Who Stole My Church?

I would highly recommend “Who Stole My Church” to any person seeking to understand a different generation and/or seeking to better articulate their position on why change is often necessary. If you feel like getting your nerd on you can read my longer review.

Change is difficult. We are creatures of habit. We always like things the way they used to be. This predicament isn’t confined to one generation. How many complaints were posted on Facebook walls around world when they forced Timeline on its people like an awkward wet kiss from your crazy aunt at a family reunion?

Change is awkward but it’s also a normal progression of life. But how do you cope with change, especially when it’s change within the church? Enter Gordon McDonald the author of Who Stole My Church? MacDonald, a long time pastor creates a fictional church in which change is being resisted by an older generation of (mostly) good hearted Christians. In order to hear out his critics and to be heard by them he creates a weekly meeting called the Discovery Group. Throughout the course of the book MacDonald weaves an interesting tale that is eye opening.

I went into this book hoping to get one thing out of it. I was hoping to learn how the older people in my church felt about change however I left reading the book with something else entirely. I left realizing my own resolve for the reaching of the lost, the need for compassion for those resisting change but not the memorializing of past traditions or institutions. The Gospel is the most important not the methods.

MacDonald makes a striking claim in the beginning of the book which we would be wise to heed, “You need to think about the fact that any church that has not turned its face toward the younger generation and the new challenges of reaching unchurched people in this world will simply cease to exist. We’re not talking decades—we’re talking just a few years.” Could this be that in just a few years the church as we know it will cease to exist if we don’t turn our focus to the younger generation? MacDonald clearly believes this to be true and according to the Barna Group he may be right. One article from 2009 read, “Adult church attendance indicates that only 15% of all American adults associate with a mainline church these days.” Another article found that young people today find the church “Overprotective, Shallow, antagonistic, simplistic, judgmental, and unfriendly to doubt.” Clearly if this is how the Church, the light of the world is viewed then a dark time has reached the shores of the Church. But as MacDonald points out the baton has to change hands, “Unless you can promise me that you’re going to be here regularly, serving forever, we have to figure out how to release this church into the hands of others and do it with enthusiasm(p.9).”

MacDonald goes on to say about this younger generation, “They’re not impressed with suits and ties, with empty ceremony repeated over and over, and with people who talk big but don’t deliver on their promises. Rather, they’re drawn to untrained voices in music, torn jeans, passionate emotions, and real stories. Fail there, and you lose them. Show your heart and you win them (p.73).”
The Author brings the groups attention to the fact that while many of us may have money invested along with sweat equity the church does not belong to us. It belongs to God. Leading the discussion, Gordon asks, “Whose church is it?” They looked back at the text, and Clayton Reid finally said, “God’s church.” “Why did you say it’s God’s church, Clayton?” I asked. “Because he bought it,” Clayton answered. “Bought it? For how much?’” “With his blood . . . Jesus’ blood actually (p.16).” “Fact is, we’ve all been taught that Jesus gave his blood for each of us . . . me . . . you. But you almost never hear anyone say that Jesus gave his blood for the church (p.18).”

His main point with the group is this, “I think the point is this: we probably need to make real sure that when we do criticize our leaders or a ministry or even the church itself and where it’s going, we do it with great respect and only with the intention that the church be everything God wants it to be (p.18).”

So what exactly does God want His church to be? A place that reached the lost and loves the outcast. People are searching and looking for answers to question that money and worldly possessions have not been able to provide. “People are asking questions about realities that are beyond the purely materialistic. They are feeling disillusioned about the promises that science and technology have made and not delivered on. They’re feeling the growing inability of once dependable institutions and systems to protect us and guarantee the good life. So they’re turning to the world of the spiritual as an alternative. It’s not unlike Bible times (p.61-62).” When we take the first step to follow Jesus we also take a step into a community of other Christ followers, “Our Christian vocabulary has tended to be all about Jesus and me rather than Jesus and us (p.62).” Relationships define our postmodern world but the good news is that relationships also define what it means to be a Christ follower. We become connected to Jesus who connects us to others. Jesus said in Matthew 4:19, And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” MacDonald goes on to write, “People do not come to faith in Christ today because the words make sense—” “Why do they come to Christ, then?” Ernie broke in, his words signaling a bit of agitation. “They start in the direction of Christ because they first see him in you . . . then, later, in the words (p.72).”

