This article is the transcript from a sermon Skye Jethani preached at Blanchard Alliance Church in Wheaton, Illinois, in 2013.
In 1998, author Anne Rice shocked readers and the publishing world when she announced she would never write another vampire book. Famous for the bestselling “Vampire Chronicles” series including Interview with a Vampire, which some folks credit with launching the whole vampire (and now zombie) obsession in our culture, Rice said her decision to abandon vampires was the result of committing her life to Christ. She said, “My life is committed to Christ the Lord. My books will be a reflection of that commitment.”
Her fans pushed back begging her to keep writing about vampires, witches, and ghosts. Rice responded, “Is Christ our Lord not the ultimate supernatural hero, the ultimate outsider, the ultimate immortal of them all?” Instead she went on to write two novelizations of the life of Jesus based on the Gospel of Luke.
In 2010, Anne Rice made another surprising announcement on her Facebook page: “Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being any part of Christianity … In the name of Christ I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.” Her post triggered a frenzy on social media with tens of thousands of people reposting and “liking” her statement.
Anne Rice’s story represents what more and more people are reporting. They are drawn to Christ, they want to follow him as Lord … but the church? Institutional Christianity? Like a vampire, it sucks the life out of them. Rice listed many of her objections—the perception that Christianity is anti-gay, or anti-woman, or too affiliated with politics, or too exclusionary. These are important perceptions to address, but I want to focus on the trend of Christians dropping out of the church. Dozens of books have been published to decipher the trend over the last few years, and I don’t think there is a single, simple answer. Complicating the trend is the fact that it isn’t limited to young single adults. Older adults, like Anne Rice, who have spent decades engaged in the church are dropping out too.
Over the last few years I’ve been all over the country with Christianity Today working on a project called “This Is Our City,” profiling the stories of Christians who see their vocations in business, government, the arts, education, and science as part of God’s work in the world. I’ve met some deeply devoted and remarkable people, but what struck me was how many of them aren’t well connected to a local church. They’re committed to Christ, they’re actively serving him, but ask them about their church and they shrug their shoulders. If they do attend a church regularly, it’s usually not a factor in their lives in any meaningful way. Some even avoid the church seeing it as a vampire that only wants to suck away their time, money, energy, and life.
Why do so many people believe that Christ gives them life, but the church takes it from them? We’re going to look at that question in two ways. First, we will look at what’s going on in our culture that is contributing to this perception. Second, based on Paul’s vision of the church in Ephesians 4, we’ll look at what we need to reexamine about the role of the church and its leadership in the lives of Christ’s people.
To start, however, we’ve got to define what we mean by “church.” In the English language we use the word church in four different ways:
1 A Building: First, we use it when referring to a building used for Christian worship. “Did you see the new church being built over on Main Street?”
2. An Event: Second, we use church when referring to a Christian worship event. “Are you going to church on Sunday?” Meaning, “Are you going to worship?”
3. An Institution: Third, we use the word church when talking about an institution with officers, employees, programs, and resources pursuing Christian goals. “I made a donation to the church.” That means I gave money to a 501c3 nonprofit organization to fund its buildings, programs, staff, etc.
4. A Community: Finally, church can mean a community of women, men, and children who belong to Christ and live under his reign—as in, “Bill is part of my church.” He’s part of the local assembly of Christians.
When the New Testament speaks about the church, it uses this fourth definition. Here’s the problem—most of us know the church is not a building and it’s not an event, but things get very muddled between definitions 3 and 4. When you say “church” do you mean the organization, leaders, budgets, and programs? Or do you mean your community of Christian sisters and brothers?
It’s important to recognize this ambiguity because it plays a big part in understanding why people are leaving the church. When you look at Anne Rice’s comments carefully, or when I ask more probing questions of the church dropouts I’ve met, what we discover is that most of the time they’re not rejecting Christian community—their fellowship with other Christians. What they’re really opting out of is involvement with a church institution.
This is confirmed by research. In the 1970’s, Gallop found that 68 percent of Americans said they had strong or high confidence in the institutional church. In fact churches outranked all other institutions as the most respected institutions in America. Today, it’s down to 44 percent, and among younger Americans it’s even lower. Commitment to an institutional church simply isn’t important to Americans anymore, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t committed to Christian community.
To be fair, it isn’t just the institutional church that Americans are losing confidence in. It turns out young Americans are rejecting institutions of all kinds. My generation (Gen X), and Millennials (those born after 1980), have a strong distrust for institutions—and the bigger the institution, the more distrustful we are of it. That’s a fascinating shift from earlier generations. For example, Baby Boomers were attracted to big churches. They’re the generation that invented by mega-church. For Boomers big meant legitimate. “If that church is big,” they thought, “it must be doing something right.”
