Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Giving Up on George Barna?

In a conversation with a friend recently, he read that George Barna (my neighbor in Ventura) is "giving up on the organized church" and instead opting for house-churches. I understand that, if it's true. The local, organized, denominationally affiliated church is full of problems, slow to move and full of pretty strange people. It's cluttered with committees and its pastors are always flying off to some denominational or conference task force that has very little to do with people back home. Back home, parking lot discussions often get heated about new furnishings or why kitchen cutlery was rearranged without proper authorization. Parts of the sanctuary are too cold, too hot, and too dark to sing. It's hard to get folks to serve refreshments after church and the ones whose kids eat the most seldom step forward to help. Oh yeah, I get it. There are times I'd like to walk straight away as well from honking sound of angry ducks, nipping at my legs.
But then, who would visit a grandmother in the hospital facing surgery? Who would teach the squirmy 13 year old about Israel learning to trust God in the wilderness journey? Who would lead a Bible study for hungry adults? Who would participate in a World Vision program to send out 1,000 care kits to care givers of AIDS patients in Jesus' name? Who would have a cup of coffee with a college student pondering their future or an adult jjust coming to terms with their alcoholism?
I know house churches are intimate and informal, freed of larger bureacracy. But they can also be elitist, invitation only. They propbably don't span as wide a generational bridge as the local church does. And the cool thing about the frumpy local church is that when a person who has given up on the local church needs a hospital visit or care for a dying relative....We're here. We don't give up.
I do not mean to besmerch George Barna in any way. Maybe he has not given up on the local church. But I know those who have for all the reasons I've mentioned. Maybe part of my reaction is as a practioner in the trench to ivory tower speculators, who analyze numbers, spot trends and make predictions. We need them (you), but I wish you'd spend more times in pastors' shoes and catch the toughness of the call and the adventure in the ordinary.


At 11:13 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish that the church WAS there when people needed visiting in the hospital. My youngest son lived in the intensive care unit for a month, almost dying several times. One visit from the pastor during that time. Not one visit from anyone in the church. Not one phone call except from family. No meals prepared, etc. We were abandoned despite the fact that my wife was raised in that church, we were married in that church, and we both served on boards and councils for seven years.

And over the years I have seen young women who lost their children in infancy, or who were losing their marriage, or who were dealing with depression, also abandoned.

And these were good churches, longstanding churches of a certain Scandinavian heritage.

I have heard a pastor of a large church say how glad he was that the recovery ministry had begun so he would have some place to send THOSE PEOPLE. When the other person said that we are all broken people, the pastor was indignant. "I am not broken. I don't need a group like that!"

Of course, I have far more stories of times when the church DID minister to us and other people. It just seems that when it's difficult or inconvenient, institutional religion often drops the ball. But then again, everyone is "fine thank you."

At 11:16 PM , Blogger donnjohnson said...

I am so sorry for your loss

At 5:48 AM , Anonymous kent said...

I wish there was a study on those churches who are under 300 and determine how they are in doing thre work of the kindom. Do we fail families like the gentlemen who wrote before me? What happens for the kingdom that no one ver sees or hears about. We study mega and giga churches all the time. It is time to take a look at those churches which make up the bulk of the kingdom.

At 9:22 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The organized church certainly does have a right, good and fitting place in our advancing spirituality. Who's to say that people won't or don't get burned in a home church setting? People in a home church are still people, still potentially just as "lazy" as folks in the denomonational setting. I'm sure they drop the ball as well.
One of the best models I've ever seen (and it WORKS really well, so this isn't just an opinion) is a church that meets twice a month (1st and 3rd Sunday's) for worship and a message, and then twice that same month (2nd and 4th Sunday's) in smaller groups, read: home groups.

At 11:50 AM , Blogger donnjohnson said...

That's a great idea, and probably more in practice in the establlished church that has small group Bible studies that meet in homes. Given American attendance patters of 2 out of 5 Sundays, this would work well.

At 12:05 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the initial anonymous,
my son did not die, but thank you for you sensitive response. My son is thriving and almost a grown man now. But the pain of that memory is disappointingly difficult for me to release. In the years since, I have made some hospital visits to others as a result of that memory, but in many ways I am a hypocrite, despite my lingering low-level bitterness.

The Church is an imperfect organism at best, (I can embrace that) and a heartless organization at worst (which brings death to the soul). The joke is that the Church would be a great institution were it not for all those humans. Of course, that includes me.

Pardon my venting on you. As I read what you write about your church and your life, and it makes me so aware of what I cherish and cannot find within the institutional church. I so long to be a part of a community, a Body of believers, where people take the walk of faith seriously, but also live with the capacity for creativity, and joyous spontaneity arising from gratitude, and wonder.

But the grace-killers in positions of leadership always prevail in the end. They seem to care little for the work or movement of the Spirit, only for the counting of nickels and noses. Programs, predictability, and performance are their hallmarks. They champion the latest trend or tactic in hopes of "growing the church". Sadly, those attitudes are very strongly reinforced at the conference level. Of course, if there's conference money involved, then it's only natural that their first responsibility is to see that the money is well invested, right?

No wonder Barna reports that there are now more "unchurched" Christians than those remaining inside the confines of the institutional church.

The sad thing is that Tom Sine told me that our denomination is in a unique position, being more open than the more conservative evangelicals and less mired in bureaucracy than the mainline denominations.

aargg. I've done it again. Why can't the church attract people by loving them instead of through a marketing plan? I am so disillusioned. But perhaps it's a good thing to lose the illusion?

