As a church leader, we know you do your best to be in tune with the needs of the people in your church community. You probably have programs to address the unique difficulties you’ve seen, you preach on topics that are relevant and insightful to people’s lives and you make every effort to really listen to the problems your congregation faces every day.
But sometimes the culture gap between leadership and church community is wide enough—by no one’s fault—that it can become difficult to understand their needs. That’s why we went to five authors who love the Church, but who have also seen Her problems. We asked them to write to you as church members about the things they face that they’ve seen neglected by church leaders in the past. Their responses are difficult, impassioned and frank—but above all, are centered around a deep love for the Church and Her leaders.
Does Church Commitment Trump Everything?
When I was a kid, my family was at church all the time. Sunday school
and worship on Sunday mornings. On Sunday nights, a Southern Baptist
boys’ group called Royal Ambassadors, plus another worship service. On
Wednesdays, a community meal followed by children’s choir. Summer
brought a whole new schedule of camps, events and weekly activities.
My almost-daily church involvement didn’t bother me then. In fact, I
loved it. But as a dad, today? No way my family is spending all those
hours at church every week.
Don’t get me wrong—we love our church. My wife works with the
children’s ministry. I play on the worship team and fill the pulpit when
the pastor’s away. We’re involved. But church is not the most important
thing in our lives.
In 2009, a study by the Barna Group noted that, while weekend worship
attendance at mainline church congregations remained stable, congregants
were becoming disengaged with church life overall. Volunteerism at
church was down by 22 percent. Adult Sunday school involvement had
declined. The report described this as “the underlying problem of softer
My wife and I maintain the same faith as we did growing up, but we’ll
admit that our commitment to church activities has become “soft.” I can
explain this in one word: family.
We have two elementary-aged kids at home, and we’re committed to
making the most of our time together. We don’t let our kids join every
sports league that comes along. Instead, we focus on one or two
activities a year (and we play a lot of basketball and baseball in the
front yard). We play Mario Kart or Settlers of Catan on the living room
floor. We eat breakfast and dinner as a family. We read together before
We try not to over-schedule our lives with stuff that pulls us in
different directions—which means church activities, apart from worship
services, aren’t always a priority.
Maybe the Barna Group sees this as a “problem of softer commitments,”
but I’m not sure I do. The problem is how we define commitment.Doe Does
it only apply to church-sanctioned activities?
For example, is it better for us to put our kids in childcare so we
can attend a big church banquet with friends, or invite those same
friends (and their kids) over for pizza on a Friday night? Either way
we’re experiencing community with Christian friends. But the second
option allows us to do it as a family.
What’s a better use of my time: coaching my second-grade son’s public
school basketball team, or serving on yet another church committee? If I
have to choose, I’ll commit to the one that lets me interact more with
Owen, his friends and their families.
Which has more impact: my wife’s hour in the church nursery once a
month during worship services, or her time on the PTA board at our kids’
school? Option two helps her get to know our kids’ teachers and other
Some leaders might see these options and say, “Well, nothing’s keeping you from doing all those things.”
Wrong. We’re limiting ourselves on purpose. We pay attention when
church leaders talk about the value of the Sabbath and the priority of
rest. We’re pursuing a balanced, family-rich life while trying to invest
our lives in the people around us, who aren’t always people at church.
So that means saying no to church activities.
It’s not because we dislike our church. It’s because we believe the Kingdom of God is bigger than our church.
Pastors and ministers, what we’d love is for you to encourage us in
this rather than making us feel guilty for not serving. attending or
being active enough. I’m not sure the world needs church members who’ll
get more involved in church activities.
I think it needs more Christians trying to lead balanced and generous lives both inside and outside the church.
Jason Boyett is the author of O Me of Little Faith (Zondervan) and other books. Find him online at jasonboyett.com and @jasonboyett.
Can We Trust Church Leaders?
Can I trust you? That’s the question many of us ponder on Sunday
mornings as we listen to you talk about grace, mercy and forgiveness.
Oh, we like you, of course; we like your charisma, and we think your
ability to eloquently move from story to theology to life application is
impressive, at times even convincing. But can we trust you? That’s what
we don’t know.
Distrust of clergy isn’t a new problem. Ten years ago, a survey by
George Barna found that churchgoers’ respect and appreciation for
pastors had hit an all-time low. People’s trust in a pastor’s ability to
understand and address their problems as well as lead them was in a
15-year downward spiral. Since then, other studies have confirmed that
people are more likely to trust police officers and teachers than
clergy. But these stats fail to answer the question of why we struggle
to trust you.
It is tempting to assume that we struggle to trust our church leaders
because of the sex and financial scandals involving pastors and
priests. But I suspect most of us have more personal reasons.
