Does this bus need turning around?

31 July, 2013 — 26 Comments

I could easily spend several hours every week “having coffee” with people I know who have stopped going to church services. I like talking to people who are either well on the fringe of church (having moved from the centre) or have left completely. I like talking with these people because I appreciate hearing stories of their experiences and often frustration with church. If I didn’t work for the church I might be one of these people.

Whenever I see a bus telling me it isn’t in service, I think of Sundays and churches and those who aren’t in church services on Sundays, especially those who used to be but aren’t anymore.  There’s another way to frame “NOT IN SERVICE” and I’ll end this post with that.

On 27 July I read a blog post on a CNN Religion Blog written by Rachel Held Evans. She talks about the broad age-group that in the USA are called the Millennial Generation, and in other places Generation Y (18-33 year-olds). Other age-groups are Generation X (34-48 year-olds), Baby Boomers (49-67), and the Silent Generation (68-88).

In the USA the Millennial age group are leaving church in their droves, and Rachel explains a bit of her experience with this. I want to quote her here because I really liked a statement she made when referring to church, and the tweaks we might try to attract people to it:

“You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.”


We mustn’t get sidetracked here by trying to figure out where Jesus might be if he isn’t in the church. Or should we?

We might also ask the question of these young people:

“What is this Jesus like that you don’t find in the church?”,

because we might think they don’t actually have a good understanding of the actual Jesus that the rest of us seem to have no problem finding on Sunday mornings.

Yesterday I had lunch with a long-time friend who was a mentoring influence to me in my late teens. He’s a theologically trained activist who has spent more than a decade caring and being an advocate for people in a difficult place. We talked about church (because that’s what I always talk about), and he talked about his church frustrations as well as the frustrations one of his teenage children is experiencing with the church. It all came down to authenticity. Or rather, a lack of authenticity within their experience of church communities.


It’s complicated because authenticity is different for different people – there are various expectations of what an authentic church or Christian community would look like or do.

The issue for Rachel’s Millennials has something to do with authenticity, she also comments:

“We [Millennials] want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.”

That might be a good test for our churches if they are not overflowing with 18-33 year-olds: perhaps there is no challenge to engage in holy lives when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

How does your church rate?

Some of the people I catch up with who are “NOT IN SERVICE” any more on Sundays, are “IN SERVICE” in other ways, for example, I know people who actually tithe their income, but rather than giving it to the church, they give it to things they know are making a difference in people’s lives in transformative ways, both social and spiritual.

I don’t think there’s too much to worry about with some of these “NOT IN SERVICE” people, because some of them have lives more engaged with their Christian faith than many regular church attenders appear to have.

Another angle

The first was referring to people not in church services. The second is to think of it as being about action, or active service, or rather, not in active service: “NOT IN SERVICE”.

I would like to suggest some of the problem Rachel identifies with Millennials leaving churches comes down to their experience of churches that are “NOT IN SERVICE”. For example, do these young people see the rest of the “family” caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers?  Or in other words:

“…to preach the Message of good news to the poor, …to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is God’s year to act!”” (Luke 4.18-19)

Or do they just hear songs and sermons about this stuff?

What are some of your ideas about these two “NOT IN SERVICE” phenomena?

Image: Metro Bus, Christchurch, Mike Crudge.

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  • Maurice

    Thanks Mike. There always has been a tension between those who keep God and know God inside the church building……………… and those who apply what they listen to and hear in their community outside the church building…… perhaps these millennial people are the ones who will take the gospel into the streets and EXPAND Church as Christ intended

  • Rod Fleming

    Interesting Mike – I’m thinking now about How Jesus send he would send the Holy Spirit and He would take the things of Jesus and reveal them to us – I suppose if the Holy Spirit is active He will be revealing Jesus to the people there.

    (p.s. I had never thought that with ‘Not in Service” – when I see the M sign for McDonalds and think of being yoked with Jesus.)

    • Hi Rod – you mean the Holy Spirit will reveal Jesus outside the church?
      Yes yes yes!!! :)

      I will try to look at the McDonalds ‘M’ more positively from now on…

  • Ryan Bond

    Thanks for your thoughts, Mike. This fits in with my intro to the Letter of James and I’d like to use your ‘not in service’ idea if that’s ok with you.

  • not a wild hera

    I walked past a church with a friend of mine recently. She said she’d been there once, by mistake.

    The sign had said ‘cafe service’ and she thought that meant they’d take your coffee order at your table – that the church building was actually housing a cafe. She expected cake and got a sermon :)

    • That’s a great story! (I mean, it’s a bad story but a great example). If only it was the other way round sometimes: go to church expecting a sermon, but get a cake.

      • not a wild hera

        Later that afternoon we saw a car yard sign that said ‘Mercedes Service’ and wondered what kind of sermon you’d get there.

