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Rebuttal to Pastor Chris Sonksen re: leaving the church

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This is an open letter to Chris Sonksen, the lead pastor at South Hills Church, a multi-campus church in southern California.  It is in response to an editorial he penned for Fox News titled “I’m a pastor and I want you to quit church. Now!

Dear Pastor Sonksen,

I read with interest an opinion piece you penned for Fox News on June 23 encouraging people to “quit church” if they weren’t willing to go all-in on the idea of serving, giving and community outreach.

You want people to quit church?  Dude, they’ve already left!

Millions of authentic believers have formed unaffiliated Christian communities in their neighborhoods and places of business. These like-minded people love, support, instruct and encourage others free from the confines of the corporate church.

Your column placed the blame for shrinking church attendance squarely on the shoulders of Christians who have become blasé about their faith. As a lead pastor, I am sure you get your share of criticism, but your column clearly demands a response.

You complained that too many people attending church services were spectators. Well, pastor, if you want more than spectators, you need to stop making services spectacles.

Walk into an American church today – especially a mega church where the focus is on serving seekers rather than authentic Christians – and you’ll likely find big screen TVs, flashing lights, moving colored lights, lasers, fog, and music delivered at a volume akin to a rock concert.

In fact, the music NEVER stops. It keeps playing, even through the pastor’s sermon in some churches. Rarely do you find silence and an opportunity to be still before God. There is always noise in the background.

Why is it that, before communion, many pastors will encourage their congregations to take a moment to “quietly reflect” on their lives and confess any sin God brings to mind.

Then, as the pastor steps off the stage while communion is served, a keyboardist, four guitar players, a drummer, trumpeter and six vocalists chime in with another round of 7-11 church music. You know the type, seven words repeated 11 times.

You wonder why people aren’t giving more than a few dollars, if anything at all, to the church. I suspect many people struggling to make ends meet, have a hard time giving to a church that pays its pastors six-figure salaries to lecture them on not doing enough. But, it goes well beyond that.

The standing joke is that if you give a million dollars to an American church, you’ll wind up paying for a new associate pastor, a new director of social media, a new “ministry” program, a new sound system, more moveable lights, a fog machine, two new large screens for the auditorium, a new cafe, and three high-definition video cameras.

But, if you give a million dollars to a missionary in the field, a community gets fresh water, a hospital, a school, a commercial kitchen, 1,000 new Bibles and money left over to start several new businesses to help its impoverished residents.

Trust me, pastor, when people see their hard-earned money is being invested in ways that truly make a difference in the lives of others, they are more than willing to open their wallets to support that effort. Best of all, you won’t even have to shame them with Bible verses about giving.

You complain that people don’t want to volunteer and that 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people. Is that real work, you’re talking about, or just busy work? Busy work is necessary, but that’s all most churches offer. Busy work involves:

  • Setting up and taking down chairs, making coffee, passing out sheets of paper at the door, or handing an offering plate to someone else. Necessary? Yes! Life changing service opportunity? No way.
  • A “parking lot ministry” that helps guide drivers to a stall. Things might be different in California, but people have been parking their own cars in every state I’ve lived in for decades.
  • Being the fourth person in the greeting gauntlet – that string of people tasked with extending to strangers silly greetings that A) don’t really make people feel welcome and B) don’t really count as “noticing” the person in the 0.7 seconds of conversation. If you want people to feel welcome, try putting a greeter in the auditorium to engage people sitting alone.
  • Children’s “ministry” programs that are nothing more than 90 minutes of edutainment to keep kids occupied while their parents are entertained by seeker-friendly programming in the main auditorium. It ignores the impact of divorce, bullying, fatherlessness, parental addictions, poverty, parents in jail, abandonment and sexualization of children at very young ages. Children between the ages of 9 and 17 are the world’s largest producers of child pornography, and the church is silent on the topic.
  • A men’s ministry that ignores the real pain men face from parental abandonment in their youth, isolation, loneliness, confusion, stress, anger, and an overall sense of worthlessness. Most churches offer a monthly men’s breakfast and annual retreat during which men are taught they aren’t doing enough for the church, giving enough, praying enough, serving their families enough, leading enough and reading enough of the Bible.
  • A women’s ministry program that makes women, especially single mothers, feel inadequate for their inability to give themselves fully to their church, jobs, relationships, kids, children’s school, community, friends and aging parents.

Let’s talk community outreach. I challenge you to walk into 90 percent of churches today and tell me what constitutes a “community outreach.”

Sure, they’ll plan a “Christmas outreach,” which is generally a children’s musical advertised in local media, but church members and leaders don’t know the first names of neighbors living a block down the street.

Christmas outreaches are so bad that most local nursing homes have to hire a part-time, temporary worker between November 15 and December 30. That person must coordinate all the well-meaning Christian groups seeking to spread “Christmas cheer” to shut-ins by people who ignore the elderly confined in the facilities the other 10.75 months of the year.

Maybe community outreach is considered “missions” by the church. You know about missions, those travel opportunities for which ten members will spend $2,500 apiece to spend a week oversees laying bricks and painting walls.

Churches call it “missions” or another opportunity to serve when participants could send the money to a missionary to pay local labor for several months of work.

All the while, these feel-good temporary foreign missionaries ignore the decaying culture in America and give little consideration to the millions of lost souls, poverty, homelessness, abandonment, hopelessness and despair in their own country.

Do you have a leadership development program at your church? If pastors would work to create leaders and empower them to lead local missions to solve real problems in their own communities, you would have an outpouring of volunteers and cash to help advance those causes.

It’s easy to blame members for the ills of the church when, in fact, the church has become more corporate, programmed and impersonal year after year.

You know the church has become corporate when, in order to become a member, it is no longer necessary to simply profess a sincere belief in Christ.

No, prospects must attend three months of classes, fill out an application, then sit for an interview before a panel of pastors and lay people who eventually determine if the applicant is Christian enough for membership.

That is precisely why people have already abandoned the Christian church. Just look at the Barna research and you’ll find the root cause.

Church in America is an obligation where people must attend, engage in unfulfilling service opportunities, endure mindless music called worship, listen to a 45-minute lecture and participate in small group meetings to pour over the pastor’s latest book rather than learning the Bible.

Imagine what churches would look like if pastors led and delegated earnest believers in a way John Maxwell recommends:

  • Ask people to be fact finders only. It gives members a chance to become acquainted with the issues impacting the community. They’d see the hurt and pain around them.
  • Ask members to make suggestions. This gets them thinking and it gives you a chance to become acquainted with their thought processes and what they are passionate about. Members would become more engaged and motivated to help.
  • Ask members to implement one of their recommendations, but only after you give your approval. Set them up for success, not failure. This causes them to see their role in solving the problem.
  • Ask members to take action on their own, but to report the results immediately. This will give them confidence, and you will still be able to perform damage control if necessary.
  • Give members complete authority. Give up the “we’ve always done it like this” mentality.

You want a thriving, fired up church?  Then embrace organized chaos. Nothing sucks the lifeblood out of genuine Christianity faster or more effectively than organized religion.

You want members to model the Acts 2 church? Then encourage churches and empower members to start acting like an Acts 2 church!

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Greg Gerber

A native of Wisconsin who moved to Arizona in 2009, Greg Gerber is a DODO -- Dad of Daughters Only -- to three grown daughters. He worked as a journalist for many years before pursuing a career as a faith-based writer, author, coach and speaker. Greg is the author of Pornocide: How Lust is Killing Your Faith, Stealing Your Joy and Destroying Your Life.

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