After writing part 1 of “How to Go Back to Church” (you can read that here), I was eager to write part 2. I had the post ready to publish, then life happened. I found myself in not one, but two discussions with people who are just done with the whole church thing.
“I’ve changed. I no longer find any passion in church or ministry anymore. I do not even want to pray. What is the point?”
Sadly, I heard nearly the same sentence in BOTH conversations. And sadly, it made me realize just how difficult it is for people to go back to something that has hurt them or left them so disillusioned and mistrusting, that their very faith has been shaken to the core. Words like “church,” “pastor,” “prayer,” and “ministry” have developed a bitter and rotten taste.
So I tried to talk to them. I tried to relay to them the very words I spoke in part 1. I encouraged them NOT to go back, but to seek out new communities. I encouraged them to take the knowledge of what had happened to them and use it to make sure it didn’t happen to anyone else.
And it was like talking to a brick wall.
“I hear what you are saying. And it sounds good. But I am just not at that place in my life anymore. I do not know if I ever will be again.“
I left both conversations with a very troubled mind and heart. “How,” I asked myself, “could these people – who once devoted everything they were to God – have become so callous that even the words of a good friend (me) could not even begin to encourage them?”
In a seemingly unrelated conversation a few days later, I asked some friends of mine to name people who had impacted their lives spiritually in a GOOD way. I wanted them to think of someone – ANYONE – whom they could look up to as a role model for faith and what it means to be Christ-like.
I asked the question. And the people I was talking to stared at the floor…or the ceiling. They looked around the room. There was the occasional, “Hmm.”
The first response: “I do not know.” The second: “Same here.”
After some poking and prodding, they could think of someone – a grandmother, an old student minister – who had impacted them.
But I was bothered that their response was not immediate.
I grew up in church. Let me restate that: I grew up in a GREAT church. I was surrounded by good friends and good leaders. I can name a pastor, 2 student ministers, and countless Sunday school teachers and leaders that I know cared about me and modeled for me what it meant to be like Christ. Their lives were – and still are – inspirational. I am who I am today because of their love and guidance.
There are more from later seasons of life: A college professor, a grad-school professor, a campus minister, pastors who are friends in other cities. The list is large. When I am asked who has impacted me, I can respond immediately with a list of at least 20 names.
In my own naivete, I have always though that this was normal.
I believed that even if someone has had a bad experience, surely they can recount a good one. Surely they had someone – ANYONE – who had impacted them in a way that could remind them that not all pastors, deacons, or other religious types will wound them.
I did not know I was wrong.
Later, I asked a larger group the exact same question: “Who has impacted you in a positive way when it comes to your faith?” Again, the crowd responded with silence. And at that moment I realized, many people have absolutely ZERO frame of reference when it comes to understanding what it means to be godly and loving and caring because they have never seen it modeled in anyone.
No wonder they do not want to go back. No wonder a phrase like “find a loving community” falls on deaf ears. For all practical purposes, love and grace and community and church are words that do not have the same meaning for them as they do for me. It was easy for me to go back to church because I have seen what church CAN be. I’ve seen it at its best, and that fact has always reminded me that the bad experiences I have had are the exceptions and not the way it is supposed to be. It was easy for me to go back because I know that there are godly people and godly leaders out there. I know they are not perfect. But I have experienced their grace and love firsthand. I can see Christ transforming them from the inside out.
But it scares me to death that many people do not know there are godly people out there worth trusting because they have rarely – or never – met them.
Church, what the heck is wrong with us?
How have we let this happen? Are we not supposed to be the hands and feet of Jesus? Are we not supposed to love one another? If so, then why is it easier for people to quickly name how many times people in the church have hurt them than it is for them to recount even a handful of people who have poured into them??? How is it that we justify leading people to faith in our churches (and all their faults) instead of into a solid faith in Jesus Christ (faultless)? How is it that we blame, shame, and guilt-trip people who have walked away because THEIR servant spirit just wasn’t big enough (or their suit was not “suity” enough, or *insert your own reason here*)?
How do we think a wounded person feels when we call their departure a “blessed subtraction” or say things like “don’t let the door hit you on the way out?” How are we embodying the love and forgiveness of Christ by giving ugly stares (or not looking at all) to those we once went to church or even served with? How shallow in our love do we appear when we do a social media “purging” of those who might disagree with us? How do we justify how much we throw people under the bus in our conversations, sermons, or Facebook/blog posts? As leaders, we are in a position whether – like it or not – people may ascribe to us the status of role model. How well does that work for people if pastors have become okay with talking about wanting to punch people (or actually doing it), posing like Sons of Anarchy wannabes, and flaming people they disagree with as publicly as possible? And finally, how does it look when NO ONE can call these leaders out on their behavior without becoming another victim themselves??
The consequences are real. The trail of wounded people behind “church” is a long one. And many of those people get nauseous at the thought of going “back” to church. I fear standing before God explaining how I might have played a role in driving people away. As the prophet Jeremiah says:
What sorrow awaits the leaders of my people—the shepherds of my sheep—for they have destroyed and scattered the very ones they were expected to care for,” says the LORD.
– Jeremiah 23:1 (NLT)
For me, all this boils down to one question: Why has it become okay for us to ignore our call to be Christ-like?
All who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes.
