24 August 2014

Why People are Leaving the Church: An Interaction with the Thoughts of John Pavlovitz

I'm a fan of blogging.  I find in the blogosphere helpful advice and encouragement and also lines of thought that challenge me and make me pause and think more deeply.  Some voices make me consider points of view that are difficult for me to see because they tend to be outside my experiential line of sight.  I suppose that is true for everyone to a large degree.  I recently read a two-part post from John Pavlovitz on his blog called "stuff that needs to be said."  Being a pastor, the title of this particular post caught my eye.  He entitled it "Church, Here is Why People are Leaving You."

If you're a pastor or even an informed Christian who cares and pays attention to the church, you can't deny that denominations and churches all around have been struggling.  All the statistics point to the fact that for a long time church membership and attendance has been lagging way behind population growth.  Now, denominations like my own (Southern Baptists) are in a multi-year numerical decline in membership.  So, you see why that title would get my attention.  I wanted to read what this guy had to say.  In summary, I found his thoughts somewhat helpful but generally overly critical of the church while giving a pass in many ways to people who supposedly the church is neglecting.  But when you read Pavlovitz's description of himself, this is not so surprising.  He touts himself as "specializing in rabble-rousing, engineering mayhem, and generally trying to live-out the red letters of Jesus" - a colorful description to say the least.

In part one of this post, Pavlovitz listed five reasons as evidence for his claim that "the church is the problem."  Here are his reasons and my thoughts about them.

First, he argues that "Sunday productions have worn thin."  The target of his criticism here is clearly the evangelical contemporary scene.  He writes, "We can be entertained anywhere.  Until you give us something more that Christian-themed performance pieces; something that allows us space and breath and conversation and relationship, many of us are going to sleep-in and stay away."  I can appreciate much of what he asserts in this first reason.  I too feel that many churches have succumbed to the performance trap.  However, I don't think this is exclusive to the contemporary style, although possibly the greatest offender in this matter.  The drive simply to create atmosphere with music, lights, and even fog machines is an attempt to sanctify the "rock concert."  I agree, with Pavlovitz here.  If this is what a church has attracted people with, then it's only a matter of time before the novelty wears off and it too becomes passé.  However, this style alone does not necessarily mean that real conversation and relationship within the fellowship of the church isn't happening. 

Second, he asserts, "You speak a foreign tongue."  This is no new criticism for the church.  The gist is that we use our own jargon in the most insensitive manner, therefore keeping the outsiders out.  Pavlovitz concludes, "Keep up the church-speak, and you'll be talking to an empty room soon."  I understand this charge, but I also have always sensed a clear and unfair double standard here.  Can you imagine anyone in any other situation being apologetic for their "insider" language?  For example, I'm in the military as a reservist.  When I made the commitment and jumped in, I was immediately thrown into the deep end of the jargon pool.  No one who was already on the inside considered it their duty to change their language so I wouldn't feel lost.  Just the contrary was true.  It was my responsibility to ask questions and learn what the language meant.  And I did.  It took some time, but I finally did start getting it.  And even today I still have to learn new things since I've decided to be part of the military.  Or imagine going to a baseball game and a person sitting in the stands complaining because he doesn't understand the game.  How absurd to hold it against the baseball crowd, if I don't understand what a strike, ball, error, or double-play is.  If I'm truly curious, then I need to pay attention and ask those who do know so I can learn. But when it comes to church, church people are constantly shamed because they know words and their meanings that are important to the faith that others might not yet understand.  Yes, it is important for preachers and teachers in the church to explain and teach certain words, like sin, grace, redemption, or even eschatology and it is the responsibility of the seeker to seek to understand.  When Jesus spoke to Nicodemus he used a strange and confusing phrase - "born again."  It forced Nicodemus to search and question.  There are actually a lot of "red letters" that work like this.  Jesus often makes people work harder if they really want to get at what he means.  Just think about His parables.

Third, he charges, "Your vision can't see past your building."  Here Pavlovitz gives some good advice.  "You wanna reach people you're missing? Leave the building."  I must agree that all the ministry of the church cannot happen inside it's own facility.  Church properties are a blessing because it is a space dedicated to worship and making disciples.  Lots of good stuff can happen inside the church house.  That's the idea!  However, his point is solid.  The church must get outside the walls and do ministry in the community.  It must rub shoulders with the community and plug into it with partnerships and collaborations where it can, especially in the areas of benevolence.  Biblically, it seems that there is both the call to "go" and to "come and see."

