True meaning of ‘church’ sought by many

Annual surveys continue reporting that people are leaving the church. Faith leaders in Hancock County and around the U.S. express their sadness about this. But how many people are really leaving?

How many are actually just leaving an institutionalized collection of rituals? Pastors admit church is institutionalized and that it originally referred to believers, not to a location or building.

That doesn’t stop congregations from focusing their marketing and budget on their tradition-laden weekend services. Pastors and flock alike are products of a mechanized culture in which the best proof of faith is almost — almost — taught to be an act of showing up and watching “the Sunday morning show.” That’s what a good Christian does.

Everyone with theological training knows the biblical concept of church is something very different and that the force of tradition is extremely powerful. People who enjoy the forms, or who think keeping them makes God happy, find their tradition particularly satisfying.

A certain amount of tradition is natural and healthy. The problem is the determination to make it the basis for being an authorized Christian and a good sport.

That is where a multitude of believers and seekers wander away, not from the original church concept but from the institutional one that is so well-supported by the shrinking base of people who insist on making it work for as many people as possible.

What would correct the situation? One way would be to turn the energies and resources of church into a combination of impromptu and organized outreach.

Consider the following example: A suburban congregation might organize to reach out to middle- and upper-class people struggling with addiction, not trying to get them to attend church but working to break the addiction cycle.

Of course, people struggling with substance abuse have other needs. They sometimes have very problematic personal relationships. They may need assistance with finding a good job after being fired. If they’re married, their kids and spouses may need various kinds of support.

A church should not try to be the one-stop-shop to fix the family’s problem. Instead, it can, with time and guidance, organize into an effective outreach with certain specialties, building partnerships with other local organizations and agencies to provide deep, lasting solutions.

The fruit of the labor eventually manifests. The community improves in unmistakable ways, and some beneficiaries of the outreach want to know more about a life of faith. But they are not more valuable if they join a church. The church is more valuable when the congregation is less self-centered.

Individuals and leaders in the congregation wake up and take note of their own personal worlds with family, friends, neighbors and fellow employees who want someone to share their interests and concerns.

I call it sharing life.

Aside from a preoccupation with traditions, churches weaken when they try to bring righteousness in through state and federal law, and when they are pushovers that adopt moral and doctrinal trends of society rather than lead with thoughtfulness and without harshness, screams and drastic predictions.

The church is irrelevant to millions of believers and seekers who know or hope that God is more than the things churches work so hard to make attractive and important.

Many of the uninterested are not leaving the church; they are looking for it.

Max T. Russell writes for the international business intelligence community. You can contact him via his website,