– Galatians 3:27 (NLT)
“New” clothes. A new Spirit. A transformed life. Not an old set of rags hemmed to look like something new, but the very image of the ONE who has saved us.
If I say nothing else on this blog, I say this: We must strive to be like Christ if we ever want people to engage church again.
In part 1, I challenged people to go back. And that challenge is valid for people who have been wounded but still know the power of God and the power of His Spirit at work in a church. But for those with no frame of reference – with no one to look up to – that challenge is not enough. Believe me when I tell you they will remain disconnected. They may hear you out. They may even like what you have to say. But at the end of they day they will remain disengaged, because – when it comes down to it – they simply do not believe you. And why should they? They may have never seen faith lived out in such a way that they want it – or dare risk it again.
And that, my friends, is the challenge ahead of us.
Getting people back to church will not be found in a method learned at the latest church conference or in the countless number of “growth tools” or “growth networks” that are out there. It won’t be your billboards or your edgy style or your well-meaning apology videos that you share on Facebook that will get them back.
In fact, we have to quit thinking about getting people back to our churches at all. We have to think about getting our church to them.
How? It starts with CHARACTER. Who are you? Are you a leader trying to grow a church? Do you seek to be like Christ, or like that mega-church pastor who makes headlines? Or are you a humble servant of Christ who is so dumbstruck that God loves them, that they cannot help but be transformed by him and seek to share him with others?
People can “smell” the difference. Our character either stinks or it is an aroma that draws people to us:
Our lives are a Christ-like fragrance rising up to God. But this fragrance is perceived differently by those who are being saved and by those who are perishing. To those who are perishing, we are a dreadful smell of death and doom. But to those who are being saved, we are a life-giving perfume. And who is adequate for such a task as this? You see, we are not like the many hucksters who preach for personal profit. We preach the word of God with sincerity and with Christ’s authority, knowing that God is watching us.
– 2 Corinthians 15-17 (NLT)
I had always interpreted this passage from the perspective of the one doing the smelling, meaning, that there are people out there who – because of their sins – would reject our message thus resulting in their death and doom (hence the smell). But lately, I’ve read this passage in a whole new light. Putting it in context – where Paul is writing to a church that has been troubled by individuals acting anything but Christ-like, it is clear that the passage is not about the person doing the smelling. It is about the odor we – as followers of Christ – can emit.
To a perishing person – a person in desperation and agony – we smell like death and doom often because that is the version of faith we project. We are unloving, petty, unaccepting, unforgiving, competitive, and…the list could go on. But to those who have found salvation and, thus, have experienced grace and forgiveness, we smell like a life-giving perfume.
So, how do you smell?
Are people happy when you arrive? Do they perceive you as someone who will lift them up or tear them down? Do you think of broken relationships with a desire to seek forgiveness and restoration, or do you think of them with bitterness and resentment?
It begins with CHARACTER. We have to be Christ like. We have the Word of God itself to show us how. We have the eyewitness account of the greatest lover and forgiver of people who ever walked the face of the planet. The character is modeled right there for us to emulate. We need to be more Him and less us.
The next step is to GO to those who will not go back to church. We take the Body of Christ to them.
This may mean that we have to pick up the phone or knock on someone’s door and say, “I’m sorry.” Not, “I’m sorry, please come back.” Just “I’m sorry.” In person. No strings attached. We may have to say it to a lot of people. We may have to say it more than once. Trust can only be restored when there is honesty that we have hurt people and we are genuinely seeking forgiveness from them. And it will take time. LOTS of time.
But that is okay, because we will KEEP going to them. We will seek to restore our friendship. We will seek to repair the damage done. We will love where we have not loved before. We will serve where we have not served before. We will seek to be Christ-like in a personal way.
One of my favorite movies is “You’ve Got Mail,” starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Before you deduct man-card points, let me tell you why I like this movie. In it, big businessman Tom Hanks opens a large chain bookstore that puts a small bookstore owned by Meg Ryan out of business. Though there was an initial spark between them when they first met, over the course of the movie they become enemies as Meg Ryan’s character is forced to close her store. But I love the end of the movie, because Tom Hanks’ character models for us what it means to go to those whom you’ve hurt. He brings her flowers when she is sick. Though she initially shows contempt and resentment at his efforts, he persists. He meets her for lunch. And they meet again. Then again. And slowly you watch enemies become friends – and even more – by the end of the movie.
I like the movie because Tom Hanks’ character models for us what it means to go after those that have been hurt – even when we have been the ones who caused the pain.
If you are a leader, “how to go back to church” is not on the people out there who are disillusioned, disengaged, or disenfranchised. It’s on us. We have to go after the people who are hurt because they are too hurt to come to us. This is how we begin “to take church back to them.”
We have to become Christ for them.
That means we have to become their new frame of reference. And if we do this right, when they are asked “who impacted your life spiritually?” then maybe – just maybe – they will start being able to throw out a few names of those that modeled Christ in their lives. Maybe they will see us as men and women of God instead of men and women of *insert your own name here*. Maybe instead of death and doom they will experience the sweet aroma of the Gospel breathed anew in their lives as we live it out in with an attitude of love and forgiveness and reconciliation.
I love how Paul puts it in Romans (while quoting Isaiah 52):
But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? That is why the Scriptures say, “How beautiful are the feet of messengers who bring good news!”
– Romans 10:14-15 (NLT)
We have to go.
And our feet must not stink.