The Outside View of a Former Church Insider :: 10 Honest Observations

by ShaunKing on March 30, 2013 · 34 comments

(This post has not been edited for errors.  These are my raw, honest thoughts. In a hurry?  Scroll down for my 10 observations.)

I didn’t grow up in church.

It wasn’t until I was assaulted in high school and required several spinal surgeries that I even knew I needed God.  But from 1996-2011, from the time I was 16 until I was 31, church was CENTRAL to my life personally and professionally.  I became a church insider almost instantly.  Here is a bit of my church history…

  • At the age of 16 I was baptized @ Antioch Baptist Church in Lexington, KY by my best friends dad, Willis Polk
  • At the age of 17 I was licensed to preach by Willis Polk at his new church, Imani Baptist Church
  • At the age of 17 I moved to Atlanta.  My first mentor in Atlanta was Howard Creecy, the chaplain of the city of Atlanta and pastor of an urban church – St. Peter Baptist Church.
  • At the age of 18 I decided I wanted to be like a man named Dr. Aaron Parker.  I revered this dude.  He was a religion professor @ Morehouse College and a local pastor of Zion Hill Baptist Church.
  • At the age of 18 I started preaching all over the country and became active @ Zion Hill Baptist Church
  • At the age of 22 I visited Union Theological Seminary in NYC and thought long and hard about going there for my Master of Divinity.
  • At the age of 23 I started attending Total Grace Christian Center after several friends of mine from Morehouse and Spelman insisted it was an amazing place.  The pastor, Johnathan Alvarado, whom I have since spoken out against very strongly, was actually great to me during most of time there and put me on the fast track to leadership.  I was ordained as a pastor by him, became his personal assistant, and eventually helped launch a new campus of the church.
  • At the age of 25 I was approved and trained by the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination to become a church planter.
  • At the age of 28 I was approved and trained by ARC (Association of Related Churches) to become a church planter.
  • At the age of 29 I launched Courageous Church in downtown Atlanta.  I thought I’d pastor there forever. It sounds crazy to me now, but I loved that church and the people.  I’d do so many things differently if I could do it all over again. We had something special there.
  • In 2011 I stepped down from my role as Pastor of Courageous Church.  Man that hurt. 

In the nearly 2 years since then I’ve visited a lot of churches with my family.  We’ve visited churches we’ve heard about for years, places we just learned about on the fly, we’ve sat in the balcony and down front, we’ve been to churches of all cultures and backgrounds, we’ve tried out all of the children’s ministries, we’ve seen church every way you can make it in America.  

We’ve lived in California, Kentucky, and New York these past 2 years and have pretty much seen it all.  All of that considered, I have 10 observations that I’d love to share.  I like to always give this stipulation when I offer what may sound like a self-righteous critique of church.  I love the Church.  I love God.  I am flawed.  This is not me saying I’m perfect and that the church sucks.  With that said, here goes…

10 Honest Observations of Church Now that I am an Outsider

10.  This is going to sound terrible, but I’m surprised how little church means to me now that I’m not a church insider. When I was a church insider, I operated under the assumption that what we were offering people was going to fill some deep gap that they had and knew that they had, but now that I am a church outsider, I’m a perfectly content guy.  I don’t feel like something is missing.  Maybe it is, but it doesn’t feel that way.  I think pastors and church leaders too often assume that people that don’t show up on Sunday are lonely or deficient in some way, but it’s just not the case in my world and probably isn’t the case with others.

I listed this first because I think if I knew that people felt that way when I was a pastor I would have offered them something different and talked to them differently.  It changes everything.

9. Most church nurseries stink.  I mean like outrageous funk hits you in the face right away type of stink. They smell like crap and instantly make me not want to drop my baby off there. Listen, I know diapers are changed there, but I’ve seen it done where it doesn’t smell like an old man crapped on the floor.  Dropping a baby off to strangers is already a weird and difficult proposition – please dispose of the diapers in a close container and use air freshener.

