During the past few years, Sharon and I have visited numerous churches. We were counting just the other day and realized we have been to at least two each of Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, Assembly of God, Catholic, and non-denominational, in addition to countless Baptist churches. However, for the last two years, more often than not, most weeks find us not attending any church.
It is correct to say that we have quit going to church.
To be honest, I never thought I would make such a statement. I have been in church from the beginning. Somewhere in the Bible, it says, “In the beginning God created church and Terry was there.”
My father was a pastor, so our family life was centered on church. As I grew up, unlike many “preacher’s kids,” I never rebelled and left the church. I stayed with it—through high school, college, and my earliest working days. When I returned to college a few years later, it was to prepare for the ministry. It was time for me to become the preacher.
After seminary, I almost quit church. No church was interested in me being their pastor, and I was discouraged. After a short time, I was discovered and put back to work and once again the church was the center of my world.
Not true any longer.
Although I quit going to church, my relationship with Jesus is as strong as ever. I still pray, read the Bible, study scripture, share my faith, and jump on opportunities for ministry as much as ever. My level of trust in God, dependence upon God, and recognition of God’s presence has not waned.
When this first started happening, I thought there was something wrong with me. Even though I did not feel guilty for staying home on Sunday, I thought I should—at least a little guilt. But I didn’t. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. I thought that at least I must be a rare person—an active church member who drops out and doesn’t feel guilt.
However, I came to realize that I am not rare. There are many of us, perhaps even millions of us. I have found a bunch who have traveled a similar path and ended up at the same location. These are people who love Jesus, who have been church leaders or active members and have quit the church.
The real question is why. Why did this happen? Why did I quit going to church?
I have given this much thought, and you will hear my answer. However, let me say a couple of things. First, you might feel like I am attacking you or something that is important to you. Let me assure you that is not my intention. As far as I’m concerned, you can continue attending church until Jesus returns and I will not try to change your mind.
Second, don’t feel sorry for me. If you want to judge me, that’s your business, but I don’t need or want your sympathy. I’m a big boy, and I made a conscious decision after much thought and prayer. I don’t need your approval or your condemnation.
Now, let me try and explain why I quit going to church.
I spent nearly 15 years, during the prime of my life, helping churches raise money. I wrote books and study material that was used by hundreds of thousands of people. I helped develop a capital fundraising program for buildings that has been utilized in thousands of churches. It is not an exaggeration to say that I have had a hand in raising more than a quarter of a billion dollars for churches.
You might think my ego is a little inflated, but it’s not. I was good at what I did. However, now I think I was mistaken. I began to rethink the subject of money several years ago and in 2010 I wrote a book titled, “Authentic Stewardship” to express the beginning of my change of thought. My journey continued, and in 2014 I wrote a blog post called, “The Dissolution of Christian Stewardship.” It was seen as an attack on Dave Ramsey (although it wasn’t), and people went nuts with thousands of readers daily for a long time, and then rediscovered and revived for some reason a year later.
In September of 2010, a friend and I started Bread Fellowship, a different kind of church built around the idea of keeping Christ in the center without a circumference. In other words, we would hold up Jesus as the central message and allow anyone to come and participate. I tried to capture this concept in a book I published in the summer of 2012. It is a great model that I still think has merit; however, it didn’t work for me at that time.
Another significant experience along the way was a sermon I preached at Truett Theological Seminary in 2011. I was asked to address the subject of stewardship, which I did, but with a twist. Since it was a gathering of seminary students, aspirants for the church pulpit, I challenged them to think about the necessity to take a preaching position even if there was no salary. In other words, to consider working for Jesus without being paid.
It took me a long time to come to that position. In fact, I had to get to the point where I was making a living without depending on the church before I could see the value in not expecting the church to be my provider. I then began to realize that the church is better off without “paying the preacher.” It sets everyone free to follow God’s leadership.
Perhaps a more thorough explanation will be helpful before moving on. A pastor lives in constant tension of pleasing enough of the right people to keep his job. Being a pastor is exactly like working for any business—you have a boss, and you must make the boss happy. This is even more complex because a pastor will probably have multiple bosses within the church. The problem for the pastor in that situation is that he is no longer serving Jesus. He is now serving the men and women who make up the local church (who may or may not be faithful servants of Jesus).
