An Introduction to the “Ugh-Churched”

ugh-shirtI am Ted Wiggins and I speak for the trees!

No, that’s not right. I am Brent Thomas and I speak for . . . well, I might not speak for anyone other than myself. However, I have the hunch that I speak for a growing number of Christians who are increasingly frustrated by American Christianity.

Discipleship is the primary task Jesus left His people (Matthew 28:18-20). This simply means helping ourselves and others become more like Jesus. This is the fundamental task of Christians and encompasses all of life including all of our relationships. We are publicly trying to live out the ways of Jesus and striving to help others (no matter where upon the faith journey they might currently find themselves) to see the beauty in doing so (This is different from evangelism. Evangelism is not a thing in and of itself but is a subset of discipleship. Maybe more on this later.).Many churches grasp this, using pithy, easy-to-remember phrases like: Make, Mature and Multiply (Disciples), or Gather, Grow, Go.

Few seem to argue the fact that the core of Christian Living is discipleship. Over the years, I’ve asked over a hundred people: How well do you think the American Church as a whole, has done at the fundamental task of Discipleship?

I have yet to have a single person tell me that “as a whole,” we’re rocking it. Several people have been able to point to specific times when they have been spiritually cared for and encouraged and seen significant growth but these cases seem to be the exception rather than the norm. No one has argued that, “as a whole,” we’re doing well. There was one guy who was adamant until I realized that he was arguing that Young Life did a great job of discipling, not the church.

93434191-einstein-tongue_custom-36fb0ce35776dc2d92eda90880022bf48a67e192-s6-c30And yet it seems like just about every church is doing the fundamentally the same things. You remember how Einstein defined insanity, don’t you? Doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results. That seems to be the current predicament for American Christianity. Sure, the flavor might change but nearly every church seems to have the basic, Sunday-driven, education-based, program-driven structures. Two or three songs, a sermon and some more songs. Some churches are showy-er about it than others. Some churches have different emphases within those parameters but nobody seems to question the basic. passive, education-based approach.

But there is a growing number of people who believe that the Christian life is more, not less than the modern church experience. Many people sincerely want to follow Jesus and find a divide between how we see that suggested in the New Testament and how it is largely practiced here in the United States of 2016. Drawing from researchers like Thom Rainer and others who discuss the “pre-churched,” the “de-churched,” the “un-churched,” etc., I have come to think of this group as the “ugh-churched”.

The “ugh-churched” as I understand them, are not abandoning their faith nor do they want to abandon church participation. Much ink has been spilled rebuking people who say that they love God but feel no need for church. These are not the ugh-churched. The ugh-churched, if I may speak for a category I’ve just made up, believe that the current model is lacking at best and broken at worst. The ugh-churched believe that so many modern churches rely on programs because real relationships simply don’t exist.

But it’s a catch-22, isn’t it? Many churches see the New Testament’s expectations that we will “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:1-2), that we will rejoice and weep together (Romans 12:15), that we will speak the truth to one another in love (Ephesians 4:25), that we will live as family and so we create programs in which these things are supposed to occur but these things do not occur in programs because programs are not relationships. People oftentimes don’t know how to have these types of relationships because they’ve been caught in programs. A growing number of people have become disillusioned with the current approach and long for Christianity to be lived out in the context of meaningful, challenging relationships. Though there’s lots to do in the American Church, it just doesn’t always seem worth the time and energy and many are left wanting more.

As my friend April recently said:

I’m at a point in my Christian faith where I don’t want to go to a church with a “tag line” or catchy mission statement. I’m so over it, like way way over it. I want to go to a church that really wants to be the Church and not some cool kids club, that strives to be relevant, or hip, or urban, or progressive, or liberal, or seeker sensitive, or “down to earth”. I’ve found that there’s a lot of flavor out there without a lot of substance (kinda like Doritos). Hoping God will bring us into a community of believers who want to do honest, raw, life together for the long haul. Keep our family in your prayers, and keep me in your prayers that God will show Himself to me in his people and that I would be encouraged.

The problem is that we’re left with cliché’s like “authentic”, “genuine” and “organic”. They sound great but have largely lost their meaning in the current church context because every church uses these terms but seems to mean something different by them and the result is has simply become a standardized approach to how we “do church”. This is why many of the ugh-churched feel increasingly disenfranchised from the American church; they want more, not less. They want substance over performance and they believe that following Jesus is about more than superficial slogans like “Win at Life”.

This means that we must stop doing church the way we’ve always done it. Far from being threatened by the ugh-churched, we should revel in the desire for deep and meaningful community faith. This is an exciting time for the American Church. We are faced with an identity crisis and we have reached a tipping point. How will we emerge? Will we embrace the growing desire for simplified schedules and deeper relationships or will we create another church program?