8. I’ve gotten lost in every church I’ve ever attended.  I can’t find the bathrooms, I can’t find where to drop off the kids, and when I find the bathrooms and where to drop off the kids, I can’t find my way back to my seat.  Directional signs are SO DOGGONE CHEAP.  You can seriously go as cheap as laminating some paper and taping them on the walls or go super fancy and have them professionally done.  Just do it.

7. The sermons are rarely memorable.  This is a huge problem because in every church we’ve visited the sermon is clearly designed to be the crescendo/centerpiece of the entire service.  I won’t tell you where we went last, but I can’t tell you even one sentence from the sermon and I listened the whole doggone time.

6. In my church training, I always learned that parents will go to a church that they like just a little bit if the kids LOVE it, but that parents will leave a church they like a lot if the kids don’t like it.  It’s true.  I preferred one church in New York personally but the kids didn’t like it at all.  We went back one time.  The kids didn’t like it again.  I love it.  We never went back.  DOUBLE DOWN ON WHAT YOU DO FOR KIDS. Make it even bigger and better than what you do for adults!!

5. I honestly don’t remember if I acted this way when I was a pastor, but I’ve had a few pastors act really weird over their church members volunteering to help with something I was leading outside of the church.  Each time it baffled me.  Don’t act like you own your members.  I’m not going to start a church with them.  They can volunteer outside of your church.  It’s healthy.  Don’t be weird and don’t act so insecure fellas.

4. When I pastored Courageous Church we spent an outrageous amount of time on announcements.  I was slightly aware that we spoke of our announcements too many times.  Now that I am on the other end of things, IT IS CRAZY.  Don’t have an announcement video, then an announcement flyer, then have the pastor restate all of the announcements, then have a host come do it at the end.  Cut almost all of it out.  Do it once and have flyer.  If the pastor has to emphasize something, have them only say something about one thing, but my guess is that unless it’s urgent, let the pastor just preach.  It goes in one ear and out the other, it drags the service on an extra half an hour, and it’s just not effective.

3. I feel like I’m going back in time when I go to most churches.  Listen, I know God is unchanging, but the world changes.  I hear pastors make illustrations with references from the 80s that go right over people’s heads.  I hear music that was popular in the 90s (which is getting to be a long time ago).  A ton of churches make zero references to social media during the services, but it’s a big part of people’s lives.  I hate to say this, but when I visited some churches, it felt just like it did when I visited them 10 years ago and gave me very little motivation to go back.

2. Most churches have NO IDEA what to do with the true skills and gifts that men and women have if they don’t involve singing, doing camera work, or running lyrics on a laptop.  I rarely feel challenged in church and rarely hear of any opportunities to use any of my skills, gifts, or talents in a remotely meaningful way.  I am sure people felt this way when I was a pastor as well, but it totally went over my head.  Your church is full of smart, experienced, skilled people.  It’s OK for them to be ushers and greeters, but if somebody is an expert at something, take the time to figure out how to use that.  It will engage them on a deep level and make the commit like never before.

1. All of that said, I’m still so proud of you pastors.  Your work is so important, but so hard and it can be nearly impossible to get outside of your bubble to know what the world truly thinks and feels.  I am rooting for you in every way!  Keep getting better.  Figure out how to have regular, unbiased feedback from visitors or even from 3rd parties that you bring in.  It will keep you sharp!

  • http://www.ShaunInTheCity.com/ Shaun King

    This is first time I have had a comment on one of my blogs in several years. I disabled them because as a pastor I got a ridiculous amount of criticism and just couldn’t monitor. Now I don’t care :-)

  • http://www.justinthesouth.com/ Justin Brackett

    I think you will love having them on again.

  • Meg

    Thanks, Shaun. After 40 years of being a regular church attender and years in ministry, I left the building around age 40, 8 years ago. I thought I was going back and I have gone a few times but just can’t see myself returning. My relationship with God seems to have gotten better and I am much happier. I know sometimes Christians act like “happy” is a bad word. I have decided God is OK with it. It’s weird to step out of a culture and begin seeing what some of my friends used to see as weird, not because of the spiritual part but all the church jargon, expectations, etc. I am open to wherever he leads but for now I’m ok. I can relate to so much of what you have shared. Thanks.

