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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Ask the Matriarch — I'm Saved! Now What?

This question deals with the phenomenon of people leaving the church AFTER they convert or reaffirm, not because of losing their faith but because so much emphasis is placed on "getting saved" that everything after is anticlimactic, or just plain neglected.

The question was posited for charismatic and evangelical churches. One of the things I asked our matriarchs was whether this was something that these churches can learn from mainline folks on? It also reminded me of the common mainline phenomenon of the Christmas and Easter attendee, although we didn't talk about that quite as much, but it still comes down to:

Engagement! Engagement! Engagement!

The original question:

In many evangelical and charismatic churches there is a lot of emphasis on evangelism - getting people saved and into church. Not all stay however. I wonder what experience the matriarchs have about 'those who leave via the back door' - and perhaps my question is "how can we help people to stay in the church once they have got the basics of Christianity under their belt?"

So Singing Owl says: "I wish we could all sit down together, mainline church people and evangelical church people, and share openly about what it means to be the church. (That is why I love the Rev Gals!)"

She continues with some excellent thoughts from her own experience:

In the evangelical culture, I think that in our hurry to get people "saved" we have seriously changed what Jesus said. Jesus said that to remain in his love we must obey what he says. He said, "follow me." He also said to count the cost before becoming his follower. Jesus warns us that while his yoke is easy and his burden light, being his follower will cost us everything. What do we make of statements like "Keep your life for yourself and you will lose it; lose your life and you'll find it." Too often we ignore them.

While it seems in my area there are Catholics and mainline people who know more about form or structure than about God, there are evangelicals who once said “a sinner's prayer” and who attend church and know how to find scripture verses and can sing all the hymns -- who do not know God and check their faith at the door. And there are many others who haven’t been part of a church for a long time, but point to a sinner’s prayer moment and think they are fine. Magic prayer. Tragic!

Evangelicals tend to think that the Catholic church, and some mainline Protestant denominations, may be lacking in an awareness of relationship with God and not just religious ritual. But evangelicals have, to an alarming degree, lost any sense of the holiness of God. I do believe that knowing about Jesus is not the same as knowing him. Being baptized is just getting wet if it is not about something that must happen in our spirits. Being "born from above" is radical! But how and when this happens is becoming more and more of a mystery to me.

If we are looking for numbers, we can all take lessons from people like Joel Osteen. But if we are interested in making disciples, we must find ways to be more honest up front. Mainline churches have been discussing falling memberships for some time. Now we evangelicals are discussing the same issues, megachurches notwithstanding. The Assemblies of God leadership recently shared some alarming statistics that made clear that we urge to “get saved” (a phrase I no longer use) but we are not making disciples.

I think the church of the 21st century is going to be about relationships. People who come to church will generally leave if they do not make friendships, and if they are not challenged. Perhaps we need to spend more time helping those who are followers of Jesus learn how to share their faith in a “lifestyle” kind of way and stop competing.

I think we evangelicals can learn from our mainline friends and put something like confirmation classes back in place. We can return to an awareness of spiritual disciplines—a phrase I never even heard till about 10 years ago! We can take time to teach what being a follower of Christ is, and we can stop counting people who have said a prayer as followers of Jesus.

Mainline people can learn from us that there are times when people need a “moment” in time when
they make a conscious to repent—consciously change direction. This may come at confirmation, but perhaps not. It is not about better programs, more exciting music, etc. That may bring bodies into the building, but it will not make Jesus followers.

Ann adds some notes on how to engage folks. "Sounds like people are hungry for more now that they have a taste and the 'high' of feeling saved," she writes. "The being 'saved' is mainly about me -- the next step is to find one's ministry and support to continue the work where my gifts and the world's needs meet."

She suggests small groups of study, prayer, reflection on the intersection life and ministry and where God is calling 'me' to go beyond myself and serve the world. In addition to ongoing study, small groups can also plan activities that include praying together, sharing their closest moments to Christ and plans for the future, creating accountability with one another, and praying for one another during the week.

And whatever you do for the sporadic parishioner, don't do what one of Jan's predecessors did for his/her Christmas and Easter crowd. "Saying during announcements: 'I'm going to turn my back to the congregation and ask those who don't plan to be with us next week to leave.'(True story. And they wonder why the church imploded.) Better: Be real. Be loving. Show the compassion of God. Say/do something that makes a difference."

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!


  1. Singing Owl, if you had been my pastor growing up, I'd probably still be A/G. (Don't know if that is good news or bad news for the Presbyterians!)

    Great wisdom.

  2. Cheesehead, I love you. I needed to hear that today. And as for Jan'predecessor--ACK! and as for Jan's short advice--YAY!

    "Say something that makes a difference." That is the goal, isn't it.

  3. This is a great post...and challenging to me.

    Okay. Maybe I represent a minority voice in this after all. I think that it is less and less true that the congregation is the place to come and make friends. It may happen. And that's great. But by and large, congregations are where we learn to navigate the world, embodying God, learning spiritual stories and disciplines.

    I have friends from church. Surely. And I praise God for them. But they are not why I showed up. And I'm not sure they are why I stayed.

    This is a great post. Thank you.

  4. Tripp, I'm glad you said what you did. I'll be thinking about that a lot.

    I am reading the book Simple Church which is about this very topic--and their whole thing is that a complex matrix of programs and ministries does not make disciples. A simple process does. The entire church needs to be intentional about moving people through a process of spiritual maturation. We work against ourselves with all these programs which really create participants, not disciples.

    Worth a look.

  5. Hmmm...interesting, Tripp. For me, church does not (speaking pre pastor days) have to be the place I make friends. I chose the churches I attended for much different reasons...but I'm thinking of those "disconnected" people....

