Churches, Take Up Your Mats and Walk

There’s an old joke that speaks directly to one of the biggest issues holding back Churches these days:

How many Christians does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Change? Who said anything about change?!?!

I get asked to come in and help struggling churches all over the county. Most of them are aging and see the proverbial writing on the wall if something about their future doesn’t look different soon. Pretty often, I’m asked to unlock the secret to getting young people into the pews, thus ensuring that the congregation will remain sustainable into future generations.

But there’s usually a caveat; help us grow without really having to change.

Sure, we’ll add a service for the young ‘uns, but don’t think about touching the traditional service. Yeah, the Sunday School attendance has been in decline for decades, but there are some big donors who like it just the way it is. Best to leave that alone too.

Oh, and forget anything about turnover in staff, changes to the building, or overhauling the mission of the congregation.

So, Magic Man, do your stuff. Make us well!

It reminds me of the scene in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” when the crippled beggar asks for healing. But once he receives it, he realizes he’s just cut off his only known revenue stream: begging.

Now what? Sure, I have two good legs, but thanks for nothing. Now I actually have to use them to do something.

Of course this isn’t the case with all churches – just the dying ones. And there are a host of other issues that congregations face in trying to be relevant in a rapidly changing world, particularly one in which all institutions are inherently met with suspicion, if not outright skepticism. But resistance to change, particularly in a climate where only the agile survive, is to sign one’s own organizational death certificate.

Not that this is always a bad thing. Though it’s not particularly popular, I’ve actually told some churches that they can do more good dead than they can alive. An old urban church, sitting on millions of dollars in assets while worshiping two dozen a week on Sunday and shuttering their doors otherwise is abusing its role as stewards. Better to turn what remains back down into the soil to help give rise to something new.

But somewhere along the way, we bought into the wrongheaded idea that keeping an institution alive forever had something to do with the gospel.

The truth is that Jesus didn’t have much patience for organized religion. He spent most of his time walking around, meeting people face to face. He had a few donors but no annual operating budget. He brought with him a volunteer group of disciples, but had not paid administrative staff. The numbers of followers ebbed and flowed, growing to the thousands on good days, but on his last, only a couple of faithful women were anywhere to be found.

I’m beginning to wonder if the worst thing in the world that a church can do is make a plan for the future. Buenaventura Durruti once said that, “the only church that illuminates is a burning church.” Though this may sound disturbing to some, I think his point was that any institution that doesn’t undergo the constant transformation brought on by a refining fire might as well be dead.

Of course, plenty of these churches are already dead; it’s just that nobody has told them yet.

Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of “Banned Questions About The Bible” and “Banned Questions About Jesus.” He has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called “PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.” For more information about Christian, visit www.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.

About Christian Piatt

Christian Piatt is the creator and editor of BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT THE BIBLE and BANNED QUESTIONS ABOUT JESUS. He co-created and co-edits the “WTF: Where’s the Faith?” young adult series with Chalice Press, and he has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.

  • http://www.TheBibleSpeakstoYou.com James Early

    So Christian,
    Have you ever been able to help these dead churches come back to life and what was it that they glimpsed that allowed them to see the need for change and how did it happen?

  • http://www.christianpiatt.com Christian Piatt

    I’ve seen transformation, but it takes a real degree of readiness, strong leadership, primacy of mission and vision over institution and willingness to be something the church has never imagined before.

    Generally the models I see working today are more missional, ie, they are active in community, they reflect the culture around them, they are doing relevant outreach that indicates a real connection to, and awareness of, who they live with and what they need.

    And perhaps most important, they are willing to be changed as much by the “rest of the community” as they are intent on changing the surrounding lcimate to reflect them.

    Many don’t have buildings, many don’t have full times staff, if any staff at all. Lots of time and energy are spent on small group and face-to-face connection more than preaching…

    I could go on, but it’s a long list, and varies by congregation.

  • http://www.christianpiatt.com Christian Piatt

    Peter Rollins is playing with the concept of starting a church and, after 12 months, shutting it down no matter what happens. Frees the community up from all the worries about building for the future. Might be interesting.

  • http://nathanjhill.com Nathan

    Great article, Christian.

    May all our churches… “burn”!


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