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As a pastor I meet a lot of people who are looking for a church. One of the most helpful questions I can ask is, “What are you looking for in a church?” In one sense I hate this question because of the way it can reinforce our American consumer mindset. At the same time it gets right to the point. They are looking for something.

Then there is the other side of the spectrum, people who leave a church. It is basically the back door answer to the front door question, “What were you unhappy about in this church?”

What I have found is that most people do not filter what they looking for in a church through the Bible as much as through their previous experiences or personal ideals. Some of the most common things that I’ve seen in the last 10 years of pastoral ministry include the following:

  • Besties: People are looking for other people that they have a lot of common with.
  • Youth Ministry: People are looking for the church to provide a Christian network of friends for their kids.
  • Children’s programs: People often look for the church to be the catalyst for family discipleship.
  • Mercy Ministry: Some people want to be a part of a ministry to meet the physical needs of the community.
  • Music: People look for a musical experience during the singing time of service.

But what if none of these things were actually the church’s job? What if we are expecting far too much and far too little from the church?

The church’s job is to preach, teach, and apply the Bible. We are to be faithful in preaching, discipleship, evangelism, and service. There are not directives in the Bible for various programs for children or certain types of music. None of these things are bad, however, we should be careful to place the same level of emphasis on these things as the Scriptures.

Consider also the pursuit of good friends at church. It is very good to have close friends, particularly from your fellowship. In fact, most of my closest friends are from our church family. But how do we pursue them? What is the basis for making friends? How are friendship sustained?

Many people think of friendships as those relationships where we have a lot in common with the other person. This is true, but what is the basis for this commonality? Some people will leave a church saying, “I can’t find people that I have a lot in common with.” This is a staggering and revealing statement. It could mean, “There are no Christians here.” It could also mean, “I am not a Christian.” And it could mean, “I don’t chiefly value my identity as a Christian as the basis for relationships.”

As a Christian it is to be our identity as a Christian that serves to be our chief identifying feature and basis for friendship. You have so much in common with other Christians. You have the same story (saved from sin and death), passion (the glory of Christ), struggles (sin), hope (coming kingdom), authority (the Word of God), etc. There is so much in common here! The problem is we often promote worldly things to the position that only the gospel should hold. Then we wonder why the church cannot deliver. In fact, she should not deliver worldly pursuits.

I am convinced that many professing Christians are simultaneously expecting too much and too little from the church. We are now in something of a “tail wagging the dog” scenario. Many people have expectations so church leaders aim to accommodate them. If one church won’t meet their preferences they can go to another. This becomes a significant long-term problem.

The church’s role is really quite simple: to make and train disciples. If we do this then we will create a culture where friendships grow out of the gospel rather than in spite of it. Other programs will see their rightful place in the life of the Christian. As Christians we should all work together to raise the gospel flag above the other markers of identity and heartily salute it then we would be well on our way.

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13 thoughts on “Are We Expecting Too Much or Too Little From the Church?”

  1. Layne stanford says:

    A place that teaches the truth of God, and helps me to be obedient, an encourager and servant.

  2. Jeremy B says:

    Lots of masquerading going on, first step is for one to ascertain if it even is a “church”. One must first answer if it even meets the marks of a church: is the Word rightly preached? Are the Sacraments rightly administered and received? Is Discipline exercised and submitted to (both by congregants and the church body itself)? Answering those questions tends to dwindle the list of options down quite a bit.

  3. Jonathan says:

    “The church’s role is really quite simple: to make and train disciples.”

    Let’s say that you meet with a couple looking for a church. Instead of asking about the details of the various ministries in your church, you heard this the following from the couple:

    “We’re interested in a church that is serious about making disciples and we have some questions that will help us understand your church more clearly:

    1. How many disciples has this church made over the last year?
    2. How do you define, “disciple”? Do you see a distinction between a) one who has confessed with his mouth that Jesus is Lord and has believed in his heart that God has raised Him from the dead” and b) one who is following Christ by actively incorporating the spiritual disciplines in his life?
    3. You mention that “the church’s job is to preach, teach, and apply the Bible”. Jesus said that, as a church, our job is to teach the Word until our members are in obedience to the Word. How do you do that here?
    4. What would you see as the greater crisis: a) a year in which you did not make progress toward paying down the bank note on this building or b) a year in which not a single disciple was made by the efforts of this church.
    5. Since you came on staff here, what disciple making methods or ministries has this church jettisoned because of how it was not effective in making disciples or in assisting those ministries closer to the front lines of disciple making?

