Ironically, more and more I’m being persuaded that people who actually do believe are leaving the church. Their belief fosters questions that go unanswered and needs that go unaddressed. The church continues to be dominated by Church Folk. Who die off. Leaving fewer Church Folk. More gaps in the pews. More struggle to keep the lights on. The problem quickly become chronic. Your church is emptying out, but you remain unwilling to even consider the possibility you yourself are the cause of it. Actual Belief is alive, while Play Church is dead. And death feels threatened by life. Actual belief changes you. Death causes rigor mortis to set in.

We learn a certain vocabulary.

We learn the five songs we sing over and over and over. And, regardless of how irrelevant our churches become, no matter how empty they get, no matter how old our congregation becomes, we stick to our guns. This Is Who We Are. This Is What We Believe. Or, do we? Do we actually believe anything anymore, or are we just kind of going through the Sunday routine? If we believe—if we still believe—shouldn’t there be some evidence? Shouldn’t that belief produce something? Apostasy is derived from Greek apostasis, “a standing away from, a defection, a revolt,” from aphistanai, “to stand off or away from, to revolt,” from apo-, “from, away from” + histanai, “to stand.” [Middle English apostasie, from Old French, from Late Latin apostasia, defection, from Late Greek apostasi, from Greek apostasis, revolt, from aphistanai, aposta-,to revolt : apo-, apo- + histanai, to stand, place; see st- in Indo-European Roots.]

The Book of Second Chronicles illuminates the mixed history of Judah and Israel found in the Old Testament books of Judges and 1st and 2nd Kings, including the near destruction of the Jewish people when God handed them over to Babylonian captivity, God's gracious deliverance 70 years later, and the drawn-out process of rebuilding the Jewish state and its chief symbol, the Temple of the Living God.

In these scriptures you will see a people on a see-saw. Up and down and up and down again, as a long succession of kings came and went, some honoring God, some blaspheming God. It is a measure of our own lives, of our own commitment to and relationship with God, as a lot of what goes on in our homes and churches is mirrored here in the turmoil of the unfaithful Hebrew people.

Ironically, people who actually do believe are leaving the church. Their belief fosters questions that go unanswered and needs that go unaddressed. They begin hungering for more than just the Sunday routine, and these believers tend to make Church Folk angry. You see, Actual Belief is alive, while Play Church is dead. And death feels threatened by life. Actual belief changes you. Death causes rigor mortis to set in. Actual belief provokes anxiety in Death because, as our eyes become opened, we begin to suspect we are actually dead. We begin to smell the stench of rotting flesh and realize we’ve lost our bowels all over the bed sheets. But the only way to realize that is for Life, for Actual Belief, to come around. That light hurts our eyes. That sweet fragrance points out how rancid our stench is. And we’re embarrassed. We’re ashamed.

Church Folk really can’t stand Actual Believers because, just being around them lends the suspicion that Church Folk have taken a wrong turn somewhere along the away, and are now lost in the Church Folk cul de sac. Insecurity is a major component of Church Folk, and Actual Believers make Church Folk deeply insecure; make them suspect they’ve made wrong choices and taken wrong paths. And, rather than face the possibility of a lifetime spent in useless fashion, most Church Folk would rather kill the Actual Believer: destroy their faith, scandalize their name and chase them out of their churches. Church Folk, therefore, tend to become preemptively angry at Actual Believers because Actual Believers have less structure than Church Folk. If there’s one thing Church Folk are good at, it’s structure. Church Folk run exactly the same program each and every time. Each and every black church anniversary I’ve ever been to in my entre life has had precisely and exactly the same format. Original thinking is not valued by Church Folk, and Actual Believers inspire chaos because they’re so willing to throw out the Church Folk template. Church Folk spend an inordinate amount of time networking, planning and scheming against Actual Believers (and typically no time in prayer ever), while Actual Believers spend almost no time at all thinking about Church Folk other than to pray for them.

So, ironically, the Actual Believers leave, and the church continues to be dominated by Church Folk. Who die off. Leaving fewer Church Folk. More gaps in the pews. More struggle to keep the lights on. The problem quickly becomes chronic. Your church is emptying out, but you remain unwilling to even consider the possibility you yourself are the cause of it.

Actual Believers, meanwhile, are at home. Doubt and cynicism have set in. There are only the clowns on TV begging for money and the Church Folk dominating the houses of worship. Caught between the two are the actual Believers who, now cut off from their blood supply—the fellowship of other believers—begin to harden.