All of this is compounded by the fact that these same people who pay staff salaries are also the ones who must pay for the church building. Therefore, it is imperative to keep them happy, to make sure their needs are met, and that they bring in additional people for fresh sources of revenue.
I learned all of this while doing stewardship. If I were starting over today, I would not spend my most valuable years of ministry helping churches raise money. It has taken a long time, but I’m finally leaving all of that behind.
In fact, money is probably the reason I quit going to church. I don’t mean the cost of attending, nor was I offended by being asked to give an offering. If churches are going to operate and be funded the way they are then asking for an offering is appropriate.
Before I expound on my understanding about church, let me ask a question. If money were totally eliminated from the equation, what would your church look like? In other words, if your church had no money what would happen? Would the church cease to exist? Or, would they find a way to do things without money?
While you ponder that question, I will share my opinion of the church today.
I am convinced the church in America today has become distracted from its purpose and focused on numbers rather than being the Body of Christ in the world. This has resulted in an overabundance of buildings and a failed understanding of the clergy. This is evidenced by the fact that the majority of the church’s budget is consumed by the cost of construction and maintaining buildings, and paying staff salaries—as much as 80% of most instances.
Consequently, the church has created a self-perpetuating cycle that begins with the idea that a church must have a building. In order to afford the expense, enough people must join the local congregation and be encouraged to give money. In order to continually recruit new members additional staff members are necessary, who also cost money.
The consequences of this failure by the church are significant and include the following:
- Providing more and more expensive amenities to attract and keep people.
- Attempts to become full-service providers for people, offering everything folks need for entertainment, child care, youth activities, support groups, recreation, etc.
- Developing “worship services” that resemble musical concerts, complete with lights, video, and even pyrotechnics.
- Recruiting “worship leaders” who are essentially performers, and providing “worship services” that have little to do with New Testament worship.
- Churches with more than half of the registered members who are disconnected from the church and have little or no interest in following Jesus.
- Preachers who are unwilling or afraid to be prophetic because the church cannot afford to alienate significant members.
- A vast majority of believers who are not in a position to utilize their spiritual gifts because either they are not assigned a position by the church or because they don’t have the gifts required for open positions at church.
- Churches have made a man (i.e. Senior Pastor) the head of the church rather than Christ. Or, perhaps they operate with a Board of Directors (Elders or Deacons), but not Christ.
- Pastors are under the burden of generating enough money to pay their salary and all the church financial obligations.
- Little money is available for helping the poor and needy.
Your church probably doesn’t possess all these qualities, but even one of them is an indication that you are heading in the wrong direction. In addition, this list doesn’t even take into consideration the role politics has come to play in the life of the church—that’s an entirely separate issue for another day.
Imagine how many poor people could have been helped, hungry people fed, orphans united with eager parents, or healing brought to the sick if that quarter of a billion dollars I helped raise would have been invested in something other than buildings and payrolls. But, money isn’t the issue. The point is that the institutional church has ceased being the body of Christ in the world. Instead, it has become a self-perpetuating institution that sells physical comfort and spiritual assurance.
That last statement sounds rather harsh so trust me when I say it is not presented with a flippant attitude. Let me hasten to add that nothing I write here is intended to be a criticism of any individual. The finest Christians I know have given their life to serve the church. They are sincere and completely committed to serving Christ. However, like me, they have given their life to serving a church that is far off course.
If you are traveling and set a course that is simply one degree off target, it doesn’t sound like such a big deal. In fact, after 100 yards you will be only five feet off. Two quick steps and you are back where you belong. However, after traveling one mile, you will be more than 90 feet off, and if you are going from San Francisco to Los Angeles, you will be off by six miles. The longer the trip the further away from the target that one simple degree will take you. If you travel around the world, you will be more than 430 miles off target.
The church in the New Testament set off in the direction established by the Holy Spirit. However, at some point, it was distracted just a little bit (about one degree). Now, 2,000 years later, the church is so far away from where it intended to go that the destination cannot even be seen on the horizon.
