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Episode 049 – Church, Stop Acting Like a Hot Topic—or, Building a Church People Actually Want To Go To (With Kevin Makins)
Why would anyone bother to go to church? I don’t mean why would Christians bother. I mean, if someone outside of the church was thinking about getting involved, why would they? What might it look like to build a church that people attend because it’s meaningful to them, not out of obligation or habit? What would a church look like that was truly loved by its neighborhood?
- The Nones: Where they came from, Who They Are, and Where They Are Going, by Ryan Borge
- Article: OK, Millennial. Don’t Blame Boomers for the Decline of Religion in America, by Ryan Borge
- Kevin’s Book: Why Would Anyone Go to Church?
- Scroll down for a full transcript of this episode.
- You can also watch and share the video version on Youtube.
More about My Conversation Partner
Kevin Makins is a writer, speaker, and maker of things, who is also just a regular pastor, serving at Eucharist Church, in downtown Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
- Find Kevin at www.KevinMakins.com
- Learn more about his church: https://eucharistchurch.ca/
- See Kevin’s short films about being human and his 60-min one-man show, “Holy Shift.”
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/kevinmakins
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/kevinmakins/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kevinmakinsstuff
- My Summer Inflation Sale – I am trying to raise some funds this summer to make up for a shortfall in income. If you’ve been thinking about buying anything I make, now is a great time! These sale prices will be active through August 1st.
More from Marc
- Get The Anchor Prayer: A Prayer and Process for Remaining Grounded in a Chaotic World – This little book is free for you by opting in to my email list.
- Untangled Heart Course Online.
- Discovering your Authentic Core Values: A Step-by-step Guide
- Subscribe to my Email List. You’ll get a free copy of a little book called The Anchor Prayer: A Prayer & Process for Remaining Grounded in a Chaotic World.
Marc Schelske 0:00
Hey friends, I’m Marc Alan Schelske and this is The Apprenticeship Way, A podcast about spiritual growth following the way of Jesus. This is episode 49. Church stop acting like a hot topic! Or maybe a better title is “Building a church people actually want to go to.”
Today’s podcast is made possible by My Summer Inflation Sale. You heard me! Life has gotten expensive, hasn’t it? Gas, groceries, it’s all a bit much. Now, Christina, my wife, is a teacher. And so the normal gig is that our family is without a second paycheck for a couple of months every summer. In past years, we’ve budgeted to cover that. But this year, the dramatic increase in prices of essential things has just outpaced our budget. So I’m looking for some extra income. So if you’ve ever thought about buying something I make, now is an excellent time. So what could you get? Any and all of my books, my online courses, and of course for some people, there’s the work that I do to support writers. See it all with special summer inflation sale prices at www.MarcAlanSchelske.com/ Summer-Inflation-Sale. Those prices will be available until August 1. So act fast, I’ve got some bills to pay.
I grew up in Ohio, the American Midwest, in the 1980s. And in that place and time, everyone went to church, everyone I knew. The only question was how into it were you, but everyone went to church. Fast forward through two recessions (maybe three now), the 9-11 attacks, a pointless 20 Year War, a housing bubble (or two), and a global pandemic that shut down in-person gatherings for, in some cases, a year or more, and the world has changed. The assumption that everyone goes to church is just no longer true, especially where I live here in the Pacific Northwest.
Ryan Burge wrote a book called “The Nones” about that category of people who identify themselves as spiritual but not religious. In an article he wrote, looking at the most recent data from the General Social Survey, he pointed out that in a 30-year time period, the share of Baby Boomers who believe in God dropped 3%. In that same time period, but just the last 20 years, the share of Millennials who believe in God dropped 10%. And in that same period of time, just the last five years, the share of Gen Z who believe in God has dropped by 18%. 18%! In that same time period, every single cohort has shown a significant increase in people who don’t attend church and don’t consider themselves affiliated with any religion at all. In concluding his analysis, Burge wrote, “I think it’s entirely fair to say that Generation X (my generation!) represents the last generation raised with traditional American religion.”
He’s saying that everyone younger than me is experiencing a different culture and expectation when it comes to church than what was considered normal by people my age and older. The question of churches is one a lot of people are wrestling with right now. Especially after the pandemic sort of broke the habit of church attendance for a lot of people. People are wondering if church even matters to them? Does church contribute anything worthwhile to the world? You might jump in and say yes, but then that probably means you’re one of the deep insiders. Consider the question from the outside. Apart from religious obligation, why would anyone make the commitment to be part of this kind of community?
