This blog has been an exciting journey, and I anticipate it has a long way to go! As we’ve “discovered” ourselves over the past year and a half, we’ve also learned a lot about reform and revolution as well. The Church has a history of both, and the necessity of both remains critically important today.
A major reason people resist “reform” and “revolution” is another concept that tends to come before it: criticism. But why should we fear criticism?
The Danger of Suppressing Criticism
Churches have a long and inglorious history of suppressing criticism and attacking critics. In this way, they fit right in with other institutions that refuse to allow dissenting positions expression – Communist China, for example, or Nazi Germany, perhaps. Think that goes too far? The Inquisition is our responsibility as Christians and it could not have been implemented without a large institutional structure with paranoid leadership that was unwilling to allow dissent, critique, or diversity.
Silencing or ignoring critics doesn’t always lead down roads that extreme, otherwise Westboro Baptist would be the rule, not the exception (Westboro). Suppressing criticism is also the leading reason church abuses don’t come to light and continue to plague the faith (our latest church abuse article: Spotlight on “Spotlight”).
It often doesn’t go that far. Eventually criticism gains momentum from the outside, launching revolution (like the Reformation) or gains momentum on the inside, launching reform (the Counter Reformation). Praise the Lord.
Criticism points out problems. God is on record criticizing Israel and then the Church on a regular basis in Scripture. To close an ear just because it hears criticism is foolish. Without hearing out problems, there isn’t much hope of fixing them.
“The way of fools seems right to them, but the wise listens to advice.” Prov. 12:15
Is There a Problem?
Some resist criticism because they honestly don’t feel like there is a problem. But “church decline” is pretty much synonymous with “American Christianity” today. Some startling results from research at ChurchLeaders.com:
- Less than 25% of American regularly attend church – when attending church is shockingly defined at the low standards of “attends 3 out of every 8 Sundays”
- A 2002 study of over a thousand churches discovered only 6% were growing faster than their communities
Millions of Millennials raised in the church have now dropped out – 59% in fact. As older Millennials enter their 30’s and start families, they aren’t coming back like previous generations. In the words of Christian author Sam Eaton:
“It seems all-too-often our churches are actually causing more damage than good, and the statistics are showing a staggering number of Millennials have taken note.”
As a mentor who engages with Millennials every day, I see it even in the youngest of our generation. Speaking with an 8th grader this week, I casually asked: “Do you go to church?” He replied, “Not really, not often, not anymore.” I didn’t say anything – which I think he took as disapproval. Because he rolled his eyes and said, “You don’t have to go to church to have a relationship with Jesus.” I agree wholeheartedly, but it’s a sign of the times. People continue to see their relationship with Christ has great relevance – but to many, showing up on Sundays is a meaningless ritual that no longer advances that relationship.
It’s easier for many Christians to feel faithful to Christ and honest about our faith outside of churches rather than inside, weighed down by all their trappings.
Does anyone see me? Can anyone hear me?
The regrettable thing is that churches still aren’t listening – even with their future on the line. The faith will continue, whether churches stay in business or not. Churches can’t afford to act like they are untouchable – God has let tens of thousands of churches fail and close in the last 2000 years. He doesn’t need you as much as you need Him.
Maybe churches are just listening to whoever will itch their ear (2 Tim 4:3). Discussing church decline with a friend, he said, “You’re suggesting we tackle this backwards. Why should we care about the reasons people leave? Shouldn’t we be asking the people who stay why they come? They’re the loyal ones.”
Queue Jesus’ story about leaving the 99 sheep to pursue the one that left the flock.
This attitude of disregard for those who have walked out is just one contributing factor to the closed-ear syndrome churches are blind to right now. The entrenchment against criticism is another. Loving tradition over people, and loving the status quo that benefits insiders first is yet another. (Call it privilege, call it entitlement – not wanting change because “things are working” for those on the inside is always a poor model for reaching outsiders!) So what can fix it?
Some suggestions from my own experience.
1. Stop fearing criticism. In 1957, Lord Altrincham published a scathing criticism of his Queen, Elizabeth II. Most monarchs would have him silenced, with all manner of power available to them. What was the Queen’s response? A series of reforms including informal lunches with subjects to get to know her people’s needs and her government’s failings. According to The Crown, “The palace later conceded that Lord Altrincham did as much as anyone in the 20th century to help the monarchy.” Sometimes hard words need to be heard. In the words of Leah Thomas:
“It’s always important that people in positions of great power face and respond to constructive criticism.”
2. Intentionally seek feedback – from those outside, not just inside. Organizations all over the world use “exit interviews” to find out why people leave and what can be improved. Churches, by comparison, usually have a “good riddance” attitude to those who “abandoned us.”
Let’s be honest. Christians often are, regrettably, addicted to feeling like victims, feeling slighted, taking pride in every supposed “persecution” and quick to take offense. The fact is, most people who leave churches feel like their church abandoned them first – emotionally, spiritually, socially. Every Millennial knows someone who can testify to this:
“I left my church and not a single person contacted me to ask why, see if I was okay, or express I was missed.”
3. Humbly respond with introspection first. The knee-jerk reaction to criticism is to defend yourself instead of looking if you have any responsibility. No one is asking churches to bend to every whim of the masses. But few things make people disrespect churches more than their complete and unilateral refusal to admit any wrongdoing when confronted with criticism. The common dismissal, “Well, no church is perfect” is just as grating to people who just want a little recognition that they were treated poorly. Before you deny or defer, take a close look within.
4. Open up to reform measures. The fact is, no church is perfect – which is the negative way to express the positive, “Every church can improve.” Look seriously at what parts of your church business, church community, church practice don’t look a thing like Jesus or the first century Christian movement – and then ask what you can change to be more relevant to the timeless human needs God inspired and equipped the Church to address.
You might have to pick worship songs that actually speak to theology instead of having a “Jesus is my boyfriend” feel. You might have to change the nature and content of your sermons to actually address real-life situations. You might have to require your leaders to connect with the common, every-day people who sit in your pews – as well as those who have abandoned your pews. You might have to take a serious look at your budget – are you wasting 90% on yourself and only putting 10% back into your community?
If reform was easy, more churches would do it.
5. Challenge and enable complainers to step up. Most complainers resort to criticism because they feel powerless to change things in other ways. Yet they are apparently passionate about the issues they see churches failing to address. Give them something to do by empowering them to address the issues they see. Are they complaining your church has nothing for young adults? Ask if they’d be willing to partner with someone to lead a small group for that age. Give dissatisfied people ways to partner with your church community in bringing about more satisfaction.
There are a million things churches could do to look more like Jesus and the Church movement He launched. But they won’t start discovering these until they are willing to hear criticism.
When we launched this blog, a former ministry connection of mine said, “You’d have better success if you didn’t throw darts at the Bride of Christ.” He willfully confused the Bride with “churches.” Churches are just one limb in the Body. I wouldn’t even consider churches a critical organ. Christianity won the Roman Empire without “churches” as we know them today. Missions movements have taken the world by storm without “churches” as we know them today. And in persecuted areas where “churches” as we know them are not permitted, the faith is doing just fine.
Criticizing churches is one of the highest callings a Christian can have. Every prophet ever called was called for the purpose of criticizing God’s people and their failings. Jesus had this calling, tearing apart Temple worship in His day to launch a reform movement. Men like Paul pursued this calling in their letters, calling out abuses in first century gatherings. Reformers like Martin Luther took this calling seriously. I’m excited about the ongoing role we get to have at Rogues, speaking with friends and family, followers and fellow Believers about what Church should and could be to return to relevance in the lives of our generation.