“Do you like Jesus, but hate the church?” I saw a sign that said this on a booth during Downtown Lee’s Summit. The idea was to elicit comments, many of which were video recorded for later reference. During a lull in the street traffic I asked the lady in the booth what kind of response she was getting.
I soon learned there was something interesting going on here.
Did you know that 70 percent of the American population self-identify as Christians, but only 17 percent attend church on a weekly basis? At the same time a significantly higher percentage (the exact number is somewhat in dispute) claim to have a “religious renewal” weekly, but they do so without the benefit of a formal church service. Many of them, by some estimates as much as 10 percent of the population, are attending informal home churches at least once per month. If true, as many as 30 million Americans are getting their religion in small groups at home. What’s going on, and why is it going on outside the confines of organized religion?
Steven Walden in his book Founding Faith says of Thomas Jefferson, “He was anti-Christian and pro-Jesus. He was anti-religion and pro-God.” Is that what’s going on in America today? Walden goes on to say that Jefferson “resented being considered a heretic, because he believed that his approach to God and Jesus was more faithful to both of them.” It could be rightly said that Thomas Jefferson loved Jesus, but hated the church, which is very similar to the question posed on that booth sign.
It is instructive to hear what people outside the walls of formal religion say about their church experiences and why they don’t attend church. The interviews the lady in the booth conducted suggest that people view “the church” as being too judgmental, too hypocritical, too political, too negative, homophobic, and too interested in money.
Stereotyping? Probably. At least a kernel of truth? Absolutely!
Those of us who are a part of “organized religion” need to be cognizant of how we appear to visitors when they happen by our church doors. When they crank up the courage to come in, what do they notice? What jumps out at them?
The past few months, albeit on an irregular basis, I have visited a number of churches around town just to see what it’s like to pop into a church uninvited, disguised as a seeker. The very first thing I have noticed is how hard it is to get out of the car and walk in for the very first time. I’m reminded of a fellow who finally attended our congregation on his third try. The previous two weeks he had pulled into the parking lot, lost his nerve, and went home. It takes a certain amount of courage to walk into a church where you know no one and have no idea what to expect.
One church I visited relieved the anxiety immediately. I was greeted by friendly people who welcomed me into their church home like an old friend, they gave me a little welcoming gift that I still have on my desk, and made every effort to get to know me as me and not as a potential statistic on their membership roles. And when it came time for the offering, I was not expected to contribute. Believe it or not I had to track down the usher in order to drop in my wad of bills.
In other churches, one can bask in blissful anonymity if you so desire. You can sit in the back, listen the music and sermon, and leave quietly with nary a human interaction.
But the thing that is most important about these churches, warts and all, is something that would be difficult for an individual whose main spiritual experience revolves around personal devotions. All of these churches have ongoing programs during the week to serve the community of believers. In addition to the regular youth groups and coffee klatches, they often sponsor support groups. One church has a weekly meeting for those battling depression. Other groups will address recovering from divorce, or twelve step programs. Many are involved in serving the community and making an impact that would be missed should the church decide to leave town.
If you are in a home fellowship or prefer to study alone as opposed to attending an “organized” service, few if any of these churches would turn you away from their smaller weekday groups and ministries if you have a need or even just a curiosity.
There is something to be said for a community of believers caring for each other and for those around them, and I would submit that this is the model we see in the New Testament. But I must add that the last chapter of Romans strongly suggests a church at Rome that was built around home fellowships.
In Lee’s Summit there are many churches to choose from, and the ones I have visited boast excellent preaching. The pastors know how to give coherent messages with staying power. They all have need for active, engaged people to help them fulfill their missions. The reality is, not a one of them is perfect. Every last one of them will have something or someone that you won’t like.
But that’s what makes it a church: imperfect people learning and growing and serving together till we all come to maturity and become more like our Savior.
Lenny Cacchio is a resident of Lee’s Summit. He blogs at http://morningcompanionblogspot.com/.