The Body of Christ begins to crumble from within, from the leprosy of non-belief. From pastors too weak to speak the truth, too afraid of offending Church Folk. Pastor: Church Folk will kill your church faster than an electrical fire. You start compromising yourself for these lost folk, and God can’t breathe on your ministry. God can’t move. It’s just you and the monkeys. You protecting your paycheck. You worrying about the lights. You, looking back over your shoulder with your hand on the plow.

You look around, and no one’s smiling. Everyone seems engaged in drudgery—obligatory service to some dead god. Long faces. Yawning. People fanning themselves with these multi-page church bulletins that serve as both air conditioning and a distraction from the dreary goings-on. Women in gregarious, huge hats, selfishly parked in front of you so you can’t see anything. Singing the same five songs they always sing, and singing them with no energy, no spark, no flavor. No love.

This is business as usual in far too many of our churches. Time to go to church. Time to have devotion—which many of us arrive late for so we can skip listening to these tone-deaf deacons drone on. Oddly enough, questions about why we continue to do this are usually met with an odd mix of contempt and ridicule. Attempts to change this drudgery are fought, tooth and nail, by the Old School, who are usually the only people to show up at business meetings. I have no idea, none, why the young people of a church are too lazy and selfish to bother showing up when they could make all the difference. These people will whine and complain and ultimately abandon ship, but the thing they won’t do is show up. Most churches allow youth as young as twelve to vote in church meetings. If the youth and young adults of any given church actually bothered to show up, most of this nonsense would no longer be going on. Many of these pastors would be out of a job, and churches would once again be brimming with life and newness. But, meeting after meeting is dominated by the Old School who routinely vote down anything even remotely resembling progress, in favor of protecting what is precious and dear to them—The Same Ole. And, as the younger generation drifts away and the older one dies off, sooner or later these churches are left with the pastor, a handful of senior citizens and their grandkids alternately rattling tambourines and dozing off.

What strikes me as most telling about a dead church is, by the time most of its membership even realize it’s dead, it’s been dead for months if not years. By the time the membership even realizes something must be done, that God is no longer breathing on that ministry, it’s too late. Dead churches work a lot like depression: by the time you realize you’re depressed you’ve been depressed for quite a long time. Your house is a mess and you haven’t brushed your teeth in a month. Then it hits you—you’re depressed. It’s the same way with dead churches.

Churches become terminal when the pastor loses his courage. When the pastor starts caring more about his paycheck than his principles, your church has caught a terminal disease. Such pastors will cave into the Old School every time because it is the Old School who pays their tithes, who keep the lights on, and sign the pastor’s check. He’s afraid to upset them. He talks tough behind closed doors, but the pastor will usually cave to these people more often than not.

And, more often than not, the Old School is a cancer spreading throughout your church. They’re easily as immature as teenagers, just as impatient and stubborn, just as poorly read, just as narrowly focused. But they call the shots. It’s like letting a group of hormone-ravaged, belly-button-staring zit-faced teens turn keys in a nuclear missile silo. The Old School wants its way and wants it now and that’s the end of it. They care only and exclusively about themselves, granting only grudging consent for outdated 1960’s-style youth programs that bore the kids to tears. And Pastor lets these people have their way—every time—because he’s more concerned, ultimately, about his comfort than about his calling.

There's a real problem at our church, and maybe at your church: there's no worship going on. Oh, there's service going on, to be sure, but there's absolutely no worship. There is, instead, a program. There are items on a list and we move quickly from one to the next and then impatiently sit through the sermon hoping for that blessed benediction and the three-hour gossip lounge at the local eatery. There are spontaneous outbreaks of charismatic exclamation. We go down there and make a lot of noise. But worship? Worship can only be conducted by people who actually know God and love God. Worship can only happen when people stop checking their watches and stop daydreaming about football games or trips to the mall or sex or whatever they're thinking about during service. Here in Ourtown, in the vast majority of worship services in black churches, there is absolutely no worship going on. There is going-through-the-motions worship. There is this-is-what-we're-supposed to do worship. But real worship, I mean the kind that changes lives and moves mountains? Not here. And if you are honest with yourself, probably not there, either.

In our tradition, one of the major causes of this is the Deacon board. The ministry of deacons from Acts Chapter 6 has become distorted into a legalistic “board” of deacons, and this “board” has become the polarizing force in the church. In large measure, the deacon board thinks they run the church. Think they are the pastor's boss. And, by force of tradition and legalistic bylaws, this is in fact true.