    If you are correct it is the opposite of what I am hearing from the folks who are supposed to know.

    Very interesting....

  6. Follow up question for Tripp or anyone: Why did you stay?

  7. Why do I stay? That's a really good question! It has nothing to do with the choir or the Bible studies or the fellowship events or the youth program or the traditional service or the contemporary service or...well, you get the picture. In very small part I stay because of a few friends (fewer than half a dozen). But mostly because I believe that God has called me to this congregation - just as much as God has called our pastor to this congregation. That there are gifts and insights I have been given that will help here - and that I need help that is available here. Often I am quite surprised at what gifts are needed - going in both directions! When/if my ministry with this congregation is over, I will be called to be in another place. But this attitude is NOT something I learned in/from church but rather from my parents.

    I VERY MUCH agree that numerous programs are good at creating participants and usually mediocre, at best, at encouraging discipleship.

    Being a Christian is a tremendous blessing. It is also a tremendous responsibility. How can we pass that on without it seeming like an enormous burden?

  8. Why I stay:

    Well, I encounter God at church...well...nevermind. You know what I mean. No caveats are necessary here. No place is perfect. The people at the church had a tremendous influence and are my spiritual community. And eventually I became friends with some of them. But the thing that helped me stay was because the church itself demanded maturity from me and provided inroads/pathways for that maturing. The community that is the congregation serves as guide(s).

    I was never friends with the 80 year old in the alto section. But she was instrumental in my ongoing salvation by the wisdom she continually offered me.

    Does this help clarify?

    And to be honest, I hear from a lot of people in my suburban context that community is hard to come by and if it were not for church, they would have no friends. So, what I am also wondering is if developing friendships is only one ministry that the church provides...but even this ministry must be in the context of the larger ministry of conveying the Kingdom of God.


  9. Apropos of nothing since I wrote teh headline...

    But I want the headline to be my next funny T-shirt to wear while muckraking amongst the hardline right in the Episcopal Church.

  10. We need to reclaim the journey metaphor. The Christian life is a journey, not a single moment or prayer and not a static life. Just getting in the car doesn't get you there, much less just having a car.

    Sometimes, however, we do need to encourage people to hop in, but if you're not going anywhere, there's no reason to be in there.

  11. It's been my experience that the "I'm saved!" emphasis is part of the problem. When the view of Church is that it is some sort of "fire insurance" for personal salvation and that's all, we'll that's pretty narcissistic isn't it? If it's all about "me and my personal Jesus," then community becomes optional. On the plus side, the folks with the emphasis on personal salvation can actually articulate why Jesus matters to them personally. These folks are very clear about the vertical dimension of their relationship with the Triune God.

    On the flip, coming from the Episcopal Church myself, we've emphasized community to the neglect of the personal relationship with Jesus. Most Episcopalians have a hard time articulating why Jesus matters to them personally ... but they can tell you all about the groups they belong to within the church (Episcopal Church Women, Brotherhood of St. Andrew, Altar Guild, etc.). When community is emphasized to the neglect of the personal relationship with Jesus, you end up with something that looks like the Rotary Club with a cross on top. These folks have the horizontal dimension of seeing God in the gathered community.

    What I've found is that we need both dimensions of the cross, the vertical and horizontal, to be genuine Christ followers.

  12. I am in total agreement with Virtual Vicar. I think our struggle becomes how to raise that up in our congregations. Especially since (depending on which tradition we come from) one or the other of those emphases sometimes feels like it is vital to survival for folks and to begin to push that envelope is disturbing, distressing and anxiety producing. While this does not mean we should not engage it, it means we have to be prepared for the reaction. Transformation through faith, however we language it, is a life long process, not an event, and it's not particularly neat, tidy and in our control. The other thing we have to constantly hold before ourselves is that this is God's work not ours, and we are not in charge, otherwise we do indeed become just another well intentioned civic organization with a cross on top. Thanks for engaging this discussion. It's a good one!

  13. At my church we are experiencing a phenomenon of previously unchurched 30-somethings -- usually young families -- coming to us for family baptisms; then for the most part disappearing back into the community. Our pastor tries to keep touch with them, but Sunday worship simply doesn't seem to be a part of their household culture. (There are also cultural and financial pressures on these families that keep them out of church on Sundays -- parents who work weekend shifts or who work out of town for long periods of time; competition from school activities; shared custody situations where kids are being taxied between parents on weekends; and so forth.)

    If I knew the answer to this conundrum I'd probably be working for the ELCA home office in Chicago;-)...but to me one of the things missing from our contemporary lives is that household faith culture -- table grace, family prayer, the household pieties related to our respective faith tradition -- that many of us "cradle Christians" grew up with. I envy our Jewish sisters and brothers for having such a strong tradition of home-based spirituality. While I'd love to see more of our younger members attend worship on a weekly basis, perhaps over the long haul the more important thing is to support/encourage/empower them to structure their personal and household spirituality in ways that sustain them and nudge them into growth on a daily basis.

  14. Gallycat, I am with you. Hang in there!

    I have served in small congregations (under 200 Sunday attendance) for my whole career. I don't care for the large parish simply because I believe that church is the place where we learn to live out our Christian faith. I cannot envision how you would do that in the large parish.

    I too, believe that the Christian Gospel is about relationship rather than such theological issues as justification, salvation, or even resurrection. It has to do with our relationship with God/Christ. I believe that if Christianity does last through the Third Millenium, it will be because of the lived out experience of the small church.

    This is not to ignore that it is often in the small church were much of the real damage is done to the Body of Christ due to feuds, gossip and all the rest of the sins that happen in small communities. But if Christianity has any meaning at all, it has to do with how seriously we take what it means to live together in the name of Jesus.


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