At least, that’s why I struggle to trust people like you. I grew up
in a church that believed a pastor was “God’s chosen,” a title that
meant he or she deserved our respect, honor and, yes, trust. To
challenge the pastor wasn’t simply viewed as an act against “God’s
man”—it was an act against God. The pastors at my church often lied,
manipulated, covered up sins and refused to admit wrongdoing, and I
watched my parents wrestle with how to confront the pastors and with the
belief that God protected His “chosen.”
As an adult, I’ve befriended and trusted various pastors, and over
and over again I’ve become discouraged, saddened and even dumbfounded by
their actions. I started to assume the worst about all pastors
So yes, when I met Pete, my current pastor, I had baggage—lots of it.
During my first months of visiting his church, I carried a truckload of
pastoral baggage I’d been collecting since I was a child. My thoughts
about Pete were somewhat bipolar: He seems nice, but I bet he treats
his staff like crap. He seems genuine, but he’s probably got more
secrets than a CIA agent. He seems to relate to what’s happening in my
life, but he probably pulls in a six-figure salary and drives a BMW. He
seems to be caring, non-pushy and hope-driven, but I bet he’s a
right-wing conservative who rallies against health care, gay people and
taking care of the environment.
You might be thinking, “It sounds like you’re the one with the
problem.” And you’re right—my baggage is my problem. But if I come to
your church and engage your community, will you make me (or someone like
me) your problem?
Thankfully, Pete was. For the first time since my early 20s, I trust a
pastor. He’s not perfect. But he knows that. And I can trust that.
Chances are, every Sunday morning, some people are sitting there
asking themselves, “Can I trust you?”* Their reasons for asking the
question might be different than mine, but I guarantee those reasons are
rooted in stories that are painful, sensitive and difficult to
articulate. Remember this: Just because they don’t trust you doesn’t
make them bad people—it just means they’re hurt people. They’re people
who have encountered a “you” who was arrogant or untrustworthy or an
abuser. It might seem unfair that they distrust you, considering they
don’t know you and you’ve done nothing wrong. But be humble toward them
anyway. They’ve brought their stories and experiences and baggage into
your church and sat down: be gracious, kind and help them unpack.
Matthew Paul Turner is the author of 10 books, including Churched: One Kid’s Journey Toward God Despite a Holy Mess (WaterBrook Press).
Next: Rethinking singleness/marriage …
The Church Needs to Rethink How Singles Are Treated
It is difficult to admit that most of my relationship education
happened as I grew up watching TV shows, going to the movies and
listening to the latest pop songs and R&B hits on my Walkman. It is
also difficult to admit that while I was “learning” about romantic
relationships from pop culture, I was being raised in a church where I
heard nothing about what it means to love one another as friends, lovers
and marriage partners. Except, of course, that sex was for adults, and
even then there seemed to be more negative energy around the topic than
anything positive and healthy. As a single adult in the Church today,
the sad reality is that I hear very little about what it means to hold
marriage sacred and to prepare oneself for the marital covenant. What
would it look like if your church considered preparing people for
marriage as important as any other discipleship class?
I once almost came to fisticuffs with a pastor because the church
leadership team made a Sunday school class about healthy Christian
marriage available only to married couples. They assumed single people
in the congregation would have no interest in or use for that
discussion. It seemed like everywhere I turned, some couple I knew was
getting divorced, and I believed learning how to navigate the beautiful
and challenging terrain of marriage should not be left until people find
themselves engaged or married. I wonder how my own past relationships
would have been different if I had been raised in a church that made
such discussions and reflections normative for high school youth and the
entire adult congregation.
A 2008 Barna study claims 34 percent of Protestants and 28 percent of
Catholics go through a divorce. That is not much lower than the 38
percent divorce rate of non-Christians. If the Church believes marriage
is a vocation, and if we honor marriage as the central metaphor by which
we understand Christ’s love for the Church, then shouldn’t we teach
about Christian marriage openly and collectively in Sunday school,
behind the pulpit and in Bible studies that are a mix of singles,
married and engaged folks?
This is not in any way to dismiss the genuine gifts of singleness to
which some are called, nor to undervalue the real and necessary
spiritual and emotional growth that can occur during one’s single years.
But it is to say that it would be a blessing if the Church played a
more prophetic and instructional role in teaching about marriage as
vocation and sacrament, and encouraging singles to dwell on these
notions before and during dating.
Having a church leadership team that makes an effort to dialogue and
teach about marriage will send some necessary and clear messages to the
people in the pews, even those who are not sure whether they are called
to marriage. Both marriage and singleness are gifts, and all of God’s
gifts come with responsibilities.
