I posted some thoughts on Twitter this morning that I think deserve some unpacking, if even for myself.
The Inciting Question
There is a central, driving question that I think many people outside of the church are asking and those in church leadership are fervently avoiding: If you are inviting me into a life with Jesus is that life better than the one I’m leading without Jesus?
“Does it work for you or are you just trying to get me to come to your church?”
Actually, I don’t just think people are asking that question in an academic-y, wondering kind of way. Real life people are asking me this question.
Statement of Thesis
What I find, from outside of church employment, is that HOW I live the Christian life is much more important towards reaching people than WHAT my religious practices actually are.
This causes confusion because when I’m talking to friends they like the way I live, maybe even aspire to it, but some of the “HOW I live” stuff is oppositional to the people on the platforms at churches. I’m living a life they want but they know that if they step into a church the model for them looks very, very different.
Statement of the Problem
This is what people see. They are struggling with working too much. They have an inborn desire to connect with God (see Romans 1) but the life they see modeled through church is not a life they see as better, it’s really a life indifferent than what they already know.
In fact, they think, asking them to follow Jesus and get connected with a church is actually asking them to become busier and have even less margin.
They want a life worth living and the church seems to offer an alternative busy life not any better than the life they are already living.
In other words, if the Gospel (Good News of Jesus) being offered by the institutional church that people see isn’t really “good news” to them… why bother?
Obviously, the answer is… they don’t bother.
Where Does This Come From?
Theory One – The church is answering a question no one is asking
Back in the day, Seth Godin argues, advertising and marketing focused on features and benefits of products. The idea was that people carefully considered the best product before making a choice. But that all changed in the late 1980’s and 1990’s with Nike’s “Like Mike” campaign. Successful marketing became about identifying with a brand, people didn’t buy Jordan’s shoes because they were the best, they bought them because they wanted to be like Mike. A current version of this might be Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man” campaign.
Is Dos Equis the best beer? [No, they don’t win awards. It’s just cheap Mexican beer.] That’s not the point of the campaign. The point is that interesting people, people with swagger, drink Dos Equis.
Church leadership is often stuck in this pre-1990’s marketing mindset. Programmatic approaches are presupposing that people are looking for the best church. It’s a fundamental disconnect.
People make a choice. They go to a church they want to identify with. And, interestingly, church insiders will openly tell you where they are in opposition to their church because they might want to be identified with it, but not everything it stands for. So you’ll hear church attendees say, “I got to X church but I struggle with their position on women in ministry.”
But, when you’re asking someone to identify as a Christian they look beyond the activities of the church, they look at the people on the platform… who are literally “above” the people in the pews. (As Dan Kimball pointed out 15 years ago… there’s a reason you sit below the person on the platform. It’s not so you can see, it communicates subconsciously that you are below them and you have to “look up” to hear from them.) And the people I talk to? They look at those who work at churches as workaholics, whose life revolves around their work, who have very little social life, whose margin is forced or non-existent… and they think that they are living a better life without Jesus.
The programmatic church is based on felt needs of insiders. But outsiders are asking a question from higher criticism… “Is the life they are asking me to live better than the one I’m currently living?”
Theory Two – Programmatic church answered a different question for a different day
For centuries the church offered few programs. The religious life of pastors looked very different from the one of today. Pietism brought into the church the idea that walking with Jesus meant being involved at church outside of the worship service. And, for a long time, this was a good thing.
But in a post-Christian world, the churches programmatic approach offers very little to someone that they can’t get elsewhere. I don’t need the church to provide a social structure, I have one already. I don’t need the church to provide daily religious activities… I’ve got Google, I can find that if I want it. I don’t need Christian music, I can find Jesus in the art of the world just fine. On and on.
Am I right on this? I don’t know. But it’s what I’m thinking about this morning.