Today, we’re gonna dig into those questions. I’ll be chatting with Kevin Makins. He wrote a book called “Why Would Anyone Go To Church.” More importantly, he’s wrestled with this in a real community with real people. He’s a founding pastor of Eucharist Church in downtown Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. This is a guy who has spent a lot of time thinking about this very question. And so I started by asking Kevin why he thinks so many people right now just aren’t interested in church at all.
Kevin Makins 4:07
It’s probably in part because church just isn’t that interesting anymore. Sorry, church! Not that it’s not, it is. If you believe unto the Lord Jesus Christ, it’s quite an amazing place. However, if you haven’t had a lived encounter with the sort of transcendence that church is pointing to, if you haven’t walked the way, the good road of Christ, long enough to see how it works and what it produces, in and of its own way, then church just to you looks like the strangest social club for people that have nothing better to do or are just struggling with guilt over their dead grandma who prayed for them every day.
You know, there was a time when I imagine church was good. Like in air quotes, “good.” You know, there was a time when there just wasn’t that much entertainment. You know, it’s like 1750 and you’re a cobbler, and you cobble shoes and your father cobbled shoes. Maybe there’s one wedding a year where people get together and celebrate, but what do you have going on? One person in town has a lute and occasionally they play a song? There’s not much going on. But on Sunday, on Sabbath, the whole town shuts down. Everyone gets together at the four or five buildings nearby, there’s music, there’s singing, there are hymns, there’s a sense of transcendence, belonging, and connection. Your whole life is wrapped up in a singular moment where everyone you know looks to something beyond them, beyond the economy, beyond what they’re doing that week, their stresses, their worries. Very intelligent, well read, people are bringing these intellectual philosophical questions. Very simple people are bringing their daily concerns and their daily needs. And everyone gets together and looks at something beyond them. It’s not only the height of the collective psyche of that town. It’s also the only thing that’s going on. Church–It’s amazing. 300 years ago.
Marc Schelske 6:10
Right? Right. So it seems like there are two things in that description that are going on that we have to contend with. One is that for a long time, and it’s not just 300 years, it’s the last probably 1300 or 1400 years, the church was the cultural center of the community. That is no longer true. And then the second thing is that, in some way, the church is associated with a transcendent experience, and that doesn’t feel true now for many people.
Kevin Makins 6:39
Yes, absolutely. And you know, I’d see it fitting in with broader themes of the secularization of the West. It’s not just that people don’t believe in the Christian God, but we don’t even know if we believe in a God. And if we do believe in a god, he’s not a transcendent God, or they’re not a transcendent God, it’s a kind of hobbyist God. I do yoga, but if I fall out of yoga, the god of yoga is not going to come and wake me up in the night with a haunting message of transcendence.
Marc Schelske 7:07
Right, right. Yeah, there’s no, there’s no attached judgment.
Kevin Makins 7:10
No. Which I understand because also at the same time as what we’re talking about, the church got a little too powerful for her own bridges, and started to make a lot of strong declarations about what God was saying, and who God was that weren’t necessarily about God at all. They were about Christendom, the power of Christianity, the church, the institution, the pastor, the voice. So you know, I understand why people balk and push away at that idea of a transcendent God. You know, I totally understand that because, well, the church is often said that transcendent God is a mouthpiece and He sounds just like me, your white middle age Baptist pastor. And so I understand why people push against that. Makes perfect sense.
But we haven’t yet known what to put in its place. And so we have these little buffet-style religions where we’ll pick up things that we find interesting, transcendent, and meaningful, but they don’t give shape to our life. They’re something that we pick up and put down as we desire. And that’s very different from a transcendent force–God–who picks you up when you are down. And so that direction of things! If you’re in AA, you’ve probably encountered the transcendent God, or this transcendent reality–whatever language people put to it–but if you haven’t experienced that transcendence, you haven’t experienced that sense that there is something beyond you greater than you. If you haven’t put that to the test to some degree or relied on it, If you have the privilege to buffer yourself from the suffering of life, the privilege to have insurance, to have food on the table, to have a Netflix subscription on your phone whenever you want it, if you have all that, you may have never needed to encounter that transcendent God.
