In a recent interview, Brian McLaren addressed the broad subject of declining participation in Christianity. More narrowly, he identified three common characteristics of growing churches. He said that the reason people leave Christianity is “churches are about many things beyond, or even instead of, the work of Jesus Christ.”
It made me think about my church. His assessment is an indictment of institutional church. He is especially critical when the institution supersedes the work of Jesus Christ. What about us? Do we begin committee meetings by asking, “How does our work connect with the work of Jesus Christ?”
The work of Jesus Christ should be the centerpiece of everything in church life. We have countless examples in the gospels of Jesus interacting with the world around him. Part of the faith journey involves reading the gospels and drinking in the stories of Jesus. Using these examples, we can form ideas about how he would approach questions in our world. Using prayer, the Holy Spirit can guide us. Listening to the wisdom of those who have gone before us can enlighten us.
In the face of declining faith, what do growing churches do differently? According to McLaren, there are three common characteristics:
- The members treat each other well.
- The members simply can’t shut up about their church.
- Visitors almost always come because of #2 – a friend who welcomes them.
There is no formula for doing church right. In the New Testament, different church had different flavors. Stephen talked about the church “in the wilderness” (Acts 7.38). There was the church at Jerusalem (Acts 8.1). The church in Acts 19.32 sounds like it was a mess. In the church, God works through people. Sometimes, God works in spite of people.
McLaren’s characteristics are a good starting point. Treat each other well. Make church so exciting that we can’t stop talking about it. Welcome visitors and draw them into the life of the church. From this starting point, we can go deeper.
Healthy churches do not happen accidentally. Using the examples from Acts, we can learn how to treat each other better. By speaking a genuine word to our culture and loving people where they are, we can make church more exciting. Even with the decline of Christianity in the U.S., I am optimistic about the future of my church.