While visiting a variety of churches, Charles Gutenson, author, professor, church consultant, and former COO of Sojourners, asks the pointed, possibly painful question: “If I were not already a Christian, why would I have gotten out of bed to come to this?”
Ouch. If we’re honest, how many pastors and church leaders have asked ourselves the same question? In Church Worth Getting Up For, Gutenson presses on to explore what makes church worth getting up for. His insights are powerfully instructive in an American context in which growing numbers of people are answering that very question in the negative with growing frequency.
Gutenson first clears away the self-serving answers we might be tempted to give, such as: people don’t want to be confronted with their sinful behaviors. How inconvenient it is, then, to be reminded that studies show that born-again Christians behave no differently than the culture at large. Moreover, Jesus seemed to have a way of reaching out to sinners and tax collectors and and prostitutes, all of whom flocked to him for healing and grace. So there’s something more, Gutenson posits. Something deeper.
Through interviews with a pastors from a variety of churches, from megachurches to the small garden-variety congregations, Gutenson offers insights and directions. It turns out that “a church worth getting up for” varies depending on the context. Discernment of one’s local context is critical. What are your demographics in terms of age, race, ethnicity, and so forth? Are you trying to reach folks with modernist or post-modernist frameworks?
In every context, Gutenson shows that the younger demographic (folks under 35) are either neutral about church or negative. The three primary reasons cited are that people in churches are perceived as hypocritical, judgmental, and anti-homosexual.
Additional common perceptions quoted by Gutenson is that the church is seen as too focused on getting converts, too sheltered from the real world and real people’s issues, and too political on the conservative side of things. In short, the “brand image” of the church is deeply negative.
Even so, by these same people, Jesus is identified as one of the greatest people of all time. Jesus’ brand image could hardly be better, in the ways that he loved all people including enemies, that he affirmed the value of each person, and in his completely selfless way of living.
Gutenson uses this information to focus the spotlight squarely back on the church itself. Rather than placing the blame on the society at large or factors beyond our control, Gutenson argues that the church needs to ask hard questions of itself. As a result, he insists, the church will need to focus more on looking like Jesus and less on talking about what it believes.
What are people looking for in a church? Gutenson argues that the answers lie in authenticity, honesty, and transparency. People want a place where they can be themselves and not “put on airs,” as a previous generation might have put it. A church worth getting up for will welcome people to ask all the questions they have, and find a God that is real, alive, powerful, and vibrant.
Gutenson pushes the church to re-Jesus itself and to embrace a radical hospitality in which newcomers would not be able to say that no one there looks or acts like them. He calls for visionary leaders who encourage innovation, think outside the box, emphasize growth as well as maintenance, and, in Mike Slaughter’s language, set high expectations and high permission-giving as the norm.
Drawing on the work of Alan Hirsch on the missional church, Gutenson argues for attractional models of church, an emphasis on changing the world, and using all the latest technological advancements that are available. If short on specifics, Gutenson points in vital directions. He stirs the pot in ways that are guaranteed to ruffle feathers.
If his basic question resonates, church leaders should indeed probe deeply into “what makes church worth getting up for.” There are no guarantees, Gutenson cautions. But, he preaches, it’s a great time to be alive and a great time to be part of God’s work of reconciling the world to himself.