Five Things that are Holding Christianity Back

I’m often asked about what trends I see within Christianity, both good and bad. So in my ongoing effort to help name trends and offer an alternative way of thinking about our faith, here are the five biggest things I’ve seen that tend to keep us from doing our best work as the living, breathing body of Christ in the world today.

Church Buildings – Many of our church buildings were established in a time when Christianity was booming numerically in the United States. We could hardly keep up with the growth, happening all around us. Understandably, churches popped up where the people were too, drawing many away from their old downtown churches to a more convenient suburban community. But as our numbers have dwindled – combined with the fact the we’re a much more mobile society now that ever before – many churches are becoming monuments to what has long since passed. They have become an albatross rather than an asset.

In some cases, these financial burdens are being turned back into the soil as they are sold off, repurposed or given away to those who can do something relevant and exciting with them. For example, our new church start in southern Colorado benefitted from the gift of an old church building that hadn’t been occupied by one of our denomination’s congregations in more than fifteen years. In Amarillo, a church finally closed its doors and sold off their property, only to have it reinvested by their region into what is now called Chalice Abbey. With it, they are doing all kinds of nontraditional – and yet creatively sustainable – kinds of work within the community.

But more often than not, we mistake the sense of responsibility to maintain our institutions as necessary to fulfill our call to live out the gospel. Though this may sometimes be the case, we tend to spend far more time, energy and money on infrastructure that is no longer needed, rather than knowing when to end a once-good thing and let it be remade into something new.

Denominations – It is estimated that there are as many as 38,000 Christian denominations in the world today. For many, their distinction from others like them are so minute that even the members within a given denomination can’t tell you what makes them unique. And if you ask those outside of the Christian faith, these divisions not only seem irrelevant; they are part of the reason they have little or no interest in being a part of the Christian faith.

Why, after all, would someone heed the call to community and reconciliation from a faith that is so desperately fractured and fragmented that few of our denominations are really sustainable any more? Our administrative systems are still top-heavy from the good old days when we needed more governance to keep a sense of order, identity and to allocate resources efficiently. But with the trend toward personal and local autonomy taking hold in many Christian communities, there is increasingly less of a reason to keep such hierarchic corporate structures on life support any more.

Worship – Those of us within the church get a little bit obsessed with worship. For a lot of us, it’s the culmination of our week, the highlight of what we do best. And after all, part of our ministerial imperative is to call people to – and to lead them through – the practice of worshipping God. But we’ve gotten off track in a couple of ways.

First, there was a time when people wandered into our churches and all we had to do was welcome them, maybe plug them into a membership class or a volunteer opportunity and they are “in.” And the time when this point of connection was most likely to happen was on Sunday morning. But more and more people are redefining – at least for themselves, if not as a faith community – what it means to worship. It can take place any time and anywhere that two are more are gathered with the shared intent of communing with God. It may or may not include music (which may or may not sound familiar to traditional church folks), may or may not have a sermon or much of anything else that resembles “worship” to us. And in holding tighter to our traditional notions of worship, rather than to the value of community however and wherever it is expressed, we and up worshipping our own worship services more than we’re worshipping God.

Also, we’re mistaken if we believe that most people still are comfortable with the idea of walking in “cold” to a worship service as a way to get to know a church family. Whereas we’ve tended to see worship as the entry point into our church communities, this really should be flipped on its end today, so that we see invitation to worship as the culmination of a long standing relationship with that person, built outside of the church even, before we earn the right to invite.

Church Boards – It’s understandable that churches feel the need to have some organized type of oversight to ensure that the mission of the church is being realized and that its resources are being used responsibly. But as is the case in most systems involving power, it is in the nature of church boards to stay more or less the same, rather than adapt to more accurately reflect the congregation, or even the community beyond the walls. Those most willing to volunteer to serve in such roles are those who “get it,” who understand the tory and history of the church, and who understand why the governance body is important. Those on the outside, of that small group, however, often fail to see the value both of the board’s work and of their possible participation in it. Why, after all, invest so much in a system that seems outdated, slow, inefficient, and that has few (if any) faces that even vaguely resemble mine? So it largely stays the same, as institutional bodies have a bad habit of doing without being forced to do otherwise.

