Church Worth Getting Up For

September 17th, 2013

Over the course of the last few years, I have found myself traveling often and, consequently, attending different churches. Sometimes my wife has been with me, sometimes not. Too often, though, I have found myself either asking her or saying to myself, “If I were not already a Christian, why would I have gotten out of bed to come to this?” I don’t mean to be as critical as it might sound on first blush, although I’ll admit, I have attended some very disappointing church services. Instead, I was trying to put myself in the position of that growing percentage of our population that finds church no longer worth getting up for. If I, a lifelong Christian, was having a hard time finding myself engaged, encouraged, or challenged, then is it any wonder that those not already followers of Jesus would find church largely boring and irrelevant?

So, the question for me, as a person for whom giving up on the church is not an option, quickly ceased being “Why would I get up?” and became “What would make it worth getting up for?” What are the factors that are either keeping folks away from church or driving away those who had been regulars? We are painfully aware that for some time, studies have shown decline in church attendance as well as decline in the number of Americans who self-identify as Christians. In fact, given the level of decline among the group under 35, one cannot help being seriously concerned about the future of the church in America. It is to this set of questions and concerns that this book is committed.

Far too often, I fear, the answers we give to these challenges end up being self-serving. Why do folks avoid coming to church? Well, so we say, it is because we preach about sinful behaviors and folks don’t want to hear about that. They want to be affirmed in the midst of their behaviors, so they stay away from church. Except, of course, numerous studies conducted over quite a span of years by noted pollster George Barna have demonstrated that self-identified, born-again Christians really behave, for all practical purposes, no differently than the culture at large. That would suggest that if there is any truth to the claim that folks are staying away because of the church’s stance on sinful behaviors, it’s more likely because we are too easy on ourselves. In other words, it’s more likely because our behaviors simply don’t match what we preach. Even more critically, they don’t match the behaviors they expect from those who are supposed to look like Jesus. It’s easy to turn the finger at those staying away and blame church decline on them, but it might be more profitable to take a good hard look inside the church walls.1

There is a song by the late Christian singer and songwriter Rich Mullins entitled Surely God Is with Us. Two particular lines from this song that haunt me speak of Jesus:

The whores all seem to love him
And the drunks propose a toast

I doubt if any of us would accuse Jesus of being “soft on sin.” Yet, the sick, poor, lame, blind, and beggars and prostitutes all flocked to Jesus. What was it that they saw in Jesus’ life and understood from his teachings that drew them in? Somehow the idea that the true reason behind church decline is the church’s tendency to speak strongly, consistently, and biblically against sinful behavior just seems unlikely.

In the course of this study, we will examine numerous steps that churches might undertake in order to become more inviting and relevant to the contemporary culture. And by relevant, I do not mean merely accepting of the norms and standards of the culture as our own, but rather the ability to speak faithfully and accurately about the state of the culture in terms the culture can understand. It is oxymoronic to claim that the good news is good news to those who cannot even grasp it.

First Issue: The Church Faces an Uphill Battle

Before getting into the details of the project, however, there are two issues that require our attention—particularly, to those of us who self-identify as followers of Jesus. First, because we live in a culture that tends to over-emphasize the “freedom to do as we please” above all other forms of freedom,2 we have to admit that the church faces an uphill battle. We have been told our whole lives that individual freedom and autonomy are at the core of what constitutes a human person. As a consequence, the gospel’s call to self-sacrifice, “mortification” of the flesh, and elevating the interests of others surely sounds strange and, perhaps more importantly, uncompelling.

Even so, [my] book does not suggest how better to market your church as a more desirable consumer choice. Am I opposed to marketing church per se? No, of course not. Good marketing creates awareness of the church’s ministry—hopefully, with special attention to the ways in which it reaches out and serves those around it. However, I reject the idea that churches are like so many other consumer choices—like the latest “whiter than white” toothpaste, or the restaurant that promises they are committed to letting you “have it your way.” If we see the church as just another commodity, marketing the church becomes all about telling folks why “our church” has the best set of benefits for them personally.

Rather, “marketing the church,” if we can call it that, must be more along the lines of clearly communicating what the church is, how it relates to questions of ultimate reality, and why God’s intentions for human life together include as a centerpiece the religious gatherings we call church. Our answers to the question “What makes church worth getting up for?” will consistently be rooted in the biblically based presupposition that God has created us for participation and fellowship with others in local, communal settings. To go in this direction, though, explicitly recognizes the challenges created by refusing to cater to the idea of church as one more consumer choice and local parishioners as little more than consumers to be wooed and attracted to our “product line.” Only as that notion is undermined will it be possible to see the sort of church renewal for which we long.

