“Eventually, someone looking for a church home will ask some variation of this question:  So what kind of church are you?” 

– Kent Carlson

Recently while signing books at a conference on spiritual formation, a sharply-dressed woman approached who seemed to have no interest in purchasing a book. Instead, she marched right up to me and said, “I have given up on church.  Completely. What do you have to say to someone like me?”

All I could think to say was, “I don’t blame you.  I get it.” Because the truth is, I do.

Not too long after that, I was talking with a young-ish former pastor about a ministry he had helped start. He described a house-sized group of couples and families who gathered regularly to be a community for one another, to learn about and experience spiritual practices that would further their transformation, and to minister to the real needs of others in their neighborhood.  Several times he also mentioned “his elders” who seemed to provide leadership for the whole undertaking.

Innocently enough, I said, “That sounds a lot like a church!  If someone were to ask, would you say that this is your church?”  He said yes, he would identify this gathering as his church but he said with emphasis, “We are not a church or anything like that… we have no intention of ever owning a building or starting lots of programs.”

Distancing Ourselves from Church?

While I was sobered by the fact that this young pastor seemed to have reduced “church” to buildings and programs, I was also aware of how deeply I could relate to his desire to distance himself from “church” in order to have any hope at all of experiencing what his soul needed and longed for. I have done the same thing myself. I, too, reached the end of my confidence that churches can be communities where spiritual transformation takes place regularly and routinely… I, too, got so desperate for spiritual transformation in community that I started something that I insisted was “not a church” … and yet, in all the ways that counts, it kind of is.

But even as I resonated with what he was saying, my heart broke one more time to acknowledge that the very thing that could and (I would argue should) be central to what the Church is all about—spiritual transformation together in Christ’s presence for the sake of others—is so absolutely missing in many people’s experience of church that they no longer even expect to find it there!

Desperately Seeking Spirituality

Let’s be honest…these days when authentic community and real life change is what people are looking for, they routinely turn elsewhere—to a yoga class, a retreat or spirituality center, a runner’s club, or an informal gathering of like-minded friends who want to “go deeper” than what they think a church would offer.  And who can blame them really? Today’s spiritually savvy seeker (myself included!) seems to know intuitively that calling something a church or letting it become a church has the potential to doom the whole endeavor from the get-go. We can judge the “spiritual but not religious” folks all we want, but spiritually-minded people today have no problem voting with their feet.

To be fair, churches are good for a great many things… some are really good at “making disciples” and shepherding new Christians into the faith.  Others have done an amazing job of attracting seekers through hi-tech worship services, high quality programs for children and youth, and ministries for every aspect of the human condition imaginable. Some are havens of traditional worship for those who love liturgy, enjoy a well-rehearsed robed choir, pipe organ and a ten-minute homily.

Still others have moved into specific neighborhoods for the express purpose of engaging the unique needs of that community in Jesus’ name. Most see themselves as a community in which the ministry of Word and sacrament is offered to parishioners from birth to death and (if all goes well) at significant life moments in between. But the church as a place where people are routinely experiencing spiritual transformation? Where people are discovering a way of life that works and produces good fruit in them? Not so much.

Telling the Truth about Church

All it takes is living through one church split or denominational melt-down to understand that even those who have been church members all their lives aren’t functioning far beyond the reptilian brain and the false-self patterns that seem to have us all in their grip.  When push comes to shove, those who have been in church all their lives often don’t behave any better than people who choose to enjoy their coffee and a newspaper on Sunday mornings.

Observing this, one has to ask, Does church really make a difference when it comes to the transformation of human beings into the image of Christ? Does being part of a church make us better or just busier? Does going to church affect who we fundamentally are? Do our well-crafted statements of faith about the power of the Gospel matter if nobody is really changing?

Are good Christians even allowed to ask such questions?  I sure hope so, because I just did!

Sometimes I am completely undone by the simple goodness or raw courage I see in others but so rarely experience in myself.  Everything from the care and pride the bagger at the grocery store takes in packing my groceries just right…to the kindness of a stranger who inconveniences himself to stop and help with a flat tire…to the courageous love demonstrated by Mother Theresa…to the radical life-style choices of St. Francis of Assisi…to the risk-defying leadership of MLK, Jr. … can leave me feeling chastened to the core.  I can’t help wondering, “Does what goes on in churches today turn out these kinds of transformed and transforming people? 

The Tares and the Wheat Together

Let me be quick to add that I have experienced some transformation in the church—who knows who I would be without it.  But I can also say that church has contributed to the care and feeding of my false self almost as effectively as it nurtured my true self; the tares have definitely grown up with the wheat.

As I passed from the early stages of basic Christian discipleship into some of the more challenging stages of faith, there came a point when I had to admit that even though I’ve been in church all my life (both as a lay person and a pastor) there was something seriously missing. In times of greatest brokenness, awareness of sin, spiritual longing and questions, I have had to look outside the church (local, not universal) to discover next steps for my own spiritual transformation.

And that’s not even to mention the layers of Christian busyness that have, at times, contributed to a pace of life that is completely unmanageable.  That fact alone has, at times, caused me to run from the church rather than run to it.  This is disheartening, at best.  And yet, I am not ready to give up on the church!  I have loved it and believed in it for too long.

Wrestling with the Questions

We here in the Transforming Center have been wrestling with these questions for a long time in the deep inside places of our own hearts and within the communities of pastors and leaders we are journeying with.  We have been gathering intentionally for years to discover ways forward in identifying the characteristics and practices of churches and communities in which spiritual transformation takes place regularly and routinely.  We have bravely faced into the question “What makes a church community transforming or deforming?” and worked hard to articulate what we are learning. We’ve been in the trenches with churches who are desiring to order their life together around spiritual transformation.

We are ready now to open the conversation to a broader community of leaders so we can continue to grapple with these questions and share hard-won learnings. Gather some of your key leaders and join us in September!

©Ruth Haley Barton, 2017.  This article is adapted from Ruth’s forthcoming book Becoming A Transforming Church: A Guide for Leaders (InterVarsity Press). Not to be reproduced without permission.

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