual reasons that we gave. It was also stated that it was o.k. if you didn't give, gave to something else or weren't there yet.

authenticity is more important to me than impressiveness.

I REALLY like what everyone has said here. I have been thinking about it all morning and will continue to the rest of the day. Moving (again) to a new community has really helped me see things differently (again). -Bo

Jeremiah Lyons
Hey Liz, I’m sorry to hear that you feel that way, and that the church hasn’t done its part to maintain a balance with love and relationships especially for those who disagree on things, or may be questioning their beliefs. My point with the perfect church comment was that you will not find a church in where you agree 100% with everything that they say or do. There will be some things that bother you, and there will be things that bother me. I agree with you that we should not be a bunch of yes men and women, but be as the Bereans in Acts 17:11 who received the word with readiness of mind, then after they received the word, went back and studied the scriptures to see if what Paul taught them was true. Most pastors that I have interacted with are open to talking and working with people who have these questions or concerns, but unfortunately, I also understand that that is not always the case. My main point with the post in general was that the bible calls us as believers to attend a church with fellow believers (forsake not the assembling of yourselves together) while either looking past, or working through things we don’t agree with. As Philippians 1:9-10 says, “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ”. So as one who believes the bible, I encourage you to find a church where you can plug in and approve the things that are excellent.

Peter J. Walker
Bo, probably a major change going from pastor to congregant so quickly, eh? So how's Claremont?

Multiple Facebook Responders... said...

Peter J. Walker
Jeremiah, in my experience most pastors are open to talking and working with people who have questions or concerns, but problems often arise if (a) folks don't sooner or later "come along" (i.e. move beyond questioning to some sort of eventual certainty) or (b) the conclusions are in conflict with those of the pastor.

Pentecostals tolerated and even supported me through much of my searching/deconstruction process in the early-to-mid-2000s, but when it became clear my conclusions were clearly "left" of the church's status quo, I became suspect.

That said, it's probably not healthy for us to be in churches where we feel deeply convicted AGAINST something normative at that church. It takes very difficult, nuanced discernment.

I agree Scripture calls us to meet together, and that does equal "church," but the Bible doesn't quite tell us to "attend a church." That specificity of language, even if objectively true, creates an expectation that all believers attend an organized, structured church. Fellowship doesn't have to be organized, formal or structured in any way. People who are seeking Christ should spend time together, share, and pray together. I know it's semantics, but in this case, I think the word "church" is unnecessarily limiting, especially on new believers.

Enjoying this dialogue, Jeremiah. I think you have a kind heart - I remember you in class, in high school.

Everyday Theology
Pete - I miss ya man.

a) Claremont is like being in an Alien environ ! Pac NW to So Cal, Masters to PhD, and Evangelical to WILDly Liberal are 3 bizarre shifts to make all at the same time ;)

b) Teaching Pastor to church shopper is just a "Mars & Venus" thing. No way to prepare for that.

c) While I appreciate Jeremiah's hopeful and sincere heart - I just have to say that I am afraid that perhaps he is being too generous, too hopeful or too naive. I am not an expert. But I have over 20 years - and present conversations- with pastors in BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, NY, Ohio, the Carolinas, Montana, Washington, Oregon, California, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New Jersey as well as Missionaries overseas (Bosnia, France, Cambodia, etc.)
and I would not say what Jeremiah has said. I do not think many pastors feel the way about people having these concerns that he has put forward.

I'm not trying to be a wet blanket. and I appreciate the use of scripture. Here is the thing (and this is the only reason that I have gone back after this) I think that when we throw Bible verses at people and bumper stickers (there is no perfect church -and if there was , you going there would ruin it) it FEELS to people like we are not listening - we are not HEARING what they are saying. People have been really hurt. They have been really disappointed. and when we don't acknowledge that... it feels like were are being dismissive or just placating them.

It pains me just to say that. But i think that it is the reality that we are dealing with. (no offense Jeremiah - and I don't know you ... you seem great... but we have a REAL problem on our hands).

multiple Facebook Responders... said...

Peter J. Walker
Sobering, Bo. We do have a serious problem.

