What does your church believe?—your REAL church.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 January

Some Christians do better in a church with more structure.

Recently 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. All I remember is immediately thinking, “No it isn’t.”

Because it isn’t.

Oh, I’ve no doubt it’s one of his core values. A virtue he no doubt wants his church to have. 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, the leadership of a church is not the church. The people are.

Your pastor’s core values are not your church’s core values. Your leadership team’s convictions are not your church’s convictions. Your statement of faith and official doctrines are not your church’s theology. Because the church is people. And your people believe all sorts of things. And if your people aren’t solid, growing Christians, 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. In Hindu-style meditation and energy forces. That they’ve had past lives, and are getting reincarnated instead of resurrected. That vaccines don’t prevent illness, but crystals and 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 isn’t a trinity, Jesus is a lesser god but not the real God, and the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force. That people get to heaven on good karma instead of God’s grace—and the reason they’re even going to church is to keep their karma points up.

So your church’s real core values? You’re not gonna find them on the website. You’d have to poll the church to find ’em out. And the poll results might really bother 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 to them.

It’s not that they don’t believe the church is the people. They’ll preach it themselves. Especially when they’re trying to get the church to get off their collective keisters and do stuff. “You are the church. You’re the ones Jesus expects to go out and do this stuff.” And maybe 20 percent of the audience believes ’em and gives it a try. The rest don’t, and don’t.

It’s become a cliché in Christendom that “20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work.” We joke about it in seminary, but once these seminarians graduate and start working in actual ministry, and try to get their people to volunteer, minister, or give money, to their great annoyance they 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 make up for their lack of monetary donations by contributing in other ways. It was the same 22 percent who pitched in as well.

Every other pastor I’ve spoken to, with rare exceptions, have likewise noticed only one in five of their people contribute. 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 lower than 20. After all, if you wanna do nothing in your church, and disappear into the crowd lest they recruit you, where better than a really big church?

Oh 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 only owe Jesus a tithe of their time—by which they don’t mean 10 percent of it (i.e. 16 hours, 48 minutes; unless you only count your waking hours, in which case it’s 11:12) but just the two hours 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 to suggest to visitors how maybe Christians live there. But their lifestyle is entirely pagan. You can’t tell the difference, ’cause there is no difference.

What about all those sermons preached at ’em? Made no difference. Too many Christian sermons don’t actually challenge us to go out and do stuff; 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, so 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. People who take this Jesus stuff way too seriously, or who make an effort because they think they’ll be saved by good deeds. 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 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. Weirdly, church leaders tend to act like nobody even voted; that the active minority, the 20 percent, reflects the whole of their congregation. It’s the strangest blindspot.

It’s the reason why they imagine their core values are the church’s. That their beliefs reflect the church’s. That everybody agrees with the mission and vision of the church because 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?

And if we don’t let ’em get away with it, then they’ll leave. And call us legalists and cultists on the way out.

Christian leadership may tolerate this inert majority, or work around it, or pretend it’s not there, or treat it like it doesn’t matter. I’m pretty sure Jesus doesn’t share their worldview. When he addressed his churches in Revelation, he didn’t bother to address the leadership—who were probably following him just fine, ’cause they do. He bypassed the leaders 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. And he knew the people of the churches, even back then, weren’t all that devout.

Like he told Ephesus:

Revelation 2.1-7 KWL
1 “Write to the Ephesus church’s angel.
Thus says the ruler of the seven stars in his right hand,
the one who walks in middle of the seven gold lampstands.
2 I know your works. Your beating. Your endurance. That you don’t tolerate evil.
That you tested the sayings of your ‘apostles’ and found them untrue, and frauds.
3 You have endurance. You carry my name. You haven’t grown tired.
4 But I have this against you: You set aside your original love.
5 So remember where you fell from. Repent. Do your first works!
Otherwise I’m coming—and if you don’t repent I’ll move your lampstand out of its place.
6 But this you have: You hate the works of Nikolas’s followers.
I hate them too.
7 Tell those with ears, to listen to what the Spirit tells the churches.
To the winner, I’ll give food from the tree of life which is in God’s paradise.”

The lampstands represented these churches, Rv 1.20 and Jesus was threatening to end this church if they weren’t gonna 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.