Some friends of ours recently moved to northern Colorado and are in the process of looking for a church home. They want a church that focuses on God. That prays. That listens to His voice. That wants to go deep. They expect to serve. They expect to live out their faith in community. They expect miracles.
They want meat, and all they can find is milk.
Their disappointment makes me wonder: is the American church so focused on being seeker friendly that we ignore mature believers? And is that a problem? Should these seeker-friendly churches hang on to their members indefinitely? Or should they tell their members to move on to other, more “advanced” churches after a few years (as one church in South Korea does). Are there churches that offer spiritual meat?
When our girls were small, Pete and I had been attending a church in California that seemed just fine. The services were predictable, with a hymn, a medley of three worship songs sung through twice, the announcements, offering, a 20-minute sermon, and a closing hymn. We attended a Sunday School class with other young families while our kids colored pictures of Jesus holding a lamb. Eventually, we served on the missions committee. I’m sure a church like this sounds pretty familiar.
Because of some volunteer work Pete was doing, we were invited to spend a month at the YWAM base in Kona, Hawaii. We went—and it ruined us. We soaked up teaching on topics we’d never encountered—spiritual warfare, for example. We spent hours worshiping God every week. We lived in community. It was wonderful, but difficult, too. Some of the people we met were a bit… challenging, shall we say. Yet, slowly, we learned to put years of teaching into practice. It was incredible. I had never realized that God could be so real, so present, so accessible—and I needed Him to be all that and more.
Then we went home.
Our “nice” church suddenly seemed confining and dreary. We tried to share what we’d learned, but few people seemed very interested. Most reacted to us as if we were radicals—a bit too Christian, perhaps. We finally realized—they were content with milk, and we’d discovered steak.
It wasn’t long after that trip that God called us to Colorado. The first church we visited was much like the one back home. Familiar. Temptingly comfortable. But we knew we’d stagnate there, so we kept looking. Eventually, God led us to a church that stretched our faith.
We had been there seven years when we realized that once again, we were outgrowing the church. The sermons seemed repetitive, and the limited opportunities to get involved didn’t challenge us anymore. We prayed, not wanting to leave our friends, but frustrated at the idea of staying where we were. Once again God led us to a different congregation. That was twelve years ago.
Is there is a problem in the American church? We’ve learned how to do “seeker friendly” pretty well (although I have some reservations about that). Our churches are structured so that a newcomer isn’t intimidated. A prominently located visitor center offers directions and lists of available programs. The music sounds a lot like what you’d hear on the radio, but with different words (and endlessly repeated choruses that are easy to learn). The sermons are uplifting and illustrated with humorous stories. We give out “free gifts” and promise that if you fill out the tear-off form with your name and address, “we won’t bother you or come visit you.”
By and large, our churches are designed for new believers. And of course, it’s important that we make these newborn babies feel at home. But what about the rest of us? Where do we go to grow?
A friend of mind expressed his frustration like this:
We have elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, and colleges and universities. People move from one to the next as they progress. But our churches are all like elementary schools. I feel as if I’ve been sitting in 5th grade over and over and over.
Does this describe your church experience?
Next month I’ll offer a few ideas on how to deal with this issue. Meanwhile, what do you think? Does your church disciple you? Or are you stuck in 5th grade?