03 January 2024

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

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 a pastor. 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.

Our pastors might declare our churches and denominations hold to certain faith statements, certain official doctrines, certain core values, certain biblical principles… but unless they’ve taken a poll of the people to find out what we really believe, all they’re really stating is what they think ought to be our churches’ central convictions.

The actual central convictions? Bit messier.

Centuries ago, our Lord Jesus had his apostle John write messages to seven churches located in the eastern Roman Empire. If you read it, you’ll notice Jesus didn’t even bother to state ’em to the church leadership—who were probably following him just fine! Instead he bypassed the church supervisors and spoke straight to the angel over each church—the spirit whom he put in charge of spiritually defending his churches. (Who isn’t actually in charge of the church, ’cause angels help, not lead; ignore anything people claim to the contrary). Addressing the angel was Jesus’s way of addressing the people, not the leaders.

Here’s what he had to say to the people of the church of Ephesus:

Revelation 2.1-7 CSB
1 “Write to the angel of the church in Ephesus: Thus says the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand and who walks among the seven golden lampstands: 2 I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil people. You have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and you have found them to be liars. 3 I know that you have persevered and endured hardships for the sake of my name, and you have not grown weary. 4 But I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first. 5 Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. 6 Yet you do have this: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.
7 “Let anyone who has ears to hear listen to what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.”

In this part of Revelation, lampstands represent the individual churches, Rv 1.20 and Jesus was threatening to end this church if they didn’t bother to follow him. They didn’t, so he eventually did.

And like I said earlier, the leadership of this church was probably following Jesus just fine! Sharing the gospel, serving the needy, loving their neighbors; all the stuff Christians oughta do. But they only made up maybe 20 percent of the church at best. The other 80 percent? They were the ones Jesus was critiquing for abandoning their first love, and slacking on good deeds. They did hate what certain heretics in their city were up to; Jesus hated that too; but it takes very little effort to hate stuff. It’s not that positive a thing to say about ’em.

Anyway back to my point: The leadership of our churches usually takes charge of presenting the public face of our churches. They put together the websites, publish the faith statements, show photos of the 20 percent of the church which actually participates in outreach and charity… but the great majority of the church? It’s embarrassing to say so, but they’re irreligious and fleshly, and have zero interest in following Jesus any better than they already barely do.

They’re why our supposedly “Christian” country doesn’t act it. They’re why our supposedly “Christian” churches don’t follow Christ all that much. Why the people of those churches can so easily be swayed by politicians and scam artists of low character, and think they’re right with God because they hate particular sins. But do they do anything Jesus teaches? Meh; when the mood strikes.

The core values of the 80 percent.

Thanks to this blindspot, too many Christians 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 are just “baby Christians” who still have some growing up to do… well, we’re simply contributing to the coming disaster.

Y’see, Jesus is returning, and these folks aren’t ready. And we’re not really challenging them to get ready. Well, some of us are encouraging them to build End Times bunkers and acquire guns, but that’s not the sort of readiness Jesus expects. We don’t realize they’re quietly provoking Jesus to remove our lampstands.

We think our churches are doing fine, because… we have faith statements! We have core values! But again: The church leadership team’s convictions are not the church’s convictions. The official doctrines and faith statement are not the church’s beliefs. The church is people, and these 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 and claiming it won’t make it so.

Your pastor and leadership might be good, solid Christians. I’ve found this to be so in just about every church I’ve visited. But if the people of 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, your church 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 somehow 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? Poll your people. But I warn you, the results might really bug you.

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 preach it themselves. You’ll hear it whenever they’re trying to get us churchgoers off our collective arses and help them: “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 we seminarians graduated and went to work in actual ministry, and tried to get our people to volunteer, minister, or simply 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. At all. They figured the church had enough money to hire a pastor, and the pastor had a nice car, so we must be doing just fine without their money. Or they figured they’d contribute with volunteer time… but they didn’t volunteer either; it was the same 22 percent doing all the volunteering.

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 intentionally join big churches for just this reason: Six percent of a thousand people is 60 people. That’s a lot of talent! So they can easily hide in the crowd of 9,940, and not contribute at all. They can even tell themselves, “Clearly they’re not short on people, and don’t need me,” and ignore their conscience every time it tells them Jesus expects far better of them.

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, for 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. And somehow it never occurs to them they may very well spend eternity with church people.

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 entirely sure Jesus doesn’t share their worldview. Read his messages to the other six churches in Revelation. That was the church back then—in a country which didn’t approve of Christianity, and occasionally persecuted it and killed its leaders. That was how self-described “Christians” behaved under difficult situations; now look at the easy situations they have in countries with freedom of religion. Where they can easily get away with being irreligious. How d’you think Jesus feels about ’em now?