Hamster Wheels and Holodecks

Well, the news is out again. Gallup’s latest faith poll showed church membership is “down sharply”[1] over the past two decades. Relevant Magazine recently reported that young people are leaving the church due to perceived judgment and hypocrisy [2].

These types of reports are all the more common today, and it is getting harder for church leaders to navigate the methods of communicating and spreading of the gospel message in our present culture.

The downward trends of church relevance can be concerning, causing us to look at how we “do” church. But what if we are being directed to focus on the wrong things? Don’t these reports poke at our biggest fear-dragons and put us in a posture of defensiveness? Do these types of forecasts actually ask the right question?

In my recent book Life Out Loud, Mike Frost and I both point out sociologist Josh Packard’s work on the “Nones” and “Dones” of our faith. The “Nones” having no faith preference, and the “Dones” being done with the church but not done with Jesus.

In my experience as a pastor for 25 years I continue to see a rise in both of these groups at an organic level. While we certainly have the call to reach the yet-to-be believers in Jesus, the one group I’m most concerned about are the “Dones,” that haven’t left the church yet but are sitting in the pews trying to figure out how faith fits into their life.

Still Searching

Often these “Dones” are very close to exiting the church but not necessarily their faith. They have been taught to come each Sunday and search for meaning in life, but have yet to find an exciting and vibrant faith following Jesus.

Instead, they are often bored Christians, running on a religious hamster wheel of church rhythms.

They may not even realize they are on a hamster wheel, but deep inside, they feel that the Jesus of the scriptures might not match up with the Jesus of the Sunday monologue. They know that there is a call to something greater than what they live out within the walls of the church service.

While Sunday attendance, serving as a greeter, being in a small group, are not bad activities in themselves, it can leave average Bob-and-Sue church attender asking, “is this all there is to following Jesus?”

Pondering “How”

My premise, and one I would encourage us as church planters and missional thinkers to ponder, is that we often don’t think about how our ecclesiology is training (or not training) disciples, thus leaving them wanting for more in their faith.

Just the rhythms and church calendar we setup can teach what we truly believe about our mission and the call to be sent people in God’s Kingdom (John 20:21).

I would say, as a worship pastor of 25 years, even the flow of the service can communicate our highest values. Everything we focus on, video, lights, sound, a perfect worship band with a fog machine, actually communicates what we believe in the most.

What we focus on actually communicates what we believe in the most. – Rowland Smith Click To Tweet

The “experience” of church is actually training each of the Jesus followers that come to weekly services, what they should focus on as the most important thing about being a Christian.

Equal Energies

Now, don’t hear me say that we shouldn’t gather and worship as a community. We absolutely should! However, what if we equalized the weight of our week on the ecclesial activities that we put effort and budget into?

For example, what if 5-6 days of energy and budget weight went into helping people live as sent people (missionaries) in their neighborhood, workplace, and schools? Then what if one day of effort and budget was spent on the gathering of the people to observe the sacraments.

What might we teach people then? What greater journey might we call them to if their everyday life was given priority by the church as a whole? My guess is that we’d have far fewer bored Christians, fewer “Dones.” In turn, eventually, I believe we’d start reaching the “Nones” as well.

Great Expectations

I would propose that we start expecting more from our disciples, something greater, something I’ve termed a life out loud. We need to start communicating something different than the quiet life of coming to church and being inspired, only to return to “normal” life (after we hit Qdoba on the way home).

Our primary metrics need to change from attendance and giving, to stories of Kingdom expressions in the everyday places our people live, work and play. We need to become great storytellers and great inviters of people to participate in the story of God where he is already working. So in order to launch people into mission, we must ask hard questions not only about what we should do, but also what we shouldn’t do. The point is this…our ecclesiology teaches our theology!

Our primary metrics need to change from attendance and giving, to stories of Kingdom expressions in the everyday places. – Rowland Smith Click To Tweet

Growing up (and also in adulthood), I’ve always loved Star Trek. I’m not a “Trekky” per se, but I have big opinions on the best series and cast. (This is best talked about over a beer so I’m calm.) One of the things that draws me to Star Trek is the envisioned technology of the future that the writers of the show would dream up in each series.

Perhaps my favorite technological achievement of the Enterprise was the Holodeck. It’s a room that can make any reality materialize by computer programming. It’s kind of like a 3D hologram, but it’s real…you can feel it, touch it, smell it, and most importantly, experience it. Want to raft down a river? You can in the Holodeck! Want to go back in time to the wild west? No problem for the Holodeck. Whatever you want to imagine can be made reality in that room!

Unintentional Ecclesiology

Might we be unintentionally creating Holodecks of faith in a lot of our ecclesiology today? These are places where the scriptures are talked about, the presence of God is materialized in our songs, prayers and focus, the Kingdom becomes reality, but when we leave the room, reality goes away.

What we have unintentionally taught people is that God lives at the building. Ministry happens there…that is where faith is encountered. Our “experience” of God is found in the holodeck sanctuary, or school where our new church plant meets.

As missional Jesus people, we know the error in this thinking, yet when we plant churches or plan our gatherings, are we really taking the discipleship of mission to heart?

Are we asking hard questions about what we create in order to inspire and teach other Jesus people what is really important about their faith life? Are we willing to make a list of things we won’t do in order to teach and champion the other six days of the week as the primary place we encounter and participate in the Kingdom of God?

Are we asking hard questions about what we create in order to inspire and teach other Jesus people what is really important about their faith life? – Rowland Smith Click To Tweet

In Life Out Loud, my hope is to inspire the average person in the pew, seeking an exciting path following Jesus into the life he wants them to live. I believe that people are meant for this adventure, they are called to be sent and scattered, as well as gathered for worship services.

When they discover that living as a Jesus person is as simple as loving your neighbor, seeing people as fellow Imago Dei (images of God), and seeking to carry peace and shalom into their world, they discover a whole new Christianity. It’s a Christianity that excites them, and they begin to act like missionaries and live like Jesus did. I’ve seen this happen, time and time again.

Perhaps, as church leaders, planters, and pastors, we can begin to be intentional. Not intentional about deconstructing or criticizing institutional church, but intentional about what we include, what we stop doing, and what we call people to. Yes, let’s be gathered as God’s people, but let’s also be scattered. Shape your ecclesial practices to teach people that they are sent by Jesus. Teach them to live a life that is Kingdom focused, a life outside the Holodeck, a life that steps off the hamster wheel, a bigger life…a life out loud!

Join a Fall 2019 Learning Cohort

[1] https://news.gallup.com/poll/248837/church-membership-down-sharply-past-two-decades.aspx?fbclid=IwAR0fI2eE0HRGYHQToQUCO8sfsg1WhGH80_LQyB9i7lPh6GG4HkZ8Knib4Rg

[2] https://relevantmagazine.com/culture/study-young-people-are-leaving-the-church-due-to-perceived-hypocrisy-and-judgment/

About the Author

Rowland Smith

Rowland serves as National Director of Forge America Missional Training Network, is a staff pastor of missional culture at a church in Colorado Springs, and directs The Pando Collective, a micro-church and missional expression network that was launched from his local church. He also teaches as affiliate faculty at Fuller Seminary. He is the author of Life Out Loud: Joining Jesus Outside the Walls of the Church, and most recently, was lead editor and organizer for the multi-author book Red Skies: 10 Essential Conversations Exploring our Future as the Church. He is married and has four adult children.

Share this Post