There's one on every street corner" may be the official church motto if you live in Tulsa. Options are one thing we definitely do not lack in this city.
After having hundreds of spiritual conversations with people all over our city I've learned a few things. Near the very top of that list is this discovery: The majority of people have more of an issue with the church than they do with God.
In fact, many individuals have a story, a moment, or an event that they can look back and point to as almost to say, "It was right there where I realized that the church wasn't for me." Some have had bad experiences and others have come to associate the church with words such as irrelevant, boring, hypocritical and unnecessary.
This has led many people to a spiritual isolationism or a sort of privatized Christianity where God is pursued or discovered outside a community of faith. It has also led to a generally negative perception of the church as a whole.
Ask Tulsans, both Christian and non-Christians, to gauge the spiritual condition of our city and we'll generally talk about all the churches, more specifically the really big ones. Ask others around the country to gauge the spiritual condition of our city and people will again allude to the number of churches, maybe our rich spiritual heritage, or they may name a specific church (university, school, ministry, etc).
What they won't tell you is that this has also caused Tulsa to lead the way in the number of "dechurched," or "formerly churched" people within our city. I would estimate the "dechurched" currently outnumber the "churched" by at least 2 to 1 if not greater.
At this point I could begin making my claim for the church or argue that the church is imperfect and yet vital to our faith, but that's not really what this is about.
What this really is about is coming to terms with a new reality that the "dechurched," "formerly churched," or "at one time churched" now comprise a large group, if not the majority of people in our city. In fact, you could probably say the "dechurched" is the new mega church in Tulsa.
What's behind this trend? I doubt many people would argue that Christianity and the church as a whole has an image problem in America. Whether valid or not, people's perceptions become realities and the current view of the church as unnecessary or irrelevant has quickly changed the spiritual landscape. Call it postmodern, postchristian, or whatever you like, it's a reality that is here to stay and needs to be talked about.
In a recent national survey among young people ages 18-30 the top three common perceptions of Christianity and the church were 1. They're antihomosexual (91 percent) 2. They're judgmental (87 percent) 3. They're hypocritical (85 percent) -- these numbers are taken from survey done by UnChristian and the Barna Group.
Two things jump out at me. First, the church and Christianity are now made famous by what they oppose, not what they stand for. Secondly, these are landslide numbers. If 85 percent of our young people associate hypocrisy with the church it becomes evident why we are now a country and city of "dechurched" people.
So, what does that mean for the church moving forward? For one thing I don't believe you can any longer just fling open the front door of the church, put up an open sign and say "come on in." The church has some work to do.
In any and every era throughout history the church has always attempted to contextualize the gospel message, or at least that's what they should be doing. They're fighting and combating the misperceptions of the culture in a way that is relevant and that doesn't change the truth of the gospel message.
Never has this been more crucial than it is today. Never has this been more relevant to our very own city than it is today. If we are to attempt to reclaim a group of "dechurched" individuals and prove to them there's an alternative then we better start doing something about it.
Here are 3 proposals I would like to make to help bridge the gap between perception and reality in regards to the church and Christianity.
First, if the perception of the church is hypocrisy then our message and our lives must become models of authenticity. This means we don't pretend, we don't play cover up, and we don't profess what we don't live. We don't get on TV behind our golden podiums and high back chairs and promote image over authenticity. We stand before one another as fallen, imperfect people striving to be more like Christ in everything we say and do. The proof is now found in our lives, in our marriages, in our finances and in our everyday actions.
Second, if the perception of the church is that we're antihomosexual the reality becomes that we show love to everyone, regardless of lifestyle. As Christians we are called to love unconditionally, to show compassion without end, and to speak the truth in love. We allow the power of the Holy Spirit, not finger pointing or name calling, to begin the process of transformation in the life of an individual.
Third, if the perception of the church is that we are judgmental then our message of love and hope must resound even louder. We must walk with a humility that we are all sinners in need of a Savior and that we're all on a long road of becoming more like Christ. It's out of this unconditional love we have for others that we are then given permission to speak truth.
As you could probably guess as a pastor of a local church here in Tulsa, I believe in the church. I'm not going to give up on it, with all its imperfections and shortcomings because God didn't give up on me with all my junk.
The new reality is that the church has been given a black eye. Whether it's valid or not at this point is completely moot, what matters now is what we do about it. As Christians and as the church we now have some proving to do.
"You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." (Matthew 5:14-16)
--Matt Nelson is lead pastor at City Church
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