Open letter to Church: Let it die.

Church insideDear Church,

It does no one any good to bury your head in the sand. Denying the situation won’t make it any less real. Let’s just lay the cards on the table, alright?

Church, you just aren’t that important anymore.

It doesn’t matter how rockin’ you can make the music, how many cappuccino bars you put in the lobby, or how much you buzz with words like “authentic” and “story”. All you’re doing is some sort of slow re-branding of your identity, cherry picking the most marketable parts of the North American culture, making hipsters and moguls your fashion advisers. No matter how much you spend on marketing research, leadership training, and advertisement campaigns, the bottom line is this: people just aren’t that into you anymore.

Look, society is over you. While you were busy freaking out about post-modern thought and trying to keep some element of relevance, the world around you changed, moved on, and became fully post-Christendom. Simply put, the church as an institution doesn’t hold the power, authority, and sway that it did at one time. People don’t grow up in Church then leave when they go off to college; people simply don’t grow up in any church now. Social circles aren’t defined by what congregation a person gathers with. Church, you aren’t a pillar of the community anymore.  The default position you once had is no more. In fact, most of the time, people are suspicious of you. With all the scandal, abuse, lies, and manipulation that have come from the various pulpits, can you really blame them?

I’m not laying some fault at your feet. It’s not something you did wrong to lose the trust of the people, well not entirely you anyways. This is just a cultural shift that was bound to happen. Church, you have been tied with political power in one form or another since the time of Constantine. The entire spectrum of history we know as “the modern era” was born, raised, and died with you wielding power with the political entities. It was hard for us to see where Church ended and state began. But time changes all things, and now people don’t want you in bed with politics anymore. People don’t want your religion dictating laws, lifestyles, legal proceedings, and lobbying.

I know this is hard to hear, but it is important that you pay attention to this. Don’t get defensive and reactive. Just listen: people don’t want you, the Church, to be mucking about, uninvited, in their lives. People don’t want an institution to dictate a spiritual playbook to them. If they are interested in spirituality, religion, or anything of the sort, they want to find answers for themselves.

This culture is different from what it was twenty years ago. What I was given by you, Church, was a legacy of battling nominal or carnal Christianity. The assumption was that people just needed to hear the gospel, and then really believe, really become a disciple, and the “slow decline of society” would right its self. This mentality fueled the moralist thread that became second nature to Christianity. We were told so little of grace by you, Church. But you spoke much of obedience and diligence, of discipline and lordship.

Church, you clung to this mentality long after society around you moved on. Long after the issue stopped being about getting people to “renew the faith of their youth” you kept asking the same questions, frustrated by the ever diminishing results. At this point, there were two classic reactions:

  1. You began to insist that entrenching ourselves in the fundamentals of our faith would keep us from being corrupted by this new, “secular” mentality. Effectively declaring war on the culture, you grasped at straws of political power and media presence, effectively creating what is now a semi-thriving subculture of church culture. You disengaged from culture to the point of calling us post-modern children evil for thinking differently than you.
  2. The other track was to begin making faith sexy again. By challenging the classics tenants of faith, you hoped to change what we believed to fit this new society, thereby proving that the institution of church was flexible, adaptable, and always relevant to the culture around you. You wanted to fit in with the cool kids, so you changed your clothes, got a new vocabulary, got a hip hair cut, and tried to get people to come and believe in the new revelations of Jesus that now, for the first time, we were finally understanding.

Reacting to this post-Christendom society by either trying to get people to somehow be truly serious about their faith or by making faith into something people care about is continually asking the wrong questions.

I get these reactions Church. I know it was partly the best intentions and partly self-preservation. I get that at your core, you care about people knowing the truth. That’s partly what makes you the Church! But neither of these paths will help you flourish and thrive. Combining these reactions just leads to a marketing driven, event oriented, cult of personality that we now see now as the face of you, Church. Those of us that grew up with you, those of us who were present for all your reactions to the changing culture, we were the ones that inherited a Christian life that was all about “really believing better”. How crappy is that for the defining of discipleship? Both of these paths promote saving you, the Church, as an institution, and I don’t know if that’s what we should do.

Not the end

Church, I love you.