This rise of secularism has also come with a rise in wealth. Not that we’re rich. Right now we have a lot of wealth inequality, but our basic needs are provided for. Our lives are sort of safe; the air in our houses is usually conditioned. So we’ve been guarded from some of what might have naturally led other generations towards spirituality. So there’s what church means to me as an individual who perhaps has encountered a sense of transcendence. But then there’s also the question of what does church mean to us at a cultural or sociological collective psyche level? For us, Church used to be this–Not in all places, not all times, of course. There’s a lot of colonization and other factors, so don’t take this too far–but I think we could probably say that in many settings, if not most settings, the church was also a place of collective unity, where we set aside our little tribal identities, whether we were rich or poor, people had different intellectual beliefs–but we’d all go to church and we’d all surrendered to one thing. And so what used to function as a gathering point for diverse people has also become, in our culture and our cultural understanding, a tribal space for a particular group of religious people who are de facto in opposition to other people.
And so I think those two realities are intertwined: the lack of personal transcendence, and the fact that it has become now not a collective place of unity, but a tribal place of disunity, or of loyalty to your religious cause. I think those two things make church very unappealing for someone looking in from the outside who’s trying to figure out how to be a human in 2021.
Marc Schelske 10:45
Well, that last part there, that question that they’re asking feels really helpful to me. If this outside person is looking at the church and saying, “How does this group or belief system or community help me be a human?” and they’re not getting clear answers. They’re seeing the church as a group that actually (some of them) spends a lot of time denying what it means to be human. They’re not going to talk about emotions. They’re not trauma aware. They’re not going to talk about struggles with mental health. So that’s not helpful. Some of these groups are centering a particular very narrow kind of humanity. And you can tell, whether it’s on the billboard or not, that this church is only for this kind of person, this group of people, this political persuasion. And (they say to themselves) I don’t want to be a part of that. They’re also saying, “Hey, I have this intuitive sense of compassion toward people around me. There are people that are hurting and this group of people is contributing to that hurt or excluding people.” And so that person that’s saying, “How do you help me be human?” is looking at the church and not seeing a helpful answer.
Kevin Makins 11:54
No. And I mean, I don’t even know where we begin on that one. Because the truth is that a lot of what we’re describing is not necessarily a reflection of the historic Christian church or the historic Christian faith. But we have this sort of elephant in the room, or maybe a donkey in the room—I don’t even know all your metaphors. But…
Marc Schelske 12:12
…both of those, the elephants and the donkeys…
Kevin Makins 12:15
I think it’s a bit both… America (I say this as a Canadian—you know, love you all) but you make a lot of noise. We all watch your shows. You’ve exported your media around the world. So there’s a sort of hijacking of the collective imagination at a larger scale, both in America and even beyond, around the stories we tell ourselves about church and religion. And those stories are in part reflecting a truthful reality. As you said, there is loyalty, tribalism, nationalism, and white supremacy that has snuck into, in particular the evangelical church in America. The problem is then that people who don’t know that much about church think the Evangelical Church in America, that must be every Christian…
Marc Schelske 12:54
Kevin Makins 12:55
…That must be what Christianity teaches, right? And it actually just might be a 200-year heresy. And, if not heresy, it might be a 200-year misstep. Looking at church history, we find a lot of couple-hundred-year missteps. That’s part of the evolution of the spiritual life of the church. When we’re in it, and we are so ill-equipped to know our own story–for those of us who are part of the church–and when those who aren’t a part of the church haven’t been given a place to hear the story, and we’re used to quick sound bites… Well, what are we going to get fed? We’re gonna get fed the worst stories about the church.
Now, I think that the church is in a moment of reckoning, a well-overdue moment of reckoning, because so much of our theology and our structures, come with this colonialist mindset, especially in North America–Turtle Island. We started our experiment here using religious language and violence and oppression against indigenous people. So this is a necessary reckoning for us. We shouldn’t be crying that we’re oppressed.
But also, it’s not the whole story. We need to look at the global church, we need to look at the story of the Christian faith in the Orthodox tradition, in the healthy expressions within the Catholic tradition, and the healthy examples of Protestant churches. In every city where there’s a billboard by some very ignorant, big brother church of ours that’s going, “Come to our church, Get this, Vote for this person” –For every one of those, I bet there are ten people faithfully loving their neighbors or 10 congregations in an inner city faithfully serving. I think part of what we have to do as we tell the story, is to try to see the story clearly enough that we who are followers of the way don’t get spun by the spin of anger and bitterness…
Marc Schelske 14:39
Kevin Makins 14:39
…but also at the same time, we need to read the times and say this is the church’s judgment for her sin of white supremacy, nationalism and getting into bed with the powers. Both those things can be true at the same time. And I think the rebirthing of the church that we’re experiencing, as sort of all the fields starts to die off here in Canada… the field is fallow. We’re gathering the seeds from what had been grown here… You know, we’re losing… more than a third of our church buildings will be closed in the next five or seven years! If we can gather the seeds and say, “What was the Spirit of God doing in this mess?” That, I think, gives us a good opportunity to plant the future of the church that is going to hopefully reflect much more clearly and beautifully the gospel, the good news, the good road that we’re trying to witness to.
