If I Could Change 3 Things About Church I would….

I must say I do receive interesting comments whenever I write about the local church or Christians. I inevitably strike a chord, particularly with people who have been disappointed or disillusioned. I understand that, if you have read my book ‘Growing Sideways’ you will know I have every reason under the sun to never walk through church doors again – I literally have seen it all.

So why do I stay connected? It is because the church has people in it that truly believe and hope that the kind of love Jesus expressed will change the world – I share this dream. For each self-serving person in church life there are 100 who are compassionate, generous and loving. I have seen church and clergy at their absolute worst and in contrast I have witnessed some Christian groups who are simply extraordinary.

As a young man I used to throw the baby out with the bath water (strange expression that) but it was more of a survival instinct / self-preservation. If you have read my blogs and made an assumption that I have lost faith in Christians or church, it is because I have done a poor job of expressing myself, it just isn’t true. Oh yeah, don’t worry, I am a cynic and don’t take any crap but deep down I still have a belief that the world is a better place when the church and the people in it, live their lives like Jesus did. There are lots of churches that do brilliantly – unfortunately it is only the bad ones that get the press!

So these 3 things that I am about to share are not an attempt to church bash as I consider myself part of the church. I have walked the path as a creative staff member who lived and breathed everything church, now in stark contrast, I walk in the doors on Sunday morning as a congregant desiring relief from grief as I continue to process my daughter’s lack of health.

But relief from grief isn’t what I have always experienced in church. I never ever would have dreamt that I’d be a person with ‘real’ problems. I now know what it feels like on the other side of the fence when the ceremony and culture of church weigh so heavily that I feel worse than I did when I walked in. I know what it feels like to sense the irony when the one place that should bring hope actually drains your soul. I have since stopped bashing myself up thinking I am the cause of the problem – there is more to it. So it is with this background that I find myself pleading to the evangelical movement to be mindful of ‘the other side’ – the side that Jesus gave most of his attention to.

1. The first thing I would change is – the worship.

It is important for me to repeat that I have been a worship leader on staff in my past life. I can confidently say that the people you see on the platform on a Sunday morning are likely genuine and passionate. No one in their right mind would arrive at 7am on a Sunday for a sound check rehearsal unless they thought it was helping someone somewhere – especially in winter. But…worship in some churches has become prescriptive, predictable and narrow, sometimes I can’t wait until it is over. There is nothing more jarring to the broken hearted when a worship leader insists that you show your enthusiasm for God by lifting your hands, jumping and singing repetitious lyrics, it can feel more like a karaoke experience with no real meaning.

For the five that love the worship experience, there are three that have a different pathway to God – it is not a design fault by God. Next time you are at church take a look around at how many people are fully engaged. I promise you the people that aren’t visually engaged aren’t less spiritual than the ones that are – it is maddening that people’s physical expressions are considered a litmus for their spirituality.

On a given Sunday people walk in the doors from each end of the spectrum. It would be helpful if the worship leader planned with this in mind creatively guiding a diverse congregation to move from a fragmented to a unified state through thoughtful and inclusive leadership.

Also, I don’t need cleaver music or a wow factor, I would take authenticity and simple over gift mix and amazing technology any day of the week – although I appreciate gifted artists. I just need help creating an authentic space to give honor and thanks to God despite my challenges, nothing more – after all, this is my responsibility not the worship leaders.

And a sensitive one for me personally – claims that God will heal you as you worship may be believable for those with a sore toe but it is a complete distraction and soul destroying for those who have a condition like Cerebral Palsy (as my daughter does). Worship leaders are responsible to think these things through and should be held accountable for the comments they make. Emotive music is not a license to say the ridiculous.

Throwaway catch phrases can unhook an open and willing soul in a split second. Lead with a theological, practical and faith filled mind but most importantly with humility acknowledging there really is just so much we don’t know and much of life may remain a mystery. Worship phrases that dumb down peoples real experiences or make promises on God’s behalf just sound silly to me.

At this point I have to come clean and say I have done all these things I am pointing out.

The second thing is – the preaching.

Church has one distinctive character that I find more and more interesting the older I get. For all the talk about God being relational ‘we the church’ do not model discovery through an exchange of thought like Jesus demonstrated but more like a tutorial where any dialogue would seem disruptive. Most teaching moments that Jesus facilitated were through interaction. These days we sit for 40 mins listening with no relational exchange and wonder why the next day we barely recall what was said. We rarely forget a conversation though.

Most congregations don’t have really gifted communicators that can hold a room and that is ok. Not every pastor has to be an orator. These people are rare and it is a distinct gift to keep the attention of 100’s or 1000’s of people. I wonder if clergymen or women would prefer to communicate differently if they felt they had that option? You don’t have to be a gifted communicator to have a profound conversation and receive revelation.

I know preachers can’t change everything straight away but maybe a good start would be to add a Q&A section to the message. I am sure if clergy leaned into their strengths they would find creative ways to communicate other than the static version of one person doing all the talking. I’d love to see a pastor take a risk knowing they might loose control of their well crafted content but take delight in the chaos of conversation. We might be surprised that the most profound thing said on a Sunday might not be from the preachers mouth. Some people would say that is what small groups are for but if we are expecting the teaching and dialogue to happen in small groups I would question why all the effort in a mass gathering then?

The third I would change is – its purpose.

Yeah OK…big comment to make. What I mean is many churches these days are built to accommodate a sustainable organization first and what little is left is put towards what Jesus actually called us to do. What about building the task first and then whatever is left put towards the organisation? Now I say this with intimate knowledge of what it takes to run a modern church and I am not naive enough to suggest this is easy.

I often find myself thinking what would church look like if we were faced with a war or a catastrophe.  Many of the things we would consider important to our spiritual growth would fall to the side and only the important things would be left. I PROMISE you, if we lost everything and feared for our lives we would not choose the luxury of a forum on whether hymns or modern songs are ‘real’ worship or not, we would be consumed with the business of Jesus because peoples lives would be held in the balance.

I would want to change our public dialogue. For far too long we have felt compelled to point out to the world everything it is apparently doing wrong instead of showing grace and compassion. Not many people would even know what we stand for anymore, only what we stand against. All of us have been horrified at the stunning evil protecting the church institution above the welfare of children in the abuse scandal. We have truly lost our way when our capacity for a contrite spirit is only heightened by the threat of legal action. We have to find our humility again and stop pointing the finger because we are just as broken as the next guy.

I heard a very illuminating analogy the other day. If the gospel is a virus (a good one) spreading throughout the world and the church has been reduced down to a weakened version of that virus by self-interest or power, it effectively becomes the inoculation or vaccine for the spreading of the gospel (a weakened virus is of course what is used for the body to build immunity). If the church continues to be self-absorbed with self-righteousness, the irony is it will vaccinate against the incredible legacy Jesus left.

I know church can be a stunning expression of love. I have personally been the recipient of relentless compassion. This is why I say these things, although I could be proven wrong on all these points there are many that feel this way and their experiences are real. The more we dismiss those experiences the more irrelevant we become. Some people might say that they don’t have people commenting on these kinds of things in their church, that is probably right, they are either too exhausted to comment or they have given up and just don’t come any more. That is the tragedy, the very people who need community feel excluded and misunderstood – these people exist, they are not complainers and they are desperate for a community that includes them.I am part of a local church because I still think it can be great. I am personally charged to be a part of the solution, not someone on the sidelines criticising the umpire but in the game doing the training and carrying the injuries equally. When one person on the team hurt, we all hurt. When one person kicks a goal we all kick a goal.

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