Purpose-Driven Centrist: Bucking Tradition and Typical Church

A couple weeks ago I posted a short survey to collect some experiences readers here have with faith and church. This was as close to the same survey as I could replicate of what the Barna Group did in June, albeit mine less scientific. Nonetheless I am very fascinated in the current changes in Christianity, whether it be the emerging re-formation that I discussed last month or simply the church-(s)hopping pattern / dissatisfaction I have seen and have myself.

I have decided (or resigned myself to the idea) that I will never find a church experience that will completely satisfy me. I wonder if my wife and I will ever find one that we both can agree and feel comfortable in together. That's not because we don't agree about church, but that we have discovered over our years together that we have different desires and ways of experiencing God. Think Five Love Languages of church-speak. So I equally wondered how our readership here related to Barna's scientific poll.

Here are the results:

I expected that our readership would be more progressive than the average respondent to a Barna poll, but what surprised me that while 82% of those who took my survey are willing to try a new church and 28% of the respondents attend either a house or marketplace church, only 16% of BWC respondents are tired of the typical church experience. The popular response to that question were 66% of you that said that the usual type of church experience is "ok - I tolerate it."

Being an unscientific survey, I'm not sure what to make of this dichotomy. I don't want to read too much into it, but I'm wondering if any of the following scenarios would fit to this:
A) the house and marketplace church experiences are the same as a traditional, typical bricks and mortar church
B) there is a a resignation that alternatives to typical church won't be any better
C) identity and community based/confined within typical church experience isn't as significant
I'd love to read comments if options A or B fit your experience, but option C can be supported in the 87% of BWC respondents that develop their religious beliefs on their own as opposed to based on the church they attend, and 92% of you responded that you feel that you can carry out and pursue your faith in a different environment from a typical church.

Because this type of topic is best discussed as a conversation (insert Tim is an emergent joke here), I have some relatively direct questions:
  • If most of us are simply tolerating our churches or church experience, what are the reasons we continue to attend?
  • If the beliefs and doctrines of the churches we attend do not provide our religious beliefs, why do we support their authority, leadership, or influence through our attendance (and I assume giving)?
Before you comment, and I hope people do, let me give you the demographic information of this anonymous survey:
Female - 48% / Male - 52%
18-24: 23%
24-30: 35%
31-40: 29%
41-50: 7%
50+: 6%
2% of the respondents said they were Catholic, 84% said Protestant, no one claimed to be Orthodox, and 13% said they considered themselves Other. The "Others" were given the opportunity to comment, and here are their responses:
  • I am tired of labels and denominations. They're useless
  • Protestant with a healthy respect for other traditions
  • Some dude trying to follow the Christ
  • I find truth and beauty in the three other choices (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox) but I feel that If I choose one of those I must somehow disagree with everything they do. So I would rather just be called a follower of Jesus
  • Emergent
  • Protestant, but leaning toward converting to Catholic
  • some vague form of post-evangelical post-Western-Christendon quasi-Protestant-ish
  • A plain old follower of Jesus
  • anglican
Thank you all who responsed. I really appreciate and look forward to more conversations.

PS - To remove any presupposed context that I lean towards or am anti-church, my real motivations are that I tend to flip-flop between being totally (and lazily) dependent on church as my only God-experience and totally and independently dependent on finding a whole new way of experiencing God in community. Some periods of time I could skip church for a whole month and feel as close to God as I ever have through my fellowship with others and personal readings of scripture and faith books. Other periods if I miss a week of church, I feel completely lost and nothing I do Monday - Saturday seem to get me back on track.


  1. I am a 50-year-old female, living in the SF Bay Area, raised in a pentecostal church; was attending an independent evangelical church because of its awesome youth program. We did not feel it had teaching we were learning from, and when the kids went away to college, we felt free to move on. I was hoping to go back to the pentecostal tradition (albeit with some sound expository teaching, something that can be a bit rare in those circles) but our nearby choices weren't a fit. Then my dad died and I told my mom i'd go to church with her till she felt comfortable going alone. It's been nearly 2 years. My husband doesn't want to go. He goes to a presbyterian church while I go to an A/G. We are both plugged in, partly to keep in the habit of being with believers. However, neither of us is comitting ourselves to being part of the body, so the second question, submitting to authority and teaching and giving, mostly isn't happening. We are giving, but to other ministries we feel can use our support. We tried a home church years ago and loved it but we didn't attract too many people and it died out. Our home Bible study group (people from various churches) helps us stay connected with other believers. I'm actually tired of waiting and would love to know where the Lord wants us. I am not one of the 50+ age group that responded, by the way.

  2. Tim,

    There's a third way that's not independent or dependent-- it's interdependent.