Marc Schelske 15:29
It seems like when I look at the church landscape, there are sort of two umbrella responses that churches are making. Some churches are seeing everything you’ve described and their response is, “These changes in the culture we have to stand against, we have to resist these things, we have to use our influence and our resources to hold on to the culture that is slipping away from us.” And then there’s another group that is saying, “Look, culture is what it is, the cultural changes have happened, we have to figure out how to be the church in new ways in the culture we find ourselves in. Holding on to some of our culturally determined responses from the past are going to get in the way of our mission of being the people of God.” Two kinds of responses: Can we, on the one hand, bring back, hold on to, and conserve the culture that feels like it’s slipping out of our grasp? Or is that change out of our control and we need to adapt, adopt and improve?
Kevin Makins 16:38
I think those are two of the responses that we’re seeing, the two predominant responses, I might even say of that second response, there is a group that says we need to stop this change from happening (as you said, that first group) by using force, and there’s a second group of us, who are more likely to say, “We need to improve, pivot, do things with our force to make things better.” And I think that both of those are ways of being the church that have blind spots. The blind spot is that they both include us doing things. I’m really starting to wonder if perhaps our goal isn’t to do a bit less. To say, “What is happening in the culture around us? And how do I not fight that with all my might, as if this is a culture war?” But also, “How do I not try to make that culture happy and run really hard and work really hard to look like I’m the church that’s keeping up with the times?”
Because, you know, I look around at the times we’re in, it’s not like people are particularly happy, Marc. They’re not having a great time. The times we’re in are making people miserable, too. And so, yes… I’m all for queer belonging in the church. 100%. I’m all for talking about critical race theory and reckoning with the sins of the past. So, if people are calling those cultural changes, I would say those are cultural changes that seem to be in many ways fruitful. But if I run out and start trying to do a bunch of things, I’m actually just as likely to get things wrong from the opposite side as I used to get things wrong from. So, there’s a certain amount of attentiveness, I think, that is called for. Life on the vine, you know? An abiding in Christ that says, “How do we pay attention to what the Spirit’s doing” and come alongside what the Spirit is naturally doing, without trying to then pick up our power, and then saying, “Good, thanks for leading us here, God. We’ve got it from here.”
Marc Schelske 18:28
Yeah, yeah. Right.
Kevin Makins 18:28
Because I think that is such a temptation for all of us. I’m preaching to myself here. I love doing stuff, you know, but this, just doesn’t seem to be fruitful.
Marc Schelske 18:37
When you surface the word power as a troubling word in either a kind of response we might have, it leads me to think back to where we started in the conversation about why people are not finding church helpful or meaningful. I’m wondering if one of the significant reasons is the many, many poor ways the church has handled power. When you think about all the different modes of power, whether its influence in society, whether it’s that we own a lot of property and take up space in the community and asked not to be taxed on top of that, or whether its influence through the media, whether it’s religious figures getting connected to political figures and lobbying for political solutions to things–those are all misuses of power. So then I look at that questioning person who’s observing the church from the outside. Is part of the reason why they’re saying “I don’t want to be a part of this group” because the power dynamic feels unsafe?
Kevin Makins 19:40
I absolutely am sure that part of why people don’t want to be a part of the church is the history of how this institution uses power. I get that and I’ll also say at the same time, I also don’t know an institution that hasn’t gotten into bed a bit with power. I expect better from the church because we know the story. We know the Christ story; we have no excuse. At the same time, I expect corruption in the church, because there are sinners in the church. Just like there are sinners in the banks and there are sinners in local politics and national politics. So, I don’t want to be so naive as to say I can only participate in something that’s pure. That’s something I’m noticing among my generation and in myself. I want to say, “Well, I’m a Christian, but I’m not that kind of Christian.” Because I want to be pure!
