After a month in the woods by myself, my sabbatical plan is to spend three months listening to people who aren’t a part of church culture, to see how they view church and understand why they don’t go to church.
My initial sabbatical plan was to do a bunch of typical sabbatical stuff, but COVID-19 changed all that. Plan B was to visit a bunch of churches in the area to see different ways of doing and being church but, upon further reflection, I moved to Plan C. The truth is, I’ve spent a lot of time in church culture: Mennonite, Catholic, Pentecostal and everything in between. I’m very in touch with church culture. Drowning in it, you might say. What I’m really out of touch with is non-church culture.
So I wondered what would happen if I didn’t do anything “churchy” for four months. What would I miss? What if I didn’t miss anything?
Right now, a lot of Christians are asking themselves similar questions. Many people who were faithful church attenders pre-pandemic have stopped attending worship services and church functions. They tuned in to Zoom or YouTube church for a while, and still occasionally check in, but many of them are asking: “Will I go back when all the restrictions are lifted? What is it I really miss about being part of a church?”
For the first time, many faithful churchgoers are understanding why people don’t go to church. They are discovering that there isn’t a lot they miss themselves. This frightens pastors and denominations. What does it mean if they don’t come back?
This pandemic is revealing a number of significant things. For many, it’s revealing that being part of a church was not as meaningful as they had assumed it was. Yet, at the same time, this pandemic is providing an opportunity for churches to stop focusing on things that don’t really matter, and start focusing on what brings life, love, transformation and meaning to people and our world.
The truth is, people miss things that make them feel like they belong and are loved. People miss things that help them grow and become better versions of themselves. People miss things that help them experience divine presence. People miss things that make them feel like they are making a difference in the world. Any church that did this, I’m pretty sure people will miss it and come back. But many church attenders are discovering their lives are the same, maybe even better, without church.
Too often, what churches excel at are giving burdened people more burdens: “We know you’re busy and broke, but share more of your money, time and energy with us. Join this committee, volunteer, do more, give more.”
Unfortunately, instead of energizing and encouraging people, many churches end up draining people or adding stress to those who are already stressed. How many times do you hear about a church “going through stuff”? “Did you hear: so and so church is going through a tough time?”
Usually this tough time is because a few people are in a huff about something, demanding that things change or go back to the way things were before something changed. Sometimes it’s the pastors or leaders in a huff, sometimes it’s disgruntled members. It doesn’t matter. It stresses everyone in the church community out and makes church exhausting rather than life-giving.
A lot of church members who have not gone back to church have said that what they miss most is catching up with people over coffee in the foyer. In my opinion, if that is the best church offers, the church is wasting its potential to be what it was intended to be. My understanding is that the church is called to be a Spirit-soaked, life-giving, life-transforming, world-improving community of people who live out the wisdom way of Jesus together. However, I’m writing this before I start my sabbatical. Maybe I’ll think differently in four months.
So what do I miss about church? That is the question I’m looking forward to answering at the end of my sabbatical. Does the church help me to grow and make a difference in my community and the world? Does it help me to experience God’s presence and love others? Or will the primary thing I miss be catching up with people over coffee in the foyer?
Who knows? Maybe I’ll discover that’s enough.
Troy Watson is away to find perspective on the Way.