Over the last few weeks in my “Church Dropouts” series, I’ve alerted you to four reasons we’re losing devoted church members; shared some strategies to perhaps help disrupt these patterns; and sounded the alarm on a new category of people who are on the fringes of our churches hoping to be noticed before they actually leave.
My hope and prayer is to raise awareness in the midst of all the church growth plans and new church plants being born. While I’m all for celebrating the people that are coming into the church every Sunday, I also want us, as responsible leaders in the Church, to lament and respond to those who are deciding not to return. We must also acknowledge that those who already left still need a connection to God and to His people.
Throughout this article series, I’ve discovered and heard from some folks around the country, many of them former “traditional” pastors, who have voiced the same questions I’m asking. They have similar reasons for leaving their church positions, and in many cases their livelihoods, to pursue their call differently. They are creating spaces and places for those who still love God but not necessarily the local church, as we know it. I think you’ll be stirred and challenged by their stories:
Daron Earlewine, a former church planter, started Pub Theology in 2009 in Indianapolis, what he calls “1/3 a party, 1/3 charity event and 1/3 church service.”
After six years in church planting, Daron had a “missional freak out” moment when he realized that he did not have any meaningful relationships with people who did not know Jesus. In trying to have a conversation with his unchurched neighbor, he realized it was an “awkward conversation.” When he told his wife about it, she told him bluntly, “That’s because you’re not a real person anymore. …unless you’re talking about church, at church, doing church, or around church people, you don’t know know how to just hang out and be normal.”
That conversation started Daron on a quest. Through prayer, Pub Theology was birthed. Essentially, he and his team are the entertainment at local bars but they get to speak about Jesus and raise money for a worthy cause. As Daron puts it, “we wanted to introduce people to the heart of God before we introduce or re-introduce them to God.” While most patrons expect an ordinary bar night, they instead encounter a time of hearing stories of compassion and see people being generous to a cause.
“Recently, we raised $6,000 for a young teenage girl who was fighting leukemia. We had her and her family share their story. There people are moved heart and soul by compassion, generosity and hope by loving our neighbor. After we share about the cause and get people to hear the stories, I go up and share a four-minute talk that points to Jesus.”
Daron helps people make sense of what they may be feeling after experiencing that atypical bar night by sharing how God created them to be connected to others and to give back hope to the world. As a follow-up, he invites people to come back to Cocktails and Conversation where questions about life, God and everything in between can be asked with people who are also hungry for answers. Pub Theology nights led to Daron being invited to host a three-hour radio show called Radio Theology on one of Indianapolis’ top secular stations. Now known around Indy as the “Pub Pastor” Daron’s ministries attract the unchurched, dechurched and churched out. His rationale for doing these out-of-the-box outreaches is simple: “We believe that we learn to live our lives by doing what Jesus did. He came from Heaven to earth to have conversations with people just like us. He went to parties and hung out in the everyday places of life so that people could get to know Him better.”
For more than 15 years, Keith Giles served off-and-on as a licensed and ordained minister of the gospel. Then 11 years ago, he says the Lord called him and his wife to start a church where 100 percent of the offerings would go to help the poor in their community.
“We said “yes!”
To pull that off, the Giles had to meet in homes and Keith had to go and find a real job in the workforce as an advertising copywriter at the world’s largest technology global distribution company. The Mission House Church [or “The Miscellaneous Christians of Orange County”] reaches mostly millennials and believes its distinctiveness comes from allowing everyone to share and to freely use their spiritual gifts. Young and old, male and female, are encouraged to practice the 58 “one anothers” in the New Testament scriptures. The church doesn’t have a building, 501C3, or a bank account.
“We don’t offer a tax exemption for donations; have no human CEO pastor/leader; no paid staff [or unpaid staff].”
Keith is addressing one of the key issues of most people who are leaving the church—giving back to those in the community. He does that by collecting money for the poor and having total transparency about where that money is spent and how people are helped by the offerings they receive.
“We have a meeting with Jesus, and not just about Jesus,” Keith says, adding that people share as the Holy Spirit leads them to participate. No agenda. The Mission House Church has also been instrumental in founding and supporting a weekly “Motel Church” that meets at the back parking lot of a motel in Santa Ana, California, ministering to many low-income families in poverty. To help fund this ministry, they partner with local churches and provide breakfast. Visit his blog here.
Richard Jacobson, a former “traditional” pastor is now a leader in what is known as the Unchurching Movement. His experiences led him to write a book called Unchurching: Christianity Without Churchianity, in which he asked the question, “Are we looking at a bunch of believers leaving the church, or is it more that believers have left the building?”
Richard, along with many in the Unchurching Movement, believes that millions of people who are leaving the church are leaving not because they have lost faith in God but because the structure of the
church no longer helps them reach the goal that most churches have—to help people get closer to God.
“When it comes to church, we not only want a different expression, we want an entirely different experience,” when interviewing him he said, “What if what we are witnessing is not the great falling away as many traditional church goers fear but the rumblings of the next great revival.”
Richard was the poster child for church volunteerism leading the youth, singing on the worship team, heading up VBS and eventually became part of the pastoral staff at his church. He was so committed he took all his vacation time from work to work for the church! “My whole life was church!”
So how did this committed church volunteer and former pastor become dechurched? He naively prayed, “God help me to lay down anything that is manmade tradition and teach me what You had in mind when You birthed the church.” He then dug into the Bible and found that the organized church model was at odds with biblical church community and the people who were doing most of the work—“church staff”—were really supposed to be equipping lay people to do the work. He serves as the moderator of the Unchurching Community Facebook closed group that has about 3,000 members, hosts the Unchurching Facebook public page, whose members meet up face-to-face in various places around the country. The interest in this movement has grown internationally as well; they also have an Australian Facebook Group. This year, Richard hosted the first Unchurching Conference in Nashville. He attends a non-institutional church that has no building, no pastor and no programs.
Thinking (and Doing) Differently
As you can see, these leaders are thinking outside the prevailing traditional paradigm. If you’re like me, you felt a sense of refreshment and commitment to the call as they shared their stories and talked about how God is moving through the risks they’ve taken to reach His people. We all need to renew our imagination for what’s possible when we commit to being leaders who respond to Jesus’ Great Commission call. Small or large, house church or bar church, in parking lots or under bridges. Our mission should be to make disciples by whatever means necessary.
In her book, Leaving Church, A Memoir of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor asks, "If churches saw their mission in the same way, there is no telling what might happen. What if people were invited to come tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they are supposed to believe? What if they were blessed for what they are doing in the world instead of chastened for not doing more at church? What if church felt more like a way station than a destination? What if the church's job were to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in, by convincing them that God needed them more in the world than in the church?
Perhaps Ms. Taylor is on to something.
The great thing about thinking differently is that it leads to doing differently. Perhaps these formats are not celebrated by the masses, but I'm sure our God will celebrate and bless them. To quote Steve Jobs, "Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently ...the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are usually the ones who do."
Are people calling you crazy? Wondering if you really are crazy? Go out there and win your world for Jesus. It's the crazy ones who can and will. This crazy one is rooting for you!