When I went to youth group it was sexual purity. That’s how you got status in that setting. You followed the rules perfectly. Thankfully, we’re coming to a bit of a reckoning on the ways that we’ve used that kind of language. But we have not yet dealt with our desire to be pure ethically, that we want to be associated with no one who’s less than us. If you’re pro-vaccination, you don’t want to be associated with anyone who’s an anti-vaxxer. If you are a liberal in America, you certainly would not want to even be associated with a conservative, never mind at church or in your own family. And I really get why people feel this way. I just can’t shake the feeling that one of the best things about church is that you’re stuck with losers. And you’re one of them!
Marc Schelske 21:23
Right. You’re doing if we’re doing it, right, yes.
Kevin Makins 21:26
Yeah. Like maybe this is the only place where you’re gonna run into these people that you wouldn’t choose. And I feel that that is inversely sort of this jujitsu move–using this impulse for purity against itself–is the gospel saying, “Yeah, of course, you don’t want to be associated with all these annoying people, and you want to be the good kind of Christian. But look, what a beautiful thing: that the entrance into the way of life that Christ talks about is that you have to be associated with people you don’t like, and they don’t like you. If we’re going to try to love everyone… People are telling me, “I love everyone?” BS! No, you don’t. I don’t like everyone; I certainly don’t love everyone! But if I can learn to do it with a hundred and fifty people to begin, that’s a pretty good training ground. And then if I can be associated with a religion that’s going to be full of people I don’t like, and I don’t get to remove myself from my own purity or my own appearance on social media or in the eyes of my friends? That’s a pretty good place to begin loving your enemy.
Marc Schelske 22:26
That’s really compelling. Kevin. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it from that perspective. If we start by saying, “Hey, God is love, and being a part of the church is about learning how to live that kind of other-centered, co-suffering love, if that’s what this is really about.” And a lot of people will say, “Yeah, that’s great…”
Kevin Makins 22:43
We cheer! Yay! I want that. Who doesn’t want the whole world to come together? Let’s sing, “Imagine!”
Marc Schelske 22:51
Yeah, that’s good, but the only way you really know that you’re loving someone is when you’re interacting with someone that you wouldn’t choose to be benevolent toward…
Kevin Makins 23:03
Marc Schelske 23:04
That’s how you know that you really love. Jesus said something similar, right? Even the tax collectors will do good things for each other. How do you know you really love someone? Well, it’s your enemy that will tell you. Your enemy is the one who knows if you’re loving or not.
Kevin Makins 23:20
Also, loving your enemy doesn’t mean that you need to be in close proximity to your enemy. You don’t need to be close to abusers. If you’re a person of color, you do not need to be in a church with people who are acting racistly. Let’s just be clear that this doesn’t mean you have to be associated with all these other people all the time.
But maybe there’s something worthwhile, even if in stepping into a broader faith tradition that includes those you would disagree with very strongly or even those you would find quite despicable. They may even be false Christians, but some people who hold those views may be real followers of the Way. So, there’s some nuance here. I hope people are intelligent enough to tease out on their own with their own community and context.
Marc Schelske 23:59
Well, that nuance is part of it, right? Because the thing about purity culture is there’s no need for nuance. I’ve got a line. You’re on one side of it or the other. I can apply that methodology to any belief system or any particular stream in Christian heritage. Nuance isn’t just saying the whole world is gray. Nuance is saying that love requires me to have empathy for people anywhere in relationship to the line I’ve drawn. Maybe even to the question of if that line is necessary. That empathy is where the nuance comes from. So yes, a church that’s built on love doesn’t mean it’s a church where abusers get a free pass. In fact, that is not loving, right? It’s the nuance to have empathy for everyone in the conversation and to think carefully through what it looks like to bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ in those many particulars. Bearing the burden of an abuser is going to look one way. And that’s going to be different than bearing the burden of the person who has been abused.
Kevin Makins 25:15
And each local community is going to have to discern how that is faithfully lived out. Which cares, which people are going to… even if you say we want to lean towards victims, great, but you can have also different groups of victims that overlap. For example, where somebody who’s a refugee from another culture and someone who’s a sexual minority may not see things eye to eye, even though they have both suffered. This is the wisdom of Christ that we need. Every community has to discern this in its own local context.
Even if these congregations are doing a good and faithful job… if I look at a church in the Deep South, I’m gonna think they’re crazy, no matter what they believe. The world they inherit is so different from mine. The powers and principalities that have shaped them are so different than mine, and we each are going to have blind spots. And so you know, we need to allow ourselves to relax a bit and say, “I’m just such shaped by my culture as anyone else is.” How are we going to get through this, if we’re all shaped by our own cultures? The only way is, as you said, the rule of love. These are schools of love, where we learn to love those who are just different from us so that we can be in contact with them. And in that relationship, bridge the gap.