Things have changed. We’re now living in the post-Watergate, post-Enron, post-Lehman Brothers, post-NSA world. For younger people big no longer mean legit; big means corrupt. Last year The Atlantic ran a fascinating article on this trend called: “How Americans Lost Trust in Our Greatest Institutions.” The subtitle captures the argument: “It’s not just Washington. Across the country citizens’ faith in their city halls, newspapers, and churches is fading.” As a generation, the stats show, we just aren’t willing to commit ourselves to institutions anymore. Laura Hansen, a sociologist, put it this way: “We lost [faith] in the media: Remember Walter Cronkite? We lost it in our culture: You can’t point to a movie star who might inspire us, because we know too much about them. We lost it in politics, because we know too much about politicians’ lives. We’ve lost it—that basic sense of trust and confidence—in everything.”
Here’s something to consider. When most Baby Boomers graduated from school they focused on finding a job with a company—a medium sized or large institution. They may have even considered a long term career with that company. That’s not how young people think anymore. One poll found that 6 out of 10 college students today plan to start their own business, and (this is the amazing part) 35 percent of college students already have started their own business before graduating. This is a highly entrepreneurial generation that carries a profound distrust of institutions.
These same entrepreneurial and anti-institutional values carry over into their faith. In their pursuit of Christ they are not thinking about committing themselves to a single institutional church. They’re happy to get their bible teaching from Tim Keller’s podcast, and they’ll serve with that World Relief or IJM program in the city, and they’ll study that Francis Chan book with some friends on Wednesday night, and take in that Taize worship service once a month at the Catholic cathedral. Commit to one local church? No thanks. Give my time, money, and energy to one institution? Not likely.
That’s a glimpse of what’s happening in our culture. We are seeing the rise of an anti-institutional, highly entrepreneurial generation. Now we have to look at the other side—what’s happening within American churches that might be contributing to the dropout trend we are seeing? For that we now need to turn to Scripture. Ephesians 4 helps us see how the church is supposed to function. Then we’ll see how easy it is to stray from God’s intension, and how this leads to vampire churches.
7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it says,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:7-13)
This is a tricky passage in which context is very important. Paul starts by talking about our oneness in Christ. Verse ten is critical. By descending to the earth (the incarnation) and ascending back to heaven as the victorious King, Jesus’ goal is that he might “fill all things.” I want you to notice the scope of Jesus’ mission here: He seeks to rule over everything. We’ll come back to that. In light of all of this, Paul says he has given his people gifts.
Look at verse eleven. In other letters Paul talks about spiritual gifts—things like teaching, and healing, and serving. But here he doesn’t list activities, he lists people. He says Christ has given leaders: apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers, and shepherds. These people are given to us by Christ for a very important purpose, which is stated in verse twelve.
These leaders are given by Christ to “equip the saints.” Who is that? Us! You and me. To do what? “Ministry.” Ok, we’ve got another language problem. Like the word “church,” the word “ministry” is terribly mangled in our culture. What is ministry?
When you and I hear the word ministry, what comes to mind? Church work. The work that pastors and missionaries do. So when we read verse twelve we think it means that leaders are supposed to equip us, God’s people, to do the tasks that support the institutional church. That’s not what Paul is saying.
Rather than thinking of ministry as “church work,” it’s better to define it as “an act of service to God.” To really get Paul’s point here, we’ve got to go back to verse ten. Remember the scope of Jesus’ mission: that he might reign over all things. That’s the context for this whole passage about giving leaders to equip the saint. The idea is that Christ wants his rule extended over all things. How does that happen? He gives leaders, and these leaders (full of his power), equip us, his people, to serve him and manifest his rule—inside the institutional structures of a church? No, in the world! Everywhere.
In this context, Paul sees ministry, our service to God, as being part of Christ’s reign in the larger world and our work “building up the body of Christ”—which is the fourth definition of “church,” the community of God’s people. What is clear is that Paul does not confine ministry to activities done within, or for the advancement of, the institution we often call the “church.”
