Faith

Okay Thought Leaders: It’s Time to Stop Bagging Out the “Average Church Member”

By: Stephen McAlpine

2024 would be a good time for “thought leaders” to stop bagging out everyday Christians (if that is even a term).

You know what I meme, er mean? Already this year I’ve seen a bunch of quotes on socials from para-church experts or independent church consultants that say things like:

“Most churches are full of Christians who turn up for a Sunday service expecting to be entertained.”

or

“Too many members of churches have decided that the purpose of the gospel is to make their lives comfortable.”

or

“The average Christian in a church in the USA/Australia/the West is not involved in the mission of their local church.”

You get the picture. Now get the problem. That’s a false picture. And it would be good for thought leaders and consultants just to draw breath before they make statements such as that. I don’t think it’s encouraging for church members to keep on reading on socials what a poor job they are doing.

I know, I know, such statements grabbed a lot of attention and resulted in a lot of handwringing the past few decades. As if the only reason churches were in decline is that the Christians didn’t care about mission, and not about deep cultural and sociological problems that even the average pastor can’t get his or her head around.

But there was a mistaken attempt to push Christians harder and that has not borne the fruit that all those books confidently asserted that it would. That clearly didn’t happen. What did happen was that a lot of pastors burnt out, and a lot of pastors burnt out a lot of average church members in the process of burning out!

Don’t Dismiss the ‘Average Church Member’

Here’s my experience (and it’s the experience of actually having the experiencing of being a church pastor for more about a quarter century):

With the right gospel vision, the right training and framework, the right encouragement, and the right recognition of what the average church member’s life is already like, the average church member is more than willing to be part of the mission of the church. The key is to take their lives and experiences seriously as the first step.

In other words, don’t dismiss the average church member, or even assume how they think about service and mission or what it means to belong to the church, on the basis of a zealous meme.

My experience is that many of those who dismiss the average church member have been failed pastors who tried to radically change the nature and rhythm of their existing churches to fit a “ninja Christianity”. This extreme version of the faith was going to be the change in the world. But this just forced people out of the church, dispirited and burnt, when that didn’t happen.The blame game began.

To put it another way, those of us in ministry often began to complain (and this is an insider telling tales) that the average church member didn’t understand the stresses that ministers had to undergo. And if only they did, etc, etc..

Well right back at ya!

The Experience Gap

One of the issues we face now is the growing experience gap between the working lives of those living in the sheltered workshop of Christian ministry (I count myself among that crew), and the working lives of those within the congregation. In fact it was this experience gap, or a couple of conversations around it, that led me to writing my first book Being the Bad Guys.

I realised that the way in which work life had become both subtly and overtly hostile to many Christians, as well as the modern workplace’s overreach into their lives, had left many Christians worn out and wary. And they were beginning to think that their pastors didn’t have a clue about what life was like “on the outside”.

The average minister isn’t getting up on Monday morning to do an hour long work commute to an office in which the attitude towards being a person of faith (of Christian faith at least) ranges from indifference to hostility.

The average minister won’t get into trouble with the HR Department for telling people about Jesus and possibly triggering them.

The average minister won’t find out on Thursday night that the senior partner of the law firm wants them to give up their weekend at short notice to ensure that the documents are pored over (yet again) and prepared (yet again) for that court appearance on Monday morning.

The average minister won’t have to be given a list of fifteen employees that are to be left go this week (one of them an employee for 25 years), and told, “It’s your job to let them know.”, and all because the bottom line says so.

The average minister won’t have lunch at the average Christians workplace (in other words, the favour is never returned). I think it would be actually a good idea to do that. Get out their pastoral staff, and visit the workplaces for lunch and get the vibe. Then after lunch have a quick prayer with your friend, and go home a little wiser about the pressures they are under.

The average minister won’t decide on their winter holiday break that they will give up the first week of that holiday to be a volunteer in the kitchen or the cry room or the craft room during the winter program that the church runs to reach local children with the gospel. Yet that’s exactly what many average Christians do, whether it’s their work holidays or their uni break.

People Are Already Serving Hard

I worked for a couple of years in a large-ish church in Perth that had a volunteer base that I could scarcely believe. Now perhaps on Sunday morning when people were standing around afterwards chatting with their closer friends and perhaps struggling to interact with a new family, it would appear that they’re passive receivers rather than active members.

But if you scratched beneath the surface! There were people serving in all sorts of quiet ways all over the place and giving up heaps of their spare time to do so. And much of that was in the wider community too.

Now, before you think I’m bagging out the average minister, I’m no more doing that than I am excusing the average church member who isn’t at all interested in mission. And the reason I’m not bagging out the average minister, is because I think the average minister instinctively knows that the life of the average church member out there in the world is a tough gig.

But when it’s tough for the average minister, and attendance is down, and baptisms are drying up, then they can often become suckers for the average – or sometimes below average – “thought leader” turning up to give them the solution and pin the blame on the average church member’s lackadaisical attitude to mission or community or whatever.

