My study break has been a wonderful time of recharging my proverbial batteries and refocusing my heart. I’ve been visiting pastors and churches all over the place to snag a bigger look at the body of Christ so I can learn from what God is doing in other congregations in various settings.

That said, my study has been laced with a deepening sadness.

I’ve been to big churches and smallish churches. I’ve attended local congregations and a few south of the border. Almost everywhere I look, churches are plateaued or declining. No news there, but when I attend church after church and walk away  troweled with the asphalt of heaviness, wondering why people even show up every Sunday, it pains my soul. Most people seem to go to church because they go to church, nothing more profound than that. So what’s going on?

Is it poorly led worship?

Is it less than dynamic preaching?

Is it because people in the pews can’t articulate the vision statement?

Is it because the youth ministries aren’t relevant or strong?

Is it because the leadership structure is causing a dysfunctional atmosphere?

Are gossip, majoring on minors, budget shortfalls, and stale-dated websites the problem?

Is the lack of growth tied to a lack of personal passion?

What is it?

The answer, I think, is that all of these issues are symptoms, not causes. Because I truly believe—after more than twenty years of ministry, study, observation, conversation, and prayer—that the main reason the church isn’t growing… is that we don’t want it to. We’re too busy protecting what we have, and given the staggering choice between lost people and what we have, we choose to defend what we have and serve ourselves over and over again.

We don’t do out-reach, we do in-vite. We don’t want to actually embrace lost people, so we try to attract them instead. Make them come to us. And when they come, we won’t give up our musical tastes, our pews, our lunch schedules, our cliques, or even a place in our small group. Outreach isn’t a way of life in North America, it’s a program. We’ve relegated it to scheduled slots so that we can go somewhere else to do it. We can clock in, clock out, and go our merry way. The average North American churchgoer will do anything—and I mean anything—to avoid sharing life with the people God has put right in front of them. Co-workers, neighbours, people we meet on the playground? Not a chance. Serving sandwiches downtown to people I’ve never met who will never, ever intersect with my actual life? Perfect. I can do my outreach duty, drive home, and shut the world out the rest of the time.

You know why so many churches feel dead? Because they are. Erwin McManus has said that the life of the church is the heart of God, and that the heart of God beats for a lost world. So if a lost world isn’t at the very core of a church, the heart of God isn’t beating there, and that body is dead no matter how flashy their promo materials are. Ironically, the only church service on my travels that felt even remotely full of God and his heart was Mosaic, where Erwin is Lead Pastor.

Back to the symptoms I listed earlier. If the heart of God for the lost is beating fiercely in a local congregation, worship will be red hot and led well because God is worthy of our praise and unsaved people are among us who need to taste this presence and passion.

If lost people are on God’s mind, dynamic preaching is inevitable because souls are at stake when the church doesn’t get up and live out the gospel and we simply cannot bear to lose anyone God is putting in our path.

If the heart of God is beating in a church, people in the pews can articulate the vision—or close enough. Why? Because it’s why they’re alive. They see themselves in God’s story and are continually working to align themselves with God’s noble purposes in the world.

The youth ministries will be relevant and strong because again, the world is dying out there and we need to reach them.

Leadership structures will be laid down continually to serve the heart of God. Dysfunction will not be tolerated because it undermines this epic cause.

The same with gossip, majoring on minors, budget shortfalls, and stale-dated websites. Not a chance. People captured by the grace of God give generously, give grace generously, see what ‘s important and what’s not, and want even their website to be current, clear, and helpful so lost people can connect as easily as possible.

And would there be a lack of personal passion? Not when people are giving their lives to Christ regularly and stories of God’s miracle-working power are running rampant throughout the fellowship.

So let me pose a question or three: Is what you want out of church more important than people finding salvation in Christ? Are your preferences more important than people finding the truth? Is your schedule truly full of things more important than investing in someone else’s eternity? Is having “Your church, your way” more important than God having his church, his way?

Didn’t think so. For me either. Time to make some changes.