  • MarttheRev

    Good stuff Mike and great image! One of the things I am experimenting with is fragmentation as a way of moving forward. It seems to me that ‘in service’ for us church goers means fit in with our service of worship – time – style – content – way of worshipping etc. For some people the season they might be in is an engaged conversation and some spiritual rhythms and practices but little is on offer – the window is 10am worship. There are plenty of people out there interested in talking faith but precious few opportunities. We are exploring a new form of being church with young families that meets them where they are – the worship life will unfold in time – the key to it is engagement with the scriptures. We are also working on some new building ideas that will focus on hospitality and spaces for conversation rather than concentrating on dedicated worship spaces. Good stimulating stuff thanks!

    • Hi Martin. it’s good to hear you define the difference between what “in service” is i your context, and what you hope it to become (and are working towards).

      With the new thing you describe, I suspect the church institution in general would not like the concept of “the worship life will unfold in time”. That’s a bit grey Martin! BUT, I would think is an authentic expectation of something new.

      I will keep an eye on your building developments – it sounds like you have a great opptunity coupled with some creative thinking. I really like the Oldenburg “third space” philosophy ( ), and think there’s a chance for churches to play with that – I have ideas, but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for (when it comes to church engagement/creation of third place/space).

  • DrDon

    ‘Not in Service’ from the perspective of a bus is quite different from the use of the word ‘service’ as it is used for Christian meetings. When a bus is ‘in service’, it is out and about in the real world doing what God intended the bus to do – helping people. After all, God gave mankind the materials and ability to build a bus so that it can help people in their daily lives; stooping down for the elderly, allowing room for wheelchairs and mothers with buggies, taking people to where they want to go. When a bus is ‘out of service’, it returns to the depot to be serviced – washed and cleaned, and to have tyres and fluids topped up, etc. It requires the dedication of a mechanic to devote their time and energy to making sure the bus is fit and ready to go back into service. The focus is on the bus, not on the mechanic or their workshop. Perhaps we should stop and listen to what God is trying to teach us through his example of the bus. The bus has a clear, focussed purpose for its life; does the local church community have a clear focus on God’s purpose for His church?

    • Thanks DrDon for providing another more literal angle on the ‘Not in Service’ play on words in terms comparing the routines of an actual bus with that of a church community. Your ending question is helpful: “does the local church community have a clear focus on God’s purpose for His church?”
      I would be keen to hear your answer to that question – perhaps in thinking of your own local church community. If “yes”, tell us what this looks like in your context, if “no”, what are some of the issues?

      • DrDon

        No, I don’t see and read clear evidence that the local church community has a good understanding of God’s purpose for His church – the training of disciple-making disciples.
        I wonder what you have done with the information you have gained from speaking to people as outlined in your first paragraph? After all you write “I like talking with these people because I appreciate hearing stories of their experiences and often frustration with church.” What are you learning that can be used to make changes and put the local church community back ‘into service’ for others?
        Perhaps the answer to that question is in your confession “If I didn’t work for the church I might be one of these people”. By this I assume you see yourself as working for ‘the local church community’. I wonder what would happen if the community saw you working for God’s church and being ‘in service’ for His church. Would you be out there helping others like Jesus did? After all Jesus didn’t expect people to come to him, he went out to where the people were.

        • Hi Don
          This raises the question: what is the role of the pastoral staff of a church? I would like to think it was a mixture including what you’re suggesting above (the training of disciple-making disciples, and out there helping others, and…), but it seems to be a lot about administering the institution. So yes, I do see myself as working for the local church community – they hired me to do a bunch of tasks on a job description, some of which are to do with administering the institution, some are along the lines of disciple-making. I consider myself to be working for Gods church – which provides bigger picture motivation for me in my work that supersedes the limitations of any specific local church community.

          I admit that, working in a baptist church at least, it sometimes seems like I’m working for the church member’s church more than God’s church! And there’s a tension there, for example, I know some church members have different expectations of me than the person I regularly report to (my boss, aka the senior minister).

          In the ideal local church context we would all be, as you say, out there doing what Jesus did (not just pastors).

          Some people I have talked to who have left the church have done so because they find that the expectations to maintain the church institution are a bigger priority than sustaining and developing the faith community. Some people use words like “burnt out” by running church programmes to keep the institution running. I have never heard anyone say the church was too authentic so they quit! (And I mean authentic to their expectations of what Christian-faith-community should be, which would usually include some of the things I quite in the post above from Rachel Held Evans).

          New Zealander Alan Jamieson has written some interesting stuff about church leavers from his research to do with people having what he calls a “churchless faith”…

          One thing I’m trying to do in my own context in response to this is to downplay the significance of Sunday church services, for example, Sunday church services seem to get elevated as being the most important thing about being a Christian: they aren’t! (Pastoral staff spend a lot of their time on Sunday church services.)