  • http://www.ShaunInTheCity.com/ Shaun King

    I think so too man. Trying to build a community back up here.

  • http://www.ShaunInTheCity.com/ Shaun King

    I’m rooting for you Meg! What part of the country do you live in?

  • http://www.justinthesouth.com/ Justin Brackett

    It will happen. Keep kicking it man.

  • @anitamburns

    Thanks Shaun. I’m a full-time insider, and always looking for ways to serve better. This really helps!

  • http://www.ShaunInTheCity.com/ Shaun King

    Great! That was my hope. Anything particular resonate with you?

  • Dynamic Continuum

    “I know sometimes Christians act like “happy” is a bad word. I have decided God is OK with it.”

  • Kelfowl

    Shaun, I’m rooting for you and putting you in my prayers this Easter Sunday. Let the voice of your heart be heard! I SO hear you! I wasn’t church going at all ever until 4 years ago when my husband and I found a church that was created specifically for people turned off by church. If you are ever in Kansas City area or want to connect with a church and pastor that I think you would really connect with and might even be able to help you find your next church home, check out Crossroads-Christian.org. God Bless! – Kelly

  • Kelfowl

    Shaun, I’m rooting for you and putting you in my prayers this Easter Sunday. Let the voice of your heart be heard! I SO hear you! I wasn’t church going at all ever until 4 years ago when my husband and I found a church that was created specifically for people turned off by church. If you are ever in Kansas City area or want to connect with a church and pastor that I think you would really connect with and might even be able to help you find your next church home, check out Crossroads-Christian.org. God Bless! – Kelly

  • http://www.ShaunInTheCity.com/ Shaun King

    Thanks for this Kelly!

  • Faye Campbell

    Thank you! This is very good and true!!!

  • Sarah

    My husband and I were talking about #3 specifically yesterday. We visited a small rural church for Easter and it obviously hasn’t changes in 50 years. We regularly attend a church called The Meeting House now and it is 100% geared towards life today and how we can try to live more like Jesus now. Lots of amazing teaching online at themeetinghouse.ca.

  • http://www.rageagainsttheminivan.com/ Kristen Howerton

    I was a pastor’s kid and a pastor’s wife my whole life, until about 4 years ago when my husband left full-time ministry. I think #10 is so spot-on. I wish more pastors could somehow get out of the bubble and get a broader view, because it’s so easy to become self-important about “doing church” and in the process, lose sight of the bigger picture.

  • http://twitter.com/ChrisTravisNYC Chris Travis

    Shaun, I appreciate this post because I’ve felt many of the same things as I’ve slipped back and forth between full-time ministry and the “market place” over the years. I found #10 to be rather true myself– much to my amusement. Now that I’m a church-planter again, I’m keeping it in mind.

    I do think some of the frustration comes from churches being goofy. That said, I think some of it comes from misunderstanding. I do not think a worship service is “church” (according to a biblical understanding of church). I don’t think church is an event, or a place, or a building, or a ceremony, or a set of experiences. I think church is a faith-family, 24/7, the body of Christ on earth. Some churches worship in public gatherings– not all do.

    I say all that to say this: I’d caution you against deciding what a particular church is all about based solely on how they conduct “worship” or “services” or whatever that particular faith-family calls their larger gatherings– and especially never based on just a few of those gatherings. It’s a bit like judging a book by it’s cover, or a girl by her online profile, or perhaps more accurately, a family by what their family reunions are like. It’s not unimportant information– but its very, very far from the most important thing about a church. We would all be rather unimpressed by the Chinese house-church movement, for example, if we judged them based on their gatherings. But I think God is actually rather pleased with them.

    I hope you find the perfect faith-family for your family, in which you can all be the church!

  • http://www.ShaunInTheCity.com/ Shaun King

    Thanks for this man! I am with you. My thoughts here absolutely don’t even begin to cover the gamut of all that a church is or isn’t about. I still love The Church – by the way.

