Most pastors think constantly about their churches and how to improve them, but rarely do we receive insight from our most important audience – the people not being reached by the church. It’s way too easy to get caught up in the ‘insider’ point of view and, without any intention or malice, fail to address the questions and concerns that aren’t brought to us. I was sent an email by a friend who shared a few thoughts and questions from that fresh perspective, so I thought it might be helpful to say how I would address them here. This friend grew up taking part in the church, but for a variety of reasons hasn’t been active much recently. These questions were sparked by a recent choice to go back and visit a church. I hope these questions (italicized) and my responses are illuminating and helpful!
To give context, I would consider myself a Christian, but also a skeptic. It sounds a little oxymoronic, but I basically view the Bible as a collection of stories, with varying degrees of actual historical accuracy, that give a very good compass to living a good life. I think that if the church is going to continue to be relevant it has to learn to appeal to people like me. I know a lot of people in the same boat. A few thoughts below form this perspective:
Before diving into the questions, I have to stop and say I don’t find that oxymoronic at all. I think it’s a fundamental mistake to contrast faith with doubt or certainty with skepticism. Not your mistake, of course, but one that Western churches have built themselves upon since at least the reformation. The kind of knowledge and epistemology it takes to make the contrast relies on assumptions that didn’t even exist before Modernity. I could recommend some super long writings like After Virtue to help ground that claim, but something more like an article from Hauerwas probably makes the argument enough for now.
I start with this point to affirm that the church has a great deal of growing to do to get beyond the categories of thought and belief that no longer make sense to a world rejecting the project of Modernity. I really enjoy the Liturgist Podcast for a good and open discussion about what Christianity can be and contribute once we get past the black and white thought boxes that still define evangelicalism and in many ways define our views on life even if we never go to church.
You’re not at all alone with skepticism and I have explored how discipleship (in a sermon – esp the first 5 minutes illustrate what I mean), membership, and purpose might need to change to create the space in which we can actually live out the faith. In a sentence, if you don’t have some sense of doubt and wonder about God, then you have almost definitely put God in a box in which God cannot actually fit. Faith is much more about coming to see the world through the eyes of God than it is about having a finite set of propositional bits of knowledge about which we all agree. One day I intend to write a ‘reset button’ series in which I describe what I would create if I had a blank slate to set up church, denomination, leadership, worship, etc.
With respect to scripture and whether it is historically accurate and true, etc., I think an incredibly accessible book that does a great job of how to think about scripture is called Inspiration and Incarnation by Pete Enns. I’d summarize the argument by saying that the human influence and character (as opposed to some divine infallibility and perfection) of scripture is not a flaw or problem about the bible – it is the point of scripture precisely to the same extent that it is significant to say Jesus was both God and man. God becomes incarnate through the faithful tradition of the church passing along and living into the stories and arguments we find in scripture. On to the actual questions!
1) Last week I was asked to consider my relationship with material goods and talk with god about how much I can/should give by a man standing in front of $50k+ of audio/visual equipment. It made me feel like the request was quite hypocritical.
I’m not the type that thinks there is any value in trying to hide or smooth over the tensions we find in our faith. It’s hard not to feel a profound disconnect between the message of scripture and the realities of almost all of modern day American life. Jesus actually says things like ‘wealth is bad,’ ‘give away everything,’ and ‘sell all your possessions and give them to the poor’ a lot more often than he says anything related to heaven, spirituality, or any of the things we typically equate with ‘faith.’ If you want to have a crisis of how you understand your obligations as a Christ follower, just read Luke a few times in a row.
All that is to say, any pastor or church leader who isn’t just flat out lying to you will admit that they feel the tension between ‘the benefits that can come from financial investment in church buildings and equipment’ and ‘the call to give it all away and trust in the Lord.’ But here’s the real problem as I see it – there isn’t a magic formula that we could ever use to get it ‘right’ and find the balance between spending enough to stay open for worship and spending enough on the people who need it most.
