Mark is seriously considering joining the “Dones”. He’s not quite ready to call it quits, but like a growing number of Americans who’ve been active in church for decades, Mark isn’t happy with what church has become. Scandals rocked the first church he attended, the next church closed largely because it was run by a “genius with 1,000 helpers”, and the last church abandoned discipleship and local missions after hiring consultants from a megachurch.
Mark endured all that and eventually found another church – less for his own sake than for Jessica and the kids. But now he’s more dissatisfied and concerned than ever. Emily has lost interest in youth group, Ethan isn’t learning much since the children’s ministry became more “fun”, and Jessica is still wrestling with her usual fears and worries. Mark knows responsibility for spiritual leadership of the family falls primarily on him, but he wants a support system of other voices outside the home, including his church.
He’s beginning to think the problem doesn’t lie with those particular churches or their pastors. Maybe it’s the underlying model. Most pastors seem more concerned with numerical growth than spiritual growth. They measure nickels and noses, not life change and surrender. Mark wonders if church growth strategies are at least in part to blame for why his wife and kids aren’t more mature in their faith.
Mark is also bothered that everyone he speaks with about church, whether it’s colleagues at work or friends, seem to refer to “church” as a place people go on Sundays. In his mind and according to Scripture, church should be much more than that. Mark sees himself and his Christian brothers and sisters as “church” – whenever and wherever they are gathered. That definition encourages Mark to see himself as the hands and feet of Christ between Sundays.
Yet hearing pastors talk about building campaigns, inviting friends and church chores looks a lot like a business and makes Mark feel like a “customer”. But Mark is clearly an unconventional church shopper. Rather than expecting pastors and staff to exceed his expectations, he holds himself accountable for being the embodiment of church. Mark is beginning to believe that “church as we know it” is not set up to empower disciples like him, but to accommodate consumers. Instead of supporting his efforts to personify church, Mark and his family are being asked to build an institutional church.
That centralized perspective is why Mark is underutilized. He could do so much more to impact his community alongside a throng of fellow disciples, but Mark feels like he’s on an island because he’s surrounded by a bunch of churchgoers but very few disciples. Instead of being equipped for the Great Commission, Mark is being asked to join committees and be a greeter.
It seems the organization’s goals have supplanted the personal missions of the individuals who comprise the organization (the “ekklesia”). As a result, Jessica and the kids aren’t being challenged to grow. They’re being catered to, hoping they’ll enjoy the experience enough to continue coming. That strategy is working with Jessica and Ethan – they’re having fun. But Mark and Emily had a hunger for growth, community and impact that were never satisfied. They’re nearly “done” with church because, for them, those 3 needs have been better met elsewhere…
Mark is finding more discipleship opportunities with Christian brothers in Bible studies and on ministry Boards where he serves, whereas no one at church has offered to disciple him nor asked him to disciple anyone.
Emily believes she’s emerging from the fog since leaving youth group and is now experiencing personal growth as she opens her mind to more “inclusive”, worldly philosophies.
Mark is building strong relationships with friends who are truly sold-out for Jesus, interacting with them almost daily, whereas at church it seems he only has short, weekly interactions with “casual” Christians.
Emily is finding her friends at school way “cooler”, more “real” and less hypocritical than those she grew up with at youth group.
Mark is ready for so much more than his church offers, wanting to get involved with struggling families and important causes in the community – but only hears at church about occasional mission trips or holiday outreach events that don’t sync with his abilities and passions.
Emily cares deeply about social justice, following her friends in speaking out about racism, gun control and women’s rights – issues she feels churches don’t support, but should.
How to Keep Mark from Leaving Your Church
Modern church growth models are not a good fit for Mark. An institutional orientation isn’t designed to accommodate deeply spiritual people. The Holy Spirit, hard truths, intensive prayer, full dependence on the Lord, absolute surrender, and preparing and releasing disciples for ministry are the deep stuff – but those are waning in today’s churches. Many churches are “shallow”, inadvertently encouraging cultural Christians to check the boxes on God’s scoreboard by complying with frequent requests to give, serve and invite.
Alternative outlets for deep growth, authentic community and tremendous impact are emerging to fill the holes left open by the Americanized church. Today there are countless discipleship programs, Christian associations and compassion ministries – mostly conceived and implemented outside of a church context. The only way to engage the most faithful Christ-followers in a church is for the pastor to plug those 3 (growth, community and impact) holes. But turning up the dial on the truth and mission meters risks scaring off some lukewarm believers and diverting resources away from catering to church “shoppers”. That step of faith would require pastors to realize that churches exist for depth – leveraging disciples like Mark to lead the spiritually “shallow” deeper in their relationship with the Lord.
Without the help of a church willing to take that risk, Mark faces an uphill battle against powerful forces vying for the hearts and minds of Jessica, Emily and Ethan. The forces resisting change within the Church are also quite strong – people’s jobs and livelihoods depend on attracting and retaining generous churchgoers. So it’s likely that Jessica will be able to continue to conceal her lack of transformation and intimacy with God. And Emily and Ethan could quite possibly keep losing interest in youth group – and stop short of committing their lives fully to Jesus.
It’s Your Turn
Are there enough opportunities within your church for growth, community and impact to keep your “Marks” and “Emilys” engaged? Does your church even know who among the many members and frequent attenders are actually the most faithful followers of Jesus Christ? Are those the ones most involved in church activities or is there a different standard of measure?