Indian church

The Church That Lost Its Identity

I asked a question that brought the Future of the Church summit participants to an uncomfortable silence. It was a simple question that continued to provoke a good deal of soul searching among these church leaders weeks later.

The question: What is the church?

Some expected an easy answer to such a basic question. But others wrestled with the ramifications of the possible answers. Some wondered if they were to define the original concept of the church–or what the church has become.

It’s a question that surfaced repeatedly in our research for our new book, Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore. We heard the vast unchurched public conclude that the present-day church has become its own focus. They perceive that the church is a complicated machine that is designed to sustain and preserve itself.

Any entity that yokes its identity to self-preservation eventually destroys the very thing it sets out to protect.

In our upcoming documentary film When God Left the Building, Leadership Network’s Reggie McNeal says, “Somehow we got it in our minds that the church is the point. The church is not the point.”


I pondered McNeal’s comment on a recent trip to India, where the established institutional Christian churches are experiencing many of the same issues of stagnation and decline that we see in America. But we weren’t there to spend time with those churches. We were there with a team from Lifetree Adventures to help obscure churches conduct their ministries in the slums of Delhi.

What we witnessed there gave me a glimpse of the church’s true identity.

_MG_0141We met passionate, dedicated church leaders and members downplay their own comfort and safety to serve in an environment that is predominantly Hindu and Muslim–and often outwardly anti-Christian. Here they’ve humbly established communities of Christ-followers without fanfare, flash or flair. Many of their places of worship don’t even bear an identifying sign.

They meet in the spare room of a house, or in a small rented space, or in an open area along an alleyway. Once they gather more people than the space can accommodate, they establish another small church in another location.

_MG_1689When the faithful gather, their praises, songs and prayers fill the neighborhood air. They’re not there to listen to professional musicians. They’re there to worship together–with joy and heart. They often linger long after the service to pray for one another’s needs. And not just on Sunday. We watched as God’s people gathered spontaneously on any day at any time to join in worship.

Here, the church’s presence and outreach is based on meeting neighbors’ real needs, and building authentic relationships. One of our pastor friends here has been patiently building friendships in an enclave of snake charmers. In terms of converts, it’s slow going. But he’s not preoccupied with numbers. He’s focused on delivering the love of Christ to his friends–one by one.

The church in the slums of Delhi is not consumed with what the American church sometimes calls the ABCs–attendance, buildings and cash. Instead, this is a church focused on the enveloping love of Christ, a contagious community of faith sharing in fellowship around the one true God who loves each individual individually. That’s the church.

9 Responses to “The Church That Lost Its Identity”

  1. Interesting article. I wonder if the American church crisis isn’t created as a result of how we define church. I was raised in a Christian home where I was taught church was a place we attended and where God hung out. It was “holy ground” for lack of a better word. As I studied for ministry, that definition of church was ingrained deep within my belief system. However, on deeper study, I discovered what many already knew. The church isn’t about a building. It isn’t a place. It’s a people. It’s a community of those who are “called out” to live their lives in response to the gospel of Jesus. The early church got that. They didn’t relegate God to a building. The early church was on-mission to proclaim the risen Jesus to all who would hear. While many churches today remain committed to protecting the flock from the evils outside of their building, there seems to be a renewed passion for the church to be what it was designed to be…Christ-followers living their lives in response to the gospel by taking His message of redemption and reconciliation outside of the walls and into the streets.

    In the past 10 years, I have seen a dozen churches in our small community close their doors for lack of attendance. Does this disturb me? Sure. But I take hope in the truth that we aren’t the ones building the church. Jesus is. It’s His work. Not ours. And as He builds His church, amazing things happen. You cite a number of them. We are working with a ministry in Uganda that has over 1500 “house-churches.” We are training the house pastors, helping them grasp the scriptures and be able to communicate the scriptures to those they teach.

    There’s so much I could write about why the church in developing nations is growing while the American church seems to be dying, but I’ll spare you that. But thanks for the article and for challenging the church to think.

  2. I think you may have something here, Thom! The building and sustaining of a church is not nearly as important as true Christ like love and concern for one another—-it isn’t about a building, a priest, a pastor, or even a creed. It’s about the message, not the messenger—to love one another, to heal, understand, without judgment, ego, pride, pomp or circumstance. It’s not about building, seeking success, or gaining great reputation as a great and popular church or entity–it’s about serving to whomever you meet, wherever you find yourself—in India, Indiana, next door, your neighbor, your employer, your employee, your friend, your enemy, your sister, your brother—by deeds large and small,— one by one, by one.

    May your “Lifetree” ministry continue to seek those who are lost, and even those who are not so, but simply wish to be more securely connected to the lifeline of God’s enduring love, via the comforting company of others—”where two or three are gathered in my name—-”

  3. Thom, this church group in India is ahead of our church of 1500 in that they are effectively reaching out to their Jerusalem. We are not doing that. Our church is growing but only because other churches in the area are experiencing challenges and we are a “stable” church. Whatever we do we do with excellence but yet we have very few new people attending our church as a result of being a new convert either through our church programs or from somewhere else. Our church has become an end unto itself. So sad!!