Our boards also tend to operate on an old (and I’d argue, heavily colonialist) model of rule, based on centuries-old traditions from British Parliament. The notion of working toward consensus or finding ways to creatively integrate a pluralism of ideas all give way to the democratic vote, which only takes a half-plus-one majority to effectively silence the rest. Such a system seems increasingly blunt in a culture that is so dynamic and interconnected with alternate histories, stories and values.

Fear – Too often, our actions in church are governed principally by a response to what we fear might happen, rather than faithfully discerning what God is calling us to do. We assume that the only way to tell if we’re being faithful is if the church buildings are full and the budgets are met. But this mandate is nowhere to be found in the Bible. To the degree that our institutions can serve our call to live out the gospel, more power to those who are stewards of them. But when the fear of losing them becomes the focus of our work together, they are the idols we’ve come to worship more than God.

We also can let go of the fear that America is becoming an “anti Christian” nation. Wh3n surveyed, only about 5% of Americans actually claim atheism, and there are an increasing number of people who either identify as Christian or “other” who feel some connection to God, but who don’t see the value of using Church to explore that connection. This is not necessarily an indictment of us as individuals, but rather a wake-up call to help us recognize what’s really important. As Jesus demonstrated, the relationships matter so much more than our religion, and Jesus’ call is to go out among the people, not wait until they come to us.

Sure, it’s scary, because it’s vulnerable and a little bit risky. But Jesus never promised us a risk-free faith. Rather, he offered us a life filled with meaning, provided we would embrace the perfect love he offered that promised to cast out such fear.

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  • Carl F Gilmore

    A good but hard word. Prophetically challenging in our time of declining “membership” (what does that mean?) and accompanying financial difficulties …

    • JenellYB

      Declining membership and accompanying financial difficulties…. about 15 yrs ago, when I had ventured back into church after many years away, a rather ill-fated attempt, which is another story… as a member I was getting mailings from a couple denominational newsletters and related types of publications, and I remember noticing a type of article that seemed a pretty common theme at the time. The various writers were warning of a coming financial crisis within many churches, as baby boomers, which make up that largest part of that denomination, aged and began to retire and pass away. They would pull out all the demographic data and research and surveys, all to the point that with the decline in the number of people retiring with good pensions from previous generations, the facts that most aging ‘boomers’ had little in the way of savings and income earning investments that would provide them the income and lifestyle they had enjoyed in their working years, when they entered retirement, this was going to mean a serious loss of income for the churches. It struck me at the time, that while such well know facts as those were pretty commonly recognized, and the effects becoming subjects of much interest in the media, those articles in those denominational publications spoke little to none at all, about the difficulties those aging boomers were going to be facing in their retirement years, because of those reduced incomes. It was all about how it was threatened to cause a financial crisis in the churches. That just seemed to upside down and backward to me. Some of it, I found outright offensive, such suggesting among way churches might start to plan and prepare for that crisis, encouraging aging members to “remember to bless their church” in their wills!

  • Spuddie

    How about:

    1. A general lack of respect for other faiths and sects beyond one’s own.

    2, The over eagerness to excuse any and all atrocious acts if done “for the Lord”

    3.Over willingness to adopt the trappings of government. Sect as oligarchy or a country club.

    4. Far too much dependence and deference too authority figures who claim to speak for god.

    5. Unwillingness to call out abhorrent behavior of other Christians in favor of defensive posturing.

  • SusanRogersStLaurent

    Good list.

  • I liked this list, and agree with the main premise of this post. I wonder if it’s really true that these things are holding *Christianity* back. I think those things are holding back mainline Protestant Christianity, and Roman Catholicism for sure, but Evangelicals (or however one wants to label the conservative non-denom. among us) seem to be doing just fine with their large buildings, organized leadership (with boards) and clear sense of worship. They’re not bound to denominations, and they don’t seem afraid to me (in fact, quite the opposite.)