    1. LWS says:

      Which is more important, funding a bricks and mortar building or funding ministries that build the body of Christ? <– Definitely a question that has been top of mind for me lately.

      1. Erik Raymond says:

        Buildings serve mission not the other way around.

      2. Jonathan says:

        This is the type of paradigm busting question that we need to be asking…and not because it sounds cool like those questions we used to ponder back in college but because we’ve not asked real evaluative questions like this for a long, long time. We like to think that we value more than butts in pews, baptisms, attendance, the offering totals, and perhaps mission funding…but the truth is, if it is important, we can put a number to it and track our progress.

        It is much easier to keep our discipleship efforts in the realm of the theoretical because if we ever started evaluating our efforts in a way that actually showed how serious we are about achieving the goal of the Great Commission, we would be forced to make some very hard decisions about our resources.

  4. Mary Knipp says:

    Amen. :-)

  5. Dana Wohlwend says:

    I grew up Catholic in a small town and you went to your church. With that frame of mind, when I became a Baptist and was in a larger city, I first felt the Spirit moving in my current church. I know that God’s Word was being preached and that people were being challenged. Over the last 16 years, our church has had ups and downs. People have left because of disagreements or because changes in our church structure made them upset. I have stayed. Why? The church is still preaching God’s Word and challenging it’s members. I have made a commitment to my church by becoming a member. If I don’t like something, then I should be willing to put in the time to change it. I have joined in leadership positions to better understand and help my pastorial staff. Church is not about you – it’s about Him. Now, if my church strays away from God’s Word, that would be a reason for me to leave. Today’s culture puts the “I” above the “we”. It does not place a value on commitment.. Church is not a building, it’s a family. Sometimes you need to work at mending relationships instead of looking for a new one.

  6. Really well said. I wrote about the worship service side of your perspective for DG this month. Do you think my categories (“already” and “not yet”) are helpful?

    1. Erik Raymond says:

      The categories are helpful. I appreciate your article Matthew. Thanks for the comment.

  7. Craig Hamer says:

    Great article. But one thing I have been thinking is you are not talking about the global church, you are referring to the local church if I understand correctly. So, with that focus, is the purpose of the church (local) to make disciples in light of the Great Commission being given by Jesus before the church was started at Pentecost. I am asking, not debating, but I wonder if the church should be equipping the people to make disciples, not making their goal to make disciples since Jesus seems to lay it out that way. I don’t know the answer to my question, but would like to hear from others.

  8. Great article! Thanks for your insight. I think you hit the nail on the head when you speak of a consumer mindset. Seems to me this can be blamed partially on the church’s leadership, and partially on church inquirers themselves. On the one hand, instead of warning our members (and potential members) about the utter worldliness of consumerism and instructing them carefully on the role and function of Christ’s church, we cave in to and accommodate the consumer mindset. We transform the church into a spiritual Walmart offering multiple programs for every demographic niche instead of just letting the church be what Christ intended the church to be (namely, a disciple-making community of faith founded upon Christ, and centered in the Word and Sacraments). We have coddled the flock and led them in the pastures of Laodicea-land. And in terms of church inquirers, so many professing Christians in America today are habitual church-hoppers who will join and leave churches for utterly petty, superficial, immature reasons; they behave like spoiled little children, and we in the church’s leadership just let them do so without raising the kinds of questions that you raise. (After all, we want all those warm bodies in the pews, don’t we? Who cares what baggage they might be bringing with them or what unresolved issues they might have with their former church.)

    Don’t get me wrong, I do believe there are biblical reasons for choosing to leave one church in order to join a different church. For example, if you have a change in doctrinal perspective (say you belong to a Baptist church but you become Presbyterian or Lutheran in your convictions, or vice-versa); or if your church and its leadership teaches heresy and refuses to repent even after you have gone through all the proper church channels to address your concerns with them; or the pastor is a spiritually abusive control freak and egomaniac who takes a “it’s my way or the highway” approach to ministry; etc. Reasons that are related to biblical Truth or pastoral care are valid reasons to leave a church, provided you have sought to address your concerns in a biblical, peaceful manner (for example, Matt. 18:15-20). But, in contrast to these kinds of biblical reasons, the kinds of reasons I and others in ministry often hear when people decide to leave the church include excuses such as: “I just don’t feel like I fit in well with this church”; “We just feel it’s time for a change”; “We prefer a different musical style”; “We’re looking for a youth group program for our kids”; etc.

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Erik Raymond

Erik Raymond is senior pastor of Emmaus Bible Church in Omaha, Ne. He and his wife Christie have six children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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