Marc Schelske 26:25
That is so interesting to me if I think about the fact that real love requires me to pay attention to particularities. I parent my two children differently, because they’re different human beings, and they have different needs. If I expand that principle, which we intuitively agree with, all of a sudden, I can see that the sort of franchising of Christian culture across the globe–this sort of declaration that the way church looks, the way we articulate theology, the way we do Christianity is what needs to happen everywhere. That a church in Nashville needs to look like a church in Portland. That assumption, which has implications for church practice, ecclesiology, applications of theology, and even the metaphors that we use to articulate theology—that assumption is, maybe on the face of it, a denial of the nature of love.
Kevin Makins 27:24
Yeah, man! Or at least the nature of incarnation.
You know, how does the spiritual church manifest physically? I talked about this in my book in a much less wordy way. In one of the chapters about trying to plant a church in the city that I was born and raised in and love, and how it had to grow up like an organic seed from the soil, and we needed to give it space. We didn’t church plant with a big budget, not because we didn’t have the money (although we didn’t have the money). But we also church planted the way that we did simply because we didn’t know what it was yet. We bought a building a couple of years ago and I thought I knew what to do with it, and my congregation graciously said, “We don’t think we should do anything for at least a year. We don’t even know what it is.”
And as you were talking about earlier, about force and the church saying we either need to stop this cultural thing or we need to rush it ahead. No, no, no! Just see what it wants to be and look for the spirit. Yeah, the spiritual church is going to be universal, loving your enemies, down is the way up, a life that is lived in secret, letting things come to you–all these beautiful truths that are in the Gospel–these are all going to be a part of the spiritual landscape of every congregation everywhere. The Creeds are probably a good spiritual starting place for a confession, as that tries to manifest, but almost everything else is going to be as unique as the place that it is and that maybe that’s a gift.
Maybe that’s actually necessary. And maybe the thing that scares me most about what we’ve done with the church is this photocopying reproducing a particular manifestation of church. And we all know what happens if you photocopy a photocopy. Or if you photocopy a photocopy of a photocopy. Maybe part of our quest to master church, make it look the same way, maybe that’s actually what’s backfiring on us right now, as you were talking about Mark. That we actually photocopied one vision of the church so many times that it became unappealing. It was no longer able to be seen for what it was. Maybe there was a particular kind of church that worked in a particular kind of context, but now that church is being sent everywhere. And when that’s all over the news, all over social media, and all the bad fruit of that’s being revealed, and there are no other kinds of visions of church, then maybe it’s no surprise that that bad photocopy is going to start falling apart.
Marc Schelske 29:46
I think about how in our world, globalization and constant access through social media homogenizes things in a way that at first is really exciting, but then at some point starts to feel hollow. We’ve got a local pan-Asian fast food chain called Panda Express. That’s not…
Kevin Makins 30:12
I’ve had Panda Express!
Marc Schelske 30:13
Okay, so it’s fine.
Kevin Makins 30:16
Yea, it’s like a nice photocopy of a photocopy.
Marc Schelske 30:18
People love it, but it’s not anything in particular. It’s not a particular Asian culture’s cuisine. It’s sort of Asian themes that have sort of been filtered through this corporate lens. You get it and it’s fine. It’s not great. It’s not expensive. It’s available. But what’s happened is that the particularity of Thai cuisine and Japanese cuisine and Indian cuisine, the particularities have been filtered out and it’s been made very, very sort of what they would probably call accessible, as a good thing, but the uniqueness of the location has been stripped away. And I think that’s a part of the struggle the church is facing.
Here in Portland, one of our current biggest things that people are so excited about and proud of is food carts. What makes a food cart exciting in comparison to a chain restaurant is its particularity. It’s a couple of people making one thing they’re really good at making. They love making it and they make it the best that can be, and they just made it thirty seconds before you got it and you eat it. And it’s so much better than going to the chain restaurant where everything came out of a freezer pack.
Kevin Makins 31:36
It’s completely true. You know, in Hamilton, a lot of my friends run small businesses, small food stuff. And you know, if half the city doesn’t like what they’re making, they don’t care, right? Because they’re not making it to keep people happy. They’re making it because they think it’s really good. And those that love it, it, love it. It’s the highlight of their week if they get to go out and eat there. And so you can see how particularity… you can’t recreate it in any other place. You have to go to it. It’s a unique manifestation of something true. And that’s gorgeous.
