In 1998, author Anne Rice shocked readers and the publishing world when she announced she would never write another vampire book again. She wrote the bestselling "Vampire Chronicles" series including Interview with a Vampire which some folks credit with launching the whole vampire (and now zombie) obsession seen in our culture. But in 1998 Rice said she would never write those kinds of books again.
Why? Because that year she committed her life to Christ. She said, "My life is committed to Christ the Lord. My books will be a reflection of that commitment." Her fans pushed back begging her to keep writing about vampires, witches, and ghosts. Rice said, "Is Christ our Lord not the ultimate supernatural hero, the ultimate outsider, the ultimate immortal of them all?" Instead she went on to write two novelizations of the life of Jesus based on the Gospel of Luke—absolutely brilliant books.
In 2010 she made another surprising announcement on her Facebook page: "Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being "Christian" or to being any part of Christianity … In the name of Christ I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen." Her post triggered a frenzy on social media with tens of thousands of people reposting and "liking" her statement.
Anne Rice's story represents what more and more people are reporting. They are drawn to Christ, they want to follow him as Lord … but the church? Institutional Christianity? Like a vampire, it sucks the life out of them. Rice listed many of her objections—the perception that Christianity is anti-gay, or anti-woman, or too affiliated with politics, or too exclusionary. These are important perceptions to address. But this morning I want to begin with the trend of Christians dropping out of the church. Dozens of books have been published to decipher the trend over the last few years, and I don't think there is a single, simple answer. And to complicate the matter, it isn't just young single adults who are dropping out of church. It's older folks too. People like Anne Rice, people who have spent decades engaged in the church.
Over the last two years I've been all over the country with Christianity Today working on a project called "This Is Our City," profiling the stories of Christians who see their vocations in business, government, the arts, education, and science all as part of God's work in the world. I've met some deeply devoted and remarkable people. But what struck me was how many of them aren't well connected to a local church. They're committed to Christ, they're actively serving him, but ask them about their church and they shrug their shoulders. If they do attend a church regularly, it's usually not a factor in their lives in any meaningful way. That's what I want to look at this morning.
Rather than tackle the larger issue of people leaving the faith, I want to explore why people who are committed to Christ are leaving the church. Why do they see Christ as giving them life, but the church as taking it from them? We're going to look at this in two ways. First, I want to look at what's going on in our culture that is contributing to this. And second, based on Paul's vision of the church in Eph 4, we'll look at what we need to reexamine about our assumptions regarding the role of the church in the lives of Christ's people.
How do churches avoid becoming vampire churches?
To start, however, we've got to define what we mean by "church." In the English language we use the word church in four different ways.
First, we use it when referring to a building used for Christian worship. "Did you see the new church being built over on Main Street?"
Second, we use church when referring to a Christian worship event. "Are you going to church on Sunday?" Meaning, "Are you going to worship?"
Third, we use the word church when talking about an institution with officers, employees, programs, and resources pursuing Christian goals. "I made a donation to the church." That means I gave money to a 501c3 nonprofit organization to fund its buildings, programs, staff, etc.
Finally, church can mean a community of women, men, and children who belong to Christ and live under his reign—as in, "Bill is part of my church." He's part of the local assembly of Christians.
Now, when the New Testament speaks about the church, which of these definitions does it refer to? It uses the fourth definition. Here's the problem. Most of us know the church is not a building, and it's not an event. But things get very muddled between definitions 3 and 4. When you say "church" do you mean the organization, leaders, budgets, and programs? Or do you mean your community of Christian sisters and brothers?
It's important to recognize this ambiguity because it plays a big part in understanding why people are leaving the church. When you look at Anne Rice's comments carefully, or when I ask more probing questions of the church dropouts I've met, what we discover is that most of the time they're not rejecting Christian community—their fellowship with other Christians. What they're really opting out of is involvement with a church institution.
This is confirmed by research. In the 1970's, Gallop found that 68 percent of Americans said they had strong or high confidence in the institutional church. In fact churches outranked all other institutions as the most respected institutions in America. Today, it's down to 44 percent, and among younger Americans it's even lower. Commitment to an institutional church simply isn't important to Americans anymore, but that doesn't mean people aren't committed to Christian community.