  • Ernest Almond

    Hey Shaun,

    I think it’s great that you’re blogging again, and I’m glad to see your continued resilience as you push forward with your family and your vision. It’s been so long since I checked your blog out, I mistakenly typed in shaunking.com and was like “umm…this ain’t right” lol. Getting back on subject though, I think some of what you’ve posted today falls in the “bitter pill” category for current/aspiring church leaders, but I truly appreciate your willingness to share, and I’m believing God that I will just be one of many who hear your heart in this post and take serious consideration of the things that you are saying. Bless you and yours.

  • http://www.ShaunInTheCity.com/ Shaun King

    Thanks Ernest. Hope you are well bro.

  • http://www.facebook.com/latashamorrison Latasha Morrison

    very true!

  • http://www.facebook.com/azuspeak Avril Speaks

    Great post, Shaun, as always! #2,3 and 10 really resonated with me…#2 because I often feel like just because I’m a filmmaker that people think I want to run the camera ministry and videotape services, when that is not the case. There is so much more I want to do with film than just taping sermons in-house. I really wish that churches would tap into the artists’ brain more and really understand where they are coming from. #3 was just truth. I think the church is seriously in a time warp on many levels. We’re always 3 steps behind. #10 was challenging for me, especially now as I’m out here in LA trying to find a church home. I have always grown up in church and so church has always been a major part of my life. It’s hard to think of my life without church, but I’m starting to think that maybe the formal “church”‘s involvement in my life during this time will look differently than it ever has before. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately so #10 was some food for thought.

    Thanks for opening up the comments again, I enjoy the dialogue.

  • keithelgin

    Good stuff. I’m sharing it with our staff (church plant) as a pseudo warning. We constantly remind ourselves that a Sunday church service isn’t where real transformation happens. It’s everywhere but there.

  • @anitamburns

    #10: I’m really just pondering what that really means.
    #2: I agree, there is so much talent and we’re working on leveraging it so that people can use it for the Kingdom in the church OR in the community (no #5 problem at our church). #4 is frustrating and we’re always in pursuit of the best ways to communicate. If you’re ever in Orlando, stop by and visit us. Check out journeychristian.com. I’d love to worship with you. By the way, have you written somewhere why you left Courageous?

  • http://www.ShaunInTheCity.com/ Shaun King

    Hey Anita. I have written about it pretty extensively here on my blog if you scroll back far enough.

  • http://twitter.com/mama4wilder Melissa

    I am a pk kid… interesting for sure.. especially being a part of a church plant now….. being one that has gone to church and not… i can say as a christian i like going now.. that wasn’t always the case though.. but my intentions are different… its about the fellowship for me .. God teaches me in and out of church daily… that is the thing we have to remember He isn’t in a building.. He is everywhere… we have to choose to be where He is… wildaboutyou.net .. let me know what you think if you don’t mind..

  • Mark Reeves

    Shaun, as a missionary kid, a pastor’s kid, and now in full-time ministry myself (as a worship pastor), the greatest struggle I face regularly is how easily disconnected churches can be from the lives of those who call that church ‘home’. For this reason I regularly remind myself (and the other pastors) that it is to our own peril if we don’t recognize that 90% of our attendees don’t give our church a second thought once they walk outside the doors (which is just fine with me). For this reason, I work extra hard in every rehearsal/worship event to give the folks something that will remind them to think about Jesus, 24/7/365.

  • chasingphoto

    All 10 steps completely resonate with me. The only one that sticks out and I have a hard time reconciling is the first point, or rather point #10.

    I struggle reconciling that with Hebrews 10, specifically Hebrews 10:23-25 – not forsaking the gathering together to encourage one another.

    I say that as someone who doesnt attend chuch every Sunday. Sometimes I attend and it assuages my consicence, sometimes its totally what I need. Sometimes I believe its important to go just out of obidience to Jesus and scripture, after all, isnt that what we as Christians are supposed to do, be obedient?

