“You have been traveling around this mountain country long enough.” (Deut 2:3)
“Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” (Mt 4:19)
It’s a bit deflating to realize it, but most of the “growth” in the American church is still what is known as transfer growth. It means just how it sounds, a religious version of musical chairs, moving from one place to another.
But even that is euphemistic, because growth typically implies taking root somewhere and actually growing, whereas it really describes a large number of restless persons who can’t seem to find a church home.
In the 40+ years I’ve been a Christian, I’ve moved around quite a bit. I’ve had to conduct a lot of church searches. I’ve always found it amusing that when I once worked through one of those online questionnaires that are meant to locate you on the spiritual spectrum through your responses to a series of theological questions, I was identified as Free Methodist or Wesleyan. I’ve never been a member or even a one-time visitor at either, so go figure.
But as someone who’s not exactly a denominational partisan, I’ve noticed something consistently in all the church settings I’ve found myself in: The strengths that most boast of are never quite as strong as they claim, and the weaknesses or shortcomings they perceive in others are never quite that bad.
But what positively distresses me is the strain at gnats but swallow camels approach to evaluating churches that is practiced by some, especially when they visit “candidate” churches during the selection process of find a new church home.
Given the myriad choices that Americans are used to when buying a car or home, finding the right preschool for their children or even just buying clothes at the mall, I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that a local church is just another commodity, though I don’t like putting it that way.
For some, the dealbreaker is ministers wearing vestments. Another time it’s ministers with their shirt untucked. It’s making people introduce themselves in front of a sanctuary of strangers. It’s feeling like you’re invisible and no one notices you while they have a grand time talking with other members.
It’s cheesy banners made of felt that’s pilled. It’s having to wear a tie or skirt. It’s not having to wear a tie or skirt. It’s doughnuts during the coffee hour when we should eat healthy.
To which I have to say, You have been traveling around this mountain country long enough. Turn northward. Time to change direction.
If you think Christianity is about life lived ultimately on your own terms, then you don’t understand discipleship. Jesus called disciples. He still does, though many have been called and they then put him on hold—indefinitely.
Then, after they’ve married, raised a family, burned the mortgage, retired and earned the gold watch, they get back on the line—but Jesus hung up a long time ago. When the Bible describes a generation that died in the wilderness, it’s describing this category of believer. Yes, they were delivered from Egypt, but they never made it to the land of promise. The kingdom always remained a slogan (land of milk and honey) and never became a reality.
One of my least favorite boilerplate Christian phrases is, There is no such thing as the perfect church. It’s trite, it’s dismissive of criticism, it’s the pat answer you hear just before the conversation ends and it’s time to head for the parking lot.
But as much as I hate hearing it, I know why it doesn’t go away: Because there is a fundamental truth underneath the worn-out phrase that many just keep skipping over.
To whom will he teach knowledge, and to whom will he explain his message? Those who are weaned from the milk, those taken from the breast?
For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little. (Isa 28:9-10)
The maddening repetition is like baby talk. That’s how you talk to a person on that level. It’s “line upon line” until you’re ready to leave that behind and move on.
Be honest with yourself: Isn’t it time to move on?
Next post: Whose church, whose terms?