The Gaping Hole in the American Church: Part 1

At the conclusion of a bible study group I recently attended, someone sought me out saying “After listening to you today, I thought for sure you’re a pastor’s kid!” When I told her I wasn’t, she immediately asked if I was a pastor’s wife. At that point I laughed and explained I’m a normal person who just studies a lot. She was blown away and told me she didn’t realize an average person could know that much about the Bible. It was a compliment I treasure, but it left me uneasy. A person’s family background shouldn’t hold them back from becoming a serious student of anything, especially the Bible.

A week later, I received different feedback. I had a brief interaction with someone I barely know who pointed out the ways my observations from a passage in the New Testament fell short, alluding to how unqualified I was to speak on the topic. I was appreciative of the feedback, but left disappointed at the lie chewing holes in the fabric of the American church today.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard comments like either of these, and while they no longer surprise me, they do sadden me. Because the first question we ask a  person who shares from the Scriptures shouldn’t be what their qualifications are or what church their dad preaches at.

Well intended or not, these kinds of comments show the narrow-minded, churchy way of thinking Christians are notorious for: that the only people who are gifted enough, qualified enough, or knowledgable enough are the special people who’ve been to seminary. And so if you haven’t been to seminary, then you must not know enough to run a bible study. Or teach a class. Or lead a ministry. Or counsel the pastor.

The concept of lay leadership is virtually absent from the American church. It is so much more than being on the greeting team or in the worship band. It’s beyond a friendly smile in kid’s ministry, passing the communion tray, or being on a planning committee for next season’s retreat. To be clear, all of those jobs are important. Volunteers are the backbone of the organized church. You simply cannot run a modern church service without them, no matter how many people show up on Sunday. Volunteerism is vital, and reveals much about a church’s spiritual health and attitude toward service.

But we must not confuse volunteerism with leadership.

Unfortunately, lay-person involvement rarely progresses beyond the typical volunteer positions that come with the in-and-out tasks of operating a church facility. We in the church are not quick to grow new believers to maturity and delegate the responsibility of multiplication to them. That might be too hard. Instead we leave them in their somewhat menial positions, eager to hire out the big responsibilities of shepherding the flock to the professionals. Show me a church where the everyday attenders are also mature believers, teaching on a regular basis. Or even more, a pastor who is actually training unpaid leaders to preach, counsel, or oversee and then expecting them to do so. In 25+ years of following Jesus I’ve almost never seen church where this is the norm.

And yet it’s what Jesus asks. He expects us all to be pastors of our families, counselors in our communities, teachers to those who look up to us, and servants to anyone in need.

But for so many of us, it’s easier to farm that out. More often than not we expect our paid church staff to do those things while also providing opportunities for us to pitch in when it works for our schedules. Or, on the other end, we actually desire to be leaders but feel inadequate or ill-equipped, too inexperienced and lacking confidence to step up even in small ways.

And perhaps the worst evil of it all is that our church leaders (both paid and unpaid) allow us to live this way. They rarely hold believers accountable, calling us out in our complacency, mostly because we will run them out if they do! A passage in Judges 17 takes a sobering look at what happens when God’s people hire their spiritual leaders, and it’s a difficult story to swallow in light of the mass amount of pastoral burn-out, turnover, depression, and even suicide that exists within the American church. These people have dedicated years of their lives and thousands of dollars to earn them a job where their brothers and sisters abuse their abilities.

We have paid our leaders to be mature for us, holding a standard and putting on a show we approve of. But in the process, the body of Jesus is languishing in spiritual weakness, vulnerable to deception and attack. Is it any wonder we often look no different than the world crumbling around us?

But the Good News is Jesus. He has equipped His followers with gifts from the Spirit, who is eager to work in humble hearts and ready to move in the body. We all have gifts valuable and precious—young, old, male, female, educated, uneducated, working class, upper class, black, white, tie-die….none of it matters! All of Jesus’ followers are critical parts of His kingdom. But we cannot all be babies. We cannot all sit around and hire people with degrees and training and time to do the work we should be doing ourselves.

Friends, we do not need more believers showing up to small group having not read the Scripture passage for that week. We have enough of those. We do not need more self-righteous critique of our leaders or more self-loathing among our prayer circles. We do not need more qualified people leading the unqualified.

We need a priesthood of devoted men and women who are faithfully doing the work daily. Our Lord has called us to bear His name, to image Him in everything we do, and to help our brothers and sisters do the same. This goes beyond just being nice and moral and trying to volunteer at church once a month. It’s a practice that involves complete transformation of our minds and lifestyles. And it takes time.

We need to stop going to church and start being the church. We need to take the burden off our wonderful paid pastors and staff, and take up the responsibility for our own growth, becoming people who meditate on the Word day and night and offer ourselves as servant-leaders in kingdom of the God we claim to love.

Someday when my daughter is older, I hope she is never asked a question about her qualifications or her upbringing, as if the only people who can do anything impactful in the church must be well-educated or pastor’s kids. I hope she is looked upon as a wise leader worth following because she faithfully follows Jesus. I pray that by the time my sons are grown men they can open their Bibles anywhere and teach anyone without being professional pastors—I pray that that’s the norm within the church.

I pray by the time my children are grown that pastors have stopped measuring their success by how many people come back each Sunday, and more by how many people leave prepared and willing to go multiply themselves, wherever and however that looks. And in the mean time, I pray I can somehow inspire, encourage, and equip God’s people to love their God, love their neighbor, and seek God’s wisdom for themselves, no matter what their life experience has told them so far.

The gifts of our King surpass the greatest treasures of this world. And He’s bestowed them on us all. May we humbly ask Him to teach us how to use them and then actually go do the work.

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