Last week a friend asked me how our church was doing. She used to worship there too, but a life crisis sent her searching for something different, and she’s been a member at her new church for three years now.
I answered the way I usually do—the church is still doing a good job on the things they’ve always done well. The sermons are biblical and engaging, the music has a world-wide reputation for excellence, and the staff is dedicated. Short-term mission teams are being sent out and a new project will focus on the needs here in our city. People are getting to know God for the first time and disciples are being made. In fact, it sounds just about perfect.
Then she asked a harder question: how am I doing with the church? And I had to truthfully state that I’m frustrated.
Basically, I feel like a spectator, not the member of a spiritual family. For one thing, we’ve been faithfully attending this church for eleven years now and I only know a handful of people there. We’ve joined many small groups at one time or another, but we rarely see the people again after the semester ends. Yet, a major reason we go to church in the first place is to fellowship with other believers. We know we can’t grow as isolated Christians.
For another thing, I’m actually bored. Imagine, being bored while worshiping God!
Every Sunday seems the same, week after week. True, we’ve had some memorable exceptions, but for the most part, it’s like every other church service I’ve ever experienced. Changing congregations won’t solve anything.
After 38 years of attending various churches, I’ve learned the pattern. There’s worship through singing, and worship through giving our tithes and offerings. We listen to announcements. There’s a message from a pastor that expounds on some part of scripture or addresses a topic from a Biblical perspective. We greet one another, shaking hands and maybe trading names in the one minute allotted. Sometimes we take communion. Sometimes babies are dedicated or people are baptized. Some churches have “altar ministry” and some don’t. The order and length of the service may vary, but the parts are very consistent. And then we go home.
Part of the “bored” problem is that I’ve been reading my Bible and listening to sermons for many, many years. Yet, the pastor has to preach to a congregation that includes unbelievers and baby Christians. It’s been years since I chose a church based on how much I learned from the sermons. Head knowledge isn’t the hard part—the challenge is putting it all into practice!
Another reason I go to church is to worship God in a corporate setting. Our church is well known for its worship music. In fact, several members of our worship team write songs that you might hear in your own church. It’s all great stuff, but after a while it all tends to sound more or less the same. After eleven years I’d like a bit more variety. As it is, too often I realize—usually about twenty minutes into the worship time—that I’ve been singing on auto-pilot rather than truly worshiping God.
As my dissatisfaction has grown over the last few years, I’ve pretty much assumed that I’m the one having the problem. I tell myself that I should just buckle down and get more involved. I should pick some church program and volunteer to help. I should take responsibility for making church friends and invite some strangers to dinner. I should strive for contentment.
I don’t really have the time or energy for more activities, so this leads to the question of what current responsibilities I should eliminate. That’s not an easy decision.
We had been living here for eight years when I realized we’d met all our friends through church or ministry work. I didn’t have a single non-Christian friend in town. When I signed up to be a master gardener, and when I got involved in our local Audubon chapter, it was largely because I wanted to meet people who shared a common interest, but who did not already attend church. Now I have friends among both those groups, friends who thank me for praying for them, and who are asking some important questions. Should I quit either organization in order to do more church work?
My friend’s question about how I’m doing with our church got me thinking… maybe the problem is with the way we do church. Maybe arranging our sanctuaries and worship centers as theaters has something to do with my feeling like a member of an audience rather than a member of a family. Maybe expecting one person (or a small team) to do the vast majority of the preaching isn’t the best way to learn from one another. Maybe churches should divide before they reach mega-size, so we can all know one another. Or maybe not.
I’ve been reading a series of books on this topic. Apparently, others are struggling with these same issues. One book promoted the idea of dropping a formal “church service” altogether. Instead, they suggest that we just get together with other Christians every so often to fellowship and learn from one another. Several books discuss the pros and cons of house churches. Others are a bit less radical, and just suggest changing some of the traditions in our more institutionalized congregations. Now I think I’m more confused than ever!
What I’d like to know at this point is, should I try to put down deeper roots at my current church? Where will I find the time? What alternatives can you suggest?
Of course, Pete has his own opinion about all this, and whatever we do, we’ll do it as a couple.
What advice do you have for someone in my position?