  • http://www.facebook.com/Mike.MC.Reardon Michael M C Reardon

    The reason for many of your complaints is because the church in it’s
    current condition where you have 5% of the people doing 95% of the work
    is not the healthy nor God-ordained way to carry out the church-life.
    The clergy-laity system and everything that goes along with it kills the
    ability of the Body of Christ to function as a living organism, and
    causes it to be a dead organization. The functioning of EACH ONE PART,
    the rising up of the members is what is necessary for the church to
    carry out it’s commission not having Febreeze in the nurseries. When we
    were saved, we began a process of being made a royal priesthood, living
    stones to build up a spiritual house which is the house of God.
    Anything that involves the vast majority of believers sitting in pews
    listening to one man speak is truly against what God desires His Bride
    to be. Just my two cents, although I believe 1 Cor. 14 which concerns
    not the aspect of speaking concerning the future but rather speaking FOR
    and FORTH the Lord as well as most of Ephesians would agree with me.
    As well as the Lord hating the works of the Nicolaitains in Revelation,
    which comes from the Greek for “Conquer” and the “lay person.” In
    Christendom today, that is the situation we have, a small group of
    people conquering the masses. No wonder people find it easy to be
    disconnected and discontented in this religious system that offers
    everything except Christ.

  • Sarah

    I agree with number 2 as well, I’m looking for jobs for young people as they move up into the seniors group, things they can do to be part of the community, all they have is worship band or av, the YPs are so talented in loads of ways as are members of the congregation and yet people are “bought in” to do jobs without a thought of what we can do.

  • http://twitter.com/TravisJohnson73 Travis Johnson

    Hey Shaun,

    Good stuff. The poop discussion at the nursery were a bit too vivid…but, mainly because I ate too much pineapple and my stomach was turning a little already. Thanks for kicking me when I was down.

    #10 – Let’s talk. I’ve really struggled with insincere people twisting Scripture and spiritual things for personal gain, ambition, etc… I’ve really grown to hate spiritual manipulation more than just about anything.

    Unfortunately, what it did in me was to cause me to steer clear of anything spiritual that I couldn’t control. What a mistake. The vibrancy was gone from my prayers and ministry. I was boring to myself.

    Through that, I came to the conclusion that right use (not no use) is the answer to wrong use. I know that doesn’t deal with the critique of how church sees itself postured in a community. But, it had application for me personally…thought I’d pass it on.

