The Needle in the Haystack


I came to the grim conclusion the other day that the church we have been trying out for the last four months is not going to work. Having left a church earlier this year that I had been a part of for more than twelve years was hard enough, but now we find ourselves cast adrift once more.

Is it right to be hard on people who go from church to church? Or are we ignoring the fact that many churches today are missing something necessary for vital fellowship and growth in Christ? The church we left earlier in the year is the model for half the churches being planted in the greater metropolitan area near us, yet they have discovered they’ve been losing forty percent of their seasoned Christian base year over year, drawing in new people, but losing them only a few years later. There is a message there and I suspect that this church is not alone in that horrifying number of turnovers.

Thinking back to 1976 when I became a Christian, I’ve seen a lot of changes in churches in this country from then to now. The rise of Postmodernism has wrecked some of the important theological discourse we must never ignore in our churches, while the megachurch mentality has assailed the real meaning of Christian discipleship, smothering it in whatever tasty topping the casual church shopper wants to munch.

With the prominence of business practices that are akin to survival of the fittest—not only between businesses, but between individual employees—and the progressive shifting of good jobs from one region to another almost overnight, we are finding that our churches are a litany of people passing through. Add to this mix the fact that churches cater to the lowest common denominator in order to keep people from jumping ship and I have got to tell you that I truly wonder if Christ’s church in America has reached a point of no return. A winnowing is occurring that cannot be denied, but it is hard to see if the good seed is being preserved or cast away.

In all honesty, I do not know where to go in our case. It would be nice to be no further than twenty minutes from whatever assembly we do join, but we have been uncertain as to the lifeblood we have seen flowing in the dozen or so churches within that radius.

Does a house church call? Are we the seed for starting anew one? I don’t know. But what else explains the heartbreaking dissatisfaction both my wife and I feel concerning the houses of worship in our area?

What cannot be escaped is that we are the generation that must now lead. I will be forty-two this week and I almost feel as if I’ve already missed the boat in that regard. But still, no man is an island. Other people out there feel as we do, but is there enough momentum there to join us together or will we always be little islands floating in a stream of Christianity that routinely feels foreign and odd to us?

Should it be this hard? In one church you have an entrenched leadership that won’t let “the laity” lead until the ministry options are pried from cold, dead hands. This church preaches against the charismata and that one over there abuses them. In another you find rampant heresy expressed as “cutting-edge ministry.” In another you discover the same old pop-psych Christianity that has robbed the strength from the Gospel. And again, over there you find a fellowship that will not ever understand what fellowship truly is. No church is perfect, yes, but we have got to be doing better than this. And the solution is not to plant more churches. There are about 350,000 churches in this country by one count and I have got to believe that it is better to wake them up than to start more.

In the course of my life I’ve been a part of some great churches. I know they used to exist. But what happened? I find it even hard to write about this because it is so confusing. Cerulean Sanctum exists because I feel we need to explore what is happening and ensure that no one goes through feeling like there is no place to call home. Finding a church to call home should never be a needle in a haystack proposition.

I’d love comments on this, the more the merrier. Please let me know what you think since this issue is so very important.

11 thoughts on “The Needle in the Haystack

  1. We’re going through somewhat the same thing. We got involved in a megachurch, then somewhat by accident ended up at a tiny church started by one of the megachurch’s ex-youth-pastors. That was seven years ago; since then the tiny church has grown up and, it seems to us, ossified. Not completely, but the process is pretty advanced. Turnover is not terribly high, but the same can be said for the La Brea tar pits…

    We’re still trying to figure out if we should stay or go. Staying will involve conflict, something neither of us is good at.

  2. Anonymous

    You bring about a good question. I’ve been through a church split and a few other things so here goes…There is no perfect church. If you find a church that does appear perfect, it won’t be for long. There are two types of issues regarding churches that I think is relevant in this case. First, does a church conform to proper theology and biblical doctrine (not church doctrine which might mention only singing and no instruments, etc)? Secondly, does the church have issues that can be fixed? For example, is there a huge communications gap between the staff and the congregation? Have members of the congregation been hurt but other members but no restoration/confrontation has ever occurred? These are fixable problems. These are problems where individuals like you and me need to go to the pastors/elders/etc and bring up issues that must be fixed because they are stopping the progress of the church ministry.

    Regarding distance, I do believe we must worship within our own community. I’ve done otherwise and ended up leaving because it doesn’t feel right.

    I have seen people church-hop. Church hoping is not spending more than a couple of months at the same church – over and over and over. In your case, you are not hoping.

    Look for a church that majors on the majors and minors on the minors. Hopefully that can be found in your area. Otherwise, look for the church that is the closest to a solid foundational church and start talking to the pastors. The point of the pulpit is to preach the Gospel (which can be in many ways) and it’s NOT to bash other beliefs. Note – my point is preach the gospel and everything else falls in line.

  3. You have hit the nail right on the head!!

    I have talked to scads of people on the Internet in the same boat as well as two email discussion lists devoted to this also.

    I find that about 40% of these types stay out of church for a long time, perhaps forever. Out of the remaining who do go to another church, I find something fascinating. About 50-60% of those end up in Calvary Chapel. This seems to be a more right on type of church because they do a verse by verse study. Of course, no church will be perfect so I guess we work with what we have and pray we it can improve perhaps with our assistance IF the leaders are open to that.

