Fifteen years ago, I left a corporate career and joined a church staff team as the communications director. Acting as the church's spokesperson served as my spiciest responsibility. In this role, I never knew what conversation would take place any time the phone rang.
Abundant trial and error, mostly the latter, impressed upon me two truths. First, "No comment" is actually a strong comment. And second, the church attracts many critics. Based on the number of articles, columns, and blogs that take swipes at churches, the second truth continues to abound today.
Last week one writer chastised churches who try different approaches to grow, while another offered biting comments about a congregation stuck at the same size for years. A quick search will yield many articles that describe churches' lack of participation in social justice issues as wrong, and a growing number now claiming that concentration on social justice is resulting in churches avoiding their true mission. Huh?
As my daughter says, folks need to "chillax."
Today I work for an organization that works with hundreds of churches across the country, of various sizes, denominations, and affiliations. So as a counter-opinion to the critics, I offer five reasons to love churches. Warning: Cynics and others with platforms built on revealing "what's wrong with today's churches" will pick apart these points and eloquently express disagreement/disdain. To them I'll say it now: No comment.
Now, the five reasons I love the church:
- A rapidly increasing number of congregations serve their local communities in ways that involve building personal relationships. Many pastors deliberately work to understand the needs of those who live close by and then position their people to extend their hands, words, and smiles—not simply their wallets. Our organization works with over 800 churches who mentor at-risk public school children, and a healthy 90 percent of those congregations go beyond the program to serve families, teachers, and the broader school community. In other words, when aware of real needs, churches do a great job being the church to people in need.
- Passion for spiritual formation in attendees is on a steep rise. Yes, this topic attracts critics like a streetlamp attracts mosquitoes. Not sure why. Many pastors today earnestly search for ways to lead their people and themselves into deeper relationships with God. At the same time, individual parishioners' appetites are driving the hunger for spiritual formation. While methods get debated, the right motive seems to be in place. I believe this is, in part, a result of the first point. Why? Hearts beat fast and strong for God when someone serves others in his name—creating a desire to know him more. A tough point to criticize (though many still will).
- The Bible remains at the center of churches. While the interpretation of a few key passages varies, to varying degrees, everyone still seems to agree on the overall centrality of the Bible. Funny, the only person who doesn't interpret a book—who knows exactly what was meant—is the author. Every reader interprets. That's the rub; people interpret the Bible differently. We'll find out the real answers in heaven. Until then, though, is it possible to believe in a church's best intentions?
Without going into details about the circumstances, I remember an issue that arose when I worked as a church spokesperson that prompted me to offer this response: "Is it right to form an opinion of the theology of a church based on what's reported in a major metropolitan newspaper?" Substitute the word blog, column, or tweet and that question deserves to be asked still today.
- Churches offer a wide range of styles. Simply venture outside of the U.S. and church style changes dramatically, so why not mix things up here at home? If a person doesn't appreciate the approach a church takes, many options exist to find a different church to feel comfortable in and to become actively involved. Plenty of people attend no church at all, so variety is a good thing. Contrary to some opinions, churches don't compete with one another. Instead, they compete with any other option available to people on Sunday morning (or Saturday night).
- The biggest reason I love the church: Lost and wounded people can still go to a church and find Jesus. The evidence for this truth is three-fold: my father-in-law did it, my brother-in-law did it, and I did it too. Three very different churches. Three radically changed lives. One reason: we found Jesus. Or did Jesus find us? Let's not debate.
Instead, let's "chillax" and love the church. After a couple thousand years of serving as the hope of the world, it's doing just fine.
David Staal, senior editor for Building Church Leaders and a mentor to a Kindergarten boy, serves as the president of Kids Hope USA, a national non-profit organization that partners local churches with elementary schools to provide mentors for at-risk students. David is the author of Lessons Kids Need to Learn (Zondervan, 2012) and lives in Grand Haven, MI, with his wife Becky, son Scott, and daughter Erin.