To think that there is a perfect formula for balance is to think that we can master the faith in such a way that we don’t need God pushing us and growing us and guiding us every step of the way. I think what we have to ask ourselves (as church leaders) and you (as a church goer) is this: “do I trust that the investment made in equipment and such is proportional to how much it empowers the full mission of the church?” Again, there are no formulas – but if $50k in equipment is all it takes to create the compelling worship space that generates $5 million a year for direct aid missions, that is probably a solid investment. If that money just makes it more exciting for those who come to worship to be entertained, that’s a very different scenario.
It’s not easy to know where the lines of trust are drawn, but I for one would welcome the challenge to make our church budget reflect our commitment to fulfilling the mission of God. I would love for someone to be willing to ask me how we set our priorities rather than just sit in the seats (or leave). There is a huge amount of growing that many churches need to do in terms of aligning spending and mission, but, again, I think it really comes down to how much you trust that this congregation treats that kind of spending as an investment in the full mission vs using it to make itself look and feel better.
2) A lot of the “ceremony” of church (the service I attended anyways) felt very self-congratulatory. That isn’t a great word, but a precisely descriptive one eludes me. Basically, I think that all the screens, lights, flat screen tv’s, etc. seem to serve no purpose other than to make the people that are already in attendance feel they are at the best or most hip church. How much of this is pure vanity? And how many dollars are wasted on appearance over giving back to the community?
The architecture and technology of a church service has a fascinating history. The magnificent gothic architecture of ancient churches was constructed to send a very concrete message about who God is and the hope God offers. If you were a poor peasant that faced untold struggle and poverty everyday, getting a glimpse of the heavenly splendor in a church building could be a more powerful taste of the glory God promises than anything a pastor could say or do. Done right, the uniting of humanity from all walks of life in this cathedral that quite literally proclaims the glory of God is a sermon in itself.
But of course that’s often not how real people experienced the cathedrals. Even in the bible (for instance, 1 Cor. 11), where the body gathered often became a means of replicating social division rather than overcoming it. The time of the Reformation (both Protestant and Roman Catholic) was the logical conclusion to the increasing concentration of wealth within the church and the elite classes of people. When the vanity of church wealth became too much, people revolted.
In many ways, the buildings we inhabit are still a rejection of the splendor of prior cathedrals. Protestant churches tend to be pretty sparsely decorated and that is increasingly even more the case with non denominational churches. Compare what we see with the Eastern Orthodox worship spaces. The most ornate we get is a high roof and wooden beams. Very little, if any, thought is given to what message is sent by the space in which we worship.
In the vacuum of a coherent sense of what a worship space ought to be, the one thing that has captured the hearts (and wallets) of many modern churches is technology. Technology is probably the easiest and most familiar thing that binds groups of people together, whether at theaters or concerts or presentations. I suppose what I’m getting at is that technological spending is a crutch many churches rely on to stay ‘relevant’ since it has been so long since we have taken the time to imagine what items or spaces or set ups might actually help convey the message of the gospel.
There is a lot of vanity in how technology actually gets used, but there is certainly some utility. A simple projector can be used for words or videos or to put an image to a sermon; and you couldn’t hear anything without some kind of sound system, for instance. The options aren’t tech or no tech, but how much is appropriate. Research certainly suggests that churches embracing the new technology are more comfortable and more attended. In some ways, it does become a rat race to keep up with other churches, but I’ll conclude with a consistent theme here: what matters most is how much the church’s decisions reflect and empower their mission. If the goal is to have young families come to worship, then that probably will involve a lot of glitz and you have to decide if that is a goal you share enough to take part in that church.
3) What does an average church budget look like? It’s hard to look at a nice, modern church and not feel that they are spending where they don’t need to. Is this feeling misplaced? Is there actually any kind of correlation with having these things and attracting previous non-believers (not just people changing churches to go to the “good one”)?
There is no standard church budget and some churches keep that information quite close to the vest. It would vary a lot by denomination and especially by the church model – for instance, big building and staff vs meet in a coffee shop and only have volunteers. If a church is unwilling to at least offer some clue as to percentages or priorities, that’s a big red flag. Most of the best churches I know attempt to at least budget something like half the income for external ministries and half for internal uses. Staff is often one of the biggest expenses, which could be a great thing if staff is there to empower the mission work or problematic if they serve the membership.
