They Unchurched the Church


Recently I was talking with a new friend about his church background. I asked him if he went to church. “No,” he said, “I’ve not been to church in quite a while.” As I pushed a bit deeper he told me a number of things that helped me get to know him a bit better, but he also said some things that helped me to see how unbelievers view evangelical churches. This is particularly enlightening because my friend had been to a megachurch in a metropolitan Midwestern city. From the outside looking in this church seems to be reaching all kinds of people. The parking lot is full, they have multiple services and an annual budget in the millions. But my new friend hasn’t been back since.

I asked him why. “The music was a joke,” he said bluntly. “Who sings like that?” At first I was taken back and wondered if it was the doctrinal content that offended him. Preparing to make an argument for biblical singing I had my reply interrupted. “It is just sappy. It’s not real.” As we talked he told me that instead of it being offensive for content it was offensive because it lacked content. He looked around at the people and saw a bunch of emotional reactions and he wondered what they were so worked up about. The music was kind of cheesy.

I asked about what else informed his decision to stop going. “The preaching.” He went on to say that the pastor was simply a motivational speaker. He talked about all kinds of things but rarely talked about God. I checked for myself. Sadly, he was right. It grieves me to consider the ministry of a church that says Jesus’s name a lot but rarely preaches Jesus. There is a difference.

As the discussion went on I was able to figure out why he had so thoughtfully engaged with this experience. He went to church looking for something. You might say he was a seeker. In his case, he was truly seeking to learn about God. He wanted to see how Christians worshiped. But notice the painful irony: the church in its effort to be relevant to the unchurched was actually irrelevant to this seeker. They had unwittingly unchurched the church. At the time of his visit my friend wanted answers to some important (and extremely relevant) questions he had. He went to what seemed like the right place—a Christian church with a lot of people. However, what he found was a ecclesiological Potemkin village. This church’s unhealthy quest relevance led them to a startling place of irrelevance.

This raises an important question. Who exactly are these churches reaching? My friend was a real seeker (you could argue a seeker of the best kind—a seeker of God!), but he left disappointed. He seems to be exactly the type of guy who these churches are targeting, yet he leaves and never returns, frustrated by the whole schtick. In his helpful book (reviewThe Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto Against the Status Quo, Jared Wilson analyzes the church growth movement and wonders the same thing. After culling the research data he concludes,

So who’s filling all these churches? Every week, some of the attractional leaders post growing numbers of baptisms and “decisions.” What can we conclude? As the research shows, by and large the people filling these church buildings week in and week out turn out to be other Christians. Often they are de-churched Christians or disaffected Christians or disillusioned Christians, but the idea that the attractional church is having its doors beaten down by lost people is a myth.

Wilson finds that the churches aren’t actually growing from conversion growth but rather transfer growth. And this transfer growth often comes from smaller churches that can’t keep up with the larger churches or other megachurches that aren’t meeting the consumer’s needs.

This makes me ask uncomfortable questions. Why are they doing this? Who are they doing this for? Why the music? Why the teaching? Why the whole production? Is Wilson right . . . is this whole thing not for the seekers after all but for the consumer-minded Christians? Are we holding back doctrine because the Christians want us to? Are we not using tough theological words for the Christians? Are we singing peppy but airy songs devoid of the real stuff of life (suffering, trials, apostasy) for the Christians? Are we accumulating teachers after our own desires? Is this what itching ears looks like? (2 Tim. 4:3).

It breaks my heart to consider this perspective. I think of an unbeliever going to church, a Christian church, and walking away disappointed because it lacked a seriousness, weightiness, and gospel content. It was so practical that it was irrelevant. What in the world are we doing?

When I think about the gospel and the church I often think of one of my favorite hymns, How Sweet and Aweful Is the Place. “Aweful” here has the old sense of the word that means inspiring reverential wonder or fear. The church is the place where people are to be brought to reverential wonder or fear of God through the consideration of the God of grace and the grace of God. Take a read through.

How sweet and awful is the place
With Christ within the doors,
While everlasting love displays
The choicest of her stores.

While all our hearts and all our songs
Join to admire the feast,
Each of us cry, with thankful tongues,
“Lord, why was I a guest?

“Why was I made to hear thy voice,
And enter while there’s room,
When thousands make a wretched choice,
And rather starve than come?”

‘Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly drew us in;
Else we had still refused to taste,
And perished in our sin.

Pity the nations, O our God,
Constrain the earth to come;
Send thy victorious Word abroad,
And bring the strangers home.

We long to see thy churches full,
That all the chosen race
May, with one voice and heart and soul,
Sing thy redeeming grace.

We do indeed long to see the churches full of people but not without the pulpits full of Christ. My friend’s experience is a sobering reminder of this truth: An aweful church preaches Christ, and an awful church does not. Even an unchurched guy can see this.