As a single person I want to be a part of discussions on Christian
marriage because these discussions affect how singles think about
covenant, faithfulness and sexual intimacy. I need the Church to point
to alternatives to the mostly superficial messages offered by Western
culture and society.
What if we reflected communally on the role God and community play in
how we choose partners in marriage? I want to think together with the
Church on how our unions as Christians are about more than just two
people and romantic happiness. How do prayer, discernment and community
grow and deepen our intimate relationships? Discussions on Christian
marriage could lead to other faithful discussions on what it means to be
a family reconstituted through the baptized, crucified and risen body
of Christ. God invites us to broaden our notion of family in challenging
ways often offensive to our programmed sensibilities. As disciples, our
first relational commitment is to God and to one another. The purposes
God has for redeeming the world are not dependent on whether or not we
marry or bear children.
My conversation with the pastor led to a dialogue about why
singleness, marriage and family should be topics open to the entire
congregation, and the ways in which the congregation can reflect on how
our relationships affect one another as the Body of Christ. And by the
end of the Sunday school series, participants in the marriage class said
they missed the diverse voices and perspectives that they welcomed and
respected in other areas of congregational life.
Enuma Okoro writes from Durham, NC. She is the author of Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody, Somewhat Self-Indulgent Introvert’s Search for Spiritual Community (Fresh Air Books) and co-author of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (Zondervan, with Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove). Visit www.enumaokoro.com.
Next: Living with questions and comforting people who are really hurting …
I Live with More Questions than Answers
Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday represent the hinge of
human history. We celebrate Good Friday and Easter Sunday because they
make everything else possible. But I think it’s a mistake to miss Holy
Saturday altogether. Since sentences are my stock-in-trade, I sometimes
think of Good Friday as an exclamation point (full-stop), Easter Sunday
as a colon (momentum) and Holy Saturday as the important ellipsis
between them. Good Friday and Easter Sunday are dramatic answers; Holy
Saturday is about as-yet-unanswered questions. This is why I relate so
much to Holy Saturday. It’s also the reason I’m writing to you: because I
think you should know I’m living with more questions than answers.
I bring this up because I don’t want you to assume—and I doubt you
do—that everyone in the congregation is in the same theological place. I
was raised in a conservative evangelical church, converted to
Catholicism in my late 20s, lapsed, helped start a couple house churches
in Portland and somehow ended up (happily) at our Evangelical Quaker
church in rural Oregon. I read books by acceptable theologians, read
exactly four Christian magazines and listen to one or two Christian
podcasts. But I read the unacceptable theologians, too. My faith has
been challenged by art and inspired by science. I have found wisdom
studying Judaism, Buddhism and Confucianism. And I can be just as swayed
by pop theology compressed into 140 very powerful characters.
So I’m bringing to the community a collection of beliefs as
comprehensive and imperfect as any seminary education. I’m packing a lot
of questions, too. One Sunday, I remember hearing about the book
unChristian, which the pastor had just read on vacation. Early in the
book, David Kinnaman, one of the authors, says many young believers
bring to Christianity the same challenges, doubts and questions that
outsiders do. I count myself among this number. How has evangelicalism
become so entangled with conservative politics? Why do Christians seem
so anti-intellectual? Why do Christians seem so anti-homosexual?
Our community has gathered in a particular time and setting, and for
the most part we share a Christian vernacular. It occurs to me, though,
that sometimes the things we think we have in common can obscure rather
than illuminate the truth. I’ve also noticed that two people can use the
same language—describing Scripture as the “Word of God,” for
example—and talk past each other, or talk at cross-purposes, or neglect
to deeply consider where the phrase “Word of God” comes from and what
are its implications.
I see this as an opportunity. We have the chance to unpack and repack
our luggage like experienced travelers, shedding assumptions that
aren’t worth their weight, reexamining old artifacts and seeing them
fresh in light of the intervening miles. Questions like, “Why do I
believe such-and-such?” and, “Why do other people believe
such-and-such?” and, “What does such-and-such even mean?” can produce
tension. But tension—when handled intentionally, patiently and gently—is
sometimes where the energy is. This can come from the pulpit, but it
should probably also happen conversationally at the congregational
level. None of us knows precisely what the next leg of the journey looks
like, but I am bound by membership to you and our church, and I am
committed to walking it with you.
John Pattison is the author of Besides the Bible: 100 Books that Have, Should, or Will Create Christian Culture (Biblica). A member of the National Book Critics Circle, he lives with his wife and 3-year-old daughter near Silverton, OR.
What about the people in “The Middle”?
As someone who has previously served on church staff vocationally for
six years, and has continued to work with churches for four more, that
question is always one that haunts me— partially because I’ve been the
one who’s forgotten The Middle, and partially because I am one of the
people in The Middle.