    And I'm sure that none of us will be completely satisfied until Jesus comes.

  3. @Larry - great question! I should have put that in the post: 87 responded.

    @Anonymous - thank you for the comment. I think your story is becoming more common, at least from what I read and hear. A good friend of mine, whom is or nearly 60, and I discuss church often. He was in a house church back in the late 70s/early 80s but he and his wife felt they needed to be in a church with children and youth programs. Now that they are empty-nesters, combined with exhaustion of serving as an elder and the many eye-opening & sour realizations that come from it, church, in the typical manner, isn't as important to him.

    He and I both read the book So You Don't Want to Go to Church Anymore by Jake Colsen (a pseudonym of the two authors). You can download the PDF version of the book here. It's an interesting idea that I would love to see catch fire, and one I am trying/hoping can be a foundation for our next small group.

  4. @Larry - expand on interdependent a little more. What are some practical/tangible examples you see happening?

  5. I didn't respond to this survey, but I can identify with the "ok -- I tolerate it" group.

    I go to a church where I knew from day one I wouldn't fit it. And while it's uncomfortable sometimes, and I sometimes feel grumpy inside that the powerpoint isn't typo-less and the sermons aren't what I would prepare, I continue to go because the focus of the church is serving the city's poorest neighborhoods. The services themselves are held together on a shoestring budget so that more money can go toward local ministry.

    So the reason I "tolerate" is because it readjusts my focus and attitude from desiring comfort and conformity to my ideas to a lifestyle that stresses service. I need that more than the perfect sermon.

  6. Four years ago I started to write a book called "Why I Hate the Church." I think most everyone, at least in my age group (I'm 23), has been there. I'd say 98% of the Emergent movement has been there.

    These past four years have been such a growing process in my ecclesiology, my understanding of the church. Put simply I have become less picky over the church I attend because church is no longer about me. I foster a healthy spiritual life but that doesn't have to come while shying away from a church body. I think Christina is so right that the church is about service. And not only to members of the outside community but to each other. For me, that includes when someone hurts me very deeply. My journey has been one reconciling the church as a place of great harm and great beauty. It's been very hard.

    I've since given up writing that book and instead mull over what messy situation Saint Augustine had in mind when he penned "the church is a whore, but she is my mother."

  7. Churches that have strong service areas and programs are either rare or poorly advertised in our area. The church I currently attend is breathing new lives into their missions and service area with a new associate pastor. At this point we have a half dozen mission trips organized per year, but being a family with two small children, it is difficult for us to do those types of things.

    For us, it is the lack of cohesive, consistent, and dedicated community that we find missing in the churches we've attended since marriage. It is this area of strength that I find most when I read about churches in the New Testament. They didn't have pastors and leadership boards and building campaigns. They had each other; they had stories of Jesus told to them; they had a letter from this guy Paul who tells Jesus' story best. Maybe they have a manuscript of one of the gospels as it is being written.

    I agree that church is not about me, or shouldn't be. Sometimes it is, though. Sometimes I like to go to a megachurch about 70 miles from me because they have a worship experience like no other - a worship place that is just between me and God because I can be in anonymity with 2500 other people I don't see every week.

    But through the daily/weekly grind I would like to live spiritually with people, and that is at the heart of what I feel is missing in the typical churches around me. Sunday mornings don't promote or encourage community. Sure, it is spoken from the pulpit, but the actions of the service speak otherwise.

  8. 1. I go to church because a God who loves me more than I can begin to comprehend calls it his bride and asks me to love it. I actually hate it, but I am in some weird way convinced that he would not ask anything of me that was destructive to me, even though it might feel that way.

    2. I am almost always pushing the envelope of question and challenging their leadership, authority, and poor choices/behavior, which might be why #1 is so very hard. But, he just loves me so very much that I have to do what he asks.

  9. Question based on part of Annie's comment: is church as we know it today, maybe especially in the US, the same as what God called his bride?

    My answer is no, which is why I think there is such a movement to alternatives or unsettling amongst us that still attend.


  10. I don’t like my answer. It makes me uncomfortable and challenges my anger and defies my experiences. Before I say what I am going to say, I will tell you other things I have said and believe to be equally true. The church has been the single most destructive force in my life thus far. Every time I try a new church, I feel like that hopelessly tragic girl who keeps going to back to the man who apologizes and makes promises, and then beats her again.

    That said, she is the bride of Christ. To clarify the semantics, nowhere in the vague presentation of the church as bride is there any mention made of Protestant, Catholic, denominations, emergent, fundamentalist, conservative or liberal. If we say that we believe in grace, as the Bible presents it, then the only requirement for being part of the one bride is being saved by grace. There were not brides. There are not bodies. There is one – bride, body, church. Other delineations are our own creations. We can argue that some elements seem to be the fugly toe or the lazy butt-cheek, but they are no less part of the one church. And, in way that seems overly harsh, to deny that is then to deny grace by implying that because they aren’t doing the right things or haven’t gotten the doctrine right or are messing up, they somehow lose their place. I am forced to believe, then, that the vagueness was intentional because he was not leaving such a dissection as an option.

