Who Are the De-Churched? (Part 2)

In Part 1 I identified two sides of the de-churched population—those who have left the church because they had received a false gospel, and those who have left because they’ve encountered the true gospel. Let’s start with the false gospel side. As Matt Chandler explained, these de-churched are fed, knowingly or unknowingly, a false gospel of morality. They believe that if they just follow God’s rules he will bless their lives. When things fail to work out as promised, they bail on the church. Christian Smith, a sociologist of religion, has called this belief MTD—moralistic therapeutic deism. I prefer a more sinister and downright damnable name: Moralistic Divination—the belief that one can control and manipulate God’s actions through moral behaviors. While there are many churches that promote this sort of false thinking, including those within the prosperity gospel camp, I believe most churches do not. So why do so many Christians, particularly the young, carry these beliefs? In most cases the problem isn’t what the church is preaching, but in what it’s assuming. For example, the popular distillation of the gospel known as “The Four Spiritual Laws” begins with the statement, “God love you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” This idea, drawn from Scripture and rooted in orthodoxy, may be faithfully preached in your church. But how is it received? How does a person formed and hardened for decades in the furnaces of a consumer culture hear this statement? The biblical understanding of a “wonderful life” looks dramatically different than the consumer culture’s definition. If this assumption is never identified, named, and deconstructed, a person may hear “God love you and has a wonderful plan for your life” very differently than how a pastor intends. It’s not that church leaders are failing to preach the gospel, but that they’re failing to deconstruct the consumer filter through which people hear the gospel. The result is a false, American gospel in which God exists to serve me and accomplish my desires in exchange for my obedience—voila, Moralistic Divination. When this consumer gospel fails to deliver on its assumed promises, as it inevitably does, frustration, disappointment, and disillusionment quickly follow. And the pool of the de-churched gains another swimmer. But what about the other side of the de-churched demographic—those who’ve left the church because they’ve found more meaningful relationships, mission, and transformation elsewhere? They force us to examine a different issue—structure. The helpful book by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne, The Trellis and the Vine, illustrates the dilemma. In David Mathis’ review of the book he summarizes it’s core metaphor:

The vine of Christian ministry is people; the trellis is the various organizational structures that exist for the health of the vine. So vine work is “the work of watering and planting and helping people to grow in Christ”, while trellis work has to do with “rosters, property and building issues, committees, finances, budgets, overseeing the church office, planning and running events” (p. 9). The warning the authors offer repeatedly is that our tendency in Christian ministry is to let the trellis work take over the vine work (p. 9).

In other words, the structures and programs of the church exist to establish and equip the people. People do not exist to support and advance the church’s programs and structures. Or as I put it in The Divine Commodity: “Every relational community, like a family, needs structure. But the goal of any structure should be strengthening, not replacing, human relationships which are the medium God uses to carryout his transforming work. The Holy Spirit inhabits human beings not institutions.” When the church loses sight of this and begins seeing people as a means of bolstering the institution, it breeds cynicism. People feel like their pastor is more interested in using them than loving them. The faithful begin to feel like cogs in a machine, a means of production, human commodities. They don’t feel valued for who they are, but for what they can do, give, or contribute. And to be fair, this confusion between means and ends can happen in both large and small churches, in a megachurch or a house church. The call then is for church leaders to reexamine what they really believe about the church? What is the proper role for structures and programs? What is God’s intention for his people and the role of spiritual leadership? And do these beliefs align with the structures of our existing churches? My hunch is that where people feel like the priority, and where love rather than efficiency is the operating value, we will see far fewer people de-churched. Unfortunately, for the last few decades church leaders in North America have been heavily influenced by the values of corporations. And I can’t think of a profitable corporation that has achieved success by promoting love above efficiency. Consider this excerpt from an interview ith Dallas Willard:

[Pastors] need to have a vision of success rooted in spiritual terms, determined by the vitality of a pastor’s own spiritual life and his capacity to pass that on to others. When pastors don’t have rich spiritual lives with Christ, they become victimized by other models of success—models conveyed to them by their training, by their experience in the church, or just by our culture. They begin to think their job is managing a set of ministry activities and success is about getting more people to engage those activities. Pastors, and those they lead, need to be set free from that belief.

What should we do about the de-churched? Clearly I’ve not answered that question entirely, but I hope these reflections provide some ideas to kick start your own thinking. For those leaving because they’ve held a false gospel of Moralistic Divination, church leaders need to put on their prophetic camel hair coats and start deconstructing the consumer assumptions of the culture. For those leaving in search of a more authentic life with Christ, church leaders need to turn those prophetic pronouncements upon themselves and examine their own assumptions about the way they lead and minister.

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