The only problem is everyone I know that runs a local restaurant is nearly broke and tired all the time and that raises questions about business culture. The culture we’re in does not want them to do that. You know, it doesn’t it doesn’t work. We’re too dehumanizing of a culture. And I’d say the same thing is true with church.
Why, why are all of these churches singing the same songs? What the hell are you doing? They’re not even good ones! If you’re gonna sing all the same songs, make them old! Or pick up one or two classics, don’t pick whatever’s new this week, like you’re a hot topic!
Marc Schelske 32:46
Kevin Makins 32:48
I don’t mean to poo-poo on churches. Everyone’s just trying their best. But…
Marc Schelske 32:55
Let me interrupt, though. I think we’re on to an important question here. Because the issue is this. It’s easy in a system where the engine of the system is that we got another service this week. We’ve got to go, we have to keep moving forward. We have a certain amount of income we need to make to pay our bills and pay our staff. Let’s keep cruising. In that system, it’s easy to take the top 25 songs from CCLI and just drop them into the Planning Center. Your musicians get the charts, and boom, you go. Sitting down with your local musicians and saying, “Let’s write a song that speaks to the moment we’re in, that talks about what God is doing in this community among these faces” That takes way more time and effort and pain than pulling number four off the CCLI list and having your musicians do a great cover of it.
Kevin Makins 33:44
But it’s not just the songs. It’s the whole model. If you’re in that large church model, if you’re in that kind of setting, just sit for 20 minutes and ask God, “Is this okay?” Ask your soul, “Is this okay by me?” and just see what you think. If you’re finding that that system is fruitful and that system is actually serving and honoring God and creating a church that is more and more, over time, becoming a unique manifestation of the kingdom, then keep going. And if you know there are things you could do to slightly shift the culture in a different direction, away from becoming more homogenized and towards becoming a unique manifestation, then just take the next step. You don’t need to do everything; just take the next step. After that happens, take a look and see what you got.
For people then who are maybe in smaller congregations or looking to church plant, I would say just then do as little as possible, Force-wise. Make as few big decisions as possible right away. Let things grow slowly and organically. It probably means that your three-year plan with the budget dropping 33% every year from the grant, that’s done. Just get rid of it. Don’t take money from anyone for the church plant. Don’t take any money. If you’re going to church plant and you need a salary raise some money like a missionary. Get people to give to you because they believe in you. But don’t let the church take a dime. Let the church grow into what it’s meant to be. That might be 15 people in a living room. That might be a thousand people on a Sunday. I don’t know. That’s God’s business in your place. Just don’t decide what it is in advance. I really think we’ve just got to shift from trying to pay for churches to start to just paying our missionaries to be missionaries, and letting churches become the churches that they’re meant to be so that we don’t have to try to make them something they’re not.
Marc Schelske 35:29
Yes. Right. So I want to tie some threads together. This plea that you’ve made, which is just so intriguing, countercultural, and intuitively feels right to me–I want to tie that back to our starting conversation about the person who’s saying, “Why should I go to church?” One of the threads that surfaces for me is this idea of a church being able to be particular to its location, to where people are at, to what’s going on in that neighborhood. If the church was more responsive to that, more open to that, would more people say, “I’m intrigued, I’m interested?”
Let’s push into that space. How might that model of church begin to speak more meaningfully to the folk who are asking the question, “Should I go to church or not?”
Kevin Makins 36:22
So, let me give you another metaphor here that I think will speak to your Portland heart: Coffee shops. We’ve always had Tim Hortons in our neighborhoods, which is a very affordable, cheap coffee shop chain. The people that love it, love it, then there was Starbucks. They come into town and people go, “Ooh, Starbucks!” It’s exciting. There’s a lot of energy and hype around Starbucks. People were lining up in the early days, but then you just start realizing is Starbucks isn’t actually unique at all. Every one of their sites looks the same. All their Christmas decor looks like it’s been a photocopy of a photocopy. It feels produced, too produced.
And then you’ve got the neighborhood coffee shop. In Hamilton is a spot called The Canon. I mentioned it in my book a bunch because it was started by a woman from our church. We were starting the church around the same time. This coffee shop paralleled our church so beautifully. We were both broke and scrappy. When they opened, they had a pew from the church building that they had painted. The floors were beat up. Not everyone went, but everyone appreciated that it was there, because it was a genuine reflection of that neighborhood.