Fourth, Pavlovitz laments, "You choose lousy battles."  He obviously, has a problem with guys like myself who might make commentary on certain social issues.  He claims that the church (his criticism seems leveled at conservative evangelicals) is only concerned with "fast food protests, hobby store outrage, and duck-calling Reality TV shows."  The implication seems to be this: the people the church wants to reach do not care about these things!  They don't care about moral discussions about such things as religious freedom, abortion, or homosexuality.  Those issues aren't worth dissent and discussion and actually only give unnecessary offense.  Christian voices ought not waste time on such battles.  Instead he argues, "Every day we see a world suffocated by poverty, and racism, and violence, and bigotry, and hunger; and in the face of that stuff, you get awfully, frighteningly quiet."  To this charge, I think the church probably should plead significantly guilty.  We need to do a better job fighting for suffering people, rather than just what we perceive as attacks on our beliefs.  However, the call to positive action on behalf of suffering people doesn't negate the prophetic role of the church and the preacher.  It is a false dichotomy to say I must choose one or the other.  Both are part of the job.  We must show mercy and do justice and be salt and light in a dark world. 

Lastly, he contends, "Your love doesn't look like love." I think this is most serious charge he levels at the conservative, evangelical church, therefore here is what he said if full.
"Love seems to be a pretty big deal to you, but we’re not getting that when the rubber meets the road. In fact, more and more, your brand of love seems incredibly selective and decidedly narrow; filtering out all the spiritual riff-raff, which sadly includes far too many of us.  It feels like a big bait-and-switch, sucker-deal; advertising a “Come As You Are” party, but letting us know once we’re in the door that we can’t really come as we are. We see a Jesus in the Bible, who hung out with lowlifes and prostitutes and outcasts, and loved them right there, but that doesn’t seem to be your cup of tea. Church, can you love us if we don’t check all the doctrinal boxes and don’t have our theology all figured out? It doesn’t seem so.  Can you love us if we cuss and drink and get tattoos, and God forbid, vote Democrat? We’re doubtful.   Can you love us if we’re not sure how we define love, and marriage, and Heaven, and Hell? It sure doesn’t feel that way.  From what we know about Jesus, we think he looks like love. The unfortunate thing is, you don’t look much like him."

If Pavlovitz is critiquing the self-righteous, then I'm in hearty agreement.  The church is called to extend love to everyone, even enemies.  However, I think he may be confusing love with acceptance.  I do agree with his criticism of churches that put way too much emphasis on "come as you are," implying that the church will accept any lifestyle or behavior in people.  I can see how some might see this a false advertising.  Actually, I agree it is a horrible idea to promote this idea for that reason.  The invitation is simply to come.  And when they come, people are confronted with the message of repent and believe - the message Jesus preached.  No doubt Jesus did get accused by the self-righteous for hanging out with the wrong crowd at times, but it would be misguided to conclude that Jesus accepted the "wrong" crowd's sin.  He clearly did not, even though He loved them.  He extended mercy to the woman caught in adultery and told her to go and sin no more.  Within the quote above, there seems to be a problem with a biblical Christianity that would put any emphasis on propositional truth or absolute morality.  His thought about love in this point is fallacious.  He confuses love and acceptance.  He makes it sound as if love and sound doctrine are enemies.  If a church is unwelcoming of any person, then shame on that church.  In that, I'm in agreement with Pavlovitz.  But if what he means is that to speak biblical ideas from conviction is contrary to love (i.e. to call what is sin, sin), then I most strongly disagree.  Love is both treating all people with dignity and respect and speaking the truth.

A few days later, Pavlovitz posted a second part to this blog, presumably after he had received significant feedback from the first part.  In it he personified the agonized person who can't see past his own problems to see a church extending love through the Word of God.  He seems to ridicule the idea of referencing Scripture as an unloving and useless endeavor, which I think again reveals his low view of the Bible, except for the red letters that he likes.  I think I understand what he's getting at, but he seems to be missing the point of the Gospel call.  If a person knows he or she is in a rebellious (dare I say sinful) lifestyle against God, the call is to repent.  The Gospel truly received transforms - that's the point.  Yes, people should be sincerely loved and embraced and the whole Gospel must be proclaimed, even the bad news about the devastation of sin.  The utter seriousness of sin is what make the "Good News" so good!    

In his conclusion he writes, "Church, even if you’re right, even if we’re totally wrong; even if we’re all petty, and self-centered, and hypocritical, and critical, and (I’ll say it), “sinful”, we’re still the ones searching for a place where we can be known and belong; a place where it feels like God lives, and you’re the ones who can show it to us.  Even if the problem is me, it’s me who you’re supposed to be reaching, Church.  So, for the love of God; reach already."

These word are powerful, but not in the way he thinks.  The church can only truly reach these people if the full Gospel of Jesus is proclaimed to them.  They are not "reached" if they are merely made comfortable in their sin.  Jesus loved sinners, but he never made sinners comfortable in their sin.  The church must go out and minister, open its doors wide sincerely to all who will come, and boldly preach the biblical Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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