An Unexpected Sojourn
July 11, 2023
Last week I had coffee with a friend in Spokane and shared my current journey with him. As we closed, he commented, “Well, blessings to you on your sojourn.” That moniker caught me a bit off guard. At 66, I did not intend to be on this sojourn, but the term is fitting.
I have spent my entire adult life engaged and invested in a local expression of the body of Christ. Linda and I have cherished our fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ in churches, large and small. Most all our affiliations have spanned a decade or more. We’ve served as Sunday school teachers, vacation Bible school volunteers, missions committee members,
elders, deacons, Bible study leaders, and preachers. We’ve always sought to serve more than needing to be served. We’ve certainly had our frustrations, been disgruntled with leadership decisions, and disappointed in preaching, but that was always what it meant to be part of a community of sinners saved by grace. Having our own set of issues to deal with, we fit right in.
Given our lifelong commitment to the church, it’s unsettling to now find ourselves somewhat adrift. At the same time, in a strange way, it also feels like exactly the right place to be. I’m trying to figure out that tension and I want to share some conclusions I’m coming to in the belief that likely some of you may be struggling with the same issues. Here’s my warning: I will overgeneralize to keep this blog short and get to the point quickly. So, I appreciate your grace.
I’m contemplating the idea that people who are part of a local church body fall generally (there’s that word) into three categories. The first category I would call ‘Jesus as Model’ church folk (JAM’ers, I will call them). Studies by Barna and others have helped us see that a cross-section of churchgoers are only casually committed to the basic tenets of the Christian faith. For them, Jesus was a great man, possibly even the son of God but certainly someone whose words should be followed. Salvation may be more of a cognitive affirmation than a life-changing experience, and there is little consideration of the importance of repentance, grace, and regeneration. JAM’ers come to church for the fellowship, perhaps out of a sense of obedience or obligation borne out of how they were raised. They come to hear the pastor share moral lessons that will help them be better people. They seek to find peace and hope without needing to have their spiritual experience integrated into their life in any meaningful way. Pastors desiring to meet the needs of JAM’ers know they need to be careful not to preach or teach in overly challenging ways or be filled with biblical and theological truths that leave them feeling like outsiders. This is where the desire to be ‘seeker friendly’ have driven the agenda for how the church sees its role in relationship to its target audience. JAM’ers usually move in one of two directions. They eventually leave the church, looking for different expressions of spirituality that better fit their worldview and values, or they have a conversion-type experience where they find salvation. In this case, they become part of the second group who see Jesus as their savior (JAS’ers, for short).
This group composes the largest cross-section of people in the pews on a given Sunday. These ‘Jesus as Savior’ Christians are people who have had some kind of conversion experience, or at least can affirm that they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that has involved some form of repentance for sin and acceptance of his free grace of salvation won for them on the cross. They affirm most, if not all, parts of a basic orthodox Christian statement of faith and genuinely want to live a good Christian life.
The challenge they face is the level of integration of their faith with the rest of their life. For many, if not most JAS’ers, their salvation serves them as more of an eternal life insurance policy than a life-transforming worldview. Having eternity sown up, many have a hard time seeing how the Jesus of the cross and resurrection makes much difference in their daily life. They struggle with prayer and devotion, and only a tiny percentage of them are committed to any form of disciplined Bible reading. They seldom make time for discipleship opportunities like small groups, men’s and women’s Bible studies, or participation in spiritual retreats. They may be very faithful churchgoers, but beyond Sunday morning, their faith has not substantially impacted their daily lives.
These churchgoers frustrate pastoral staff, for although their pews may be full, they find it challenging to find Sunday school teachers, committee volunteers, youth group chaperones, and so on. Because these JAS’ers constitute the largest cross-section of church members, which also means church givers, pastors are challenged with how to minister to them without alienating them. It has been my experience that most church preaching is designed to assure JAS’ers that their salvation is secure with an occasional encouragement for them to consider a deeper relationship with Christ. Churches may continue to offer some opportunities for JAS’ers to go deeper in their faith. Still, in the end, they are often left to accommodate the JAS’ers’ worldview with sermons heavy on love and grace yet tread very lightly, if at all, on the deeper issues of surrender, obedience, discipleship, evangelism, and sacrifice. None of these teachings will sit well with most of the occupants in the pews who hold a JAS’ers worldview. The result is that churches end up more concerned with making the budget than making disciples.
The final group I’ll call the ‘Jesus as Lord’ Christians (JAL’ers, for short). These are believers for whom Jesus Christ has become the Lord of their life. They have oriented everything around him and have a thirst and a passion to journey deeper in their relationship with Jesus. They embrace surrender, thirst for greater obedience, yearn to be discipled, are not afraid of sacrifice, and genuinely desire to share their faith. JAL’ers understand that this deeper journey is difficult and are looking for fellow travelers to walk this road with them. They know they cannot do this alone, and they understand the importance of the fellowship of others who want to know Jesus more deeply than they have ever experienced. They understand the times are short, and the challenge of bearing witness to Jesus in our dark world is growing more precarious every day. They live with peace and urgency, not wanting to waste a day on frivolous activities.
When JAL’ers look at what is being offered in the local church, they find little, if any, evidence that their pastor either understands where they are on their journey or is equipped to help them. At worst, they realize that their church may not even be interested in helping them, and their pastor may see them as a threat. JAL’ers tend to challenge pastors on the superficiality of sermons and the absence of a passion for evangelism and selfless service. Inevitably there comes a day when the JAL’er realizes that if they are to journey deeper in their relationship with Christ, and if they desire to gather with like-minded and committed believers to walk with them on this journey, they will not find it in their local church. With pastors focused on remaining winsome and appealing to JAM’ers while also affirming and comforting JAS’ers, any desire to teach and challenge JAL’ers is jettisoned. And so are the JAL’ers!
Pastors are only too happy to show the JAL’ers the back door out of fear that the JAL’ers push for genuine disciple-making may upset the accommodating culture the pastor has worked so hard to create and maintain.
In Christianity Today, Macinnis (2022) shed light on the high percentage of people over 55 leaving the church on the corner and seeking out small groups, house churches, and other expressions of the worshipping body of Christ. In another article on the same subject, Diederich (2022) stated that the primary reason Boomers were leaving was, “They are tired of the church games and drama. They have had enough of that. They want to do something that emphasizes the good news of the gospel. And if you can’t provide that, they will find someplace that will.”
We are on that same sojourn. I don’t know where we will end up, but three things drive us. First, the time is short, and there must be little patience with things that distract us from following Christ regardless of the cost. Second, if we go it alone, we will fail. We need a community of brothers and sisters with whom we can make this journey. Third, we must leave old wineskins behind and be willing to worship, fellowship, and serve in ways we might never have experienced. We need the Holy Spirit literally to teach old dogs new tricks!
That is where we find ourselves, and I wonder if you are there too? For some, the answer is to stay in the local church and continue to be a presence and voice to mentor and encourage others on their journey to deeper waters. For others, it will send us into new forms of fellowship and worship. Wherever you find yourself, I pray you will faithfully steward this moment. God is moving in powerful ways (“Aslan is on the move,” as a friend of mine likes to say), and revival is breaking out all over while persecution is increasing against followers of Jesus. May God prepare all of us to be his hands, feet, voice, and presence in whatever way he may be calling and preparing you.
Diederich, F. (2022). Why are baby boomers leaving the church. Readingremy.com. https://www.readingremy.com/blog/why-are-boomers-leaving-the-church
Macinnis, A. (2022). The church is losing its gray heads. Christianity Today. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2022/march/gray-gen-x-boomers-older-churchgoers-leaving-church.html