 

 

A New Evangelical Ecumenicalism

10511268_10152952001991450_2281633900746319744_nOver the past couple of weeks, I have been thinking a lot about the ideas surrounding “vocational ministry”. As I pointed out, I am not in a bad place at all, just one of public wondering. I would love to see some meaningful dialogue in the Christian community about some pretty fundamental issues like: has our pervasive model of “doing church” succeeded in making, maturing and multiplying disciples. If it has, great! Let’s find ways to improve. But, if it hasn’t . . . then we’ve certainly got problems with our cheeseburgers in paradise. I’m not a betting man, but if I were and if there were a market for betting on such things, I’d bet that, deep down, most Christian leaders would say we have a long ways to go in the area of actually encouraging and equipping people to resemble Jesus more and more.

When asking deep questions about the “how and why” of what many now consider to be “tradition” (it’s the way we’ve always done it!), we must continually walk the path of humility. It is easy to become bitter when recognizing our failures and it is certainly tempting to point out other people’s failures. It’s far too common for those who begin by asking good questions to end up with an “I’ve got it all figured out” attitude. Neither is helpful for biblical.

But it is also true that we will not grow without the humility to wrestle with our family issues, pushing ourselves and one another to mature, especially when we may not see eye to eye on everything. This certainly takes humility but it also requires open forums in which we may be forced to be a bit uncomfortable.

I am fortunate to live in Phoenix (I never thought I would say those words!) at this time because I am seeing a spirit of what I call “A New Evangelical Ecumenicalism”. Over the past several years I have seen pastors around the Valley coming together in cooperation for THE Kingdom rather than their individual kingdoms. I have lived in the Phoenix area most of my life and I can say that I have not seen anything like this here.

In fact, I have come to wonder whether we are seeing a new understanding of ecumenicalism. I have to clarify here that I am speaking from and about my own experience which has shaped my understanding. Somewhere along the line, I was led to a particular understanding of what “ecumenicalism” meant and why it was bad. It was thought that, since each tribe’s “hard borders” were its doctrines, and of course, our slice of the pie is the “right pie”, those whose borders are too far away from our own may not even be in the same country as us. In fact, they might just be our enemies.

In other words, different strands of Christianity were not pictured as separate but intertwining threads, they were seen as some sort of self-contained unit, a closed circle, which a gate (that group’s pet doctrines). To enter that group, you had to cross through that gate. All of this, of course, led to the idea that cooperating with another family of Christians who might have some different beliefs than us (forget whether or not both groups are well within “orthodoxy”, we just don’t like “other) meant shattering our borders and also compromising our beliefs.

This meant that, at least in my city, there has not always been a tremendous spirit of cooperation amongst local churches. In fact, you might even say that some pastors view other churches as competition and might even fit the description: “territorial”.

But I have been joyfully watching a new understanding of ecumenicalism (at least for my context) lead to a new practice of cooperation. Certainly all the churches of Phoenix do not agree on everything. We all have our own approaches and boundaries. But I think that the renewed emphasis of a missional understanding and practice of our faith has led us to give the border guards a break. That doesn’t mean we will sacrifice orthodoxy but it does mean that, in the words of Hirsch, Frost, and others, that we are seeing a willingness to move from a “bounded set” Christianity to a “centered set” faith.

Instead of viewing each of our individual camps as held together by the outer fences that divide us, what if we were all bound together by our mutual dependence on a well? Some may be closer or further from the well and many will come from many different directions, but we’re all heading to the well, which, of course is Jesus. If you and I are both trying to be closer to Jesus and made more like Him, why would I let our differences lead me into believing that we were not heading towards the same goal? What’s more, why wouldn’t I want to help you on your journey?

32358464-four-arrows-pointing-into-the-center Now, before I hear from the curmudgeons that are not me, I am not saying that everyone is a Christian. I do believe that, “Orthodoxy” eventually must have boundaries. That’s what makes one thing “Orthodox” and something else “Un-Orthodox”. For the sake of this conversation, I would point to the Great Creeds of our faith (the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creeds in particular). There are people who are outside of even the widest boundaries of accepted Christianity. But that’s not who I’m talking about.

I am seeing a lot of local Christian churches who once saw each other as closed-off encampments cooperate together without sacrificing orthodoxy. They may grow and mature (which, means, “GASP!” change) by interacting with one another, but as long as they’re all heading towards Jesus, they’ll be the better for it.

It’s encouraging people to see their differences as talking points rather than dividing lines. In other words, “unity in necessary things; liberty in doubtful things; charity in all things”.