  • Namaari

    First, I thank God for your healing! I know it was a miracle and a touch from Him. For me, I can not identify with your experiences in this piece. I think mine have been very different as a believer, and while I appreciate you sharing yours, please know that not all of us can identify or have the same outlook. I’d like to contrast each one, with my own experiences, and leave you to consider that there are different ways among us. #10 I don’t think I am an ‘insider’, but I’m not sure, I don’t have a position in the church, except to clean, cook, and help organize things a bit, but our Chapel is precious to me, because I love to worship the Lord, and to worship Him corporately with others who love Him, and I also love His people…we encourage each other, pray, edify, etc. We are there to worship, and in that regard, I am an insider for sure. #9 We do have a nursery, but it’s only for mothers who may have a baby with needs to step out and take care of them, nurse, change, or put to sleep etc. It is not a place babies are dropped off, because they are in worship with the congregation. #8 I don’t know if you would get lost in our Chapel…it’s an ‘A’ frame that sits back in the woods a bit, it has an entry, a nursery (which has a bathroom), and a place to worship…if you go downstairs, there is a place to eat, a kitchen, and some more bathrooms. It’s not very large, but large enough, I guess. We do not have a place in which to drop off the children, because we are family integrated and we all worship together. #7 We have a Family Bible hour time, after communion. Communion is our centerpiece, it’s about 45min. to an hour, the men share verses, songs, hymns, prayers, etc. as the Spirit leads, and then we break bread together and remember Christ’s death on the cross for us. We do this weekly. Then after communion we have a break, where we usually share a small meal together, pray or have some sort of study for about 40 minutes, and then we go back upstairs to have a Family Bible hour where a brother shares the Word in an expository way. The sermons stand out to me simply because it’s God’s Word and we are hungry to glean it. We do not have a pastor, but just brothers who may become elders or deacons as the Spirit leads…all brothers are encouraged to share the Word, though. We do not have a Sunday night service, just once on Sunday, and a prayer meeting on Wednesday if people desire to gather. #6 I don’t think we’re trying to appeal to either adults or children, but really just to please the Lord and bless families by worshiping in Spirit and in Truth. We do try to disciple our children, most families home educate in our Chapel, but the idea is really to do things as unto the Lord and serve one another in a relational way through hospitality and service that’s real and needed, not in a marketing way that seems sort of superficial and empty to me. Our children love chapel, and so do we. #5 Again, we do not have a specific leader, but instead elders and deacons ideally…right now just an elder and a deacon, and brothers who help…volunteering outside of the church is just community, and so I can’t imagine someone being upset about that at all. We want to be a light and serve the community! #4 The boys usually take turns doing the announcements, which I think is kind of exciting for them, and we get a monthly calendar…we can also access that online at our website, but I never thought of it as too long, or not long enough, etc. It takes maybe 5 minutest or so…sometimes we do have a slide show of an event or something which can be another 5 or so. #3 Christ and our love for our brothers and sisters is out motivation, but I want to cover this. We sing hymns mostly in service, although sometimes people do a special here and there, but we do have a talent night where it’s more modern and even some songs that aren’t Christian…just wholesome. The illustrations, if a brother uses power point, are pretty current as I understand them, but we only have a few who actually illustrate a sermon…most just open the Bible and share. Technology is not really a main focus of our church, I suppose, but we do have some Techies…my son is one…who utilize it to make things run very smoothly behind the scenes. I can see how it would be important to you since you describe yourself as a Techie too! #2 I think that we should absolutely utilize the gifts of every believer! We are a small Chapel, but many of the children play instruments, and sing, and help with cleaning, set up for events, cooling, etc. Some, like my son I mentioned, are technicians, and speak with the help of the men, the girls help with the babies, cleaning, the food…Miss Nellie and Mama Fay, some of the elderly women of our Chapel, set up the bread and juice for communion, and make coffee, etc…everyone seems to have their place for the most part. We like to see the young ones involved, and they have a service once a month too that they do with the help of the men. Pretty neat. #1 Again, we don’t have a Pastor, but I think the best way to avoid a ‘bubble’ mentality is to just focus on the Lord, do things unto Him, and live the truth in the community through hospitality in our homes, service, and prayer, and being the light and love of Christ. Anyway, please do not see this as a criticism..I realize you are writing about your experience…but I would like you to understand that there are other ways, other experiences, that are full and joyful. The Lord bless you and your beautiful family.

  • SafelyHeld

    I think it is sad when we as the Body of Christ need to always feel entertained when we worship. I understand that we are in a modern world, but can’t we just put technology down for one or two hours on Sunday mornings? I am Roman Catholic, and I really like the Sacredness of Mass. You just focus on Jesus, if you truly are participative in the Mass. You can leave the computers, movies, cellphones, concerts, computers, etc. at home and focus on the One Who will always stil be around for you (unlike the aforementioned things). Needless to say, I know not everyone is Catholic and different churches do things differently, but I cannot fully agree with #3 because I truly believe that church needs to be about God, not being entertained.

  • http://www.natureofaservant.com/ Andee Z

    This is awesome. I left paid ministry 10 years ago and I don’t think I’d go back. #10 as all have said, completely accurate. But #6! I keep trying to tell people in the church I attend, its all about #6.

  • Scott

    Shaun I read this sometime ago and I’m not sure I commented before. I too left the inside in June of 2010. We’ve tried tons of churches and even served in a couple. Hillsong NYC was the most relevant I could find. #10 is still a big sticking point for me because I don’t find it to such a big deal anymore. That has surprised me! I’ve struggled with not feeling worthy or “Christian” because I have these feelings. I keep pressing on but I’m not going to play the church game anymore. It has to be a place that has more than talk to be a place for me and my family.

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