Jeremiah Lyons
Thanks all for participating in this conversation, I think that in some cases we can just agree to disagree, and that is fine. I am sorry that some of you may have had bad experiences with church and pastors etc, I cannot defend the actions of others, and I cannot defend church history not that I feel pressured to. I can only turn to the Bible to find what God thinks of such things, that is why I may quote a lot of scripture in some of my posts, it's not to just find a random verse that agrees with what I say, I believe that the bible is the true and living word of God and should have the final say on all things God and Spiritually related. Finding that consistency between verses may be difficult at times, but I do my best and most sincere effort to be reasonable with finding those consistent conclusions. I believe the Bible teaches that God will make all things right, and until then we have to work through some of these issues. but at risk of throwing another "bumper sticker" out there, I ask myself this question all the time, do I judge the bible, or do I allow the bible to judge me? The Bible is too amazing and incredible not to be true, I conclude that it is the living breathing word of God written through man rather than containing the word of God. When I say that, I become the judge, and who am I to come to such conclusions?

Thanks All!

Peter J. Walker
I hear you Jeremiah. I thank a lot of us have held that position at some point. For me, now, I think Scripture instead should be the STARTING point. We go there first to find what the Bible says. From there, we weigh its testimonies (because there is almost always plurality and dissonance there) against our context, our experience, tradition, our conscience, and our perception of the Holy Spirit and the Cosmic Christ. I think Wesley's Quadrilateral is helpful here, although he gave more weight to the Scripture over Tradition, Reason and Experience. I believe the Bible is true, too, but HOW is it true? That's an ongoing evolutionary process in the life of the church.

I also want to mention that I believe Jesus Christ is the living Word of God, not the Bible. The Bible is testimony to the Word - it points to the thing, it is not the thing.

Al said...

Pete: Thanks for bringing over all your comments from facebook. I'm sorry now that I hadn't got involved in the discussion there. It looks like a good one!

I appreciate your gentleness with differences of viewpoint. It's easy to rail on someone who hasn't 'seen the light' yet, but that doesn't tend to be any more productive than those who toss in a 'scripture grenade' and then disappear.

After I posted my comments, I had one more question sometimes posed: So, where do you fellowship?
And the answer is just as easy, but non-church specific. I fellowship at the soup kitchen on Monday, over coffee Wednesday morning and afternoon, as I catch up on my blog reading, as I run into Christians I know on the street. And that fellowship tends to be more genuine and productive than a couple minutes of chit-chat before a Sunday morning service.

Chris Ledgerwood said...

I don't have a huge amount to add to this discussion except I agree with your post 100%

Cheryl Ensom Dack said...

I love what Jared said:
"...don't 'use' love to 'draw them in' just love them."

That is exactly the distinction I've tried to make but I can never quite communicate it, but Jared has very simply/perceptively stated it. I have experienced this so many times (coming and going!) in church.

My most recent post talks about this need for an alternative that others are mentioning on fb and I really think the key I've just stumbled upon is for communities/churches to come together/organize around common goals/aims like "compassion," "extravagant, tangible love," "practical support" or even "feeding people food,"as opposed to the way things normally are in church: uniting with common goals/aims of things like, "saving people from hell," "teaching people about the Bible," or "helping them see the truth."

Here's why...

When the common goals are things like compassion and love, I can be me, you can be you, and we can relate to the real selves we are, not the cleaned up versions of ourselves we commonly bring to church. When it's love and service of others that are the "why" behind gathering together, people don't hide their needs; they show them.

Only two real people can really love one another and receive love from one another. If I meet you as "cleaned up Cheryl" and you love me, approve of me and ask me to be your kids' godmother, can I ever really believe that you love me? There is that sneaking feeling inside: "If you REALLY knew me, you wouldn't love or approve of me." Lack of authenticity in relationship makes our hearts into some kind of bullet-proof armor. Love literally can't go in and it becomes very difficult for it to go out. We wind up making do with our "avatars" being loved...it's better than nothing. But we aren't really satisfied, are we?

Al said...

Cheryl, that makes so much sense. People can easily see through the 'love them' veneer to the 'gotta add them to my church/empire' underneath the veneer. But when there really is no other motive than just to be as loving as you can be, it shows. When you aren't really thinking about whether they will start coming to church or not, when you aren't looking to make another convert, they can tell.

I think it is high time we started really caring for people like Jesus did (and still does).

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