One of the main reasons it is hard to set external priorities is that people very much do equate the feel of the building with their expectations of the place. Imagine walking into any other establishment these days, if it’s run down you’ll assume no one cares and it’s probably dying. As a hole in the wall restaurant, maybe it’s quaint. As a church where you’re considering devoting a lot of time and resources, it quite often conveys that you shouldn’t bother to care about us because we don’t care about ourselves. Especially if you have kids, that’s unlikely to be attractive. I don’t know a lot of specific research on this, but it is said in a lot of church leadership resources and I know I have that feeling when I walk into a church for the first time. The space you create for worship tells a story about what you value and who you are.
It comes down to the need to be inviting enough to make people comfortable and feel like this place is alive and well, but still prioritize the external enough to challenge that comfort zone. As above, there are no formulas for present day churches, so it can be difficult to prioritize. I’d say that the most important consideration is the willingness to at least discuss the framework and percentages for how a church thinks about its budget and priorities. If a church is unwilling to at least share that kind of information, it’s a red flag that they either don’t think systematically enough to ensure that they actually do ministry or that way more of the money is spent on themselves than is reasonable.
Bottom line, if you don’t feel comfortable that the church sets its priorities in a way that makes you feel like it has a mission worth joining, you should either get on leadership and fight to change priorities or you should find a community wherein the ministry that they do better matches your priorities and expectations.
4) It does feel like an awful lot of this is just to lure members of other churches so that more donations can be had to add more wings to the building and more flat screens, and more bands and more services, etc. what is the end goal here? Is this completely unfounded?
It’s not unfounded at all. There is plenty of research to suggest that the majority of what happens in new churches has been people changing churches as opposed to new people joining. And the newest trends suggest that the Nones (never went to church) and Dones (put in their time leading churches, are often nearing retirement, and no longer feel compelled to stay at church) are or will soon be the largest demographic in the US. That makes for a scary reality to be a church leader and has led some churches to almost shamelessly devote their efforts toward being ‘better’ than the other churches in town for exactly the reason of poaching.
That said, I believe the reason the church has gotten to this place is because we are in a profound season of transition. Through my parent’s generation, church was the most important institution in the US and it was not a question of if you belonged to a church, but which one (even if you didn’t go). That’s obviously not the case and we’re now dealing with the loss of that identity and with the loss of the assumption that ‘if you build it they will come.’
For some churches, that means the fastest, most obvious, easiest response is to invest in what people seem to like outside the church (screens, bands, exciting services, video montages, etc). In the long run, that emphasis was only ever going to be a band aid and won’t solve the long term need for church to redefine itself and figure out what it is. Part of the problem is that we need strong leaders with the vision of what a new identity for churches might actually look like in practice. More often, those with grand visions for change simply leave and go somewhere else; which often puts more pressure on churches to attract people through the screens and such. It’s not an easy place to be in, but I have hope that the church will generally come out strong on the other side someday.
The last thing I would say is that some traditions are better than others at various aspects of ministry, depending on their own understanding of the goal. If you go to a church primarily devoted to ‘saving souls,’ you are more likely to see a heavy emphasis placed on worship spaces where you can guide people to the point of saying the sinner’s prayer and being saved. Other churches think the point is not a ticket into heaven, but a new way to live now, in which case you will often see a much greater emphasis placed on community engagement or other ministries outside of worship. United Methodists have always tried to balance the personal with the social, the salvation message with building God’s kingdom now, the mind and heart, etc. But you can definitely tell what a church’s actual goal is (stated or unconscious) by how they spend their money.
5) I do understand that churches need donations to keep the doors open. I also understand that church members desire more than just a building where they hear a message. Is there anything biblically to help define what a church should be/do in regards to having too much “flash” as distraction?
If there is anything the bible has to offer about appropriate worship/church styles, it’s an caution about what not to do. 1st Cor. 13 is such a beautiful and transcendent piece of poetry about the greatness of Love – until you realize that Paul is actually going point by point in telling the Corinthian church exactly what they are not. Love is patient, you are not. Love is kind, you let the poor starve. Love is not envious, you get jealous over who you call your leader. You can pretty much go through every statement and find somewhere else in the letter that Paul calls the church out for doing the exact opposite of what they’re supposed to do.