I’m part of you. As I have said before, I grew up with one foot in your halls, your culture, your power struggles. I know you, and I am part of you. However, I have also grown up embracing the fact that times are not what they once were. I grew up post-modern, full of questions, doubts, and deconstruction. All of my searching for better answers has led me again and again to Jesus, and when I see Jesus I can’t help but see his people: the Church.

What I see now are people who believe, and not an institution to uphold.

Church, what would happen if you were content to let yourself die? What if the institution that you have tried to preserve needs to die? What would happen to the people of God?

I believe that we, the people of God would thrive on. I believe that in our friendships, our work lives, our families — I believe that in all of these place we would begin to find a God who is already at work, and we would find ourselves bound together with him and with each other, not as an institution, but as human beings seeking the Spirit of God and being used by the spirit of God. People gathering in various ways to listen to the scriptures, to pray, and to break bread together in remembrance of Jesus, his death, and resurrection.

Church, remember when that is what you were? Can you remember before you bought buildings before you got a budget before you had a staff and job titles and programs and guest speakers and book deals and CD releases and tee shirts and knock off product substitutions and some seminar event every week?

Church, do you remember that you are people?

Sure, society may have moved far away from any idea that the Church as an institution matters. Sure, we may live in a time when people’s stories and experiences count more than well-reasoned arguments to prove a belief system as right. Sure, there are a plethora of sub-cultures now making up society, with their own language and life rhythms. But Church, society is just like you: made up of people.

Church, if you keep fighting to be a big name, trusted institution, you are going to alienate people more and more. The harder you fight, the more full of pride, misinformation, and ego you will be. But, if you let the institution die, let the people out of the box, let them live their lives as witnesses of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit… this is getting back to your identity: the sent people of God gathered in a distant land to tell of God’s invitation to salvation for all who will hear.

This is entirely different from anything you have been for over 1,000 years. I know it feels scary. I know it feels like you are giving up. I promise, though, you are not. The way forward is a return to the roots: let the preservation of the institution cease so that the empowerment of the people can continue in new and powerful ways.

We can do this Church. Look around: the people who make up society and culture need to hear the invitation of salvation; they want to hear our stories, our experiences, our witness. Not our assumptions of privilege and authority. Fighting to keep some institutional form and function is only hiding the light under a basket. Let it shine; God and his  people are up to the task.

With all the love in my heart,
Aaron


This post is sparked by Chapter 1 of the book Prodigal Christianity by David E. Fitch  and Geoff Holsclaw. They’re the first sign post for  navigating a way through and beyond the neo-reformed Emergent/liberal tensions is acknowledging that we are in a post-Christendom culture. If we are going to admit the reality of the social climate around us, we have to admit that our “classic” concept of church as an institution is not adequate to thrive in this culture. This doesn’t mean that we hunker down and wait. Nor am I implying that we abandon orthodoxy for hip social activism. It also doesn’t mean that we simply need to balance the two reactions. We need a new way to be the people of God here and now. I really think that abandoning the church as an institution (and all the baggage that goes with it) is the best way forward.

How do you think the church should move forward to be a city on a hill, the light, and salt of the earth, in the cultures you find yourself in?

  • I have one foot in this post and one foot out. While I may disagree with some of your conclusions, your heart is what makes me love these words. You really shine in this piece, Aaron.

    • Natalie, thank you. Truly.

      I know not everyone agrees with my thoughts about the Church, and that is ok. Like we talked about the other night, I don’t really fit in anywhere so I get to say things that don’t really fit anywhere else. I also know that I could be wrong.

      My heart is for the people of God though, the people I love and stand with, and I hope that’s what comes across here.

  • I hear what you are saying. It was not that long ago when we were attending a mega church as a family, and I would have wholeheartedly agreed with everything you say here then. But now, we are in a church that doesn’t fall prey to either “coolifying” Christianity or marketing discipleship as a better life.

    We have a pastor who tells us that he is afraid of hurting feelings; that he yells his prayers at God when life doesn’t make sense; and that yells AMEN when someone shares their story of battling depression with prayer and medication. Our church thrives on learning to represent Jesus in the humdrum boring moments of life. We make a difference in the community, not just through the service activities we do every quarter but by infiltrating this broken culture with hope and life and purpose, all through Jesus.