It isn't just the institutional church that Americans are losing confidence in. It turns out younger Americans aren't just rejecting the institutional church, but institutions of all kinds.
My generation (Gen X), and Millennials (those born after 1980), have a strong distrust for institutions—and the bigger the institution, the more distrustful we are of it. That's a fascinating shift from earlier generations. For example, Baby Boomers were attracted to big churches. They're the generation that invented by mega-church. For Boomers big meant legitimate. If that church is big it must be doing something right.
Things have changed. We're now living in the post-Watergate, post-Enron, post-Lehman Brothers, post-NSA world. For younger people big doesn't mean legit, big means corrupt. Last year The Atlantic ran a great article on this trend called: How Americans Lost Trust in Our Greatest Institutions. "It's not just Washington. Across the country citizens' faith in their city halls, newspapers, and churches is fading." As a generation, the stats show, we just aren't willing to commit ourselves to institutions anymore. Laura Hansen, a sociologist, put it this way: "We lost [faith] in the media: Remember Walter Cronkite? We lost it in our culture: You can't point to a movie star who might inspire us, because we know too much about them. We lost it in politics, because we know too much about politicians' lives. We've lost it—that basic sense of trust and confidence—in everything."
Here's something to consider. When most of you graduated from school you probably focused on finding a job with a company—a medium or large institution. Maybe you even thought about a long term career with that company. That's not how young people think anymore. One poll found that 6 out of 10 college students plan to start their own business, and (this is the amazing part) 35 percent of college students already have started their own business before graduating.
This is a highly entrepreneurial generation that carries a profound distrust of institutions. And these same values carry over into their faith. In their pursuit of Christ they are not thinking about committing themselves to a single institutional church. They're happy to get their bible teaching from Tim Keller's podcast, and they'll serve with that World Relief or IJM program in the city, and they'll study that Francis Chan book with some friends on Wed night, and take in that Taize worship service once a month in Oak Park. But commit to one local church? No thanks and give their time, money, and energy to it? Not likely.
So that's a glimpse of what's happening in our culture. We are seeing the rise of an anti-institutional, highly entrepreneurial generation. Now we have to look at the other side—what's happening within American churches that might be contributing to the dropout trend we are seeing? For that we now need to turn to Scripture. I want to look at Ephesians 4. Based on this text I want to help you see how the church is supposed to function. Then we'll see how easy it is to stray from God's intension, and how this leads to vampire churches.
This is actually a tricky passage in which context is really important. Paul starts by talking about our oneness in Christ.
Verse ten is really important. By descending to the earth (the incarnation) and ascending back to heaven as the victorious King, Jesus' goal is that he might "fill all things." This is a way of saying that his mission is to rule over all things. I want you to notice the scope of Jesus' mission here: He seeks to rule over everything. We'll come back to this. Now, in light of all of this, Paul says he has given his people gifts. What are the gifts? Look at verse eleven. This is great. In other letters Paul talks about spiritual gifts—things like teaching, and healing, and serving. But here he doesn't list actions, he lists people. He says Christ has given us leaders. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers, and shepherds. These people are given to us by Christ for a very important purpose, which is stated in verse twelve.
Paul goes on to list other things here, but it's this first one I want you to see. These leaders are given by Christ to "equip the saints." Who is that? Us! You and me. To do what? Ministry. Ok, we've got another language problem. Like the word "church" the word "ministry" is terribly mangled in our culture. What is ministry?
When you and I hear the word ministry, what comes to mind? Church work. That's the work that pastors and missionaries do. That's what we call "ministry." So when we read verse twelve we think it means that leaders are supposed to equip us, God's people, to do church work. That's not what Paul is saying. That's not how he's using the word ministry.
Rather than thinking of ministry as "church work," it's better to define this as "an act of service to God." To really get Paul's point here, we've got to go back to verse ten. Remember the scope of Jesus' mission: that he might reign over all things. That's the context for this whole thing about giving leaders to equip the saint. The idea here is that Christ wants his rule extended over all things. How does that happen? Well, he gives leaders, and these leaders (full of his power), equip us, his people, to serve him and manifest his rule—where? Inside the institutional church? No, in the world! Everywhere.
