[Editor's note: the following excerpt is taken from Loving the Church: God's People Flourishing in God's Family by John Crotts © 2010, Shepherd Press.]
Instinctively, many people in Christian cultures know they should raise their families in church. Even couples who haven't been in church for years begin to think about it when children come along. In some countries where church is merely a formality, you can still see families walk through the doors on Sundays because they have a sense that they ought to be there. A sense of oughtness and raw instincts, however, only gets families through the church doors a few times in their lives. There must be a clear connection in people's minds about the significance of the church for their lives. When such connections are not made, other ways of thinking and living sever the ties between individuals, families, and the family of God. Though thousands of people still attend churches around the world, very few truly experience the connection between God's design for the church and living their lives within that design as God intended.
Christians give many reasons why they are not more involved in their churches. Some are doing Christianity their own way— without the church. Another group has never experienced a biblical church, so while they put in some time on Sundays, their real growth happens outside the church context. Hurts and fall-outs, have led some to retreat from their church family, like Rachael. Still others are trying to shape the church around their own wants and needs. And sometimes Christians just misplace their priorities. While there are many reasons given for the small place the church has in their lives, the common denominator is that they all misunderstand the value of the church as presented in the Bible.
The popular pollster, George Barna, published a book a few years ago called Revolution.1 This study tracks a recent trend in which professing Christians live their Christian lives outside a church family. While there is a wide spectrum covered in Barna's study, he defines true Revolutionaries as ones who truly love the Lord, read their Bibles, actively look for service opportunities, give, and witness. They get together with other Christians at the coffee shop or in Christian groups like businessmen's Bible studies, MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers), or a homeschool network. They listen to Bible teachers online or on the radio. They read solid Christian books. In their minds they have successfully replaced all the benefits of the church while removing the burdens. Barna admits that some are dropping out of churches for wrong reasons (like to have more time for themselves or to avoid spiritual accountability), but he seems genuinely excited by what he sees. One of his book's stated purposes is "to encourage people who are struggling with their place in the kingdom of God to consider this spiritual awakening as a viable alternative to what they have pursued and experienced thus far" (emphasis added).3 Barna's agenda is to motivate professing Christians to take their walks with God to the level of a Revolutionary. "Whether you become a Revolutionary immersed in, minimally involved in, or completely dissociated from a local church is irrelevant to me (and, within boundaries, to God)."4
Barna believes this trend will continue until there are more Revolutionaries than church members in just a few years! "I have concluded that by the year 2025, the spiritual profile of the nation will be dramatically different. Specifically, I expect that only about one third of the population will rely upon a local congregation as the primary or exclusive means for experiencing and expressing their faith. . . ."5 This is in contrast to his survey results from the year 2000, in which 70 percent of Americans answered yes to that same question about relying on the church.
Barna's observations are not completely new, however. For many years a segment of Christians has been so involved with Christian organizations outside the church that their church involvement has been kept to a minimum. While these parachurch ministries can play a vital role, assisting many churches by specializing in areas where individual churches may lack expertise, they can also bypass the biblical design for the church by assuming its role. What church, for example, isn't thrilled to receive help in sending a team overseas to plant new churches? Few churches have all the resources needed to establish their members in another country. A mission agency can help a church in countless ways to accomplish its goals for the glory of God. But some mission agencies have gone beyond the role of helping churches fulfill their mission. Their message to churches has become: Send us your people, prayers, and money— we'll take care of the rest!
There seems to be a valid place for organizations that help churches do their jobs by reaching out to students on college campuses, training pastors in seminaries, broadcasting Bible teaching on the radio and online, and assisting Christians with their finances, just to name a few. People serving in such parachurch ministries, however, must never lose sight of their relationship to the church. At their worst, workers in such organizations can exhaust their time, energy, and money furthering the organization, with little more attention to their church than a semiregular Sunday morning visit.
The Exodus Continues
Julia Duin, religion editor of The Washington Times, released a book in 2008 called Quitting Church, which is all about professing Christians leaving the church en masse. Duin attempts to understand the problem and to offer solutions for churches on getting believers back.7 In addition to hard statistical analysis, Quitting Church is filled with stories of people from a variety of demographics leaving an equally diverse array of churches. The reasons include young people feeling that their church is not relevant to their lives, hurting people feeling disconnected from their leaders; and older singles fleeing churches that are so focused on families that they do not invest sufficient effort to help them get married. Duin also found people leaving churches where they didn't feel like they were learning new truths, where the pastor was aloof and seemed to have too much control, where women were hindered in ministry; and where there were not enough demonstrations of miracle power in the meetings.
