In 1987, international sensation pop band U2, fronted by singer Bono, released its album called “The Joshua Tree.” Perhaps the most popular song on that album, one that Bono often called “a kind of gospel song with a restless spirit,” is the hit “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Ambiguously speaking simultaneously to spiritual journey, romantic mishap, and life’s enigmatic quest for purpose, the lyrics address choices made, options experimented with, and fulfillment missed. Despite the number of doors opened and experiences tried, Bono mournfully sings “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
This blog is not a music review, nor is it an attempt to analyze the spirituality of a self-professed Irish Catholic rock band. The lyrics do warrant mention, however, in a wholly different light – the phenomenon of the twenty-first century church-search.
We all know them: they are the church-searchers. The church-searchers are not seekers. (As we have come to define them, “seekers” are those non-Christians who feel a real emptiness – the “God-sized hole” – in their lives and are seeking an answer. For the seeker, a variety of churches exist to provide the style and presentation necessary to help find the answer, and I applaud that. The Great Commission demands of us that we teach and baptize all, and the Lord’s invitation remains open to seekers through many different styles of Christian worship and evangelism.) Unlike seekers, the church-searchers are Christians, or at least they believe they are Christians. They are not seeking a savior, but they are clearly searching for something. They may spend time in a small, traditional mainline church. They may move to a megachurch, usually one with a conservative evangelical bent. Often, they flow to a non-denominational “community church.” Whether such churches are actually affiliated with a denomination is rarely relevant to the church-searcher; the sign in front and the website do not display “Baptist” or “Presbyterian,” and the church-searcher does not really care.
What seems to be prevalent about the church-searchers is that they still haven’t found what they are looking for.
I want to make a radical suggestion. Perhaps the problem is not with the church-searcher. Perhaps the fault lies with churches who are leading the church-searchers to look for the wrong thing.
It is interesting to examine the statements of “purpose,” “mission,” or “vision” that many churches publish. Here are some actual statements I found on the web (with the names deleted to protect the guilty):
“ ___________ Church exists to bring all people into a fully devoted
relationship with Jesus Christ by discovering and meeting their needs.”
“Our goal at _____________ Church is to promote and encourage wholehearted enjoyment of God, our families, each other and those who are still looking for Jesus.”
“ ___________ Church exists in order to meet people at their point of need and enable them to become all that God had in mind when He made them.”
Should a church be a safe, comfortable, inviting place for a seeker? Without doubt.
Should a church strive, as a primary goal, to meet the needs of its own? No, it should not.
First, the church is the body of Christ, and whatever else Christ was and is about, He was and is not primarily about meeting His body’s own needs. Churches’ purposes range from worship to discipleship, from evangelism to ministry. And while fellowship and inreach are certainly valuable by-products of a healthy, loving church, for them to become primary goals is to turn the focus of the church inward. The dying world, except for that rare brave seeker who will take the initiative to come through our doors on his/her own, goes on dying.
Second, a diverse group of individuals will have needs too numerous to be met by an organizational church on a consistent basis. No church can successfully provide Bible study for twenty-something single women, “sandwich generation” caregiver assistance, basketball, youth choir, marriage counseling, job placement, women’s shelter, Christmas crafts, and a music academy without running the risk of omitting racquetball, crisis pregnancy support, FCA, senior adult cafeteria clubs, and couples’ doctrinal study. More to the point, the church that is focused on trying to meet all these needs for its members has precious little – in terms of time and resources and energy and initiative – for things like ministering to the poor, mission work in the projects around the corner or around the world, planning and polishing a worship experience in which the Father is exalted, and yes, preparing a message for the seeker.
Third, styles change. Methods change. The church that seems to provide what the church-searcher needs today will be doing something different in six months. Personal testimonies give way to acoustic guitars and bell bottoms. In turn comes drama, which is replaced with rock bands, and then come movie clips, popcorn, and Starbucks. Even if the style hits for a while, it is likely the church-searcher will see things change and again find himself or herself saying, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
Fourth, none of us is perfect. We have bad days, bad weeks, bad years. Suddenly, even if our church has only gotten better at meeting our needs, our own selfishness and our own personal crises blind us to what the church is offering. We leave a service unhappy because we never tuned in to start with, having been caught up in our own pain, failure, illness, or whatever. We find ourselves not “getting anything out of it” when we go to church. Going somewhere else to try a different church - if not staying home altogether - begins to look a lot more profitable.
Finally, and most importantly, we Christians must not be primarily concerned with what our church offers us. Not because all human institutions will ultimately fail to please us all the time – they surely will fail – but rather because Jesus calls us to something much more important than that. He calls us to be His arms, hugging the abandoned child and the widow. He calls us to be His eyes, seeing needs in the dark places. He calls us to be His ears, hearing the cries of the hungry and of the misguided. He calls us to be His feet, going to the beggar and to the CEO, neither of whom will come – as “seeker” or otherwise – to us. He calls us to look not inward but outward, not towards meeting our needs but towards sacrifice of our needs so that others might be touched. He calls us to walk where He walks, among the harlots and the lepers and the Pharisees and the crosses.
I am not against seeker-sensitive churches. I have good friends called by God to pastor several of them, and such churches are a part of His grand mosaic, bringing the message to some who will not hear it elsewhere.
I am not against church programs aimed at the membership. My family and I take advantage of them and will continue to do so.
I understand the church-search. I spent my teenage years in a dynamic church that prioritized a youth group with its own pastor, who fed me and nurtured me and helped me because he and the church focused on kids like me. I spent college in the largest church college department in the city where my denomination’s largest university is, and my “college church” unashamedly ministered to me and my cohorts. I spent the first dozen years of my married life in one of America’s most historic churches, where ordained ministers make up more than 10% of the congregation, and where I was taught and groomed and allowed to flourish. I know, therefore, what it is like to be in a church that meets my needs. I have also been in a church that does not provide what I need – a good church striving to follow Jesus, but one that does not have the resources or the inclination to meet my personal whims or even to build a worship service that is likely to speak to me deeply on a regular basis. I understand the temptation to say “I’m not getting anything out of it,” to move on, to continue the church-search.
Yes, I believe there are times when it is appropriate to leave your church. Churches can move so far away from what an individual believer understands God’s role for her to be that she needs to disengage and find a place where she can serve as God would have her serve. Some churches change radically, whether through the call of a new pastor or simply by radical internal shifts, and some members cannot in good conscience serve God under those circumstances. The picture of devoted disciples who changes church membership because they can no longer follow what they understand God’s call on their service to be is a horse of a different color from the plethora of church-searchers I am describing.
That I understand the motivation of the church-searcher is not to say it is right. At some point, I have to conclude that as long as I am looking for my own needs to be met, my restless spirit will eventually cry out, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
When I see my church as my opportunity to serve Him and serve others, to love God and love people, to worship Him and confess my own failings… it is then that I find what I am looking for. Because God will meet me there. He meets my true needs – to serve, to love, to worship, to confess. He enables me to disciple, to train, to evangelize, to minister, and yes, even to fellowship.
The fault lies not with the church-searcher, at least not primarily. The fault lies with the churches who offer up shallow self-indulgence and popular quick fixes. Christians will not long be comfortable in seeking self, because He Himself indwells us, and He will not be comfortable with our seeking self. The church-search focused on meeting the searcher’s needs can lead to nothing but a restless spirit. It is up to the church, therefore, to refocus, to lead, to remind, to model sacrifice, and to cast a vision that goes beyond the members’ needs – their enjoyment of one another – and touches a world that needs Jesus Christ. Then, and only then, will His Holy Spirit calm our restless spirit. Then, and only then, will we find what we are looking for.