          In your own church context, what would you do to improve the training of disciple-making disciples?

          • DrDon

            You ask me – ‘In your own church context, what would you do to improve the training of disciple-making disciples?’ To answer that question, I need to explain my background. I have two feet in retirement, and after a lifetime of serving post-school adults in a tertiary science-related discipline, my heart and mind yearn to help young people with problems such as those discussed by Rachel Held Evans.
            Unfortunately, my experience supports the argument that church leaders have little interest in doing what is necessary to help people find answers to “tough questions and wrestling with doubt”. I believe that Jesus used adult learning principles during his ministry and we need to learn these principles and apply them to our own ministries.

            I also find the contents of your other blogs – ‘Where faith, arts and justice meet: Greenbelt (my review)’ and ‘Stop the weird people!’ disconcerting. For example, what right does any Christian have to refer to anyone as ‘weird’? As regards to music, my ears have deteriorated with abuse and age and now I am scared to go to a church meeting because of experiences of physical pain and ringing in my ears due to excessively loud music. Requests to the pastor have resulted in being told to stop complaining.

            Your other blog, ‘One thing every church should consider but usually doesn’t’ also raises some very important issues which I would have thought that everyone who is in a leadership position would be intimately acquainted with. A radio or TV station just dumps information into the air waves hoping that someone will tune in. Entertainment is a big factor in that process, and communication is one-way without any attempt at feedback or error checking. When it is important to communicate understanding that builds on previous knowledge to produce a deeper knowledge, communication requires interaction that includes feedback, error checking AND a continuous monitoring of the development of understanding and knowledge. The question that should be asked is ‘what is the message that church leaders unwittingly communicate every time the typical local church Sunday meeting is held’. The acceptance of the truthful answer to that question would be the start of a journey towards the answer to your question, and the questions raised by Rachel. Likewise an acceptance that churches wanting more bums on seats and not focussing on discipleship, is another misguided pursuit.

            What would I do? First, I would consider the ‘Not in Service’ sign on the bus to be considered in the way it should be. The word ‘service’ should not be seen as a noun (e.g. a noun infers ‘not in a local church community service’) but as a verb (e.g. a verb infers ‘out in God’s mission field being available to God’). A bus may have a ‘Not in Service’ sign because it is not scheduled into service, or it may be returning to the depot for servicing. Unfortunately many Christians are wearing the ‘Not in Service’ sign because of the failure for the depot to service them – i.e. the ‘making disciples’ process.

            Second, I would do what everyone should be doing – put aside all the traditions and dogma that draw us away from truth, take a large piece of paper and create a model based firmly on the truth principles that God has placed in the Bible. It is not a case of finding a verse to support a tradition; it is a requirement to write down only those truth principles that are supported by Scripture. A good place to start would be to accept that God’s mission is the restoration, (spiritual) formation, and transformation of people into a relationship that God desired before the first sin – and he wants to use all believers to fulfil that desire. After all, why would anyone want to go ‘back to church’ after having left it in the first place, when we have not done anything to address the problems? We desperately need a ‘back to the truth’ philosophy, not a ‘back to church’ Sunday.

          • Hi DrDon, and thanks again for engaging with me and this content in this way – I really do appreciate it.
            I don’t know where you live, but if you’re in Christchurch: come to my church!! (I would love to have a retired person saying “my heart and mind yearn to help young people with problems such as those discussed by Rachel Held Evans”.) Or at least lets meet up for a chat – I reckon we’d have plenty to talk about!

            I really like your comment: “The question that should be asked is ‘what is the message that church leaders unwittingly communicate every time the typical local church Sunday meeting is held’” I think we’re on the same page with this.

            I would embrace most of what you suggest to improve the training of disciple-making disciples, but with one caveat, which may also disconcert you, but perhaps only in terms of generational differences in semantic use. I know what you are meaning when you talk about “truth”, and a “‘back to the truth’ philosophy”, but I usually preface “truth” with something like “the Christian ideal of” truth. This is because I’m conscious of the lack of credibility in 21st century NZ society when the church is seen to claim things about truth, and especially “absolute” truth (I know you didn’t use the “absolute” word).

          • DrDon

            Thanks for the invitation to attend the church community you serve – unfortunately, Christchurch is too far for that. You also say you think we are on the same page with my question ‘what is the message that church leaders unwittingly communicate every time the typical local church Sunday meeting is held?’ It would be interesting to know what your page has on it.

            If we are going to use words such as ‘authentic’ and ‘absolute’ in communication, we should first make sure that we understand their meanings. To do that, it is essential to consult dictionaries. I suggest that ‘authentic’ has meanings such as ‘worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact’, or ‘being actually and exactly what is claimed’, or more simply ‘of undisputed origin; genuine’. For ‘absolute’, I suggest meanings such as ‘free from imperfection’, or ‘characteristic of a ruler or authority completely free from constitutional or other restraint’, or ‘having unlimited power’ or ‘not related or compared to anything else’.