Perhaps I look for too much from the Body? Just Jesus and me sounds so blatantly heretical, but maybe I need to slide more in that direction. Fortunately, I do have some friends who share my passions, with whom I can find fellowship. Too bad they can't find church homes in their cities either.

At 7:16 PM , Blogger donnjohnson said...

Dear Anonymous; Thanks for following up. I've just read (along with the staff here) Sarah Cunningham's book "Dear Church". She captures several of your concerns here and takes them, I think, in a pretty good direction without softening the criticism. The problem of the judicatory systems (conference and denomination) does trouble me deeply. But I'm not sure what to do about them. I have enough work on my hands here in a local church just to keep me honest and joyful. Again, thanks!

At 1:59 PM , Anonymous Ted Gossard said...


Thanks for the good defense of the more traditional local church.

I think God is doing a good work in our church, steeped as it is in traditional problems. But I do know the Lord is present with and through us. And another local church in the covenant, has so wonderfully stepped in to help us through a difficult period. I believe in some measure we're already impacting the world around us. God is not finished with us yet in his work.

At 2:02 PM , Anonymous Ted Gossard said...

I want to add, the homegroup of which we're a part, is indispensable, to me, for what the church is to be. We meet, think and pray in terms of ourselves and those around us. It's new. But I see great potential in it, as part of the expression of Christ's body from our local church into the world.

At 11:03 PM , Blogger David Cho said...

I am a bit confused by your posting.

You ask "who would visit a grandmother in the hospital facing surgery," along with a bunch of others, but aren't people leaving the traditional church in droves precisely because the church isn't doing such things?

According to generousgiving.org, "nearly 97 percent of the entire income of all Christian organizations was spent on, and primarily benefited, other Christians at home or abroad."

And who is to say that house churches aren't doing the things you mention?

At 7:55 AM , Blogger donnjohnson said...

Your comment is right to the point. It is up to the local church to demonstrate that it is not just about "member services" but compassion to the community. The facility, network and relationship web allows the multi-generational church to have extensive impact on the community IF it wants to. And, you are right, many traditional churches do not really extend themselves into the community with care and, instead, practice fortress living, walled in, safe and shut.
But when we do reach across, the dividends are incredible!!

At 4:39 PM , Blogger Kevin Funkhouser said...

One valuable facet of organized church is (redundantly) it's ability to organize. It can organize around a cause, organize in support of a grieving member, organize a financial and social safety net for the down-and-out that come into the sanctuary doors. If an organized church fails to care for it's members, it becomes a social club, or worse, a weird form of entertainment.

God protect our church from dropping the ball on congregational care. Your post on "pastor/ceo" seems relevant, as that shift in position seems to coincide with a church's loss of spiritual vision.

At 3:30 PM , Blogger Dan said...

It's been a while since I've dropped by and this post is better than a week old so who knows if you'll see this comment, but I thought I'd recommend a book i finished recently, "The Church Faces Death: Ecclesiology in a Post-Modern Context" by Michael Jinkins. It was published in 1999 so it predates Barna's recent book "Revolution" but it makes one think.

Back in the 60's and 70's there was much the same talk as here in your post and the comments. We too left the 'failed' institutional churches and struck out to re-establish the true church... and today? well all those 'house' churches are now gone or became organized churches complete with children, youth, adult ministries, boards or councils... some even expanded by planting other 'groups' read churches some becoming virtual denominations!

One last comment, much of the Bible is what it is because of this very 'problem.' Didn't the prophets address their histories and prophetic writings to 'failed' Israel? Much in the NT is there because the apostles were addressing the issues of failing 'home' churches in the first century!

So we in the institutional church are in good company.

I'd say that George Barna's insights might need some other filters to interpret what is going on in reality. There is more to it I think than what meets the eyes and what is driving the outflow I'm thinking is much more complex even than what is shared in these comments.

Happy Holidays!

At 8:07 PM , Blogger donnjohnson said...

Thanks Dan; You are right in that every new solution creates its own new set of problems or every orthodoxy spawns its own heterdoxy/heresy.

At 9:05 AM , Blogger Adam Gonnerman said...

Great post. I've participated in small groups in homes as well as a house church, and I've served a traditional institutional congregation as well. The main drawback to house churches is space. Someone has to play host, and this can be stressful. In institutional churches the minister is often treated like the hired gun, and he is generally forced to accept attracting new members as a priority. Ministry to the sick, imprisoned and others is set to the back-burner, unless the troubled person is a member of an "important" church family. My experience as a full-time traditional minister was quite negative, but that doesn't drive me to the house church model. It does leave me quite interested in the missional approach.

At 5:58 PM , Blogger Bill Bean said...

I've been doing house church for about 6 years now. Prior to that i was in a typical large, young suburban church. There are problems and challenges inherent with any form of church. They simply need to be dealt with honestly and people have to be willing to make real changes. I find that I'm not really opposed to traditional churches but I am mostly opposed to bigness. The only thing I would challenge you on is talking about house church as if it isn't a local church. House churches are extremely local.

At 6:49 AM , Blogger donnjohnson said...

Good clarification Bill. House churches can be extremely local down to houses/apartments on the same block. Maybe the term I'm playing with is the European/medeival term "parish" to identify an are, usually a city or town for which a church provides and umbrella of care.


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