I couldn’t sleep on Sunday night. After about an hour of trying I gave up and opened up my laptop and let the waves of the world wide web take me wherever they wished. I think my jumping off point was a tweet by Ed Stetzer an American writer and researcher with LifeWay. Ed’s tweet mentioned a statistical study that numbers of church attending Americans in generations X. Y and also Millennials were in huge decline. This was all to familiar. The church is at one end of a long line of leavers.
Via blogs and youtube clips it seemed that nobody could answer my question why. There were a few consistent themes in the answers I did find. It seemed that most of those I read put most blame on the ‘culture of these generations’ as being individualist, transient, indifferent or insatiable with anything good. One high profile leader even commented that those who are in this generation never settle with anything but always look for something better, so they will never commit to a church.
What struck me was that very rarely if ever did I read about the other side of the coin. What was the church doing/not doing that was causing people to leave it? Not one thing I read or listened to attempted to answer that question. It seemed that the presumed answer was that the reason for leaving lay with those who left, not with those left behind. Apart from one guy, who said modern rock music was the answer because as we all know, what the soul craves is a a guitar solo.
The next morning, after a healthy five hours sleep, I thought I would try and get my own answers. So in line with all great theologians and missiologists before me, I wrote a Facebook status with the question:
If you believe in God but don’t go to church; what are you top three reasons for not attending?
I thought maybe one or two people might answer but actually many more than expected did, via wall comments and private messages. Three main themes came through.
- Feeling unwelcome.
- Feeling judged or seeing judgement of others.
- A disparity between the message and the practice of church.
It was quite painful to read. People who I know well and some not so well, but all who I know to be great great people, hurting due to an experience of feeling left out, forgotten or castigated by a group sent to carry Christ’s message of love, hope and acceptance. People like me are feeling unloved by people like me. This is my responsibility.
I have been thinking about it ever since. I am fortunate, that despite my many mistakes, both willful and accidental I have found my way into a church community that are entirely accepting of me. That loves me as I am and want me to thrive. It is an honest community. It is a place in which I feel loved and supported as I work out my identity in who I am and work out who God is. I am in a loving, supporting community, and sometimes it hurts as much as it is filled with joy.
I think there is a lot of thinking to do around this whole thing. The first place I have come to is this. We are all very similar. We wrong others almost as often as we are wronged. It is a lot easier to see the damage we feel than the damage we cause. On both sides of this we need to hold responsibility for who we are. As someone in leadership in a church I take responsibility for my own failures in my personal life and in my leadership. For those whom I have excluded or judged, I am sorry. To those who have left me feeling ashamed and unwelcome, I want to forgive and move on.
Jesus was often criticized for being a friend to the outcast, the sinner, the forgotten and the unwelcome. The great thing is that we can all feel like that sometimes. The message of Jesus is that even you and I are welcome at his party. The church here in Luton has a phrase that is written into everything we do; Everyone gets to play. That’s the message of Jesus. The gospel of grace is that everyone gets to play. That everyone gets to be loved, everyone gets to be accepted and everyone gets Jesus to follow. Even though every single one of us is wrong in some way, every single one of us will err and go wrong.
Let us work hard together to form community that accepts and welcomes. That sees someone’s inherent human value before we begin to think of their perceived faults which we are human enough to be wrong about anyway. Let us not judge but love. Let being loving be more important than being right. Isn’t that the gospel that even someone like me can be accepted and loved by God in Jesus. If I claim to follow Jesus then I must do the same.