In recent years, the share of American adults who do not affiliate with a religious group has risen dramatically. In spite of this trend, the overwhelming majority of Americans, including a majority of the religiously unaffiliated – those who describe themselves, religiously, as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” – say they believe in God or a higher power …Falmy, “Key Findings About Americans’ Belief in God,” Pew Research Center (2017)
As we have discussed on many occasions, increasing numbers of people are saying “yes” to God, but “no” to church or religious affiliation.
The Pew Research study quoted above found that 90% of Americans believe in some kind of higher power, and yet the number of religiously affiliated Americans has declined rapidly in the last decade.
How do we as Christians respond to this information? While we can’t know for sure all the reasons Americans are increasingly deciding not to associate with a religious group, we can and should examine the way we are building our churches and how we are practicing Christianity.
Jesus made God accessible to people who were not religious. He associated with ‘tax collectors and sinners’ (Matthew 9:10)—in other words, people who did not strictly follow religious traditions of the day. Jesus’ message was attractive then, and we believe it is still just as attractive now.
And so the question we have to ask ourselves is, how can those of us who identify as Christians make church more accessible to those who believe in God?
When we look at the Scriptures, we see a few key ways we can build a church that makes a relationship with God accessible to the world around us.
Keep God, lose the traditions
 Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked,  “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”  Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?  For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’  But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’  they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.  You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:  “ ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.  They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules. ’ ”Matthew 15:1-9 NIV
Jesus consistently taught the importance of valuing but not holding on to traditions if they interfered with people coming to know God.
In this story, we see Jesus challenging a group of Pharisees and teachers of the law. The Pharisees were a religious sect that practiced strict adherence to Jewish laws. Jesus wasn’t condemning them, but he was calling attention to the fact that they had developed traditions and preferences that were in direct conflict with what God wanted.
Traditions aren’t inherently bad. They’re just beliefs and customs that are handed down from generation to generation. Traditions only become problematic when they become more important than God’s Word and consequently make God less accessible to people who may be searching for him.
In the example Jesus gave the Pharisees, God wanted people to honor their father and mother. The Pharisees had developed a tradition in which people could give money to the temple instead of actually serving and caring for their parents. It’s not hard to see why this would obscure the message of God’s love to those parents who didn’t get their children’s support.
The religious people of Jesus’ day had developed burdensome rituals — like ceremonial hand-washing and money-donating — instead of giving their hearts to God. These traditions may have made them feel comfortable or especially devout, but they didn’t bring them closer to God and certainly didn’t make their religion or relationship with God attractive or accessible to people around them.
We can do the same thing today when we hold on to customs, beliefs, or practices that might make us feel comfortable, but conflict with God’s will in the Scriptures.
Pause and reflect
- Have you developed any traditions or practices that would make Christianity feel inaccessible to those outside the church?
Take it deeper
To reflect on what your traditions might be, take time to read through the book of Mark. Notice what made the religious teachers and Pharisees angry and uncomfortable around Jesus.
What traditions did he break? How did Jesus feel about traditions replacing love, intimacy, and care for others? What are some specific ways you see traditions in your own life or in the church?
More life-changing, less rule-following
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.2 Corinthians 3:18 NIV
2 Corinthians 3 explains just how life-changing Christianity should be. When we walk with God, we will be continually transformed into Jesus’ glorious image. Jesus was courageous, powerful, passionate, and deeply compassionate. God promises that as Christians he can continually transform us to become that way ourselves.
This means that we should be continually changing and growing. Our transformative change and growth shouldn’t end when we become a Christian. I get inspired when I see examples of this change in the Bible, like Peter who was naturally a bit cowardly and self-protective (Matthew 26:69-76), but became courageous just by spending time with Jesus (Acts 4:13).
As we think about why people say “no” to church and religion, we have to ask ourselves if our lives are an advertisement of the life-changing power of God. What do you think God is prompting you to change? What are some things you need God’s power to change?
Since spiritual change takes spiritual power, those of us who tend to be self-reliant easily find ourselves drifting into humanistic efforts to change. We do this by making rules for ourselves to follow that don’t last (think: New Year’s resolutions), trying to change our behavior using our own human effort.
Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules:  “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”?  These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.Colossians 2:20-23 NIV
The tricky thing is sometimes self-imposed human rules can appear wise and humble… but they lack value in actually helping us change.
We only become life-changing Christians in a life-changing church when we stop relying on our own efforts to force a behavior, and start relying on our relationship with God to change us from the inside out.
Like Peter in Acts 4:13, our lives become powerful and show people who God is simply when we spend time with Jesus!
Pause and reflect
- What are some things in your life that you would like to or need to change?
- Do you see any ways you have been relying on human effort or rules, instead of trusting God to change you as you walk closely with him?
- Who would you become if you changed these things?
Take it deeper
Read through the book of Acts and take notice of the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit.
- How did God’s Spirit change lives?
- What are some practical ways the first Christians practiced life-changing Christianity?
- How did their life-changing Christianity impact the world around them?
Become outward, not insular
To be “insular” is to be “ignorant of or uninterested in cultures, ideas, or peoples outside one’s own experience.”
In 1 Corinthians 9, the Apostle Paul preaches against being “insular” by giving us his example of becoming “all things to all people” in order to save some:
To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.  I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.1 Corinthians 9:22-23 NIV
How comfortable are you and the members of your church around people who have a different culture, or political ideology, or life experience? How comfortable do you think someone from a very different culture would feel in your fellowship?
Keeping an outward focus means building a church that changes the world instead of isolating ourselves from it. Isolating ourselves from the world means we are comfortable only among other like-minded religious people, focus on our own lives more than serving the community around us, and avoid “bad” influences instead of trying to be a force for good.
When we are outward-focused, we become flexible, adaptable, and willing to change things about ourselves so we can better connect with people. We love and notice the needs of those around us, and actively learn from people who are different from us.
Grow by becoming God-focused
One of the practical ways we can become “outward” is becoming more God-focused instead of people-focused. God makes things grow, and he will help our church or our spiritual influence grow as we follow him.
For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?  What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.  I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.  So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.1 Corinthians 3:4-7 NIV
Insular churches become all about status, ego, and developing a personal following instead of embracing our unique role in God’s greater plan. God gives each of us a special purpose and unique set of gifts (. As we serve and work together, doing the special “tasks” God assigns each of us, God will make our ministry grow. .
Ultimately, building a life-changing, non-traditional, and outward-focused church is about being people who walk with God, live by the Scriptures, and have an outward rather than insular focus, which is to say we are not isolating from the world, but rather changing it for the better.
Pause and reflect
- Which of the three qualities discussed (life-changing, non-traditional, and outward-focused) – is most difficult for you? Why?
- Which of the three qualities inspires you most? Why?
- What can you do today to help build your life and church to become more like this?