Part of what is crippling the American church may actually lead to its renewal.

Over the past few generations, the people–the church–have formed an entrenched mindset. It’s this: the work of the church–ministry–is something the people pay the professionals to do. The laity’s role is to simply watch the paid staff work, or perhaps to make a financial donation.

Being a light in the world? Showing God’s love? Talking with others about faith? Doing the work of the church? Well, “that’s what we pay the pastors to do.” This embrace of the professionalization of faith has extended to providing music, to working with children and youth, and to praying aloud whenever the people gather.

And the people have gotten the hint, whether intended or not. When, in the real world, the topic of faith comes up, people often default to: “You should talk with my pastor.”

This mentality is draining the church. It’s galvanizing the spectator orientation that besets so many congregations. It’s reducing the community of believers to what the professionals often call “giving units”–butts in seats, with wallets.


But now, increasingly, some people are losing their patience with being mere Sunday spectators. Sociologist Josh Packard noted this in his research on those who have left the organized church, the people we call the Dones. In his book Church Refugees, Packard explains how many Dones walked away because they wanted to pursue ministry interests but felt roadblocked with church bureaucracy or professional control. And many abandoned their churches because they found the professional monologue format of church gatherings dulling their spiritual growth.

Packard warns that churches are losing some of their best people. And this phenomenon spreads across all generations–including Millennials, who have sparse interest in passively watching a religious show.

Every congregation must choose how to proceed–to stick with the status quo of current church methodology, or to promote the priesthood of all believers.

Churches that stick with the status quo will likely see more people leave, or continue to nod off into spectator slumber. And some people will choose to exercise their frustrated desire to participate by elbowing their way onto church boards and committees to make inappropriate power plays.

It’s far better for congregations to proactively encourage a culture of participation and joint ownership in the mission of the church. Embracing this outlook can provide the hope and impetus for the church to grow in its effectiveness and witness in the community.

Some practical steps for leaders to create a healthy uprising in the pews:

  1. See your own role not as solitary minister, but as equipper, encourager, and cheerleader for all the ministers, the people.
  2. Remind the people, often, about your role and about their true role in doing the real ministry of the church, putting their faith into action.
  3. Provide training for the people to be salt and light. It’s not enough to preach about it. People need safe opportunities to practice how to naturally glow their faith. God SpaceA new resource, Activating God Space, guides your people to actually experience being the church in everyday life.
  4. Find ways to involve everybody in the mission and the message, on Sunday, and every day.
  5. Blow up the bureaucracy and make it easy for people to pursue their passions in ministry.

For leaders, there’s a healthy side benefit to this repositioning. When the people catch the spirit to be the church, there’s less pressure to hopelessly “do it all.” You’ll experience less exhaustion and burnout–and more joy in seeing the Body of Christ share the load together as God intended.