You Lost Me: A Dialogue

A few days ago, I came across a new book by David Kinnaman called You Lost Me. The topic is the reason why young people leave the church. Along with the book there is some material on the website including videos of some young people honestly explaining how they were trying to care about the church but were eventually discouraged and gave up. I was going to write up some other commentary on the idea, but after posting the link to my Google+, a good friend of mine did most of the work for me. Rather than write up a distinct commentary, I’ll just copy over our conversation. Since I didn’t explicitly ask her if I could post her name, I’ll leave her anonymous, although if you went over to my G+ and found the post, it is public so you could see that way if you really wanted to know. The sections contained in a blockquote are hers, and the sections in normal paragraph text are mine.

It looks like an interesting series, but I’m not going to lie, the title concerns me. It sounds too much like we’re telling the church “you’re responsible for my choices”, which I think is a trend in education as well – in our pendulum-swinging efforts to teach better, its possible that the students are more and more viewing the teacher as responsible for their learning.

Similarly, I don’t think it would be right of me to tell my church “you lost me” or “you found me”. God was there from the moment I was born, calling me to follow him, and church or no church, the decision to listen or ignore that call comes down to me and God. If I say ‘yes’, then I am the church. And if I say ‘no’, then God just keeps patiently loving me and asking me to follow Him and become part of His church. Perhaps “I lost me” would be a more honest title?

I agree with you to a point. Everybody does have to take individual responsibility for their own choices of whether to respond to God’s call to follow or not. But the issue at hand is not individuals deciding whether to follow Christ and be part of the church in the theological sense (universal body of Christ) – the issue at hand is whether people are getting what they need to do that in the institutional church, and the fact is that many aren’t even when they have made an individual decision already. In the theological sense, we are called to be part of the church, but what if we accept that call but then can’t find the body of Christ anywhere within the institutional church?

Another distinction: they aren’t identifying things like the church not being entertaining enough or the message being challenge. If that’s the case, as I’m sure it is for some, then we largely do have to just say that what they’re looking for isn’t what the church is there to do so they’re better off going to a movie theatre. The people featured are those genuinely seeking but they aren’t finding Jesus in the church. They’re having problems with things like the church always asking for money and not spending it wisely or constantly pushing for conversion then ignoring people afterward. Those are things that are contrary to most church’s own teaching, at least in theory, that we are often blissfully unaware of because of our little church bubble.

For an analogy, think in terms of other uses of time and money. If I stop donating to a charity because their promo ads aren’t well-produced enough or because I don’t like the style of their website, that’s my fault, definitely. My priorities are off. But if I stop donating to a charity because only 10% of the money I give is actually making it to the goal, I object to them and they shrug me off, then I didn’t lose me – they lost me. They should be held to higher standards than that as an institution that is claiming to do good work in the world. Similarly, if I raise a concern that a church is not living out its mission on earth and they ignore me, that’s not my fault if they are a terrible counter-productive use of my time and resources. In the theological sense but even more to the point here in the institutional sense, the church should be called out when it isn’t doing its job.

I definitely see what you’re saying. And yes, I agree that there are lots of issues in churches that we need to work on (and will probably always be working on). As a church, we should spend our money wisely, love and serve others wholeheartedly, worship genuinely and live like Christ – and each one of us in the church fails to do that (and for me, I fail to be all I am called to be a lot), which of course leads to the church failing to meet its mission since the church is simply a sum of these individuals. I’m certainly not trying to excuse the church: I agree that we should stand up and say something when the church isn’t doing its job. But what I’m suggesting is much more difficult than telling other people in the church what they should change: I believe we should stand up for what is right as a body of Christ, learning together to change ourselves.

To me, there’s a very important distinction between, say, donating to charity and being part of a church. In a church, I look around me and I see things happen that shouldn’t happen – and that is 100% wrong. But can I say that its someone else’s job to fix that? The church isn’t some organization separate from myself that I’m supporting, observing or attending – its me.

And silly as it sounds, that’s really what I love about church and community. God knew when he put us in community that we were going to mess up, hurt each other, and make poor decisions – but he also knew that in community we’d learn how to love and care for each other in times of joy and of tragedy, that we’d begin to understand a bit of the unconditional forgiveness he’s given us when we learn to forgive each other, and that we’d encourage each other to love and serve others.

Sometimes its possible for a church to go so far away from God that the only thing to do is leave, but I think that is the exception not the rule. Most of the churches that I have seen are genuinely striving to love like Christ loves and follow God, but not one of their members is without sin. So the only way they can exist as a community is by forgiving each other, and working together to become more Christ-like. It’s messy, and yes – sometimes people get frustrated and give up on community because of the messiness (I’ve felt that way sometimes!) – but to be honest, as a person with a messy heart, I belong in that complex community we call a church. I have an important role and responsibility in learning with the church as we all grow to be more Christ-like – and I think that process is truly beautiful.

Very well said, and again I agree on basically all of it. There’s some of the idea of being the church, not going to church, which I definitely think is important. As the church – in the universal sense and most of us in a local institutional one as well – we should “be the change we want to see in the church”, to alter a popular quote. I definitely encourage that in the universal sense of church. We can’t afford to abandon community. As the church universal, we are the body of the Christ and the bride of Christ – with either metaphor, it isn’t an option.

mostly encourage battling it out in the local institutional sense of church. When it comes down to it, I think the only place I differ from you is that I’m a bit more pessimistic about the frequency of institutional churches problematic enough for the best answer to be to leave. I’ve seen many institutions that have completely lost the point and where the problem isn’t that they aren’t perfect – the problem is that they don’t even care to try. I’ve banged my head against the wall with a couple different groups before giving up. Yes, it feels crappy leaving them behind, but to quote two sayings of Jesus: “you can’t put new wine in old wineskins” and “don’t cast your pearls before swine.” The latter is saying that sometimes you need to pick your battles. Banging your head against an institutional wall when they aren’t listening is equivalent to throwing your pearls before swine: it might be a noble goal, but it isn’t doing anybody any good. It’s just getting them upset because they don’t appreciate it – pigs will try to eat it then get angry because it hurts! Church administration who are stuck in their ways get seriously angry and defensive when people try to change things. It just gets you upset that you are funneling so much time and money into something so unproductive. The former is saying that yes, sometimes the old structures need to be abandoned if they are simply too rigid to stretch and grow. So maybe instead of lamenting that we are leaving the old cracking wineskin behind that we can’t help anyway, we should be moving to a new wineskin that is ready to grow.

I need to try to summarize this in practical terms. My advice in those situations is not to leave every institutional church for all time. We shouldn’t ever want to leave church in the sense of Christian community, and that pretty much always requires some form of institution. Institution isn’t bad in and of itself, but frequently (in my opinion; rarely in yours) the institution becomes the end goal. My analogy of a charity still works in my opinion because in these cases I’m talking about, the church is distinct from you because it has made itself that way. So sometimes we need to leave a particular institutional church to go to another one, after attempting to initiate change but it would be a very rare scenario where there is no redeemable institutional church available to you.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.