Let’s say you have three people groups in your church. First, you
have the “Superstars.” The people who serve on every board, committee,
tithe massive amounts of money, teach Sunday school, babysit for you,
are on city council and, by some gift of blessing, are truly living a
righteous and holy life. Everything really is going OK with them.
The other people group you have is the “Very Broken.” These are the
ones who always need care, counsel, assistance. You know, the people who
you’ve visited in jail because they got caught with the heroin bag …
And then you have The Middle. The Middle is filled with the people
who, by every outward appearance, seem to live a completely normal life.
They attend church regularly. You don’t get those desperate calls or
the unexpected office visits from them. They probably tithe and serve
and shake your hand on Sundays. You’d never know anything was off.
But something is going on. And they’re afraid to tell you about it.
Their finances are completely wrecked. They’re about to lose their home.
Their health is failing. Their marriage is falling apart. Their kids
are in trouble.
But the smile never leaves their faces. People in The Middle are
great actors. I know I became an expert at smiling when all I want to do
inside is run far, far away.
And never tell you about it.
“I haven’t seen you around church in a while,” he says to me.
I knew this moment would happen. My church wasn’t big enough to be
anonymous, and I realized the time would come when I’d casually run into
one of the leaders and my secret would be confronted. Here we were at a
local grocery store, standing in line together.
Even though I was aware this run-in would eventually occur, I hadn’t yet spent the time to formulate an answer.
It wasn’t for lack of time.
It was for lack of energy. Lack of motivation. Lack of will.
And even lack of faith.
Depression has been a demon I’ve dealt with for most of my teen and
adult life. And I’m not alone. The National Institute of Mental Health
indicates more than a quarter of American adults are afflicted with some
type of mental illness like depression or anxiety disorders.
I’ve been to psychologists, psychiatrists, Eastern medicine
practitioners, Christian counselors, group therapy and even inpatient
treatment. I’ve been misdiagnosed, over-medicated and, at times, left to
my own vices. I’ve tried to fix myself with healthy things like
exercise and clean dieting—and not-so-healthy things like alcohol and
drugs, and self-injury.
My friend’s statement has left me a little shell-shocked. What am I
supposed to answer? How much of my problems do I disclose? Do I just
come out and say what the last three months have really been to me?
I look into my friend’s eyes and think: I wish I could tell you
that. I wish I could tell you how alone I feel and how desperately I
need you to just sit with me, to hold my hand, to share some tea with me
and listen, even if it’s only about how sad I feel today. If only I
could tell you how weak my faith becomes and how easy it is to believe
the lies that say I’m not valuable to this world because I’m not as
strong as everyone else. I wish I could tell you that I want to be like
you—to be able to push through grief and heartache and fear that
seemingly have no cause and to come out of it praising and worshiping
the way you and your friends do.
But I can’t.
I’m too afraid.
I don’t know how you’ll respond.
And I don’t want to be any lonelier than I already feel.
As I finally determine how to respond to my friend, I take a deep
breath and simply say: “Yeah. I’ve been really busy with work and I
haven’t been able to make it to church lately. Maybe next weekend?”
He looks back at me and says, “Great—I hope so!” and smiles.
I smile back, but only because I’ve kept my secret safe for one more day.
So many times I’m asked by church leaders, “How can I make my church a
safe place?” The only answer is, “You.” You have to be a safe place.
You have to first live transparently with others (and by this, I don’t
mean air your dirty laundry … use discernment, but be open and
vulnerable—even if you are the pastor). By living transparently, others
will follow suit. When we share our brokenness with others, we are
showing the world there is a God who heals.
After all, if we were perfect, what would we need the cross for
anyway? How can we show hope and miracles to a world that is seeking
them when we pretend everything is just fine?
My friend Len shared with me that, in Eastern cultures, when
porcelain breaks or cracks, they don’t restore it like we do in the
West. They don’t try to remove any evidence of breakage or cracks. They
do just the opposite: apply a lacquer that highlights the crack with
gold. In other words, they feature the cracks with gold, which actually
adds to the value and gives the piece a story and a unique character.
May God apply that gold to us, so others may see the cracks in our
story and the redemption of His nature, whether we are a Superstar,
someone who is Very Broken or a person in The Middle.
Anne Jackson is a writer, speaker and social change activist who lives in Orange County, CA. She is the author of Mad Church Disease: Overcoming the Burnout Epidemic (Zondervan) and Permission to Speak Freely: Essays and Art on Fear, Confession and Grace (Thomas Nelson).
This article originally appeared in the June/July 2011 issue of Neue magazine. To subscribe to Neue, click here.