My experience as a pastor is this: Many average Christians are serving in their churches and doing it well and cheerfully. They don’t have the confidence to do some of the more “out there” stuff, but given the right instructions and training, they have a gospel desire to see people come to know Jesus and become part of a faith community.

What About The Workers?

One of the most lamentable facts of the modern Western church is its poor theology of vocation. Many Christians feel that their work is invisible to the church, and that simply leads to a dualistic understanding about life. Work is not simply there to fill in time, or to be a platform for evangelism or to simply raise the money to do the “real work”. Work is full of meaning and purpose, even when it can feel like a drudgery.

Yet how little is our work outside ever mentioned in church from the front, or in prayers or in interviews? The pressures of work in a post-Christian age are only set to increase.

The vast majority of average Christians would love the average minister to give a very strong hint at least, that they can see that their is a vocational world of work and life and everything else outside the walls of the church that command their time and attention. There are a whole lot of “have-to’s” that need to be attended to without even bringing church into the equation.

And to constantly feel that they need to “more” and they are not committed enough, flies in the face of the liberating gospel they hear about from the pulpit (or at least that they should hear about). The nagging question in the back of many of their minds may well be this: “My non-Christian friends are already really busy. Isn’t church just going to add to their busyness?”

Now that may or may not be true. And it’s certainly the case that we are called to serve the Lord and do good, especially to the household of God (Galatians 6:10). But for so many people in the workaday world, they’d love church to be a place of reflection for a while, and a place of regathering and recharging spiritually and theologically, before entering the fray once again.

Parkrun: Church Without Jesus

That there is, in my experience, already such a great volunteer base in most churches tells you that self-sacrifice is already there. I mean, compare it to Parkrun – the five kilometre free, volunteer event run across so many places in Australia and the UK.

Two things stand out: A Parkrun of around 250 people often struggles to get the ten or so volunteers it needs for every week’s run. There’s no midweek practice and no late night meeting to sort out the comms. Yet Parkruns are always struggling to get someone to be the barcode holder or the photographer or whatever.

But secondly, and this is inverse to the problem: every volunteer is named and celebrated for that week. Publicly on the morning of the event, and then in writing.

Now it’s true that Parkrun is like church without Jesus. It offers hope and meaning and friendship. To an extent. There’s no sense of serving the unlovely, or seeking and saving the lost (fat people who don’t run usually), or anything like that. Once you’ve left Parkrun after your, hopefully, sub 20 minute five km run, you’re invisible to Parkrun and its people.

A Plus-One Life

In my new book Futureproof I discuss how church might look over the coming thirty year period. I discuss what it will take to be fruitful and faithful as God’s community in times of rapidly changing, and unpredictable cultural times.

In our current church where we are members, the leadership team, recognising the busyness of life among the mainly young families with kids, yet their gospel desire to serve in meaningful ways too, came up with the idea of “Plus-One”. And I think it’s a helpful model that honours God’s people and the lives they lead, while at the same time inching the mission of the church forward.

Here’s what I say:

In the new church plant we attend, there’s a system called “Plus One”. Each term we are asked to do just one specific thing extra that adds to the life of God’s people. That may be having dinner with another couple or family from church once a month. It may be regularly praying with or for one particular person in the church. It could be deliberately spending time with one non-Christian friend.It doesn’t sound like much. There’s no giving everything away or holding everything in common. It isn’t very “ninja Christian”. This means it’s workable, and it’s transferable. It’s “Plus One”, not “Times Everything”! The Plus One idea accepts that most of life is ordinary and most of us are ordinary. But if you start with bite- sized, ordinary ways of focusing on other people, you may just hit your target.

That’s it, thats the meme right there:

The Plus One idea accepts that most of life is ordinary and most of us are ordinary. But if you start with bite- sized, ordinary ways of focusing on other people, you may just hit your target.

And I go on to say this:

Perhaps it’s no surprise to note that in our increasingly anxious culture, there’s a rising sense even among secular writers that there is something lacking in society, something that the church seems to offer. There’s something beguiling and attractive about the way that the average community of God’s people operates. People who tick “no religion” seem to like their church-going friends— envying their “through thick and thin” relationships, even as they see the institution itself (what we might call the “capital-C Church”) as problematic. Somehow, for all of the perceived and real travails of the church being played out in mainstream media and social media, the people of the church still seem to be “out-relating” the people of the wider culture.

That’s right. At the very time memes from thought leaders are bagging out the church, many secular types are looking on wistfully. All too often church and church related memes neglect the ordinary, skip to the extraordinary or the outrageous (social media rewards the outrageous), and they leave a sour taste in the mouth. Let’s honour the average this year. And in doing so, let’s see if doing that just shifts that church missional dial, even if just a little bit.


Article supplied with thanks to Stephen McAlpine

About the Author: Stephen has been reading, writing and reflecting ever since he can remember. He is the lead pastor of Providence Church Midland, and in his writing dabbles in a number of fields, notably theology and culture. Stephen and his family live in Perth’s eastern suburbs, where his wife Jill runs a clinical psychology practice.

Feature image: Canva Pro

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