Reflections from a former megachurch pastor
Once upon a time, Jim Palmer was an evangelical powerhouse serving on the pastoral team at Willow Creek Church, preaching to a congregation of over 26,000 set on a sprawling 155-acre property.
Then, in 2004 he had a crisis of faith.
Despite the appearance of having a successful church, Jim realized that preaching nice, biblical, and theologically correct sermons was doing little to address the real, day-to-day issues that church members were experiencing — things like depression, addiction, domestic violence, divorce, and suicide. Jim Palmer faced a moment of raw honesty with himself and recognized that his public persona as a pastor was not in sync with the inner turmoil, dissonance, and anguish he felt inside.
Palmer says on his personal blog: “One day, I realized that for some of the theology I signed up to represent, I could not in good conscience believe or teach anymore. Shortly thereafter, I resigned as senior pastor, left professional Christian ministry, and began searching for answers.”
These days, Jim Palmer helps those who have been damaged by the misuse of religion, and while, he is happy to affirm what he sees as good about religious faith or belief in God, he also speaks out against those parts of religion that he sees as toxic.
He and I have a lot in common.
I was fascinated to see a Facebook post by Jim Palmer recently, explaining what he sees as ten dynamics of the organized church that actually undermine spiritual growth rather than promote it. As a man who has experienced being a pastor in the largest mega-church in the USA, he raised some valid objections to organized religion, particularly the mega-church movement.
I have my own thoughts on why big, organized religion can actually prevent spiritual growth, and I have added them to Palmer’s reflections. Here are ten reasons why organized religion won’t help you grow:
Churches focus on numbers
The church where I experienced the most growth never grew larger than about 30 regular attendees. By all the modern measures, it was a failure of a church.
Because in the circles that pastors move in, your level of success is measured by how many bums you can get in the pew on Sunday morning. “How big is your church?” is a question pastors are regularly asked at conferences and ministerial gatherings.
Anyone can attract a crowd with free beer and pizza, but transforming people’s lives is a messy, complicated, and time-consuming prospect.
Churches need novelty
While we are talking about free beer and pizza… when churches have an unhealthy focus on numbers, they must resort to one-upmanship in terms of the level of entertainment that they offer.
More dynamic and engaging sermons.
Luck door prizes?! I wrote recently about a church giving away free guns to get men to attend. No kidding!
The thing is, style over substance has consequences, and gimmicks might get people through the doors, but they never result in lasting transformation.
Pastors are focused on job security
If your livelihood depends on the success of your church as an organization (measured in number), then encouraging participation in church structures and programs becomes the main game. Transformation and growth are secondary to the main game. As a pastor, it’s all about putting food on your table.
Churches are built around personalities
If I were to name the five biggest churches in America, most people in the Christian sub-culture could name the Senior pastor/leader. The next best thing to being a rock star is leading the latest and greatest growing church.
Of course, the problem is, if churches are built on the cult of personality when one of these personalities falls (think Brian Houston, Mark Driscoll, Ravi Zacharias, or Bill Hybels), then the spiritual collateral can be enormous — even terminal — for the faith of those in the church.
The only personality a church should be built around is Jesus.
Churches are spiritual hierarchies
My last church always used to talk a “big game” when it came to the Biblical concept of the priesthood of all believers. “We are all supposed to be ministers of the gospel,” they would say.
Then they would put a so-called expert up the front every week to talk at you for forty minutes, downloading his wisdom in a flurry of words and exaggerated hand gestures.
The reality is churches esteem and give preference to people with theological degrees and paid church positions. The pastor(s), staff, leaders, elders, etc.… are considered a cut above with God compared to the rank-and-file church member.
Churches focus on believing rather than being
Too often, the church makes following God about having correct theology. But, there are a lot of unhappy, broken, hurting, suffering, depressed, lonely, and angry people in the church with perfect theology.
As long as you say you believe the “right” things and don’t sin too much publicly, you can call yourself a Christian without ever having to do the uncomfortable work of actually becoming like Christ, something that involves getting beneath the surface — underneath beliefs and behaviors — to find out what’s really going on.
Churches miss the true focus of Jesus’s ministry
The Bible never mentions a building called a “Church.” However, you could be forgiven for believing otherwise, given the fact that every second church seems to have a building program on the go.
Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God and the church as the worldwide body of believers. That makes “church” about as decentralized as any organization can be. When Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God, he was not talking about a building or a congregation. He was talking about ushering in a new way of living and being. It is a world where injustice is a thing of the past, where there are no more poor to feed and clothe, and where the inherent value of all people is recognized and celebrated. That’s the kingdom that Jesus instituted.
Churches disenfranchise 50% of their members
It is a huge and unnecessary mistake to prevent women from full self-expression and leadership in all areas and levels of church life. Yes, believe it or not, gender equality is not a thing in many churches. Many churches use obscure biblical texts removed from their cultural context and apply them to the modern 21st-century Church. “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority” (1 Timothy 2:12) is a favorite of the gatekeepers of the misogynist boy’s club that is church leadership.
Don’t get me wrong… there are certain Biblical laws that should be applied verbatim — Moral laws like “Thou shalt not steal” is a good example. But, when you take cultural law that is clearly intended for particular culture in a particular place at a particular time and apply it to now, you end up becoming an oppressor.
Churches are too controlling
When I started a church in my home, well-meaning Christians would often ask me, “But who is keeping you accountable?”
The inference is clear: They are really saying, “What’s stopping you from preaching heresy and becoming some kind of cult?”
This points to a troubling truth: In the church, we are trained to believe that it is acceptable to have our lives examined and controlled by the church itself — specifically the church leadership. We outsource our faith and our morality.
It’s as if we believe that if church members were left to their own devices and forced to work out their own faith, they would descend into satanic worship without the church’s rules, policies, teaching, and constant sin-watching. In reality, working out faith for yourself is the best thing you can do for your spiritual growth.
Churches lack diversity
Walk into pretty much any church, and you will most likely notice that the people who attend are very similar…. culturally, racially, and socio-economically. Churches seem to attract more of their own kind.
The last church I attended was situated in one of the most multicultural cities on earth, with over 200 nations represented in that community. The church, though, was primarily white, educated folk. We did not represent, in any way, the community in which we were situated.
There’s a really simple reason for this phenomenon: Most churches focus their efforts on attracting people of the same kind. So, that’s what they get.
And it’s a shame.
Because the more diverse a church is, the more healthy. Not only that, when you are forced to work in a diverse environment, it causes you to grow: You grow in understanding, empathy, patience, and sensitivity and discover new and different ways to connect with the divine.
One more thing…
There’s one final reason why the organized church won’t help you grow. Here it is: The church doesn’t actually want you to grow.
Well, if you are really growing in your faith, it will inevitably cause you to question the church system at some point. That is a given. Many things about the modern church are virtually incongruous with living a life that honors Christ. It shouldn’t be that way, but if we are really honest, we must concede that it is.
And that’s a problem for the church.
After all, a person questioning the church might be tempted to re-direct their tithes and offerings elsewhere — perhaps to say, helping the poor and needy — rather than paying the pastor’s salary and building more magnificent buildings.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
I still believe there is a way for the church to prove itself valuable to the world once more. However, as long the church continues in the patterns, attitudes, and behaviors mentioned in this article, the pews will continue to become more and more empty.