One of the most pressing problems facing the church in the west right now is how we can course correct after 40 years of failed discipleship strategies. The past decade has exposed the fact that many of the people in our churches don’t actually know or agree with much basic Christian doctrine (this was actually apparent prior to 2014, but most of us tried to ignore it, I think) and that many churchgoers went more out of the inertia of habit than out of any deep commitment to living the life of Jesus—that’s why when COVID disrupted church gatherings around 1/4 or more of attendees in many churches just stopped showing up, even after churches reopened.
I’m not sure where I heard it first—either Mark Sayers or Myles Werntz, I think—but a key problem here is that we acted as if “church” is basically “content consumption.” In the megachurch era, “church” meant you get in your car and you drive to the place with the best demographically appropriate programming for your family and the best Sunday morning experience. When COVID hit, that shifted to the web and you did virtual church with whatever church offered the best online experience, regardless of geographic location. (It’s time to turn the streams off, by the way.)
As a strategy for getting butts into pews (or theatre seating, more likely) this strategy worked fairly well. Church attendance was strong. 1/3 of the country claimed to be evangelical. But as a strategy for actually teaching people the Christian religion and helping them live the way of Jesus, it has been a disaster.
That said, I think there is probably something lingering behind the church-as-content error and, no surprise, you can see it crop up in the way that one of the key figures in the attractional era talks about church life. Here is an excerpt from a recent CT interview that Russell Moore did with Rick Warren on the issue of women’s ordination:
Russell: Some of them would probably say the confession of faith says that the office of pastor [is] to be held by men [as] qualified by Scripture. And Saddleback now has women pastors. How do you see that?
Rick: Well, in the first place, Southern Baptists have always been anticredal. I grew up with the phrase, “We have no creed but Christ; we have no book but the Bible.” This is not a battle between [theological] liberals and conservatives. [The] liberals left a long time ago. Everybody in the SBC believes in the inerrancy of Scripture. Now we’re talking about difference of interpretation. Those particular passages—Titus, Timothy, and Corinthians—have hundreds, literally hundreds, of interpretations.
We should be able to expel people over sin, racism, sexual abuse, other sexual sins, things like that. But this is over … You mean, wait a minute, we can disagree over the Atonement; we can disagree over election; and we can disagree over dispensationalism; we can disagree over [the] Second Coming; we can disagree over the nature of sin; but we can’t disagree over what you name your staff?
Elsewhere in the interview, in discussing baptism, the same aberrant ecclesiology crops up again:
Now, this is one of the reasons why Saddleback has baptized more people than any church in American history: 57,000 adult baptisms in 43 years. Why? Because in our church, if you win them to Christ, you get to baptize them. So, if a mom wants to baptize her child or a wife wants to baptize her husband that she led to Christ—anybody can baptize anybody they led to Christ…
The only parties present in this understanding of baptism are the individual believer and the individual believer who led the other individual believer to faith. The church is utterly invisible.
The problem is further illustrated by Warren’s remarks on ordination. When you believe that “differences over who can be ordained” is another way of saying “debates over what to call your church staff,” you have lost the plot, regardless of what you actually think about who can be ordained. At that point, I frankly don’t care who you think can and can’t be ordained because you’ve already told me that you don’t know what ordination is. To be ordained is to receive a sacred calling and ancient trust, it is to be placed in the line of countless believers of the past who faithfully dispensed their duties as a minister in Christ’s church, preaching the Word, administering the Sacraments, aiding their parishioners in taking up the yoke of Christ. It is a heavy thing and it is a thing almost entirely incomprehensible to the bureaucratic, capitalistic logic of staff titles and corporate ladder climbing. To be appointed to the ministry of Word and Sacrament is not to be given a staff title at an NGO whose focus area is religion and spirituality. And yet when one listens to many attractional church types talk, it’s very hard to avoid the conclusion that that is precisely what they think it is.
This is the fear I have: Lingering behind “church-as-content” is a vision of church that essentially sees it as a kind of non-profit or NGO that dispenses spiritual experiences (and perhaps tangible material aid) to its consumers. This is the error before all errors because it is the error that fundamentally misnames the people of God. I remember once in college hearing my RUF pastor say that when a church disappears from a place, the neighbors can say one of three things: “Good riddance” or “wait, we never knew they were here,” or “we’re going to miss them.” And, all things being equal, he said we should usually desire that last response.
Perhaps we can propose a similar device to capture this issue: When people look at a community of believers and try to explain their way of life, they can say “oh, they’re just like the homeless shelter down the street,” or “they’re just a bunch of local bigots,” or “we don’t actually know how to explain who they are.” All things being equal, we should aspire to the third. Unfortunately, I rather strongly suspect that most of our neighbors would default to the first or second explanation and the third would never cross their mind. But, then again, if pastors are just staff working at a badly defined NGO, who could blame them?
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).