A relationship approach to Christianity changes how we do evangelism which MacDonald points out to his begrudging group, “In every transaction, the people of Christ have to create an environment of belonging.” “Don’t we do that now?” Ernie queried. “Not really. We tend to project a message that begins with believing. Believe like us, hold our values and our ideas, and we’ll accept you. Dress our way; speak our language; sing our songs; and we’ll accept you—then you’ll belong (p.74-75).” Belong often leads to belief but we often reverse this and make people believe first then hope they can belong. What would happen if we radically changed this view of the church?

MacDonald walks his group through the seven stages of an organization: Need, Vision, Initiative, Program, Reinvention, Institution, and Tradition. He notes that the final stage traditionalism sets in, “The moment the insiders—the folks who have always been there—see themselves as more important than the people outside the church whom we were supposed to be reaching (p.87).” An organization must reinvent itself in order to keep this from happening and in order to accomplish its initial vision, fulfilling the original need if not then the organization may not be needed any longer. This begs the question, Are we to set in our ways that we have forgotten the original vision? Are we just going through the motions?

MacDonald gives a lot of time to the discussion of music and how it relates the feelings of a generation who is quickly, whether directly or indirectly, being made to feel obsolete. He writes, “Let me tell you some of the things I hear from you when the subject of music comes up.”And I read from a list I’d written out that afternoon: There’s no choir; you’re missing that, and some of you miss singing in it. We sing too few familiar hymns—at least what are considered to be hymns. No one sings in harmony anymore. When we sing, it’s too loud; when the volume is turned up, our ears hurt, especially those with hearing aids. We repeat too many last lines over and over again. Some think that few of the new songs contain any “doctrine” or truth. Some of us literally feel physical pain from standing too long. Many folks are not into clapping (p.95).”

For many this list of complaints will seem all to familiar. At one point the members of the Discovery group are reminiscing about the good-ole-days and one of the characters Ted says, “You know, it wasn’t any one best moment. It was the singing we used to do . . . on Sunday nights. Anyone remember when Joe Lund was our song leader?” Everyone remembered. “The thing I miss most is the hymns. We don’t sing them anymore. I miss ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ and ‘I Come to the Garden Alone.’ ” Then, looking at me, Ted asked, “Couldn’t we just sing some hymns again?” Several weighed in with other favorites: “When We All Get to Heaven,” “Since Jesus Came into My Heart,” “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” “It Is Well with My Soul.” I made another mental note (but said nothing) that they had picked song titles that all came out of one particular musical era more than a hundred years ago. That era of gospel singing was reaching its end when they (we) were kids. None had mentioned the earlier hymns of Charles Wesley or one like “Crown Him with Many Crowns”—writers and songs from an even earlier time. They’d been nursed on a form of gospel music that had been around for, relatively speaking, only a short time and thought it was the only hymnody in the Christian movement (p.4-5).”

Most people are ignorant to the complexities of worship music history and the splits that resulted over preference. MacDonald take his readers through a long history of Church music which may surprise many. The irony, as MacDonald notes, is that the most powerful unifying element among people can be the most powerful divider, music. It would benefit many church goers not matter what their current age to read MacDonald’s discussion on music.

The generations within the church need to learn to listen to each other and rise above and disunity. They must find common ground. But we must be reminded that, “If we try to exert ownership and freeze the church into conditions that are comfortable for us, we’re going to become hopelessly toxic and lose everything we tried to make happen (p.204).”

Ultimately if the church hopes to survive through another generation then we are not talking about just tweaking its methods as MacDonald calls it but total reinvention. His advice for all as we seek to buld the church of the glory of God is this, “Be patient, be prayerful, seek allies, build alliances with other generations (p.224).”

Other Books by Gordon MacDonald