Any institution that has a strong desire to appeal to the public at large should pay attention to statistic called the “approval rating”. The approval rating is a measure of the general feeling towards a certain person or group. Typically we see approval ratings in the context of politics. The most common approval rating reported is that of the president. Several polling and statistical analysis institutions poll on the general feeling that the public has towards it’s leader and at worst this is a weekly report.
I want to give you two numbers. First is 46 and the second is 44. Both of these numbers are current approval numbers (at the time of this writing). Both numbers are not encouraging.
The current job approval rating for the president is 46% (Rasmussen). Statistically speaking, less than half of the country approve of the job the president is doing. The current job approval for the church is 44% (Gallup). In other words, more people have more confidence in the current president than they do the church. For my friends in leadership at a church, if this doesn’t catch your attention, then nothing will and you can stop reading. For the rest of you consider this, for the president, he will probably never get above 60% in approval rating. Roughly 80% of the population claims either one party or the other as an affiliation (40% Democrat, 40% Republican) the other 20% consider themselves as independent. That means that roughly 40% of the country will never approve of any given president’s job simply because of his affiliation. The church should not have that same problem of disapproval simply by label, yet our approval ratings are worse. This is unsettling.
Recently I had a group of students affiliated with UM ARMY come in and serve in Livingston. I had a wonderful conversation with one of the speakers about the overall health of not only the Methodist church but the (big C) Church. It is no secret that most mainline denominations are experiencing an overall loss in their attendance and participation. In light of the current approval ratings, it is logical that there is an overall loss of attendance and participation by our society. It has became a significant problem and there has been some significant discussions on why and how to stem that tide. I have several thoughts on the subject, and submit them as possible solutions.
The first and an important thing that leaders within the church have to do is de-couple the church from politics entirely. I am not saying that we should be silent on the issues, because the church is called to speak out against injustice. Ever since the 70’s, the church has tried to use politics to promote our values rather than being an avenue to balance the political debate. Doing so, it has partnered with one of the major American political parties. We are now at the point where “evangelical” has become a voting bloc to be catered to. Here is the truth of the matter. If we take abortion and gay marriage off of the table for a moment, half of the people in our congregations are Democrats and half of Republicans. Generally speaking, people are not single issue voters and if they are it is more related to their pocketbook than social issues. Finally, I think that moderate believers are realizing that these two very important issues of abortion and the definition of marriage were used mostly as hot button issues to secure votes. Once their chosen candidate was in office they did very little to address the issue. Instead they moved on to other issues that took precedent, and if they did address the issue, they reinforced existing law. Because of this and the theory that younger Christians are trending away from conservatism in the political sense, younger generations simply don’t want to go to church and have it turn into a partisan exercise. Our congregations want something more and they deserve more.
Our society has always had a strong reliance on the individual. God, however, did not create us to have a complete individualistic mentality. Our faith and our sustainability as a church is directly tied to the spiritual well being of our brother. The church in Acts sold everything that they had, pooled their resources, and lived in a communal way. Their well being was directly tied to the person sitting with them. We, at the very least, have to realize that our spiritual well-being is directly tied to those sitting in church with us. No longer can we let our brother struggle with an issue or sin alone and walk away thinking “well, that is there problem”. No man is an island and that is good news because God did not create us to be one.
Finally, we have to be authentic. Our services cannot be about programming, “the show”, or infrastructure, but it absolutely must be about authenticity. For the person who is coming in from off the street to visit a church, they will likely be pulled in by something that is appealing (coffee shop in the lobby, strong worship band, well known pastor, etc…). What will keep that person there for a period of time is the professional presentation of the service. Is it conducive to worship? Is there a lot of “dead air”? Is it a group of people that take pride in what they do? Does the church want to present a worship service that reflects their very best and sermon that is compelling and enlightening? In this regard the professional service is not something that I have a problem with. It is important that we offer our best when worshipping God. It is when the fidelity to the “the show” goes beyond the desire to worship where we get into trouble. All of this said, what will commit an individual is the relationships they build with a group of people who realize that their spiritual health is directly tied to their brother as well. These authentic relationships will move them from someone who consumes worship like a commodity to someone is invests their lives in the Kingdom. When trouble comes and the enemy throws his best shot, its the relationships that they will lean on to get them through, not the frills or the show.
Overall, Jesus does not withdraw from the world. Jesus relied on the contributions from the people that followed them. At His death, Jesus was not rich in the monetary sense. I think it is fitting that Jesus invested in a relationship with the disciples and was interested in making sure that they were ready for what was to come after His death, resurrection, and ascension. If Jesus was not invested in these men I think His message would not have taken hold as quickly and effectively as it did. Jesus did not hold fidelity to a government or political movement (even though there were some in his own crew who wish he did). Jesus was the most compelling teacher, preacher, and worship leader that there ever was, and even appealed to people’s needs and wants from time to time. Jesus was, and most importantly, genuine. It would seem to me that the example has already been given, and thus worthy of imitation. It would seem that this model would be perfect of positively influencing the church’s approval rating.