    So, I guess I would say our church doesn’t need to change much to move forward, honestly.

  • jasoncoker

    Provocative post Aaron. Couple questions for you:

    1. What does “letting the church die” look like to you, in practice.

    2. Are there some particular examples of contemporary non-institutions that have a transformative effect on society, to which you look for models of how the church can exist?

    You might enjoy an older post of mine on this same topic: http://pastoralia.org/church/the-death-rattle-of-christendom

    Take care,
    Jason Coker

  • Wow dude, great post, once i got past being on the way to being angry and listened to exactly where you were going with it, yeah totally but i imagine this post will get a lot of people who don’t hear what you’re saying and some angry folks but the message i think is correct – we can’t lose church because that is what Jesus came to build [or who He came to build kingdom with probably more correctly] – church is the bride of Christ, we are the body of Christ, so we can’t lose that… ever… no matter how much it sucks in its current form or how much its hurt us [i grew up in the church with a pastor dad and have done my fair share of pastoring type stuff so i get that] it is still God’s plan and solution and so the question that needs to be answered is ‘so what is this church?’ – and it is the people of God meeting together and living kingdom in their daily lives [not their cut off from the world ones]

    this line jumped out at me: Church, remember when that is what you were?

    so powerful. so yes i thin you’re asking the right questions and saying the right stuff… i’ve written a book called ‘I kissed hating [the church] goodbye’ which i need to get around to publishing some day but a lot of it resonates with this stuff – church is not the place, it’s not the sunday meeting, there should not be a divide between spiritual and secular because everything is spiritual etc etc

    so keep on – cheering you from the sidelines [or a co-lane]

    love brett fish

    @brettfisha

  • yes! yes! a thousand times yes! love it, aaron! provocative, sure, but must be stated. i’ve been feeling some of these same things lately. i haven’t “been to church” in over a month. and a part of me questions whether i wanna go back. pretty bold for me to say, but it’s been on my heart and mind a lot lately.

  • Jason, thanks for responding.

    I’ve been thinking about your questions. I want to try and answer, but I think they are really par of the larger/longer conversation I’m trying to have here.

    Number 2 first: I have no idea, and I think that’s a good thing. The idea has long been with us that we need to model our organizational efforts like what works in society, and I think that’s a fat lie. Fundamentally, as the gathered, living kingdom citizens, the Church (Ecclesia) exists differently than any culture around us. What you seem to be asking is “where have we seen this approach succeed in a culture (presumably America) so that we can be sure we can do this”. I think that the dynamic of the Holy Ghost gets forgotten when we pose our questions like that. We need to ask, “What is the ecclesia, fundamentally? How can we best articulate and embody that in this culture?” We may end up with some structure (for the sake of a functional organization of a group of people) that looks like society around us, but we can’t ever forget that part of the identity of the ecclesia is to be a prophetic witness against the “Babylon” around us. Meaning: we can’t buy into the pragmatic power structures that exist around us, even if they them selves are non institutional. We exist in the world, but not part of it so that we may proclaim the reconciliation of the world to God in the Son through the power of the Spirit.

    As far as your first question: I’m not entirely sure. I don’t have all the answers. I do think letting go of our damn determination to survive at all costs is part of it. We need to disassociate our Christian identity from the continuation of our congregation. Not saying that we need to abandon gathering with local believers, rather I’m suggesting that if our “first church of awesome in the local city” disbands, this doesn’t mean that we have failed to remain the church. We are not a non-profit entity; we are a people.

    Another part of this I think if forgoing the idea of Church as a brand. Seriously. Church is not a brand. Just stop. Multi campus does not equal success. In fact, we need to re-define the idea of an ecclesiastical success as a whole. We need to stop assuming that we need a salaried staff, and start supporting our overseers (elders) so that they ALL can be freer to care for the flock, exhort, and enable us all to be disciples who make disciples.

    I have lots of ideas about this, but I think that it’s also a super flexible concept. It may not always look the same, because our contexts are different. This paradigm shift needs to happen though. Otherwise, we are just keeping the machine of church culture a pumping away.

