(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!