Burned Out on Church
My wife and I have spent the last seven years in three different countries, all of which had a cultural base of Christianity. However, we have also found a negativity toward church. We spent much time with people who were not following Christ as we sought to understand this negative view of church. Over and over we heard the same thing: people were burned out on church. Sometimes the reasons were serious, such as experiences of abuse in a church setting. Other times the reasons were vague and largely theoretical, such as the presence of hypocrisy.
In Germany, when I tried to talk about God or Jesus, frequently the response I got was a critique of church. Initially I felt defensive and thought that most of the criticisms were unfair. Gradually I became frustrated that I kept getting sucked into conversations about church when all I really wanted to do was talk about Christ.
Postmoderns are not anti-spiritual. In actuality, they tend to be quite spiritual.
Postmodernism, far from being an isolated phenomenon relegated to the halls of academia, is very prevalent in the corridors of office buildings and on the streets of most cities today. There are many different ways it can be described. Disenchantment with the way things have been is a basic and useful explanation. This disenchantment extends to the way people view church.
The Church Has Left the Building
At a recent conference, a colleague remarked that the Church had left the building. His point was that traditional church settings are no longer the means to reach people with the gospel. In his book Revolution,1 George Barna says that his research has revealed that there is a growing sub-nation of over twenty million people in the United States who are devout Christians but “have no use for churches that play religious games.”2 He adds that ninety-one percent of Americans who identify themselves as born-again “possess a patchwork of theological views and rarely rely upon those perspectives to inform their daily decisions.”3 This shows two things:
- There is a perceived disconnect between religious faith and real life.
- This disconnect has produced a significant sense of disenchantment with church.
Nevertheless, about seventy percent of all Americans still rely on a local congregation as their primary source for their spiritual life. About five percent of the population relies on an alternative faith community and approximately twenty percent have turned to various cultural sources such as the media or the arts to satisfy their spiritual needs.4 What is most interesting is where Barna thinks this is heading. He projects that in 2025, between thirty and thirty-five percent of people will rely on a local congregation; thirty to thirty-five percent on alternative faith-based communities; and thirty to thirty-five percent on the media, arts and culture.5
Postmoderns are not anti-spiritual. In actuality, they tend to be quite spiritual. However, they are reactionary to religion and traditional assumptions. They do not want a generic, pre-packaged religious presentation; rather, they want to experience a spiritual journey.
As our culture is changing, it is exposing and magnifying some of the weaknesses of many of the Christian faith traditions. One in particular is that church and religion have been promoted as an important part of people’s lives rather than a way of life that is integral to all spheres of one’s existence. This is the exciting opportunity that awaits us in the postmodern age. We can recapture the ancient truth that our faith is our life. It is not something to be stacked on top of everything else.
It Is Not About Coolness; It Is About Love
After graduating from university, I lived in Russia for a year. As is normal, I felt out of place and uncomfortable in a new culture. In order to reduce my anxieties and insecurities, I tried hard to be like my Russian friends. I bought Russian clothes. I worked at learning the Russian language, even some slang phrases. One of my greatest days was when a Russian told me that my appearance was just like a Russian’s and that some of my well-rehearsed phrases sounded native. I was cool.
A few years later, when we moved to another country, I worked hard again at inculturating myself. We lived with a local family. I bought local clothes. I worked at the language again. I learned street terms and constantly got feedback from locals. I was cool.
In the postmodern era, we need to become less concerned with bringing people to church and more concerned with bringing the church to the people.
We had a colleague. He was a nice guy, but he dressed like he had just arrived. He had been there eleven years. He butchered the language. At times it was downright painful. One time he did an entire presentation in which he used the wrong word and continually said that the church should work at failing. At the same conference, I got up and gave a smooth PowerPoint presentation. I cracked some jokes. They laughed. I was cool. I was sure of it.
Afterwards, I was completely dumbfounded when my colleague was surrounded by the locals and received several invitations to speak at local churches. I wanted to tell them that he would make the same mistakes at their churches. No one asked me to speak at their churches. Maybe they had something against PowerPoint.
As the months went on, I was continually amazed at the influence that my language-butchering, uncool-clothes-wearing colleague had on people. One day it hit me. I saw his clothes; they saw his heart. I heard his grammar; they heard his love.
His love for the people came through loud and clear. Since that time I have given up on being cool. Instead, I have tried to light the fire of the love of Jesus in my life. Like a fire that gives warmth and can be seen from miles away on a cool night, it is the single most attractive aspect of our faith.
The Postmodern Church
Many others have observed the aforementioned fact that postmodern people are increasingly disinterested in church. The approach that some have taken has been to re-shape and re-work what is done in church so that people will come. One church that I am acquainted with has constantly upped the ante with more extravagant decorations and spectacular music. People come; people have fun. But Christ is rarely mentioned and the Bible is hardly used. When the leadership was asked about this, the query was immediately dismissed.
Do not get me wrong here. A church can use any kind of music. People can dance and be creative. However, we must not be fooled into thinking that being cool is the answer. People will come to something cool. But they will give their lives for love.
In the postmodern era, we need to become less concerned with bringing people to church and more concerned with bringing the church to the people. Now, more than ever, people need to see us on the streets of our cities, loving people. Through us they need to feel the love that Christ has for them. Soli Deo Gloria!
1. Barna, George. 2005. Revolution: Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary. Carol Stream, Illinois, USA: Tyndale House Publishers
2. Ibid. 13.
3. Ibid. 33.
4. Ibid. 48.
5. Ibid. 49.