I don't know how this strikes you, but I find this really compelling. I find this model life-giving and exciting. But here's the problem. This model does not represent the dominant philosophy of ministry in the American church over the last 30 to 40 years. The model that I was taught in seminary, and that get's extolled at most ministry conferences and in church-growth books, looks more like "vampire church." Rather than equipping and empowering people, rather than facilitating them to accomplish the good work that God has called them to do for him out in the world, vampire churches seek to use people. The goal is to plug them into the apparatus of the church institution rather than release them out in the world, in their vocations, and communities. So rather than empowering them, vampire churches drain the life out of them in pursuit of some institutional goal.
When you put these two models side by side, what's happening in the culture and what's happening in the institutional church, what we've got is a perfect storm for church disengagement. We're seeing a generation that is more distrustful of institutions than any previous American generation, and we're seeing a model of church leadership that is highly institutionalized and inwardly focused. Is it any wonder young people, even those committed to Christ, aren't pouring their lives into local churches?
Last year my colleagues and I organized a pastor listening tour around the country. It was our chance to hear what pastors are struggling with and what their churches need help with. I had one conversation with a church planter out west that was fascinating. This guy was a bit older than me, but not much, and far cooler—which isn't difficult. I asked him what was the biggest challenge he was facing. He said, "How do I get a generation that doesn't believe in commitment to commit to the church?"
My first thought was what does he mean by the word "church"? It turns out a good number of young adults are engaging with the church community—their in support groups and bible studies and relationships with one another. The problem was, they are not stepping up with their time and money to serve in an institutional capacity. So I asked him, "What are you asking them to do?" The pastor explained how he had all kinds of ministry programs the church wanted to launch in the community. Outreach, and service, and even some international projects, but these young people aren't committing to them. Here's the funny thing, I've spent a good amount of time in his city over the last 4 years, and I can't think of a city in the US that has more committed, active young Christians. These guys are incredible. They're starting non-profits every other day. We profiled one who is leading the fight against human trafficking in the city. Another who launched a program for the homeless. Others who are teaching kids in the poorest schools, art and music. And they're doing all of this from an acute sense of God's calling.
So I said to this pastor, that maybe it wasn't that the youth weren't committed to the church but rather that the church wasn't committed to the young people. What if instead of trying to get them to engage our institution's programs and goals, we shifted the institution to equip them to better accomplish what God is calling them to do?
What's so encouraging to me is that there are leaders who are doing just that. There are institutional churches that are shifting their thinking from using people to empowering people. From growing the institution to growing disciples. And from measuring how many people come to a service on Sunday, to how many are manifesting the reign of Christ in business, government, education, health care, the arts, the home, in all of the sectors of their community—because Jesus didn't descend to the grave and ascend to the right hand of the Father so that he might rule over an institution. He did it so that he might rule over all things.
The "church" is the community of God's redeemed and empowered people. The church institution exists to equip God's people. God's people do not exist to equip the institution. Ministry is not what we do within the church institution, but what we do to manifest the reign of Christ in the world.
Let me close with this. A few years ago I spent a few hours interviewing Dallas Willard. We talked about many of these same realities—as well as other challenges the church is facing mostly from within. Dallas, I think it's fair to say, saw these problems and their causes more clearly than I did. At the end of that 2 hour conversation I asked him, "When you look at how off track the church is, do you ever just throw up your hands in despair?"
He smiled at me and said, "Never."
"How can you not?" I asked.
"Because," he said, "I know Christ is the head of his church and he knows what he's doing."
Friends, the church is facing a lot of challenges in our culture right now. I've only touched on one of them this morning, but here's the good news. Our response to these challenges shouldn't be a fancy new program, or grasping at what marketing experts say is hot. Nor is it pointing an accusing finger at our big bad secular culture. It shouldn't be wagging a judgmental finger at the institutional church. The answer is for us, the church, the people of Christ to align ourselves more closely to his word. To remember our callings—whether we are leaders or saints—to manifest the reign of Christ in this world. To not lose hope, for Christ is the head of his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
Skye Jethani is an author, speaker, consultant, and ordained minister. He also serves as the co-host of the popular Holy Post Podcast.