  • Lausten North

    So, it’s the churches, how many of them there are, and what is done inside them. Sounds like you got quite the problem there. Your solution would work if individuals actually led a lifestyle vaguely similar to Christ, but it’s the lack of people like that led to the current problems. That and you lie about statistics, doesn’t help your cause.

    • Sven2547

      What statistics did he lie about?

      • Lausten North

        “Wh3n surveyed, only about 5% of Americans actually claim atheism” – show me one survey with that number.

        • Sven2547

          Do you think that number is too high or too low? Depending on how the question is worded, results have been as high as 9% (BBC, 2004) or as low as 0.7% (ARIS, 2009).

          • Lausten North

            Too low. The 2009 ARIS study has “no religion” at 15%. Are you doing some sort of hair splitting between “none” and “atheist”?

          • Sven2547

            It was not my intention. I tried to respond to your quote as directly as possible, so when you quoted “claim atheism”, I specifically looked for the ones that claimed “atheism”.

  • Mary

    One thing that turns me off is an insistance that I follow a certain “creed” in order to fit in. It does not always have to be written down to qualify as a creed. Peer pressure I guess is the best word for it.

    I absolutely stay away from the ones that are controlling.

    But to be honest, the main reason I have not been to church in a while is because that I just don’t feel “fed” by the material being preached. I actually have not been to a Christian church for awhile, but I used to attend New Thought churches. I found them to be pretty shallow in their teachings. There is more to life than just “manefesting” health and wealth and I am not sure I believe everything they teach anyway.

    Someone ought to take a survey of the “nones” to find out why they left the church. I suspect the things you listed are not the primary reasons they left.

  • Rob O’Gorman

    Christian, ever thought of investigating the ancient Orthodox Church, such as Peter Gillquist? (See his book: “Becoming Orthodox”)

  • Richard Feller

    Just as the serpent beguiled Adam and Eve, the devil has continued to bring division throughout bible and church History. What ever does not have unity does not have peace and therefore has varriables wherefore it is cut off from the truth.

  • Bitter Lizard

    Christianity is historically established on institutionalized persecution, torture, rape and death on a massive and constant scale that continues to this day globally, all in the name of completely unsupported superstitions about magic beings, and your number one problem is, “Hey, maybe our churches are getting too expensive.”

    You sound like a real winner.

  • LaShella

    I feel with Christianity there is still a lot of divisions. Especially with regards to race. As a person of color, I have always stuck with multiracial churches. In the end, the only segregation there will be is those who go in and those who don’t. I often laugh at the notion that we will have to deal with each other. All different races will be in Heaven together. And all different races will be together in the other place. So, we have to kind of get over that division. But I come from a different generation, after the Civil Rights Movement. So yeah, I was used to going to schools, working on jobs, with people who do not look like me. And it was the norm. But there is still that divide amongst some congregations even today. And a stubbornness about doing something to change it. As far as denominations are concerned, yeah, that is still a big divide as well. I’ve always preferred nondenomination. But at the moment, I am attending a United Methodist Church. Each church under this is in a “District” or “Charge” but we’re sort of under the rules of the UM Conference. So, one the one hand, it gives a sort of organization/business regulation. But at the same time, it gets in the way from “handling our right business!”

  • Shaun G. Lynch

    Very interesting and insightful article. I play a pastoral leadership role in a Catholic parish, and I think even the Catholic Church would benefit from thinking about the points you make here!

  • An excellent article, and in the correct order of importance. I will be sharing this with our entire board. My wife believes that no congregation should ever own a building, that the moment a church builds or buys property that property becomes an idol. Thanks, Christian.

  • Tony

    I’m not even sure that you need two people there to worship. I can worship as I walk on the beach; I can worship as I work. Isn’t it that life itself should be a continual act of worship? That’s how I play it, anyway 😉