Shallow, Impersonal, Uncaring
My church cares too much about how many people show up on Sunday. The pastors ask us to give money for their special projects, but don’t care to get to know us. Look at the volunteers, they’re automatons with fake smiles rushing around so that the church can churn out another rockin’ worship song, another shallow sermon, and another waste-of-time youth event. We do more and more and more, but we’re all still dead inside.
I hear these kinds of complaints a lot. I read one on Facebook in a post by a depressed college buddy. I hear another grumbled from a family member over the holidays. I hear the same whispered, through tears, by a friend at a small-group meeting. Sometimes, when I am feeling cynical about failures in ministry, these are my own words–though they are rarely said aloud.
Some churches are blasphemous, personality-driven machines–top-heavy organizations that grind through people in the name of building even larger organizations that grind through even larger amounts of people. Such churches leave battered and broken people in their wake. They deserve the scorn they generate. With other churches, things are not quite so clear-cut.
Could It Be Me?
What if I joined a church when it was smaller, and its overall personality has shifted as it’s grown? It is true that a church with more people needs more organization to function. More organization in a church does not lead to it suddenly becoming a police state. Can we fault leaders for making practical steps towards ministering to a larger group of people?
What if my church has new leadership? A new pastor with a new way of doing things? A new elder or deacon with a strong gift in administration? Being efficient does not necessarily mean being impersonal. Sloppiness is certainly not conducive to spiritual growth.
I’m convinced that, before we accuse our churches of such disfunction, we should examine our own hearts to see if perhaps the problem lies (at least partially) with us. If we believe the words of Jesus, then such attitudes have as much to do with our own pain and bitterness as anything else.
The following items are five ways that we can foster a negative, disconnected attitude towards our church. They can make healthy churches start to seem like uncaring religious machines.
1. Come Late and Leave Early
Maybe you show up to gatherings right as the opening music starts and scoot out the door as the final prayer is ending. Your attendance at small-group meetings is spotty. You are only vaguely aware of what is going on in the lives of those around you.
If we feel disconnected from the church, is it not possible that we’re responsible? How can we expect to feel like we’re “more than a number” if we behave like we’re just another face in the crowd? In order to relationally connect to others in our church we have to take the first step of being present.
Instead of showing up right as a gathering starts, why not show up a bit early? The folks who arrive early are generally more relationally connected then you are. By showing up early you will meet people, not just greet people. Likewise, hanging around a bit after the gathering might just give you the opportunity to hear more about the lives of those in your church-family and become more involved.
The danger with being present in your church is that you may be invited to serve in some way, which will take time and effort. The beautiful thing as you may find out that some of those fake-volunteer-smiles you’ve been noticing are actually genuine.
2. Fail to See the People Who Serve You as Family
Do you walk through the halls of the church building and drop your kids off in their classes without noticing all the adults who are making things happen? Can you picture in your mind the faces of the classroom teachers as you sit in the sanctuary? As those faces change from week to week, do you even notice? How about those in the band? Are they faceless performers that garner either cool praise or clinical criticism based on their performance? Or do you really appreciate them?
The person who greets you at the door on Sunday is your family. The person who serves you communion is your family. The guy who stands guard over the entrance to the kid’s area is your family. If you feel frustration that people in your church are not appreciated, do you appreciate them? Even the ones who frustrate you?
If you really see the folks in your church as your family, even your extended family, you may find it harder to accuse the whole church of being “just a machine.”
3. Lust After Other Churches
Three states over, there is this awesome church. The Pastor really understands what it means to love people. You should read his book on living as an enduring community. His blog-posts often make me weep. I listen to his podcasts sometimes too. I hear that their church is doing this campaign where everybody has to get to know someone else really well over the course of a month. At the end of it their going to have this giant display of thank-you cards with stories of compassion and love to highlight the amazing things God is doing in their relationships.
Most weeks, after their gatherings, everyone just goes around hugging each other and inviting people to hang out while drinking downtown friendship coffee.
If we swoon over ministries we’ve never experienced in person, we will very likely find ourselves criticizing everything that our own church does. “How come we’re not doing it like they do it?” We are joined to our own churches. It’s probably not healthy for our relationship if we keep googling some church we think has a hotter body.
4. Recognize Only the Primary Leader
We should be very thankful for the lead pastors in our churches. They have been called by God to do the difficult work of caring for souls. The work they do is for our good.
But they are not the only people in the church. God forbid a church become defined by her lead pastors. What I mean is this: if everything in the church is about one or two key leaders, then we will never be satisfied with our church unless we are relationally connected to them. If they have difficulty scheduling to meet with us, we will interpret that difficulty as a lack of love. If we feel like they don’t know us, we will assume they only appreciate us for the labor that we can provide.
This can be a deadly poison to any positivity we have towards the church.
Instead we should open our eyes to the many leaders and many faces that God puts in the church for our good. The best people to disciple us–to laugh and mourn with us–are often never put on stage. Your church may be filled with godly friends and mentors that you refuse to see as you brood over the lack of connectedness you feel towards the pastor.
5. Live in Past Relationships
Through my life I have been blessed to know and befriend many wonderful people. I have friends from high school that I never speak to, and yet I love them like brothers. Some precious parts of me were lost as we drifted apart. Perhaps you have had some similar relationships–close, deep, invaluable. Relationships like this can become benchmarks as we meet new people. It is a very rare thing to develop such friendships quickly.
So lets say you finally get invited to have some downtown friendship coffee with someone in your church. What if they don’t live up to your expectations? What if they are too loud or too quiet? Too shy or too adventurous? What if they don’t fill the space left by others?
Your current church may never give you the feeling of being with old friends. This doesn’t mean that it’s not a healthy church–that it is devoid of true community. People grow up, situations change, seasons of life shift dramatically. Clinging to standards based on old relationships might keep you from discovering something just as valuable in new ones.
If you find yourself lamenting over the state of your church–frustrated with the disfunction–don’t make hasty decisions, and for Christ’s sake (I mean this literally) don’t start running your mouth off about it. Slow down. Maybe your church is an impersonal machine chewing up lives for the sake of ego or brand recognition. Or perhaps more likely, your heart is deceiving you, and the community you are critical towards is the very thing you need.