Thursday, March 24, 2022

Inbox: Sucking the Life Out of ‘Vampire Churches’

R.J. sent me an article this week and asked me what I thought.

I read the title: “Vampire Churches”. Instantly, visions of caped characters sweeping across the congregation, making “Nyuh ha ha” noises all the while sprang into my mind. I could see them clamping eager fangs on the swooning portly matrons of row three, their stodgy husbands standing by and intoning, “This is just not on!”

I read a little further. The article seemed passionately worried about the defection of pop writer Anne Rice from Catholicism. Strangely, I was not as troubled as the author about that.

My first reaction was, “What is this sensationalist nonsense?” But the truth is that R.J. was no more impressed with that aspect of it than I was, and as I read I saw why she had thought it still deserved some attention.

Okay, so I’ll overlook the trendiness of the title and my visceral disdain for the whole vampire motif. I’ll skip the fawning concern for Anne Rice’s departure from conventional congregational life: I’m sure she has her reasons, but I’m not sure how badly I need to hear them. Moreover, I’m not sure they are the meat of the article.

Institutional “Churches”

What the author is really trying to get to (albeit with far too sensational an opening) is that today’s churches have become strangely institutional. Instead of being living fellowships in which mutual support, honest communication, corporate growth, devoted worship, practical equipping, common commitment, selfless serving and general encouragement are the rule, they’ve become unwieldy, demanding bureaucracies.

Particularly at the end of the last century, there was a vogue for turning churches into business operations. Professional staff, multiple departments, large plants, a wide-ranging support staff and a plethora of tailored programs became hallmarks of the successful church, late 20th century style. But we’re now seeing the effect of that: an increasing distance between the institutional structure of the local church and the real life of its members. To serve in one of these places has become, for many people, rather soul-sucking. Hence the name “vampire churches”.

The author of the article, Skye Jethani writes:

“[The biblical model described by Paul] does not represent the philosophy of ministry that has dominated the American church over the last 30 to 40 years. The model that I was taught in seminary, and that gets extolled at most ministry conferences and in church-growth books, looks more like ‘vampire church’. Rather than equipping people to accomplish the good work that God has called them to do for him out in the world and in their relationships with other believers, vampire churches seek to use people for the advancement of the institution. It’s a model based more on effective American corporations than faithful biblical interpretation. The goal is to plug people into the apparatus of the church structure to grow the organization, rather than release them to serve Christ and build up his body out in the world, in their vocations, and in their communities. So rather than empowering Christians, vampire churches drain the life out of them in pursuit of some institutional goal.”

Okay, now there’s something worth considering.

Have a Go

Usually at this point I might offer some kind of anecdote or expand on the degree to which I happened to agree or disagree with Mr. Jethani. Or maybe I might offer my personal explanation of the sort of situation he outlines above. But I’m actually much more interested in knowing how general his experience is.

Are you frustrated with your church experience? Do you find that your church is doing less equipping than servicing of its institutional needs, its schedule of meetings and its programs? Are you finding your interaction with the local church empowering or draining? And what do you think are the scriptural ways to respond to Mr. Jethani’s experience?

Or anything else you want to say about how the church is working today, in your view. We’re listening.

We’ll put the best contributions in a future post. Just leave the name (or pseudonym) you’d like us to use for you.

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