  4. Maybe our US churches are dying because we are focusing so much on relationships with our Christian brothers and sisters, we’ve forgotten the greater importance of our individual relationships with God Himself. I also sense a negativity from the institutional church about anything that might promote any kind of ‘individuality’. There is a big push on ‘community’ the ‘we’ are the body of Christ. The so called ‘lone’ Christian is really frowned on. Personally, I could never grow my relationship with God in a group or at church… too distracting. My alone time with God is precious and necessary. I fear that the church hasn’t taught people how to have a real relationship with God. They are more concerned with your coming to church to worship together. What happens over time when all people know is how to have relationships with each other and worship together and feel they did their time on Sunday. Don’t they forget God the rest of the week? Without God really intertwined in life, church is just a religious routine. People get bored of routine.

    • Sorry Ryan, but what you are saying is opposite of what Christ and His disciples did and taught, It certainly not consistent with His Word. Jesus did not forsake fellowship with the church nor did He ever condone being a “lone Christian” Christian love does not look down on their fellow Christians with a superior attitude. We are to support and edify one another. Paul admonished us “not to forsake the assembly of ourselves” for a reason. United we stand, divided we fall. We cannot be effective as Christians and as a church if we forsake unity among our fellow believers.. Christ made it abundantly clear that His church was of utmost importance. Where we are falling down is personal outreach. Anti-social atttitude is not consistent with Scripture.

      • I spent a lot of time reflecting back on the 42 years I had gone to church and that previous 6 years that I had been so active in ministry. Being an introvert personality wise and just being honest with myself, I just found going to church as just not at all value-added. Church wasn’t doing anything to improve my relationship with God in fact being out of church has had me more relying on God and has done a lot to grow my relationship with Him in a more personal way. Maybe some day I can help people to understand God better. I gained a lot of freedom when I dropped all that religiousness. There is one thing I learned recently. The things you don’t hear in church. God only speaks when you need to hear something. God isn’t one for small talk. God is direct, short and to-the-point. He isn’t like a pastor who is paid to fill some time every week. As a human being, I get concerned when I read my bible and don’t hear something from God. That’s actually a good thing because that means I’m doing good and living right, what I’m suppose to and I don’t need any correction or instruction. God deals with heart issues, not physical things. I listen and learn and do what God say and things actually go very well despite I don’t go and haven’t gone to church in over three years now. People really hate when I say, and this from observation, that God is more concerned when where we are heart wise than where we are at physically on Saturday or Sunday (depending on your church). I thank God for every good day I have because I do have bad ones for various reasons. Even if we could live a perfect holy life, bad days come so thank God for every good day.

  5. Very good perspective Ryan. Maybe we need to change our vocabulary and move away from “discipleship” and move to “relationship”. But then us men very often do not like to use the word relationship but prefer the word “walk with God”.

    • A relationship with God is very different than with other people. God deals directly with the heart… very indirectly with the physical things of life. If our hearts are right and we have that solid relationship with God, Spiritually and heart wise, with that good solid foundation, the physical things of life… relationships with others takes care of itself and falls into place. It’s hard to see the subtleness of the Holy Spirits work inside us and when we ask God to help us in dealing with others, including none-believers, yes, God works in their hearts also, the Holy Spirit goes to work. They don’t see it and won’t see it. After the fact, we look back and see how God has worked so subtly, underneath, behind the scenes, both in our hearts and the hearts of those we’ve had issues with. I look back and wonder how I had the patience and didn’t blow up at some people but after asking God for help, my heart and theirs were softened, things worked out and my relationship with that other person improved. People aren’t taught this and it is hard to verbalize. Having a relationship with someone in a crowd is different than getting away with them alone. Going to church to worship God in songs or readings and listen to sermons does not equal having a relationship with God. Worship is worship. Worship is one way. A relationship is a two way street. I consider sermons as God’s word with an opinion that often paints a bad picture of who God is. In my alone time hearing God through reading my bible, I can see God for who he is. He is a lot nicer than what come off from sermons that humanizes God, bringing Him down to our level of humanness. No matter where we are, heart wise, God is willing to come to us every day, where we are, and is willing to work with us. God is a parent and like a parent, they need to spend more time with their children when they are bad then when they are good. You get the impression from church leaders that God won’t even look at you, hear you, respond to you or help you in any way unless you’ve repented and are living in complete obedience, first… so very, very human. Only a bad human parent would be that cold-hearted to their own children. Getting long. Better end here.

  6. We have organized God out of the building. :(

    For some that organizational framework works for them and they have invested their lives in that framework.

    Unfortunately for them it’s working for fewer and fewer people.

    The days of the Pony Express are over! The ‘message’ is being delivered a new more culturally relevant way.

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