I suspect if the church is going to see itself through that metaphoric lens, we should be asking, “What kind of coffee shop are we called to become?” And are we able to be clear about that? If we’re gonna make a church that is going to be able to speak in a secular post-Christian culture, it’s going to need to be one where the people don’t just go to church, but they are the church. It’s about more than just the coffee. And then those who don’t go to that church are really glad it’s in the neighborhood because it makes the neighborhood better for everybody.
Marc Schelske 38:01
I recorded this interview with Kevin almost nine months ago, and the troubles that he and I talked about have only gotten worse. Political polarization, and the way that Christian Nationalism has become an explicit part of many Christian conversations and even churches, has pushed even more people out of desiring to be part of the church. There’s a real tension right now about whether Christianity in America will double down on power and control at any cost, or whether we will set that temptation down in favor of the humble, other-centered co-suffering path of Jesus. The outcome, at least for the next few years, is by no means certain. So the question of why church matters and what it looks like, is even more crucial.
As I listened back to our conversation, I gathered together some of our ideas and insights into a picture of what a future church might look like that is winsome, engages people where they are and aligns with Jesus’ other-centered co-suffering way. What could church look like in the culture we find ourselves in today? What would it take for church to matter to people who aren’t deep on the inside? Now, these ideas are not about doctrine, at least not on the surface. They’re about practice. But make no mistake, our practice, our church structures, and the way we do things, all grow out of our beliefs and principles. So see if some of these ideas resonate with you.
The Church of the future needs to let go of operating by force and power, and instead, choose a way that is marked by love and consent.
This church would do less. It would be less driven to produce programs and instead spend more time listening–listening to God, listening to its members and participants, and listening to the world around it.
This church would be willing to be honest about the past, willing to admit when it’s done harm or contributed to harm. Most importantly, this church would rush toward making things right rather than rushing to circle the wagons to protect an image or an institution or a leader.
This church would feel less like it’s trying to build a new “cool kids table,” instead opting for radical and generous inclusivity.
This church would focus less on building big crowds where many people listen to the voices of a few and opt for nurturing smaller community spaces where everyone’s voice can be heard. The expectation would be that God speaks through the community, not just through a couple of elevated leaders.
This church would double down on loving service, letting go of programs and outreach that come with strings attached or some expectation of conversion or contribution.
This church would set aside rigid purity culture, where people’s value and even their ability to participate are measured on some scale of proper behavior or even uniform belief, choosing instead a path of generous welcome where nuance is expected and people don’t have to hide who they are.
This church would let go of its addiction to looking like the latest, biggest, famous, franchised expression of Christianity and instead prefer local in particular, following the Spirit into authentic manifestations of community. More food cart, less chain restaurant.
This church would set aside the model of religious content programming and move toward being a practical school of love.
At the end of our conversation, Kevin talked about an incredible possibility. A church like this would make such a positive difference in the community that even the people who don’t go there would be glad it’s in the neighborhood because it makes the neighborhood better for everybody.
That’s a vision that moves me. Does it move you? If it does, understand that this vision comes with a homework assignment. That assignment? If you and I wish that church was more like what I just described, then you and I have to consider what we might do to bring that about. How will we serve? What kind of leaders will we support? Are we willing to be less comfortable as the church becomes less about us and our preferences? Will we invest time and heart and even cash In churches that look like this? The way God seems to have chosen to do things in our world means that God’s work in the world happens only as people respond to the nudge of the Holy Spirit. And that means you and me getting involved.
May you see your role in bringing this kind of vibrant church community to life and may all of us have the courage to follow Jesus into this kind of other-centered co-suffering community. Thanks for listening.
Notes for today’s episode and any links mentioned can be found at www.MarcAlanSchelske.com/TAW049. There you’ll find Kevin’s website, a link to his book, “Why Would Anyone Go To Church,” and links to some of his other creative work: some short films on being human, and a 60-minute one-man show called Holy Shift.
If you found today’s conversation helpful, then subscribe to my email list. I usually email about once a month. This amazing email includes links to my writing, the next podcast episode, books I recommend for your spiritual journey, and a little bit of a catch-up with what’s going on in my life. Opt in and you’ll get a free little book called “The Anchor Prayer: A Prayer and Practice for Remaining Grounded in a Chaotic World.” That sounds useful, doesn’t it? This short read will teach you a spiritual practice that has been so helpful to me as I have faced the anxiety and uncertainty of our time. Subscribe and get that book at www.MarcOptIn.com.
Until next time, remember: In this one present moment, you are loved, you are known, and you are not alone.