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The research organization Barna Group reported in February that two-thirds of American adults who attend church “do so largely because of personal enjoyment.” That claim may not be sensational, but it is misleading.
Barna’s State of the Church 2020 study highlights five trends “essential in understanding the Church’s place in the U.S. today.” It offers little new or noteworthy: Barna concluded that many Christians “church hop,” that church membership is common but declining among younger churchgoers, and that many non-Christians believe church to be irrelevant.
But Barna also reported that 65 percent of American churchgoers attend because they personally enjoy doing so. On the surface, this number seemingly reinforces a common notion that American Christians possess a consumer mentality—that they attend church not to worship the Lord but to satisfy self.
Barna apparently did not intend to draw that conclusion. Digging deeper reveals more about Barna Group than about American Christians.
Barna focused on what worshippers felt they had received from worship, while giving them no opportunity to describe what they had given in worship.
Barna asked survey respondents: “Do you usually attend church because you enjoy doing it, because you feel you have to do it, or you do it out of habit?” The question gave respondents no option to reply, “I attend church to worship God.” The best possible answer respondents could choose (as 65 percent did) paints them in a potentially narcissistic light. A bad question produced a misleading answer: It is inaccurate to conclude, as Barna did, “Those who frequent worship services do so largely because of personal enjoyment.”
The very structure of another survey question reinforced a self-oriented approach to worship. Barna asked: “Thinking about the worship services you attend at your church, how often do you leave the worship services feeling …” Respondents chose from nine possible answers, and while “inspired,” “encouraged,” and “forgiven” scored higher than “disappointed” or “guilty,” Barna focused on what worshippers felt they had received from worship, while giving them no opportunity to describe what they had given in worship.
Stranger still was Barna Group’s conclusion: “Today’s church leaders are tasked with meeting a diverse set of emotional expectations.” But data describing the emotional experiences of people during worship does not speak to the emotional expectations of those who enter worship. Nor does it imply church leaders must craft worship services primarily to satisfy emotional expectations.
Worship is for the Lord, and maybe American Christians know it. But Barna couldn’t tell you because Barna didn’t ask.
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The story was sensational. A small, struggling congregation of some 30 elderly attendees is scheduled to close this summer, only to relaunch in the fall with a new, young pastor, new décor, and a new worship style, but without its aging members. Pioneer Press reported that church leaders at the Grove United Methodist Church (UMC) had asked elderly members not to participate in the relaunch and to worship elsewhere for two years before “reapplying” for membership. Accusations of age discrimination followed. Major media picked up the story, painting it as a case of youth-obsessed culture run amok.
The truth is more complicated, but also more sobering.
The Grove boasts two suburban St. Paul, Minn., campuses: the small Cottage Grove congregation, and a large, prosperous Woodbury congregation 15 minutes to the north. The two congregations merged in 2008, but for the past seven years the Cottage Grove campus has been unable to support its own minister. Members of the congregation plan services, provide music, and take turns preaching sermons. Despite past revitalization efforts, the Cottage Grove campus has remained stagnant.
The planned relaunch is designed to attract younger families and to forge an intergenerational ministry. Leaders have asked Cottage Grove members to worship at the Woodbury campus for 15-18 months so the relaunch can “take.” The leaders clarified no current member will be excluded from the relaunch. They are being asked—not commanded—to give it a chance to succeed.
But it won’t.
In June 2019 the Minnesota Conference of the UMC voted to reject a Biblical view of human sexuality, marriage, and Christian ministry in order to support “the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ people in the life of the church.” In a Jan. 5, 2020, sermon, Grove Associate Pastor Kelly Lamon stated that the leaders of the Grove “stand in solidarity” with the decision of the Minnesota Conference.
Theologically liberal Methodists already repudiate substitutionary atonement, the bodily resurrection of the dead, and the plain Biblical witness to the necessity of repentance and the certainty of eternal punishment apart from faith in Jesus Christ. Their current repudiation of Biblical morality further untethers the Grove from historic Christianity.
In a brief survey of 12 weeks of sermons, including messages from pastors of the Grove and the bishop of the Dakotas-Minnesota area, I found not a single reference to repentance, conviction, guilt, law, commandment, the holiness of God, judgment, atonement, or God’s wrath against sin.
One sermon mentioned sin, but did so while suggesting that Christians too often use light and darkness as metaphors for good and evil, and that by doing so we promote racism against dark-skinned persons. No sermons mentioned eternal life, reconciliation with God, the necessity of forgiveness, obedience, or the cost of discipleship.
The leaders of the Grove might succeed in relaunching the Cottage Grove campus. They might fill the sanctuary with young people. But ultimately they will fail, for they appear committed to withholding the words of eternal life from those who attend.
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First in an occasional series on long ministry
Richard Hornok attended Dallas Theological Seminary and planned to become a pastor. Before graduating, he heard about a tiny church plant on the border of Texas and Arkansas, in a city called Texarkana. “It was basically just a little Bible study meeting on Sunday mornings,” he said. Hornok arrived at the church with his newly pregnant wife, Vicki, expecting to stay three or four years before moving on to bigger and better things.
“We thought we were going to take on Texarkana and show them how it’s done,” he said. “We were as cocky as could be.” Three or four years turned into 35.
Ministry was harder than Hornok anticipated: The church grew slowly, and some congregants negatively compared him with other potential leaders. Some criticized personal decisions he’d made, such as financing a car and avoiding being alone with any woman not his wife.
But a few older church members loved and encouraged Hornok and his wife. Several times, when the couple wondered whether to leave, other pastoral positions simply did not open up. Ultimately, they always felt convinced God wanted them to stay.
Decades of preaching to the same people has kept him sharp. His wife takes meticulous notes in her study Bible, and Hornok said if he changes his position on a passage, she calls him out. He tries to preach new passages to deepen his Biblical knowledge: Last summer it was Obadiah.
Another benefit to staying at the church has been long, deep relationships. Hornok baptized one man, performed his wedding, attended his children’s births, then years later officiated his wife’s funeral when she died of cancer. Now Hornok meets with the man and his new fiancée to help them prepare for marriage. “If I’d bounced around to other churches, I would have maybe had the experience of doing one of those things,” he said. “I am getting to do all of life with him as his pastor.”
Staying in Texarkana has also earned Hornok the community’s respect. People ask his advice and value his opinion: Once, FBI agents consulted him as they strategized regarding local cult leader Tony Alamo.
But pastoring the same church for decades comes with challenges. Hornok can’t preach the same way he did in the 1980s: Society has changed, and he needs creativity to communicate and offer relevant applications. He sees people using their smartphones during sermons and knows if he bumbles a Greek term, someone will fact-check him.
Eight years ago, some disillusioned congregants became enamored with other local churches and asked, “Why can’t we be like them?” Their comments made Hornok wonder if it was time for a change. He interviewed with several churches, but none hired him.
To Hornok’s surprise, the process helped to reignite his passion for his own church. The other churches’ consideration affirmed his preaching and ministry skills, leading the 61-year-old pastor to conclude, “You can do this, and you can do this well all the way to the end.”