POSTED ON AUGUST 18, 2010:
Too many choices might be hurting churches
On a recent work-related trip I picked up a "Guest Information Guide" in order to learn about the fine amenities that were offered in my hotel and its surrounding area. Among the contents were things one might expect like "Parking," "Check-In," "Internet Access" and "Restaurants." I was surprised, however, when I came across the category of "Worship."
There were a number of choices offered: Assembly, Synagogue, Methodist, Islamic, Community, Lutheran, Catholic, LDS, Episcopal and even Baptist. In the same guide, my hotel allowed me to choose room service, adult movies, rollaway beds and my favorite house of worship. With so many choices, who could go wrong?
Here in the south we definitely have lots of choices when it comes to faith. Tulsa alone has more Baptist churches within its limits than the six New England states combined. And it seems like new churches are being started every week. This has to be a good thing, right?
I was following a car earlier this week that had a huge, professionally made sign in the back window that asked: "When was the last time YOU went to church?" To me, that kind of philosophy ought to be judged by its results. The idea that the world will be a better place if more people start going to church is only valid if we truly believe our churches are healthy. I am certainly not convinced they are.
Don't get me wrong. I think going to church is a good thing. Churches are good things. New churches are good things. But sometimes I wonder if we are guilty of offering more and more choices because it is easier. Like the wise old farmer's saying goes: "Life is simpler when you plow around the stump." Are we continually adding to our smorgasbord of faith options because it is easier to start something new as opposed to solving the health issues of our existing church(es)?
How do we evaluate the health of our churches in the United States? Let's start with an insider perspective:
The literacy rate in the U.S. is estimated at 99 percent -- the highest it could possibly be. We are the most affluent culture that has ever existed, and we have more access to information than anyone ever has. When you combine our literacy rate with the amount of resources, literature and technology available to the average citizen, we stand as the most equipped civilization in the history of the world in terms of information -- religious or otherwise.
And yet, our "church people" are arguably the most biblically and spiritually illiterate people to date. I had a seminary professor who used to ask his students and congregations to turn to the book of First Hezekiah. It was quite amusing to watch upper-level ministry students flip through their "textbooks" looking for a title that sounds Bible-worthy and yet is not one of its books. In many cases today, religious people mean well but know very little about why they hold their beliefs and opinions.
What about outside of the church? When we look at our overall spiritual landscape, culture seems to be moving towards a-ecclesiology (no church belief). According to Newsweek, from 1990-2010, the number of surveyed Americans who claim "no religious affiliation" has doubled. We give people lots of choices when it comes to spirituality, and yet people in our culture seem to be less satisfied than ever. You might call it postmodern, post-Christian, post-theist, irreligious or the end of Christian America. Whatever it is, we are hearing far less about atheism in this century and far more about personal, church-less spirituality.
This, like everything else today, is not original to our time. It goes back to times even before Jesus walked on the earth. More recently, in the 1950s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer described an idea called "religionless Christianity." This idea has been widely misinterpreted by proponents of a more pluralist view of religion based on coexistence and tolerance. But Bonhoeffer was describing what now defines the position of so many in our culture: I want to believe in "god" without being constrained by church or religion.
Believe it or not, Jesus weighed in on this issue nearly 2,000 years ago. In fact, the Gospel of John records one of Jesus' prayers in which he actually speaks to God about the church today. Jesus prays on behalf of the "church people" for all time:
"I pray also for those who will believe in me through (my disciples') message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me." (John 20b-21 TNIV)
Church was a good thing to Jesus too. His prayer for the church of the future was that its people would experience togetherness. He prayed that they would have the same kind of unified relationship that He, the Son, had with his Father. When this happens, people within in the church are gaining ground spiritual ground together -- intellectually, relationally and practically -- and people outside of the church are meant to take notice. Not because the church has a controversial opinion to share, but because real growth and change is happening. There are churches were people experience this type of relationship with God and each other, and there are many more churches that long to have it back.
When people see a church that truly has something to offer, they will be seeing the relationship of Jesus with His Father in the skin of God's people. Don't give up on God's people, and don't give up on our churches. The world doesn't need more spiritual choices; it needs to see the renewal of authentic communities of faith.
Eric Costanzo is Minister of Community Ministries and a teaching pastor at First Baptist Church in downtown Tulsa.
URL for this story: http://www.urbantulsa.comhttp://www.urbantulsa.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A31910