Yesterday, Rachel Held Evans weighed in on why she left her church. And she tied it to the story of millions of others, as told in the newest book by David Kinnaman of the Barna Research Group, You Lost Me.
Unfortunately, many will read what is happening and react with fear, a belief that Christianity is becoming increasingly irrelevant in our culture and that the Church is failing.
But my understanding is that Christ makes himself relevant, that’s not my job. And it’s also my understanding that Christ grows his own church, that is also not my job.
So either Christ is failing or we should not fear that people are leaving churches.
Do we not believe that Christ will build his church and that even the gates of Hell will not overcome it (Matt 16:18)? Many times we do not; because then we would have to admit that perhaps Christ is building his church without us, that he is building his church and we just aren’t in on it. Maybe he is doing something outside of the institutions and buildings we have built for him. And if we cannot accept this possibility, then maybe our fear is not that people are leaving Jesus but that they are leaving us as leaders and our models of doing church. Or worse, we cannot distinguish between the two.
We should not be afraid of this mass exodus. We should celebrate it, rejoicing that something new is coming. But this requires that we reflect on what we are still holding onto that causes us to fear.
How do we learn to turn our fear into trust? Here are a few suggestions:
First, we should re-learn to trust that Christ will build his church. I know it’s hard to imagine, but God does not need our marketing. If we do not trust that Christ will build his church, our attempts to be attractive often get desperate. And desperation often leads to manipulative sales tactics and competition between churches. And so, ironically, our effort to bring people to Jesus starts to look very non-Jesus-like.
Second, we should admit that our church models are just models. If Christ is in charge of building his church, we should look outside of our current models to see what else Christ is up to. We cannot make our models an idol, arrogantly thinking that Jesus can’t show up outside of our buildings and outside of our weekend worship services.
As such we must stop lamenting that people are “leaving church,” telling them that if they leave this model, they are abandoning Christ or his Church. They aren’t leaving Church, they are leaving irrelevant models. Instead of tying Christianity to our preference for doing church and trying to bring them back to our model we should support them and say, “We don’t have all the answers! Go! Innovate! Create! May Christ continue to build his Church!”
I do not fear the mass exodus from church models. They are all bound to be irrelevant sooner or later. And I trust that others are coming. They will be here soon. And until the church-as-organization catches up to what the Spirit of God is doing in the hearts of a new generation, we’ll probably just stop showing up. That doesn’t mean we don’t love Jesus or love the Church. It just means that the institutional model that currently exists simply doesn’t mean anything to us anymore. We have created more meaningful structures outside of the system. And eventually, this will be a new system. And eventually our system will be irrelevant too.
Third, we have to let go of our egos. If we are deeply honest, most of us fear, not because people are leaving Jesus, but because if they leave my church I will look like a failure. But we have to lay that down. Christ will build his church. None of us are leaders. We are all followers. We are all doing our best to see where Christ will take his Church next. And when he moves on, we must be willing to follow the Spirit. The question is not whether we can save the church but if we are willing to lay down our messiah-complex and our sacred cows long enough to follow Christ into the future.
“…and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it.”
-Jesus in Matthew 16:18