by Joani Schultz
A year and half ago my husband Thom and I released a book called Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore. Its message has resonated with tens of thousands of people who see the decline of the American church and want to do something about it. They’ve especially embraced the subtitle of our book, which is How Four Acts of Love Can Make Your Church Irresistible. If the church can make loving people its priority again, there’s hope.
But there are others who don’t agree. They’ve given us a lot of heat for our “negative” message. Some say that we’re wrongfully pointing fingers at the church, when we should be blaming all the sinners who’ve abandoned their places of worship.
They seem to think we’ve labeled the church as a “Prodigal Son” of sorts—a wayward soul in need of redemption. I wondered if there were any truth to that.
People who know me know I love the Church. In fact, my entire life has been dedicated to church ministry. When I was young I served almost 100 different churches for two years as a district youth staffer in rural, suburban, and inner city youth ministries. For the next seven years I served full-time at a church in Wisconsin wearing multiple hats—youth ministry, children’s ministry—everything. And for the last 30 years I’ve partnered with my husband Thom at Group Publishing, which exists for one purpose: to serve the church.
I love the church, I love being a part of my home church, and I love working alongside the amazing people who serve in churches all around the world. But there are many serious issues that most American churches need to address if they want to survive the next ten or twenty years. Yes, too many churches seem to have lost their way, spending the majority of their time and effort on things that simply aren’t effective or just don’t matter.
I don’t see the church as a Prodigal Son. But there is another character from that parable that does represent today’s church. The Older Son.
The Older Son was known for being judgmental. He thought it was unfair that his younger brother, who did everything wrong, should receive love and grace from their Merciful Father. The Older Son had done everything “right.” He followed the rules. He lived according to the way things were supposed to be done. If his wayward brother couldn’t be just like him, he didn’t deserve a place at the table.
We’re seeing a similar attitude among many church leaders today. It’s become all too common to hear stories about ministers and parishioners alike who reject the prodigals of their world. They resent those who dare to step outside the norms and love people no matter what. And they resent the Merciful Father for accepting them. Like the older son, they spurn the principles of the Four Acts of Love: Radical Hospitality, Fearless Conversation, Genuine Humility, and Divine Anticipation. The Merciful Father demonstrated all four of those acts of love in welcoming his long lost son home, and it was worth the biggest celebration of his life.
Even though the church in America may face a challenging future, I know that love—real, practical, unconditional love—can turn things around. Let’s be more like the Merciful Father and less like the Older Son. That’s something all the “prodigals” out there just might run home to.
What do you think? Ask a friend to join you in this brief challenge: Read the Prodigal Son parable in Luke 15:11-32. Talk with your friend about which character most portrays today’s American church.