Church history tells us that there have been times when the deviation has been greater than one degree and other times when the church moved closer to the correct course. For example, Constantine and his attempts to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman world led us on a path that eventually went way off line. The Reformation and various spiritual awakenings have brought us back closer to the correct way. However, the end result is that the church in America today is nowhere near where it should be.
The result is an institution that is so encumbered with maintaining buildings, financially supporting staff, and striving to create a Christian world that it no longer has the will, energy, or desire to serve Jesus.
In order to correct this situation, I want to suggest a refocus on two essential doctrines of the Christian faith that can get us back on track. The first is the concept that the followers of Jesus make up the Body of Christ—the church. In other words, the church is not a place or a building—it is people. We are Christ’s body in the world. The church is wherever we happen to be.
When two or more of us get together, then we have a gathering of the church. Since I have been in church my entire life, I have a good idea about what happens when the church gathers. There is singing, preaching, praying, announcing, plus entertaining, marketing and promotion, and a few other incidental activities. However, when I read scripture, I discover a different list of activities.
The second essential doctrine is the priesthood of all believers. Protestants have wrapped themselves in pride that they did away with the priesthood because of their belief that all of us are priests before God. However, they have substituted pastors for priests. The pastor today is viewed as a necessity in order to have a church, and many of them operate as if they have special access to God.
The American church has named the pastor as the CEO of the local church. It is the pastor who casts the vision, develops the plans, secures the resources, and sets the course for action. It is the pastor who explains God’s word, leads the prayers, and finds the answers to people’s problems.
In most churches, if you want to do something you are told to “ask the pastor” (or one of his staff representatives). If you have a message to share with the congregation the pastor will want to know about it beforehand (at least I would have when I was the pastor). If you want to follow Christ in baptism, you need to talk to the pastor. If you want to renew your commitment of faith, then you go to the pastor.
In making the pastor the head of the church we have placed him/her in an impossible situation—expecting them to do what only Christ can (and should) do. If we remove the pastor from the position of intermediary between Christ and the church then everyone is allowed to function in direct relationship with Him. That is what the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers is about.
Now, let me return to my question—what would happen to the church if we remove money from the equation? In other words, the church does not have money for buildings, staff, or programs.
The first and most obvious thing is that Christians would gather in much smaller groups because the gathering would have to take place in homes, parks, and other public places. Imagine the dramatic change in the church if we eliminate the Sunday morning show along with the children’s and young people’s entertainment.
The next thing we would notice is that regular people would have to step up and do the work of the church since there is no longer a paid staff. The truth is that the ordinary people are to be doing the work of the church anyway. God has gifted each of us for service and ministry. He never expected that a pastor would be in charge of the church’s work.
That raises another important point—the work of the church should take place out in the world, not within the walls of a church building. We gather to be encouraged and strengthened, and then we scatter to be the body of Christ in the world. We take the church with us because we are the church.
Imagine all of that—a small group of believers gathering in a home for the purpose of sharing and encouraging one another in the faith. By the way, I’m not making that up. Listen to these words:
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:23-25)
This is not an admonition to gather in a large auditorium on Sunday morning as many want to suggest. Rather it is a call not to try to live the Christian life in isolation—we do not have a Lone Ranger faith. We cannot make it on our own; we need one another. We are to gather with other believers to stimulate and encourage one another.
But it is not an admonition to gather and watch others and be entertained. When the church gathers there is to be sharing (including a meal, prayer needs/concerns, possessions with those in need—not an offering for the church, and the Lord’s Supper). There is also to be encouraging one another (includes teaching, prayer, and spoken words). Finally, there should be praise, which includes singing and testimonies.
I have many believers in my life who share and encourage. Sharon and I strive to gather with others who desire to follow the leadership of Christ and help us be better representatives of Christ in the world. This is not an attempt to start a new church. It is simply a gathering of a minuscule portion of God’s church.
When I say that I have quit going to church, what I really mean is that I have stopped going to what most people call the church. The truth is that I cannot quit because I am the church. I am the body of Christ in a unique corner of the world—the one I occupy. As a follower of Christ, you are also the church. When we get together, then we can have church, even if it’s not in a building with a church sign in the yard.