"It's not you, it's me"

In romance, the receiver of “it’s not you, it’s me” rarely, if ever, takes it at face value. If anything, the heartbroken flip the phrase completely, agonizing over the countless ways they have failed their once-beloved to the point of receiving this verbal slap in the face.

Now, sorry if I disappoint (!), but this is the extent of my romantic commentary. Instead, I want to apply this phrase to church and culture, particularly in how churches understand the cultural trend of declining church attendance. Much more exciting than romantic politics, I know.

There’s been quite a bit of talk these days on why people are leaving churches (or already gone). Blogs, studies, and strategies have been produced in attempts to analyze and respond to this cultural phenomenon. And where the culture may iterate the phrase “It’s not you, it’s me” to a beleaguered church, the church quickly adopts the predicted response: of course it’s me!  The church, Christians believe, must be doing something wrong.

Much energy is then spent determining exactly how the church is failing. Theology is seen as culturally irrelevant. Beliefs ranging from God, salvation, justice, and sexuality are thought to be old-fashioned in a culture built on innovation and diversity. If not theology, the church itself then takes the fall. Worship services, small groups, missions just don’t connect with an increasingly post-Christian culture. The church needs to regain relevance for a generation who has grown up in a post-Christian culture. And beyond theology and church, leaders takes their fair share of the blame. Preachers don’t preach good (or right) enough. Pastors don’t pastor well enough (not sure how you measure that one!). Leadership teams don’t lead well enough. All this to say, there are countless ways in which Christians take the blame, completely ignoring the reality that culture’s “it’s not you, it’s me” may in fact be right.

Don’t get me wrong, these are still valuable discussions and we should be considering the role of theology and church practices when it comes to current trends in the church participation. But I’ve wondered sometimes if we haven’t put too much focus in our ability as Christians to maintain cultural relevance. With blogs, studies, and strategies, how quickly forget we forget Jesus’ words to his first followers: “I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18).

I read an interesting article this week that discusses our tendency to make these trends theological while often ignoring the sociological realities. Author Dave Barnhart asks the following insightful questions:

I have to ask myself which is more likely: a) that an entire generational cohort is suddenly asking the critical questions I’ve always wished they would ask, or b) that growing income inequality, rising poverty, and a shrinking middle class over the last thirty years has changed the way people approach their careers and their relationships, and those factors, in turn, affect how their families (and their children) relate to church?

Much of our energy is spent addressing the elusive missing generation without analyzing how the church can or should address the changing social issues of our time. We try and try and try to maintain and regain the church’s place in culture all the while oblivious to the actual dynamics of why times are changing. If we understand (not just protest!) the changing culture, Barnhart suggests we can then find ways to respond, just perhaps not in the self-blaming way we are used to. Changing economics, family values, and social injustice are just of the areas churches can both better understand as well as engage. These social realities cannot be ignored.

In the tenuous relationships of church and culture, “It’s not you, it’s me” may be right after all.


Ryan said...

I paused on exactly the paragraph in the article that you quoted, Dave. One certainly does get the impression that millennials (or those who endlessly write about them) think that they are the first people to EVER ask these tough questions—as if THIS is the generation that finally started to wonder about sexuality, science, or evangelism... Um, well, probably not.

I found Barnhart's article very persuasive and illuminating.

David Warkentin said...

And I get the desire to connect and understand a change culture and to respond well. But so often Christians try way too hard in our response. It's exhausting...

If anything, Barnhart's observations should be motivation to take some of the pressure off ourselves.

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