    • jasoncoker

      Yeah, it’s a can of goddam worms, isn’t it?

      I asked the first question because I wondered whether you felt there was any legitimacy in pastoring builder and boomer generation Christians who are genuinely nourished by a form of faith built squarely on the foundation of Christendom. The builders will be largely dead in 10 years (though, their money will keep mainline churches operating for quite some time) – but the boomers will be well-preserved for another 30, and “you can have their Christendom when you pry from their cold, dead hands” (so to speak). If you were to lead a church of people like this, would you sail it into the sunset or would you try to overhaul the boat? Just curious.

      I asked the second question because, although it gets vilified by all the cool kids, pragmatism is critically important. Pragmatism and power are not synonymous. I don’t give a shit about the romantic late-Capitalist notion of “success”, nor do I desire to mirror the power-structures of modern government or corporate America, but a church must “work” for the people who use it. Even Jesus said, “I made the church for man, not man for the church” (or something like that).

      Now, I’m on board with the whole, “church should be a prophetic witness” meme, but I would argue that the pragmatic accomplishments of a church are the primary way it embodies its prophetic witness – and if it isn’t pragmatic in that way, then it should die. Why? Because epistemologies that fail to produce practical artifacts for the betterment of mankind are false. This is the gift of science to our world. Whether we fancy Modernity or not, we should all thank Francis Bacon and his cohorts for that incredibly valuable paradigm shift because our lives are mostly far better for it. Science produces stuff that works, and that is why it rules our culture. Religion, by and large, produces a tons of useless speculation. If more theologians applied Occam’s razor to their own religious ideas, we’d all be swimming in a lot less bullshit.

      So, what I’m saying is, whatever ecclesiology comes next for North American, it better be at least as useful as an iPhone or a washing machine in people’s everyday lives. Given that, I think it’s part of our commission to read the tea leaves of culture for a glimpse of what might “work” within a given society, partly because whatever “works” for good in any society is actually what the spirit of God is doing.

      Anyway, nice post.

      • Good thoughts here man.

        To answer your question about the “Boomer” church: I would probably try to overhaul the thinking of the congregation while working to eventually teach the next generation how to build their own boats. I think the boomers have a lot to teach us still, and I feel that generation was vastly undeveloped, and not allowed to really bloom in the ecclesiastic sense. I would want to help them see a different way of being church so they can lead, aid, and support what is happening/will happen.

        I see your point about the church forms being useful. When I say “pragmatism” I’m thinking of a more “ends justify the means” mentality rather than a “hey, this works in real life!” mindset. Church needs to work. Being the church needs to be something we can do 9-5, Monday-Friday, and after hours as well. It’s a way of living in our culture, not a form of gathering or a new event or some other shitty substitution.

        • jasoncoker

          Gotcha. Well, that would be more of a consequentialist justification, I would think. And even consequentialists wouldn’t claim the ends justify the means, they would say good ends justify the means.

          But I’m with you. Thanks for the thoughtful engagement. Particularly on the church as a commodity critique. There’s no bigger church issue for our time and place, IMO, than that.

          Take care.

  • “Church, do you remember that you are people?”

    this is fabulous. unless a church building really functions as a community center actively serving people beyond its own pews, what exactly is worth preserving? the end of christendom could be the best thing to ever happen to the Body of Christ. i hope we seize this moment and reimagine what faithfulness together might look like.

  • The crux of the matter is how the word “church” is defined. If we define it as a building, or an institution, we’re missing it. Church is us, and is all about communing with God, and one another. I know it’s an Evangelical word, but darning, I have fellowship with my friend, Tim, every time we get together. He makes the burdens of my soul lighter.

    And that, folks, is church.

    • well, unless you have another friend named tim (it’s been known to happen) then consider me floored by this comment, chad. and i totally agree with your sentiments. honored and humbled to be your friend.

      • You’re the only Tim I call “friend,” man.

  • I love the critique. We need it. There are myriad problems with institutionalism that we need to soberly realize, address, and allow Jesus to defeat. Yet Christianity did not survive event is nascent stages by a sort of noninstitutional organic movement without any personalities. The Church has always required personalities who wield authority with the harsh grace of Christ himself.

