What does your church believe?—and no, I don’t mean the pastors.

by K.W. Leslie, 01 September

A few years ago a pastor friend of mine posted on social media, “One of the core values at our church is…” something. I don’t remember specifically what. Some virtuous practice, like generosity or frequent potlucks. Every church should have frequent potlucks.

But all I remember is immediately thinking, “No it’s not.”

Because it’s not.

I’ve no doubt it’s one of his core values. But he’s not the church.

I’ve no doubt he wants his church to have this value. Probably preaches it in his sermons, includes it in his vision statements, sticks it on the church website. Likely practices it in his personal life. But as I keep reminding Christians (and pastors!) the church is not its leadership. The church is people.

Your pastor’s core values, no matter how much he claims they are, are not your church’s core values. Your church leadership team’s convictions are not your church’s convictions. Your faith statement and official doctrines are not your church’s beliefs. Again the church is people. And your people believe all sorts of things. The pastor can state, “Generosity is our church’s core value” till his face turns bright blue, but if the bulk of the church’s people are stingy as hell, no it’s not. Naming it and claiming it won’t make it so.

Your pastor and leadership might be good, solid Christians. But if your church is predominantly not, your leadership is outnumbered big-time. Your church’s faith statement, which spells out all the stuff your denomination affirms? If the people of your church don’t know it and don’t care about it, your church likely believes all kinds of godawful heretic things.

I live in California, not the Bible Belt. A bothersome percentage of Californian Christians believe in astrology and superstition. Or in Hindu-style meditation and energy forces. Or think they’ve had past lives, and are getting reincarnated instead of resurrected. Or that vaccines don’t prevent illness, but essential oils do.

Oh, the Bible Belt ain’t any better. The bulk of ’em might’ve said some version of the sinners’ prayer, but too many still believe the very same things pagans do—that God’s not a trinity, Jesus is a lesser god but not the God, and the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force. That people get to heaven on good karma, or because they believe all the right things; not grace. (Part of the reason they’re in church is because of the karma points, or because it’s a mandatory belief. Gotta earn that salvation!)

So your church’s true core values? Oh, they won’t be on the church website. You’d have to poll the church to find ’em out.

And the poll results might really bug you.

The core values of the 80 percent.

I’ve mentioned this fact to various pastors, and how they tend to respond is with, “Well yeah the church is people, but the leadership does set the tone…” and blah blah blah as they try to dismiss everything I’m trying to point out here.

It’s not that they don’t believe the church is people. They do; they’ll preach it themselves. You’ll hear it whenever they’re trying to get us churchgoers off our collective arses and do stuff: “You are the church. You’re the ones Jesus expects to go out and minister.”

And maybe 20 percent of the audience believes ’em and gives it a whirl. The rest don’t, and won’t. It’s become a cliché in Christendom that “20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work.” We joked about it in seminary. But once these seminarians graduated and worked in actual ministry, and tried to get their people to volunteer, minister, or give money, to our great annoyance we find… the statistic bears up. I spent two years as my church’s bookkeeper, and had real figures to prove 22 percent of the attendees actually gave money to the ministry. The rest didn’t compensate for their lack of funding by contributing in other ways; they still did nothing. The same 22 percent who gave money, also contributed in those other ways.

With rare exception, every other pastor I’ve spoken to has likewise noticed only one in five of their people pitch in. The exceptions are really small churches, where the percentage tends to be greater than 20; and really big churches, where the percentage can be way, way lower than 20. People deliberately join really big churches so they can hide from responsibility. Others might want to help out… but 5 percent of a big church is an awful lot of people, so they figure, “Clearly they don’t need me,” even though they likely do.

It gets worse: Remember how 20 percent do 80 percent of the work? Whom do you think does the other 20 percent of the work? Well, either it never gets done at all… or the pastors do it.

Oh it gets even worse. The 80 percent do nothing at church, and they do nothing at home either. Their Christianity begins and ends with Sunday morning worship. They imagine they owe Jesus only a tithe of their time—by which they don’t mean 10 percent of it (i.e. 16 hours, 48 minutes, a week… unless you only count your waking hours, in which case it’s 11:12) but just the two Sunday morning hours in which they could be sleeping in like pagans. And once they go home, they take off their Christianity along with their church clothes. They might own Christian books and music, and a few tchotchkes around the house might suggest to visitors Christians might live there. But their lifestyle is entirely pagan. You can’t tell the difference: There is no difference.

What about all the sermons preached at ’em? Didn’t make a dent. Too many Christian sermons don’t actually challenge us to do anything; they only challenge us to believe stuff. Which is really easy to do when we’re hypocrites. We believe all sorts of things which we’ll never act upon. What’s a few more?

So going to church is the extent of their religion. Anything more is too much: “It’s what crazy Christians do.” When we ask ’em to help out, they get irritated: Our do-gooding is cutting into their time, costing them money, and forcing them to work with no-fun church people. Sounds like hell.

Somehow it never occurs to them they expect to spend eternity with this bunch.

Or that when Jesus returns and tells people, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” they’ve never made themselves servants. Which means Jesus’s greeting to them might be a little less welcoming. Mt 25.26, 30

Comes as no surprise to our Lord.

When a proposition gets 80 percent of the vote, we usually call it a landslide. Well, in our churches, the inactive majority makes up 80 percent of the vote. But too many church leaders pay no attention to this fact. It’s the strangest blindspot.

In any event this is why the leaders imagine their views are the church’s. That their core values are what the church holds dear. That everyone agrees with the mission and vision of the church—after all, they haven’t quit the church and gone elsewhere, right? Again, it doesn’t occur to them how people don’t have to vote with their feet: They’ll do nothing, and get away with it. Christians are forgiving, remember?

If we don’t let ’em get away with it—if we demand they take a stand—that’s when they’re more likely to leave. They’ll call us legalists on the way out… or worse, cultists. How dare we expect ’em to actually practice Christianity.

But typically we do no such thing. Christian leadership tolerates this inert majority, and works around it. Or pretends it’s not there and doesn’t matter.

I’m pretty sure Jesus doesn’t share their worldview. When he addressed his churches in Revelation, you notice he didn’t even bother to address the leadership. He bypassed them and spoke to the angels—the spirits whom he put in charge of spiritually defending his churches. He did this as kind of a way to address the people directly. Not the leaders; the leaders were likely following him just fine. The people, though…

Well, look at what he told Ephesus.

Revelation 2.1-7 NKJV
1 “To the angel of the church of Ephesus write,
‘These things says He who holds the seven stars in His right hand, who walks in the midst of the seven golden lampstands: 2 “I know your works, your labor, your patience, and that you cannot bear those who are evil. And you have tested those who say they are apostles and are not, and have found them liars; 3 and you have persevered and have patience, and have labored for My name’s sake and have not become weary. 4 Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. 5 Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent. 6 But this you have, that you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
‘ “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes I will give to eat from the tree of life, which is in the midst of the Paradise of God.” ’ ”

The lampstands represent these churches, Rv 1.20 and Jesus was threatening to end this church if they didn’t bother to follow him. Which he eventually did.

See, too many Christians, thanks to this blindspot, imagine American churches are strong and healthy. We’re so not. Four out of five churchgoing Christians might as well stay home. We’re full of deadwood. We need reviving, and badly. And because our leadership overlooks the crowds, focuses on the few, and pretends the others don’t count just yet… well, we’re just contributing to the coming disaster.

Y’see, Jesus is returning, and these folks aren’t ready. We aren’t challenging them to be ready. We just assume they already kinda are. We don’t realize they’re provoking Jesus to remove our lampstands.