George Barna, the founder of the Barna Research Group likes to say he offers, “Knowledge to navigate a changing world.” When I began my ministry, he wrote a book called The Frog in the Kettle. The idea was that if a frog is in a kettle of water that gradually heats up, the frog doesn’t realize he’s in danger until it’s too late. Barna compared the church to the frog in the kettle and suggested that circumstances were changing gradually and the church needed to recognize the danger and respond, or else it would be too late.
Today many churches recognize the wisdom of Barna’s advice, but that doesn’t mean they understand exactly what is happening.
Having served on four church staffs over the last 28 years, I have first hand experience trying to understand what’s going on outside the kettle and how it has affected our ministry while living deep within the kettle.
For a person on a church staff or even a person that is heavily involved in a church, it’s hard to make accurate assessments of how people view the institution that is a huge part of your life and maybe even your livelihood.
At the end of 2015, my perspective changed. I was no longer on a church staff and my church was a home church. The view from that kettle was entirely different from the view I had enjoyed for 27 years. I was curious about other people’s experience. What does church look like to people who aren’t living in the kettle?
I decided to do a little informal research on my own to understand what “church” meant to some of my friends and acquaintances. I sent a message to 44 Facebook friends and asked them this question: “What is church to you?” Most of the people I asked were familiar with church at least from their childhood and most if not all are not currently active in a congregation. Most were between 21-45 years old. I specifically asked about “church” rather than faith or Christianity because from my experience the church is the kettle. It’s the vessel that contains our attempts at ministry, community and spiritual growth.
Twelve people responded and even though that’s not an impressive response rate, the responses do offer some insights. I had encouraged everyone to answer honestly and I let them know I wouldn’t be offended if the response wasn’t positive.
To my surprise, all of the responses were positive. Even though one person later admitted to not attending church because of his disillusionment with the way people ran the church and conducted themselves, even he spoke of the idea of church positively.
Church was described more as a feeling and experience rather than a particular place.
One person explained that it was “a place of support, love, non-judgement, and learning.”
Some talked about how church “looks, feels and means something different for each of us.” I had asked the question shortly after the Orlando attack and one person said church could be a dance floor referring specifically to the night club in Orlando.
Common themes were support, love, and acceptance. Also, as might be expected several people mentioned finding church in nature.
Here is an example: I view church as almost like a school I attended to be educated on the message of Christ. Once I reached a certain point I felt I had a strong enough foundation that I was not getting much from attending formal services. Just this evening I was in awe and wonder as I watched the sunset. He then attached this picture.
While each one of us might have a different takeaway from the information in these responses, three points rise to the surface for me.
(1)Value what they believe the church can be
(2) Appreciate the need for community and the need to experience the love and presence of their creator and
(3) Desire a sanctuary.
Another way to look at this is to notice what wasn’t mentioned. Missions and service was one thing that I was surprised no one mentioned. Does that mean that these people don’t think it’s important or they don’t relate it to church? Music and proclamation weren’t mentioned either. Is that because the question wasn’t specifically about worship? Worship was definitely a part of their answers, but the emphasis was on the broader meaning of worship rather the service at 11:00 each Sunday.
It’s interesting that most of these people felt like church was a place for them, but it might not necessarily look like our church. Sometimes it seems like we have a “you’re in or you’re out” view of church. Maybe it’s time to jump out of the kettle and visit with the frogs on the outside to see what we can learn. Or else, we can stay where we are and get cooked.