    And, I get it, because I want the distance too. But, the kind of relationship and redemption that God calls us to does not include the jettison of the unlovely parts. Instead, it calls us to relationships where we sin all over each other and really mess with each other and have to completely depend on him to find our way through the mess. Once we have, all of us, claimed the name of Christ, we become part of the story. Whether our part is legalism and wrath and complacency, or anger and bitterness and rejection, our sin does damage to ourselves, those we encounter, and the community at large. What I mean is, we are all saying something and playing our part in the story. In ways that I don’t totally comprehend, even our silence or uninvolvement is saying something because we, when we claim Christ, no longer choose to be part of the church. We simply are.

  11. All of that is not to say that one method is more right or wrong than another. It is only to say that our method is not what defines us in the eyes of God, and that perhaps, we do more damage by pretending that the infected thumb is not part of the body than if we faced the problem head-on and took the painful and unpleasant steps toward healing. (Christ has declared himself the only authorized amputator, so we don’t get to hold the scalpel on that one.) People will always, even in groups, fall into old patterns, and those who pursue the gospel and love and the kingdom of God will always feel and unrest. That is nothing new. That is as old as the Bible.

    So, I disagree. I would venture to say that we must tread carefully. There has been beautiful progress made in breaking down the idea that those who live in sin are the enemy. However, we must be careful not to simply choose a new enemy. Sin, whether inside or outside the church, is the enemy. Never the people. Never the people. Never Ever Ever the people. That is hard and, as I said earlier, challenges my anger. I want to say that the church that makes me angry and does damage and serves poorly is another entity entirely, but it is not an option that the gospel seems to allow.

    Historically, they are remarkably the same. Starting small, with little government, growing larger and needing systems of governance, to infighting and dissention and taking advantage of people. There were men appointed to lead, and we call those men pastors (Ephesians 4). There were groups of men appoint to lead groups of people (even back in Exodus), and now we call them elders or pastoral staff or leadership committees (Acts 14 &15). Perhaps there were not building campaigns, but there were calls for money and fights over how to use it. Not only that, but we would do well to remember that Jesus was basically starting his own offshoot of the established religion. He didn’t start a whole new religion, which is why he was seen as so subversive and dangerous. There was also gossip, slander, fights over doctrine, neglect of the poor, deception over money, all kinds of sexual wonkiness with peoples’ mommas. There was slavery. There were even congregations rejecting apostles because of power struggles. All throughout the New Testament, the church is both beautiful and a horrible mess.
    We could be discouraged, but I think maybe we should be a little encouraged to know that we have not created a new brand of mess. We are simply finding our own way through the cycles of brokenness and redemption, while confident of victory. It is tempting to idealize the early church, but it is a relief to know that a God who cares about the reality of our lives is not caught off guard by the pathos of jacked up humans being given a part in the bringing about of redemption. I have gone to traditional churches, megachurches, churches that meet in schools, schools that served as churches, Bible studies that kept me sane while the church created chaos, and they were all beautiful and terrible.

    Forgiveness seems essential. I hope that the lie that forgiveness requires apology and means instant restoration does not keep us from forgiveness. I hope it does not keep me from forgiveness.

  12. It's long, and I still hate it. I often find Jesus thoroughly disgruntling, and I hope he finds that endearing.

  13. Annie, you might hate your answer, but I actually find it quite beautiful, especially this part:
    And, I get it, because I want the distance too. But, the kind of relationship and redemption that God calls us to does not include the jettison of the unlovely parts. Instead, it calls us to relationships where we sin all over each other and really mess with each other and have to completely depend on him to find our way through the mess.

    You are right to point out the cycle that we continue today which was not even started by the early communities. We don't discuss that enough. I wonder if the individualism of Christianity didn't start because others before us were tired of the failures of communal faith in that time. That's just wild speculation...

    I've not known anything but typical church, in various denominational forms, except when in college through our IVCF chapter. We were tight. We served. We lived in community, with each other yet in the campus, too. But we even hurt each other there. deeply. some scars weren't even visible until years later. Yet the depth of faith in many of us has broken like waves on the beach, getting shallower and shallower, fading in and out.

    At the same time, I often have a similar view of the organized church as I do of our elected government. Inefficient, wasteful, focused on survival. Yes, harsh, but I said often, not always.

    But I digress. Thank you, Annie, for thoroughly disgruntling with us.