Second Issue: Our Job Is to Help Solve the Problem

Second, asking the question “What would make church worth getting up for?” implies that I agree that there are many cases where it seems that church is not worth getting up for. Seems not worth getting up for? Perhaps we should just be blunt—there are many cases where church certainly is not worth getting up for. In fact, we might do well here to heed the words of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who once observed that the practice of Christian faith could become so corrupted that rejecting it would be a sign of spiritual discernment. However, the obligations of Christian discipleship do not allow me (or us) to use that as an excuse to avoid regular worship attendance. If we do not find church “worth the time,” if we believe the practice of faith has become terribly distorted, then we need to roll up our sleeves and help solve the problem—help make church worth the time it requires. No, finding that church is not worth getting up for does not let us off the hook. Instead, the hook bites more deeply as we are called to find ways once again to create a spirit that “the whores would all love and the drunks would toast.”

The Structure

Methodologically, this work is based on a number of interviews that I have had over the last several months with persons in different positions of leadership within the church. Most are pastors of local congregations, though not all are currently in such positions. They are not all from megachurches, and not all from small churches. Each, though, came through personal friendship or by way of recommendation from someone else. While I am heavily indebted to each of them for their contribution, I take responsibility for the conclusions that are drawn along the way and for the syntheses that I suggest among their differing inputs. I have checked with each on those places where I have quoted them directly, but again, in the final analysis, they are not to blame for the final form of this work. I do hope, of course, that they find it consistent with their own thinking on the steps needed to see the church renewed—a common passion we each share deeply, regardless of how we think it best accomplished.

The persons interviewed, and the churches with which they are connected, are as follows (rather arbitrarily listed in alphabetical order, by first name):

Alan Hirsch—author and leader in the missional church movement
Brian McLaren—author and leader in the emergent church movement
Chris SeayEkklesia Church, Houston, Texas
Deb Hirsch—lead pastor at The Tribe, Los Angeles, California
Greg Boyd—Lead Pastor, The Woodlands, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota
Mike SlaughterGinghamsburg United Methodist, Tipp City, Ohio
Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber—Lead Pastor, House for All Sinners and Saints, Denver, Colorado
Olu Brown—lead pastor, Impact Church, Atlanta, Georgia
Rosario Picardo—lead pastor, Embrace Church, Lexington, Kentucky
Tom Tumblin—Dean of the Beeson School, Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky

To each of these, I express my heartfelt gratitude for their love of God and God’s people as well as for their willingness to take time out of busy schedules to offer words of wisdom and insight to me. May God continue to bless each in their ministries!

I began this project naively hoping that there was a set of common factors that we could put into practice in our local churches that would fuel growth in discipleship.3 It was not a very realistic hope, though. If things were that simple, many of those who have dedicated themselves to evangelism and church renewal would have long ago discovered that set of factors. Similarly, if it were that simple, I could merely recount to you the common elements derived from my interviews of the folks listed above. That, in turn, could become a formula for creating and sustaining churches worth getting up for. As it turns out, however, what passes for a “church worth getting up for” varies a good deal from one context to the next. Are you located in a highly multicultural setting? Or one more ethnically monolithic? Where do the people in your area fall on the modernist/post-modernist spectrum? What is the demographic of the local community? Do you have a large population of folks who have had bad experiences with church? It should not be surprising that divergent answers to these questions will mean that what works well in one context may not work well in another.

In the following chapters [in my book], we will discuss factors that different church leaders have found to be contributors to success in their particular context. It is my sincere belief and hope that among the different ideas that these leaders have deployed, there is potential for churches in many different situations. The bottom line? Discernment of the local context, guided by the presence of the Holy Spirit, will be the critical factor in designing a church experience that folks will find worth getting up for. What will make a church worth getting up for in the Midwest may be quite different from what makes one worth getting up for in the Northeast, for example. However, I am confident that church leaders from across the spectrum will find the analysis provided to be helpful in their attempts to be churches worth getting up for. May God grant us renewal in our day!

Excerpt from: Church Worth Getting Up For by Charles E. Gutenson. Copyright © 2013 by Abingdon Press. Used with permission.

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