The deacons in many black churches usually insist on conducting devotion at the beginning of a service. A devotion is a space of worship and congress with God. But this is rarely what happens in devotion in our black churches. Devotion has become a parody of what devotion once was— a deeply personal and energizing portion of service facilitated by the deacons, but actually conducted by the congregation itself. These days, the congregation sits fairly mute while the deacons hand out assignments on the spot, having arrived on Sunday completely unprepared and having not given Sunday morning devotion a minute's thought until they were standing before us holding the mic. It is a wretched and inexcusable act of playing church, of disrespecting God and God's work, for you to arrive at His sanctuary, knowing you are to conduct worship for God's people, and you haven't prepared at all for the task. While I'm sure these are good and for the most part decent men, they are, to my experience, rarely spiritual-minded. They are managers, and their agenda is brazen and absolute: maintain the status quo and protect their political position within the church.

This is, in sum and substance, the exact role of the Sadduccees, Pharisees and Scribes who dogged Jesus' ministry and who ultimately plotted His death. Believing themselves to be wise, they became fools (Romans 1:22) as they became much more concerned about themselves and their respective positions than they did about the ministry of God. That most deacons boards cannot see the obvious similarities between the way they do business and the scriptural record of the Jewish Sanhedrin only underscores the fact many deacons know little or nothing at all about the Bible and are more concerned with maintaining the social club-style bylaws and tenets of the organization than they are concerned with actual ministry. They run the church like a business and, as with any good business, the political wages become the primary focus, and the comfort and self-validation of these men the highest priority.

Thus, the deaconate usually insists on performing devotion, which becomes the framework and model for worship on Sunday morning. Most devotional periods are an absolute waste of time as the deacons simply wing it, bringing no new songs, no new insights into scripture, and accepting no input from the congregation. The congregation, meanwhile, disconnects, sitting through devotion as they wait for the main event to begin. But, just as often, they disconnect and never reconnect later on. Devotion therefore becomes THE major hindrance to worship on Sunday morning, and most church pastors feel powerless to do anything about it because the deacons will have a fit if they take it away from them.

Whether deacons have a fit or not should be all but irrelevant to a pastor. A pastor unwilling to stand on the word of God really needs to re-think his calling. There is absolutely no scriptural basis for the deacons conducting that tired old half-baked devotion. It has drained the very life out of most church worship services and, by extension, most churches as a whole. By the example of scripture, II Chronicles 5: 11-14 (note v. 11: "The priests then withdrew from the Holy Place..." leaving the Levites--the musicians--who were anointed to a work the priests themselves were not fit to do), musical worship should be conducted by people who are anointed for that purpose.

Most of us do not invest time preparing to worship. We arrive Sunday morning waiting to be entertained. Drained of energy from cramming two days' worth of chores and errands into Saturday, we sit like pillars of salt, wishing the Deacons or the Praise Team would do a better job of entertaining us. Your church may have the be4st praise team ever assembled in the sight of God. If we, ourselves, do not arrive prepared to worship, it is al in vain. It's just a group of folk trying to pump you up and warm you up for the sermon, which is not what church is for. We treat church as though it were going to the movies. Worship is interactive. It's not you watching the deacons or you watching the choir. It is you communing with God, something most of us neglect on our very crowded Saturdays.

A church should be a house of worship. There is a very simple reason for the sorry state of so many of our churches: we have unspiritual people in places of leadership. Our churches are democracies rather than theocracies, and, while the concept of democratic majority rule works well in politics, it fails miserably to achieve any spiritual purpose because, in the most obvious observation, the spiritual and faithful people of any church are vastly outnumbered by the Old School. Conducting spiritual matters by means of a democratic process is, therefore, counter-intuitive to spiritual progress as the least spiritual among us will always cast the deciding vote.

A church should be a place where God is in charge. A church should be a theocracy not a democracy. A church should be a place where ego is crucified. A church should be a place where God is glorified. If all you are doing on Sunday is sitting there waiting for it to be over, something's really wrong. If there is no worship going on, if there's never a time in your church experience where the pastor throws the program out and simply steps up to minister to the congregation, something is wrong. If your Board of Deacons or church administrator has a stranglehold on power, something is wrong.

It would better for all of us to have church in our homes than to continue wasting our time and money in places where God is not welcome.

Christopher J. Priest
19 April 2009

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