    Rather, if we are going to talk about returning back to the roots of the faith. Yes, get rid of the buildings and the pension programs and the mandatory salaries and the signs of worldly status and prestige. But don’t imagine that the Church is itself without the authority of Christ in our midst, wielded by those transparent and brave enough to live lives in the light. Like Paul and the early Church patristics. Like Wesley and Asbury. It’s under that sort of leadership that cares not for worldly status but for the coming Kingdom that the Church is what it needs to be. We suffer for lack of good leadership. We suffer because America has so corrupted the dream of the Church that we don’t even know how to stand on a firm foundation any more. So what I’m saying is: I think you’re throwing the baby out with the bath water. We need to jettison most of what we have been doing, but not everything. We need discerning minds to identify not just the stupid things we have done wrong, but the things that have been done right along the way, and how those things can take root even today.

    • Those are valid concerns. There is a tendency to throw the truth baby out with the tradition bathwater and in doing so get rid of some of the key foundational truths of what following Christ means. I agree, by all means let us cast out the institutionalism, the professionalism, the competition between churches for “members” and money but let’s not forget that being followers of Christ is not antinomianism.

  • Christiana Vandermale

    Love this. It is time.

  • troy mc laughlin

    What Francis Chan is doing in San Francisco is turning the thinking of “traditional church”. They met for 10 or so minutes Sunday morning then they go out and minister to their neighbors and regather after that. That’s church in its truest context. The gospel works anywhere and for anyone.Sometimes we get in the way. Give me grace; God’s grace and love I’ll let the institutions fall if they need to.

  • John

    “Church” is neither the problem nor the solution. Christianity is the problem.

  • Katie Matheny

    Hey Aaron, thank you for sharing your heart. I agree with a lot of what you say. And as you say, i’ve got one foot in…
    What thing I do want to bring up, and maybe you’re aware of this too, but the global church is growing with a furver, especially in areas where the American style of church is not present. Someone stated it in the feed that the Church is the bride of Christ, and we are the body. And so I dont think that its in God’s design or heart to ditch the church. But I think there is a lot to be said about ditching some of the motives of the modern day, American church. Now my global perspective is really only Spanish and Haitian, but from what I’ve seen, especially in Haiti, the Church is doing something phenomenal. The Haitian is living and breathing the biblical version of church. They are helping, and healing, and feeding, and clothing, and loving, and supporting, and challenging, and worshiping, and preaching, and building, and learning, and extending. The church as a whole, doesn’t just meet on Sunday mornings for songs and lecture, it does that, but that is only a small portion of who they are. In reality, its only 1.7% of what the church is. The rest of the time, it is what I mentioned above. What I think you’re getting at, and what I believe that many of the churches (buildings and congrigations) in America are really missing is an objective to be hands and feet during the other 98.3% of the time. We still need the church, congregation, building and otherwise to offer structure for those who need and thrive in structure. I firmly believe that if we were to do away with the structured aspect of it, with our current culture of instant gratification, we probably wont gather intentionally to read or worship. Maybe people would, I just haven’t been around it alot.
    What you’ve said is great, because its really challenging to people who consider themselves “the Church.” I do- and I want to be (and be a part of) the church that God calls us to be. I firmly believe we are not living up to what God has called us to be, and there is a lot of changing we need to do to be more like Jesus.
    Thank you for your challenge, and for your words. But don’t give up hope. God is not done with his Church. This body part might have a sun burn, but the whole body is not dead yet…

  • Kelcey Rockhold

    This, a thousand times this:
    “Church, remember when that is what you were? Can you remember before you bought buildings before you got a budget before you had a staff and job titles and programs and guest speakers and book deals and CD releases and tee shirts and knock off product substitutions and some seminar event every week?
    Church, do you remember that you are people?”

    Aaron – very controversial post but I loved the words and agree with so much of this, and agree that you shine in these words. Thankyou for this, speak this out. The world needs to hear these thoughts no matter the opposition. We are people of Jesus, not brands or buildings or labels. Thankyou for sharing your gift once again.

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