I don’t know how this strikes you, but I find Paul’s words life-giving and exciting. However, this model does not represent the philosophy of ministry that has dominated the American church over the last 30 to 40 years. The model that I was taught in seminary, and that get’s extolled at most ministry conferences and in church-growth books, looks more like “vampire church.” Rather than equipping people to accomplish the good work that God has called them to do for him out in the world and in their relationships with other believers, vampire churches seek to use people for the advancement of the institution. It’s a model based more on effective American corporations than faithful biblical interpretation. The goal is to plug people into the apparatus of the church structure to grow the organization, rather than release them to serve Christ and build up his body out in the world, in their vocations, and in their communities. So rather than empowering Christians, vampire churches drain the life out of them in pursuit of some institutional goal.
When you put these two trends together, what’s happening in the culture and what’s happening in institutional church leadership, we discover a perfect storm for church disengagement. We’re seeing a generation that is more distrustful of institutions than any previous American generation, and we’re seeing a model of church leadership that is highly institutionalized and inwardly focused. Is it any wonder young people, even those committed to Christ, aren’t pouring their lives into local churches?
Last year my colleagues and I organized a pastor listening tour around the country. It was our chance to hear what pastors are struggling with and what their churches need help with. I had a conversation with a church planter that was fascinating. This guy was a bit older than me, but not much, and far cooler—which isn’t difficult. I asked him, “What is the biggest challenge you are facing?” He said, “I don’t know how to get a generation that doesn’t believe in commitment to commit to the church?”
My first thought was, What does he mean by the word “church”? It turns out a good number of young adults are engaging with his church community—they’re in support groups and bible studies and relationships with one another. The problem was, they are not stepping up with their time and money to support the institutional structures this pastor was hoping to build. So I asked him, “What are you asking them to do?” The pastor explained how he had all kinds of ministry programs he wanted to launch in the community, but these young people aren’t committing to them.
Here’s the odd part, I’ve spent a good amount of time in his city over the last 4 years, and I can’t think of a city in the US that has more committed, active young Christians. These Millennials I’ve met there are incredible. They’re starting non-profits every other day. We profiled one who is leading the fight against human trafficking in the city. Another who launched a program for the homeless. Others who are teaching art and music to kids in the poorest schools. And these very active young Christians are doing all of this from a clear sense of God’s calling.
So I said to this pastor, “Could you be misinterpreting the problem? Maybe it isn’t that young adults aren’t committed to the church, but that your church isn’t committed to the young adults.” What if instead of trying to get Millennials to engage our institution’s programs and goals, we shifted the institution to equip them to better accomplish what God is calling them to do?
There are leaders doing just that. There are institutional churches that are shifting their thinking from using people to empowering people. From growing the institution to growing disciples, and from measuring how many people come to a service on Sunday, to measuring how many are manifesting the reign of Christ in business, government, education, health care, the arts, the home, in all of the sectors of their community. They’re making this shift because Jesus didn’t descend to the grave and ascend to the right hand of the Father so that he might rule over an institution. He did it so that he might rule over all things.
The “church” is the community of God’s redeemed and empowered people. The church institution and its leaders exists to equip God’s people. God’s people do not exist to equip the institution. Ministry is not what we do within the church institution, but what we do to manifest the reign of Christ in the world.
Let me end with this. A few years ago I spent a few hours interviewing Dallas Willard. We talked about many of these same trends. Dallas, I think it’s fair to say, saw these problems and their causes more clearly than I did. At the end of that two hour conversation I asked him, “When you look at how off track the church is, do you ever just throw up your hands in despair?”
He smiled at me and said, “Never.”
“How can you not?” I asked.
“Because,” he said, “I know Christ is the head of his church and he knows what he’s doing.”
Friends, the church is facing a lot of challenges in our culture. I’ve only touched on one of them here, but there is good news. Our response to these challenges shouldn’t be a fancy new program, or grasping at what marketing experts say is hot. Nor is it pointing an accusing finger at our big bad secular culture. It shouldn’t be condemning the institutional overreach of many local churches. The answer is for us, the church, the people of Christ, to align ourselves more closely to his word and remember our callings. Whether we are leaders or laity, we are called to manifest the reign of Christ in this world. We do not lose hope, because Christ is the head of his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
Stop just living your life FOR God, and starting living WITH him. The With God Daily Devotional is an email written by Skye Jethani that greets us first thing in the morning to turn our eyes toward God and the wonder of entering the day with him. Formatted for smartphones, each day’s devotion includes a brief reflection on Scripture, theology, or culture, and walking with God through joys and fears. Every email also links to Bible readings, and features a prayer to guide our own communion with God throughout the day. Fans of “WITH” will recognize themes, and be drawn into a new way of seeing God and our place in his world. Subscribe here.