    If one is more Charismatic/Pentecostal I find that most Foursquare churches are fairly good, very Christ and Bible centered, and now Jack Hayford, a very balanced pastor (and my former pastor), is the new president of the denomination. Of course you might need to get beyond the Aimee Semple MacPhereson as founder thing. But the current 4square church IMO is fairly right on. But of course it depends on each individual church within a denomination. As for Assembly of God..well….again, it depends on the church. I was on an email discussion list for years with many AG pastors and they are pulling their hair out because of the AG leadership going more toward the Toronto-Browsnville revival models. Some got so discouraged they either quit the pastorate or went to another denomination.

    Christ and the Bible seem to be the big problem in many churches today…that is both of those things seem to getting invisible.
    IF we can get back to those two things being central and the Five Solas as a foundation WITHOUT the legalism we saw before…then perhaps we might get it right. Do ya think maybe?

  4. Anonymous

    hi Dan – Tammy here from just north of you.

    here’s how my experience occurred –

    1961 – 1981
    childhood mennonite church with few thoughts of doing anything different. attended the same local church every sunday.

    1981 – 1988
    charismatic local church with few thoughts that there was anything better out there. attended the same local church many times a week.

    1989 – 2000
    jim pastored or assistant-pastored a series of about 5 local churches. lots of conflict, mixed in with some very good things as well.

    2000 – 2004
    drifted between several local churches where we know people. didn’t attend any very regularly, but sort claimed them all as our family. the universal church idea.

    today we go to a local church in a nearby town, a few times a month. we have friends there, and one of our children likes it there. we are no longer looking for one place that fits us. we are looking for friends who also love God. so if that means having a universal church mentally, with less emphasis on the local church, and if that means we are seen as church hoppers, well whatever. we don’t care anymore.

    either we are disillusioned, or we have finally given the universal church its due. i’m not sure which. 😉

  5. “Church” is a scary word these days. Yesterday I listened to a discussion that was bashing the little congregation where I have sporatically attended.
    The religious part of Christianity, in my opinion, wants to “do church”, but the organic part is deeply seeking true community where we are willing to walk the long mile with each other, into wholeness, into mentoring, into living like Jesus and encouraing each other to do so. For me it isn’t about doing church but rather about worshippinig in the oddest places and finding that that was community. Jesus never had a church at all did He. He had followers and disciples who longed to have His presence and soak in more of who He was/is.
    Many of us are wanderers Dan and I beleive that is good because we are seeing deep relationship instead of the McChurch of it all – fast food type religion with little nutrition for the soul.

  6. The problem with just “being the Church wherever you go” is that it misses a group intentionality. In other words, if everyone is just a “freelancer” it is hard to organize anything that would require more than just one person. We still need to have groups doing things together.

    For instance, think how hard it would be to run a mission hospital in a poor country if it were just one person doing it. At some time we have to come together with some group momentum in a common vision. The idea of a common vision tends to get lost when we are all Lone Rangers.

    Just my thoughts at this time.

  7. I came to the grim conclusion the other day that the church we have been trying out for the last four months is not going to work. Having left a church earlier this year that I had been a part of for more than twelve years was hard enough, but now we find ourselves cast adrift once more.Since you have all the answers, why don’t you fix them all?

  8. Robert,

    I’d like to fix them all…if only they wanted to be fixed.

    I don’t say that smugly, but it seems to me that perhaps we need to try a different approach. Maybe there is more potential in a house church or intentional community. Honestly, how many people’s lives can we truly impact outside of living with people for a long time?

    Frankly, that’s the only way it is going to reflect a true 1st century model. Today we live in little fmaily islands that rarely touch except in a dire crisis, and even then people long for more.

    I’ve said enough. What are your solutions to the issues I raise here?

  9. Anonymous

    I’ve also been a bit disappointed with my church. I’ve felt that it is more human centered than God centered. (I posted a thought about that here:

    For me, I’m not inclined to change churches. My family is too settled there. So I simply sit outside during the service and read my Bible, and interestingly, it’s a real blessing! I’m away from home and all distractions and I’m able to concentrate. I’m able to put in a big block of time in reading and the scriptures have really begun to come alive for me.

    Then, when the service lets out, I have fellowship with my friends. A little weird, but it works out fairly well.

  10. I’ve only been a Christian for about two years now, and I’ve been to a total of four churches. One was right after I chose to follow Christ, and I had no family or Christians friends nearby to help me select. I picked one at random and went there for about a month. It ended up not being a good church…the members routinely said they didn’t like “doctrine” and though they all said they should organize to give me a ride to church (I was walking thirty minutes to go there, in December), that help never materialized. My future mother-in-law contacted her friends in the area and found me a good church that will influence how I look at all churches from now on. I had to leave that one when I moved to Iowa. I then attended the church my in-laws attended. Though it was basically okay, it wasn’t for me. It may have been the numbers (300 in each service) or the people (or me), but I never felt connected with anyone there, and had no outlet for voicing any of my concerns with the teaching. After we got married, we moved to our current church and are commited to staying there no matter the problems. It is Biblically sound and is small enough that I am starting to feel connected to the people. I am already seeing my personal spiritual life improve.

    When we were trying to voice our concerns with the large church, we were told several times that “no church is perfect” and that we should not be so picky. And yet I _knew_ that it was not doing good things for me spiritually to be there. I think, as in so much of life, that one size does not fit all for churches. There needs to be core principals that you can count on (adherence to the Bible, solid teaching, welcoming community, administration of the sacraments), but besides that there shouldn’t be a standard. And those who try to dissuade people from going to a church that is more suited to them…well, they’re not doing anyone a favor.

    I think it is important to worship in the community where you live. What if there is none nearby that are good for you? If it were me, I think I would end up attending the Sunday service of the “best” one and falling away from the body of Christ for the most part. It’s a hard situation.

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