            When we discuss truth, I believe that from a church perspective, we should seek truth from an ‘authentic’ position because that should lead to an ‘absolute’ position (i.e. God’s position) – it is not the other way around. It is too easy for people to argue an opinion as absolute truth without taking the time to reason authentic truth. Just as truth is determined from creation through accurate research and not from an interpretation of a single statement or event, so should truth that is claimed to be Christian truth be founded on the results of accurate research and not on an individual verse; or worse, on an opinion.
            We must ask the question ‘is the local church proclaiming authentic truth or is it proclaiming opinions as absolute truth?’ If we return to the analogy of the bus, is the local church really helping to take the ‘Not in Service’ sign down from the front of the bus – i.e. the individual people? Is the ‘bus’ returning to the depot for authentic servicing?

          • DrDon – you provide a thought out and well articulated response about authenticity and absolute truth. Have you thought of writing your own blog? I would follow you!

            I might write a post sometime about the message church leaders unwittingly communicate in church services…

          • DrDon

            Thanks for your comments – I have considered a blog but have always had the feeling that people do not want to read controversial viewpoints. Yet weren’t Jesus’ viewpoints controversial?

            May I finish with one final thought – Your blog indicates that you associate with a Baptist church, so maybe it is worthwhile to consult the website ‘Being a Baptist’ (
            Under Biblical authority we find; “Baptists believe the Bible is the inspired word of God given to humankind for guidance and instruction on how to live life to its fullest”; which I assume means to live the life that God wants each individual to live.

            Surely then, what is spoken from the pulpit in the name of God should only be truth that is clearly reasoned from Scripture, and it must be with the clear objective of instructing people how to live a life that God wants them to
            live. It therefore must accommodate authentic methodologies and authentic communication that promotes authentic training to live authentic lives, together with the ability for people to teach others – irrespective of the gifts, skills and other personality traits that God knew each person would have when He formed them in their mother’s womb.

            I also assume that a Baptist church would also uphold as authentic the second principle from the Being a Baptist website; “Congregational government – Baptists do not have a hierarchy of positions within their churches or their denomination. We believe all members are equal, all are able to hear the voice of God, and all have a contribution to make to the running of the church.”

            The question I put forward is “Where could I find an authentic local church community in New Zealand – a community focussed on the training of disciple-making disciples? In other words, a church community that is servicing people in such a way that their ‘Not in Service’ sign is changed to ‘In Service for God’.

  • Dave Follas

    Hi Mike. Although, technically, I’m a couple of years too old to be a millennial, what you say speaks to me. I wonder if many millennials could be described as pragmatic-existentialists for whom if faith/religion is to have any meaning it must have practical application (in terms of “caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers”) in the here and now. To often they don’t even “hear songs and sermons about this stuff” let alone see it. Pope Francis is certainly aware of this (or hes just doing what he has always done) and is bringing the emancipatory message back to the fore. I was talking with a un-churched “millennial” recently who said she was almost considering becoming a catholic because of the message he is spreading…almost…

    • Hi Dave!
      Yeah, good observation.
      And your Pope Frances story – it’s true ay, I have even found something inspiring about him which I didn’t pick up from the previous guy.
      Thanks for your thoughts!

  • DrDon

    Hi Mike – moving away from the ‘bus’ and back to Millennials, there are a couple of interesting reports from the Barna Group that are worthwhile reading – “5 Reasons Millennials Stay Connected to Church” and “How Technology is Changing Millennial Faith”.

    Given that I am uneasy with some of the connections made from their research, (e.g. the suggestion that leaving the church means that they leave their faith and leave The Church), the five points of the first report make an interesting reflection. The second report raises another interesting reflection (I wonder how the Bereans would have been able to use a portable collection of Bibles etc.). Both reports equate to the question “If the local church community exists to connect people with God, then why is it that these young people are leaving the organised church?” A quote from the first report “Parents and leaders have long been concerned about the faith development of the generation born between 1984 and 2002”, is an interesting reflection. Why just this generation – I would have thought that ‘making disciples’ and being ‘renewed in our minds’ would have included all Christians.
    It is not just a young person’s problem. There seems to be a number of older people in society who say something like ‘I used to go to church, but…’. While I am in the Silent Generation, I am finding that I am moving into that same category, hence the essence of these two reports resonates with me.

    • Hi DrDon, and thanks for another thoughtful comment! I’m sorry I haven’t been responding much lately, I hope to get back up to speed soon. I have been very busy in the preparation of 150th celebrations this weekend at the church I’m part of, and I had my PhD oral exam two weeks ago (and passed!) and are trying to get a few amendments completed before the graduation deadline… I will be back in regular action here soon!