I bring that up to start because it is foundational in my mind for any conversation about what a church is or should be to recognize that there never has been a perfect model or example of church. The bible is less an instruction manual for life and more of a sustained argument about what is good and right and holy for the people of God. You find austentatious beauty and splendor, especially regarding the temple in the old testament. And you find Paul and Jesus basically saying give away every possession and wander through life without so much as a bed.
In many ways within scripture, when God’s people have money and power in culture, it’s a great thing to build lavish and beautiful buildings. When God’s people are poor and out of power, simplicity is the word of the day. There are different reasons why it might be important to have some pizzazz in church (like the welcoming feel of a warm space as explored above) and other reasons why you need to get down to the bare essentials (so as to keep the focus on Jesus and not on the building).
I think what is most important for a church is to define what their particular piece of God’s mission is and align all their decision making around fulfilling their part. If that means being a radically simple community (like the Amish), then act accordingly. If you’re trying to attract primarily parents and teach the kids, you better at least have a very nice children’s area. Getting back toward your earlier concern, if the message of how and why to give feels deeply hypocritical, then that’s probably a good reason to start asking for clarity about the church’s goal and priority or find a place that can offer a level of flash with which you’re more comfortable.
5) Why is offering conducted in such a way that the people around you watch you give your donation, and why is it done this way every week? I really don’t like this. And I understand it encourages accountability, but it also feels like you are being strong armed a bit. Even if the offertory message is not, the method of passing the plate around seems a bit intrusive to me and, again, a bit self-congratulatory for those who (can) give regularly.
Honestly, this is the question that I’ve thought the least about in the past, but it might very well be the most problematic for people coming to church for the first time. Thanks for asking! A big part of the way offerings happen is that it is the way things have always been done. It wasn’t long ago at all (maybe 100 years?) when there really wasn’t much of an alternative, given the fact that cash was about the only form of money people used and you pretty much had to collect in person or not at all. There is certainly an element of accountability involved when others can see what you give, but I imagine accountability from strangers in the pew does more harm than good – real accountability can only happen in the context of a loving, safe, encouraging relationship. I have actually heard of some large churches that have installed credit card kiosks at the entrances and done away with ‘pass the plate’ altogether. Now that it’s possible to do that and to have online and recurring drafts taken out, it probably is time to give some thought as to the value of how the offering is done.
But there is one aspect of the offering that I would not want to lose entirely. At a variety of churches, the offering is brought back up and presented to God on the altar during the doxology. That’s common, but what is meaningful to me is that at some churches when a communion Sunday rolls around, they actually take the offering and then bring up the communion elements instead of the monetary donations. That is a very concrete reminder that no matter what humble offerings we give to God, God offers His body and blood in return. There is a profound theological significance to that statement of how much more God offers than we could ever offer back. One simple way I’ve tried to lessen the awkwardness of ‘passing the plate’ is by having our attendance cards put in the plate as well – in a concrete sense, even if all you have to offer is your presence, that is more than enough.
As I come to the end of this thought, I’m realizing that I need to work to find a better way to 1) make the deep theological statement of what an offering is more explicit and accessible within the actual worship service; and 2) actually think through how we can make the structure of our offering reflect the statement we are attempting to make. This, and many other things, are weighed down heavily by the ‘how we’ve always done it’ mentality. This would be a good topic to also explore some day in terms of how to do things if starting from scratch.
I want you to know all these come from a place of wanting to improve. My boss always told me the worst kind of customer is a quiet one. Because they will walk away without even telling you why, or what you can fix to keep them around. Maybe all of this is unreasonable and unfounded, but it is something the church (I know that is a gross generalization) needs to address to keep people like me around. Even if others won’t say it.
Again, none of this is unreasonable at all and I appreciate your boss’s wisdom! These are topics and questions I think about all the time, but rarely do I get the perspective of someone who hasn’t been knee deep in it for a decade. One of the single greatest problems in the church is that we’re afraid to ask questions or to let something come up until we have an answer. That seems to me to be the exact opposite of the way a faith journey worked for anyone in scripture and for most of church history. If the church is what it is supposed to be, it ought to be the safest space in which to explore the most important topics in life, within a community that will love and walk with you no matter what. I hope this is somewhat helpful to you and that you will continue asking questions along the way!