Removing Religious Barriers to Allow Growth & Impact
Religion can be toxic. It breeds sacred cows that weaken and sometimes completely paralyzes the mission of the gospel. The toxicity of religion infects people with self righteousness that results in church rules that aren't biblical. These kind of churches are inward focused, protective of their traditions and resist change. They rarely see new people meet Jesus; actually they rarely see new people. Religious traditions often morph into rules that prevent people from having an experience with Jesus. Here’s just a few examples.
- You can’t serve or get involved in church until you become a church member
- You have to behave before you believe
- Women are not allowed to serve in leadership
- You must be baptized into a particular denomination by a pastor
- You must wear your best clothes to church to honor God
- You can’t have an experience with God unless you’re in a church building
- You have to fix all the broken things in your life before becoming a Christian
- You can no longer have fun
This is why approximately 85% of churches in the United States have less than 90 people in attendance each Sunday. They are married to religion and live in a change averse world. They value rules and programs over reaching people and developing meaningful relationships.
Not long ago, I had a conversation with a young couple from our church. This mid-twenties couple started attending our church earlier this year and recently joined my small group. During one of our groups, I asked what brought them to our church. I learned that she was a Christian, but her boyfriend was still unsure about Christianity. They told me they attended a church for several months before coming to ours, but left after they were told they could not be in a small group unless they agreed to get engaged. As a result, they felt unqualified to be a part of the church. When we create rules that push people away, we are going against the ministry grain of Jesus.
(By the way, my new friends were recently engaged to be married, regular attenders of church and active in small groups. My new friend is well on his way to meet Jesus)
Jesus was notorious for breaking all the religious rules. When Jesus met a Samaritan woman with a bad reputation, he didn't chasten her, he started a conversation with her (John 4). When he found Zaccheus hiding out in the top of a tree, he didn't reprimand him about his occupation as a sketchy Roman tax collector, instead he had dinner with him (Luke 19). The end result? Jesus removed religious barriers and people believed.
How can churches remove religious barriers that people value?
- Value vision over tradition
There is nothing wrong with honoring the past, but living there can be detrimental to the church. The belief that yesterday’s methodologies will reach today’s generation is ludicrous. Eradicating traditions is usually easier said than done; especially when they have been around for many years.
I remember one experience when I was serving as a secret shopper for a church that practiced the tradition of “lighting of the candles” each Sunday. During the opening song, two young girls went forward with a long candle lighter and lit candles on the platform. When the service ended, the same two girls returned to the platform to extinguish the candles with a snuffer. After service, I asked one of the girls, “What does it mean to light the candles?” Her response, “I don’t know. They just ask me to do it.” The irony was, that particular girl was the pastor’s daughter. There isn't anything wrong with lighting candles in a church. However, it did make the service flow clunky and a guest would have no idea what it meant. Defining traditions is one of the best ways to determine whether or not it should remain. In other words ask, “Why are we doing this?” If the “why” has nothing to do with the vision of reaching people, it's negotiable.
- Engage people with relationship, not religion
I'll never forget an experience at a church on the east coast. I walked into the building, and was immediately asked, "Are you Baptist, Methodist or Pentecostal?" I told him I was none of the above, so he informed me that it was still ok to enter the sanctuary. After surviving that conversation, I found my seat and waited for the service to begin. The worship was contemporary and the musicians were talented, but most of the language was Christianese. Afterwards, I went to the welcome center to check out their hospitality. A young lady looked up from her phone, welcomed me and handed me a church magazine about their denomination and beliefs, and then returned to her phone. There were a lot of people talking to one another, but no one was talking to me.
Fast forward a few months (after building their strategic plan). Instead of greeters asking uncomfortable questions, they built a team of extraverted people, designed a script that was friendly to unchurched people and made guests feel incredibly welcome. They interacted with people, asking them their name, while sharing theirs. They became intentional about being nice. Today they average over 1,000 people each weekend and are seeing people meet Jesus on a regular basis.
- Tie everything to the gospel
Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you" James 1:27
James reminds us that caring for people is the mission of the church and there's no greater demonstration of care than helping someone who isn't a Christian meet Jesus. We are commanded to love people who are alone and without God. For that to happen, the church must become focused on the gospel and remove the barriers of religious traditions that stand in the way.
Here are four conversations you should have with your team:
- Does our church have tradition(s) that could be confusing for someone who has never been to church before?
- How much Christianese (religious language) is used on Sunday? Would a guest understand what is being said?
- What does your first impressions strategy look like? If it makes Christians feel really comfortable, it's probably the wrong strategy.
- When's the last time you saw someone come to faith in Jesus? If it's been a while, what must change?
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