With so many stories from such a wide range of situations, Duin certainly has confirmed certain trends as real. While some of the reasons given for leaving a church are not legitimate, and some of the churches being vacated are not necessarily following the Bible's pattern for a faithful church, it is important to recognize that each one of Duin's examples represents hundreds of hurting, confused Christians who now find themselves spiritually on their own.
Bad Church Epidemic
Although the landscape in most parts of the United States is dotted with church buildings, how many of those buildings represent a vibrant, God-centered, biblical church? Sadly, not many. A true believer or a family trying to honor God in a bad church find themselves in a difficult situation. Think about Rachael back at the coffee shop. She was in trouble in many ways and her church family let her down. Her church may have had wonderful teaching, but the attitudes of its members lacked the compassion of Christ for their sister in need. Michelle and Mike left their church because their walk with God was growing cold and stale after the Sunday morning meetings. Churches miss the biblical bull's-eye in all kinds of directions. One church may be theologically liberal— failing to believe and teach the Bible; another church might be evangelical—but so tilted towards reaching unbelievers that they become entertainment-oriented to attract them. (This may take many forms, depending on the type of unbeliever the church is seeking to attract.) Some churches have godly leaders but ungodly people, while other churches have many godly people but ungodly leaders. Sometimes true believers struggle along for years in these churches. They may have grown up in the church; they may not know how to look for a better one; there literally are no better churches in the vicinity, or there may be other reasons. But if there is to be personal growth and ministry in such cases, it happens outside the church context. These Christians function almost like Barna's Revolutionaries, but unintentionally.8
Majoring on the Majors?
Some Christians undervalue even those churches that strive to do God's business in God's way. Because they shape their search for a church around their wants and felt needs, minor matters become major. Such families tend to appreciate the wrong things about a church. For example, instead of valuing the ministry of God's Word as it is proclaimed and shared personally, dads and moms can get very excited about children's activities, student ministries, music, women's ministries, Sunday school classes (or the lack of classes for the children), or just the "feel good" factor of a church. These consumer-minded families want a church to be done their way or they will look elsewhere. Of course, all of these considerations have importance, but are they the main concerns of a church? How many of these popular ministries does the New Testament enumerate? Many families seem to lose sight of the priceless value of the church's true priorities as revealed in Scripture.
While some families want to shape the church around their particular wants and needs, others fail to appreciate a good church because of misplaced family concerns. Other matters— good, bad, or indifferent—swallow up the household schedule. Competing voices constantly sing their siren songs to families. This sport, that school activity, this friend, that relative, this hobby, that TV show, this movie, that neighborhood event all cry out for attention. Juggling these priorities to keep church where it needs to be requires wisdom. Sadly, some give up trying to sort things out and give in to the sweet-sounding voices of the world.
The goal of this book is to help you see how glorious God's family really is, and then to see the countless ways you and your family can flourish within it. Section I summarizes the Bible's teaching about the church. Section II takes those truths and carefully applies them to Christians and their families.
Perhaps you have never seen Jesus' blueprint for the church sketched out in Scripture. If you have, has your family ever been part of such a church and tried to put the plan into practice? As we will see, every individual has roles and responsibilities within the church family so that it can function as God intends. After admiring the splendor of the church our Lord Jesus established, we will discover the ways that being part of such a church can add to the beauty of your life and family.
John Crotts has been the pastor and teacher of Faith Bible Church in Sharpsburg, Georgia since 1995. He and his wife Lynn have four children. He graduated from Liberty University, and received his M. Div. from The Master's Seminary. He serves as a board member of F.I.R.E. (Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelicals). In addition to Loving the Church: God's People Flourishing in God's Family, John's other books are Mighty Men: The Starter's Guide to Leading Your Family, Craftsmen: Christ-Centered Proverbs for Men, and Tying the Knot Tighter: Because Marriage Lasts a Lifetime, co-authored with Martha Peace.
1. George Barna, Revolution (Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005).
3. Ibid. p. ix.
4. Ibid. p. 29.
5. Ibid. p. 40.
7. Julia Duin Quitting Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008), p. 23.
8. It seems ironic that some of the churches that have become so entertainment- oriented that they are not equipping or serving its members (so that true Christians have to go elsewhere for ministry), are doing what they do at least in part because Barna's previous books instructed them to market their churches to unbelievers!