Friday, July 11, 2014

Abandoned Churches...

Building based Christianity is starting to crumble around the edges. Even as a few churches build multi-million dollar facilities to act as a place of ministry “for the next 100 years,” my travels
Abandoned Downtown Church in Detroit

seem to indicate that more and more church buildings being left to decay. This is not just happening to small, rural churches, though it is very obvious there, but also to once thriving “first churches” in the hearts of our cities and former “mega-churches” who encounter difficult leadership transitions (like Crystal Cathedral) or who just fall out of favor and plummet into decay. Once the building becomes the driving force for all ministries rather than a tool to use to do ministry, the movement nature of the faith community rapidly decelerates and the monument becomes the object of worship. Just this week I’ve had several conversations with leaders who are suffering from the previous “if you build it they will come” mindset of church construction to today’s reality, “if you build it you still have to pay for it.” Even facilities with virtually no debt have the burden of operating costs and maintenance which is ever-growing and never ceasing.

Abandoned Mega-Church
What happened? In a world with bigger and bigger buildings I believe that Christ followers are beginning to realize how unsatisfying consumer Christianity really is. That just because you have a great building, an amazing music program, and a preacher who can make you laugh and bring you to tears, it doesn’t mean you are becoming a disciple. The hole in our soul remains despite moving worship experiences and inspiring messages. We crave more. Those seeking to be real, radical disciples crave living examples of discipleship, not perfect ones. We crave relationship, not showmanship. We crave community, not just crowds.

We crave living examples of discipleship, not perfect ones. The humanity of notable Christian leaders and their personal stumbles have caused most of to realize that there are no perfect disciples. I think we knew that all along, but when their public image of perfection starts to decay, so does our faith in the community of believers. Now we are at a point where we have given up on the myth of the perfect pastor, and simply seek a living example of discipleship, with all of its messiness and struggles. This kind of discipleship only happens when you live in close community. 

Not only do we desire living examples, we want real interaction with those who lead us spiritually. We crave relationship not showmanship. When I was in high school, Steve Martin did a ridiculous movie about a traveling evangelist who, during just the right moment in the “show” would flip his jacket around and it would suddenly sparkle. This is an absurd example of how the church looks to outsiders, like a big show. Like the movie, however, once the lights are off and the collection is taken, you are left with an empty experience. Real disciples want to walk with Jesus in intentional relationship with others who are seeking to follow Him. Yes, we love a well-delivered message, but more importantly we love a well-lived life.

We crave community, not just crowds. It seems everywhere I go there is a crowd, and it s exhausting. I love big venues filled with cheering fans or engaged in powerful worship, but for me those experiences are like Christmas and my birthday, great for celebration but hard to handle every day. In a crowd you are one of the masses and it can be awesome. In real life with its daily struggles and pain, however, the crowd simply reinforces the isolation of our culture. During those times I like the smaller community. I embrace those twenty to fifty people in my life who hold me up to live at a higher level; hold me accountable to be who God wants me to be; and hold me together when my life falls apart. They are committed to being with me in the struggle. It is those people who celebrate life’s achievements and who mourn life’s losses along side my family and me.

So, go ahead and build your awesome buildings, but build them with this in mind: all things come to an end. Build it with the understanding that the day may come when you have to let it go. Don’t let the movement exist to serve the monument.

Lastly, I know studies show that believers continue to prefer to gather in large churches, with great worship experiences, and powerful teaching. However, they are attending fewer Sundays a year and expect more and more from the place and the preacher than ever before. When they come to consume, they want the best product on the market. What if we realized that with the decline in soul satisfaction of consumer spirituality is coming the end of building based Christianity? What if we actively begin to move back to gathering house to house, home to home? What if every time the whole community gathered it was around the Eucharist table set up in a public square, a rented building, or a public park? What does buildingless belief look like? I have no idea but I’m willing to give it a shot! I remain:

Consumed by the Call,

Marty
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