Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Why People Don't Attend Church (Part 6)

The other day I went to a local store looking for something. They were out of what I wanted but the owner said the shipment was coming in that same day and if I came back the next day he'd have it for me. No problem. I returned the next day.

The owner wasn't in so I spoke with a salesman. I saw that a shipment of goods had come in but not what I wanted. I told the salesman that the owner had said my particular item would be in. He said, "Oh, I can believe that!" and then chuckled like, "He'll say anything to get you to come back and make a sale."

That wasn't a big thing but the more I thought about it the more it bugged me. I didn't like that the owner would lie to me and I didn't like how his salesperson openly revealed the owners underside. I never returned and found what I wanted some place else.

My point? It doesn't take much to send someone away, to turn them sour. It's not always rational or mature, but that's what makes us human! The same is true about church. Some of the littlest things will turn people away. It's almost as if they are looking for a reason...any reason to not return. Let me list a few...

  • the church asked for or talked about money too much.
  • the pastor made them feel guilty.
  • they experienced a church split.
  • they experienced too much gossip and negativity.
  • people didn't pay enough attention to them.
  • people paid too much attention to them.
  • the pastor/priest sex scandals in the news soured them.
  • they didn't use the right version of the Bible.
  • there were too many hypocrites.
  • their children didn't like it.
Some of these ARE big issues, worthy of concern. Some of them are minor. I'm not making a value judgment on any of these reasons, just noting that there is a plethora of reasons to not attend church. I could do a 100 entries to this series if I wanted to!

Lesson: Churches can't assume that just because people visit they will return...even if they attend for months. Many people are one false move away from leaving. Why? They lack trust. They've been burned, either by church or someone signifcant in their lives along the way. There's not always a way to prevent this. But it is helpful to see the crowd for what they are...somewhat distrustful and skeptical.

Churches have to prove that they are sincere...sometimes over and over before people will believe it. Don't take anyone for granted. Go the second mile to communicate and be clear about your intentions. It's an art to know how much to challenge and when to cut people slack. Do what you can to help these doubters relax but if they leave, don't beat yourself up. You can only do so much. They may not be in a good place to join you right now and that's okay. Every person is at a different place in life and God will work with them where they are at- even if that's not in a church for now.

Note: I'll be off line until June 15. I'll address more excuses then.

Why People Don't Attend Church (Part 5)

Along the lines of telling people what to think, people also stop coming to church when they see that Christians have every question answered and tied up with a pretty bow.

Imagine this, you are new to a fact, new to church all together. You have some questions/longings in regard to God so you think that church might be a good place to start your quest. You walk in and everyone is dressed for a dinner party...dresses, suits, well manicured, etc. That's not bad but you take note. Then you are greeted by very smiley people. In fact, they all smile about the same, as if they had a class in smiling. You are a little uncomfortable, but you are determined.

You reach your seat and notice that there is a high number of intact, mom, and two children, or at least couples, in all the pews. Again, that's nice but it makes you feel a bit odd since you've been divorced twice and now you are living with someone. The music starts, everyone rises on cue. The music isn't too fast or too slow. It's not too loud or too soft. It's just right. A bit boring by your standards but everyone else seems pleased.

Now comes the sermon. The pastor raises some deep questions about faith, God, humanity and suffering. You are glad you came because these are exactly the issues that got you to church in the first place. With such deep questions you are guessing that the pastor might take a few weeks to address them all. But within a matter of minutes he quotes a few Bible verses, offers a few trite answers and closes in prayer. You look around in amazement. He can't be serious. But everyone else seems content. Satisfied. And you leave disappointed, with no intention of going back.

Lesson: We too often sell God out as some answer man in the sky. We have our catechisms with an answer for every question you can imagine. The thinking person doesn't expect an answer for everything. They just want to get a perspective on life. They find it refreshing when people say, "We really don't know what God will do about that." Too often churches feel compelled to resolve every quandry that people have but in doing so they remove the mystery from God as well as the joy of worshipping him.

There are some definites about God and Jesus. We can declare those boldly. But we need to learn to be quiet about the indefinites. We aren't fooling anyone when we speak with certainty about things for which we are clueless.

And when we speak with less certainty, not more, it will be reflected in who attends and what they look like! When life is mapped out down to the last square inch, visitors look at us and say, "I don't fit in here." But when life has some mystery, that communicates a freedom to be different and visitors realize that your community is open to diversity. You aren't looking for cookie-cutter believers but sincere, thoughtful seekers of God.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Why People Don't Attend Church (Part 4)

In Part 3 I mentioned that the church needs to humbly admit that it doesn't have all the answers. It is a work in process. Hidden in that lesson is another reason why people don't attend church and that is that they don't want to be told what to do or how to think. Or to put it in the venacular, they don't want the "truth" to be "shoved down their throat".

I don't think this is just a church sensitivity. This is true anywhere and it's true of all of us. There was a time when it was socially acceptable to have a high authority/submission environment. There are still pockets of this in business, home, and church. But in general, people won't stand for it. They demand respect. Dignity. It's not that they don't want to be told what to do or how to think. They just want to be told in a way that doesn't shame them for their current state.

But shame is what many people expect to receive at church. They assume that they will have to check their brains at the door and swallow whatever the church/minister dishes out. That's not only demeaning but, if you continually subject yourself to that, it turns you into a hypocrite. You act like you agree when inside you don' least you don't agree with the tone.

Lesson: As Christians, we believe that God has spoken through history and certain individuals that recorded all of this in the Bible. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus verifies the truth of these stories for us. So we stand in a dangerous place...convinced that we have the truth and everyone else needs to have what we've got. Wow...I don't even like writing that. I believe it, but it sounds SO ARROGANT. We have to realize that, right out of the shoot, we will be offensive to many people. We live in an age of pluralism. Everything is relevant. What is black and white to us is only various shades of gray to others. So we need to appreciate this about our audience and show them, respectfully and without condescending to them, why truth can be known.

There's an art to proclaiming truth without being arrogant. That has to be the goal before us at all times. Jesus did it masterfully. He could speak the bare truth and still attract prostitutes, drunkards, lawyers and the religious elite. Practically speaking, I think this involves speaking the truth without pointing at people (judging). People need to feel like they are a part of the discussion and not the subject of the discussion. The minute we talk about "those people" we are polarizing our crowd and telling our guests that if they are not exactly like us then they are not only unacceptable to us but to God as well.

We also need to let people know that they are free to have their own thoughts. They are free to make their own decisions. Thought, reason, doubt, questioning... are all welcome. Those are attributes of the brain that God gave us so we don't want to quench them but encourage them. And if people don't land where we have landed, we still love them and accept them. We may not be able to call them a fellow believer, but they are fellow humans seeking God. So let's focus on what we have in common with them rather than what we disagree on. That way we can at least keep the dialogue going. Otherwise our guests feel like they are no longer welcome and they join the ranks of those who don't attend church again.