Thank you, Robin Schumacher. I was fascinated as I read your excellent discourse on why solid, mature believers have been leaving churches in droves in your opinion article, "The No. 1 reason true believers leave a church." While many wounded pastors are salving their consciences by assuming the current Church exodus is COVID, Schumacher adroitly points out that when biblically grounded Christians (as opposed to religious ones) are disabled in their pursuit of giving worship to God, they have no option but to leave.
My purpose here, hopefully, is to shed some light on how to reverse this self-defeating trend.
Let me start by expanding Schumacher’s definition of worship. Yes, worship is giving honor to God, but there’s more. Worship is what happens in my spirit and my soul in response to His unfathomable love for me. True worship is a passionate relational interaction between the Creator and the created. It is both giving and receiving. This is what biblical Christians long for.
There are spiritual parallels between how a husband and wife will prepare the setting and the environment for marital intimacy; and how knowledgeable church leadership creates the environment for worship in Spirit and in truth. Both require a special, sacred, time and tone; set aside to focus 100% on the object of our affections, without distractions. We must be unencumbered by daily cares and worries, reminded of the goodness and sacrifices of our beloved, and steeped in our passionate love.
But how can we possibly receive our Savior’s love for us if the service is filled with flippant comments, ill-humor, advertisements for church programs, and songs that most of us cannot sing? Adding to the problem, many songs today are filled with Trojan Horse and Poison Pill lyrics. Do not get me wrong. Many songs are wonderful and uplifting, but others pack in vague feel-good words and some contain outright unbiblical lines.
How is humility to be found when we are constantly hearing how much better our church is than every other church? How can I sense the Father’s unconditional love for me if every sermon is some version of “The 7 Steps to be a Better Christian?” And on top of all that, there are bright lights shining on my face. How is any of that conducive to intimacy?
In too many congregations Sunday morning services start with something like this: “Welcome to our church, we’re glad you came to worship with us!” Congratulations, four seconds in, worship is handicapped. There are myriad ways to undercut worship, but few to nurture it. In this case, an “us versus them” paradigm is released. It’s “you attendees” who are here so that “our professional staff” can put on a presentation.
How about something like this instead: “We’re gathered this morning to join our hearts in worship of our incomparable Jesus, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, who gave Himself up for us to bring us into intimate relationship with our Heavenly Father. Isn’t He worthy of our affection, our praise, and our worship this morning?”
Which opening statement will draw mature Christians in? Which will drive them away?
How did we get here?
There are many reasons, but the one I’ve seen most often is where the typically overworked senior pastor delegates what is arguably the most critical responsibility in the Church, that of leading worship, to young, often naïve, worship leaders prematurely placed into their roles because of their musical talents, but who have little or no clue as to the vast differences between music and worship. And then, except for the sermon, the pastor delegates the rest of the service to various staff members who do the best they can at their particular tasks (just count the number of times they say the word “excited”) but who don’t know how to make their portion of the service be “worship.”
There is minimal or no unity, harmony, or flow. There is no progression from the outer courts through the inner courts; no pausing in the Holy Place before entering into the Holy of Holies where we are forever transformed in an eternal instant of time. In short, there may be a sermon, there may be music, but there’s no transformational or true worship.
It is no surprise that without such congregational worship, which is only possible in the presence of the gathered saints, a solid, mature, biblical Christian will ask, Why attend? If everything is the same on our screen at home as it is in the building, why go?
As Robin Schumacher writes, “You are left with a state of affairs that makes it extremely hard or impossible for a believer to worship God. And when that happens, because worship is at the core of their life, they will instinctively seek out another venue.”
Of course, they’ll leave.
Allow me to suggest that if we are going to stop this trend of mature Christians exiting our churches, and better yet reverse it, then our worship services need to flip the script from building “a church,” to building “The Church.” We need to move from putting on a show to creating the environment for transformational worship; from self-improvement seminars to faith moments of revelation; from “us” performing for “you” the crowd, to “Here we all are, together at the foot of the cross, in humble gratitude for your magnificent grace! Come, dwell in our midst, so that we can encounter the love and grace of the True and Living God, and be forever changed.” Selah.
Tom Burtness, former senior pastor of Shiloh Christian Fellowship Church in Urbana, Illinois, has served bi-vocationally for forty-five years in apostolic ministry and in electrical engineering. He is the author of the upcoming book, Transformational Worship: Restoring the Power of Miraculous Transformation to the Church.