5 Truths we don’t want to admit about church decline

Last Sunday in my sermon, I wrote about Jesus overturning the tables in the temple, and noted that much of western Christianity is waking up the day after the tables have been overturned. Our prominence at the centre of society is long gone. Now we are dealing with the reality of numerical and financial decline. These days church leaders are looking to experts, programs,  and books that will help us figure out what on earth is going on, and why so many have just stopped coming to church.

As a millennial and a pastor, I regularly hear church people bemoaning the loss of young people. This is evident to me in the fact that I have been pastor to only a handful of people my age. The ‘Nones’ are the new buzz group that concerned church leaders want to reach. Church people want to understand why so many of my generation are opting for something other than church attendance and how that can be changed.

The other group current church people long for are the lapsed members I regularly hear church people wanting to “bring back.” Programs like Back to Church Sunday are popular. Mission and discipeship gurus are all over the place, helping pastors, church leaders and lay people figure out how to lead churches, how to figure out what on earth we are supposed to be doing as the Body of Christ.

And yet, with all the focus on our decline as Christians in the West, particularly, mainline Christians, important truths are rarely spoken about. There are realities that I think many of us can see, but we don’t want to admit are significant in our apparent “decline.”

1 Measuring decline by numbers causes us to lose sight of our mission. 

I admit, when I see a new face in church, or get asked to do a baptism, I am inwardly excited. New people, larger numbers of faces in the pews, increased giving. These are all easy indicators of success. Except they aren’t. Jesus didn’t say, “Go therefore and get bums in the pews and money in the offering plates in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

When churches measure our ministry by these numbers, our real purpose of preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments becomes a selling feature. When our goal is full pews and offering plates, word and sacrament become the means of filling pew and offering plates.

“Success” takes on a different definition if we stop using numbers to measure it. Preaching the gospel is preaching the gospel whether it is to 2, 20, 200 or 2000 people. Oh, and yes, I have heard that accusation that this notion is just something that pastors of small dying churches cling to… yet if our success is measured by numbers we have lost sight of what the Gospel actually does in our lives.

2 Many of our sacred cows are causing our decline. (ie. Sunday School & VBS, Bible Study, programs, music groups, church committees)

There are always very important, very special things that churches do that we are simply unwilling to let go of. These programs or activities began as life-giving endeavours for congregations, but over time have lost their ability to meet the needs and purposes of congregations. I know churches full of seniors in communities that are populated with folks predominantly of retirement age who insist on having Sunday School. There are committees and programs that have become defunct or purposeless that churches refuse to axe, even though they become a struggle keep up and don’t achieve their founding goals.

As we cling to sacred cows we fail to see the unintended consequences that are hurting us. Sunday school was intended to teach kids the faith, but has allowed parents to abdicate responsibility of teaching faith in the home. Instead of empowering us to live out our baptismal callings, committees on Stewardship, Evangelism, Learning, or Support (among others) let us leave this important work to a committee that meets once a month. Programs allow us to turn basic practices of faith like studying the bible, evangelizing through relationship, ministry to children, youth, families or seniors into very compartmentalized sets of behaviour rather than natural activities of faith.

We so often hold onto things that are actually hurting us because of deep-seated senses of obligation or loyalty. We get so stuck wanting to not disappoint those who went before us that we fail to make our communities ready for those who will come after us.

3 God just might be calling us to die. 

So many churches (and people for that matter) live and behave as if they are going to last forever. We make choices as communities as if our current state is going to be our static condition for the rest of time. We don’t have urgency… or the urgency of our conditions causes us to respond with flight or fight or freeze responses. We freeze up and choose to do nothing in the face of crisis, even when we understand that doing something – anything – is necessary.

What if churches had “Bucket Lists”? What if we made decisions about what we choose to spend our time and resources on knowing that we will one day die? Instead of working so hard just to stay afloat in perpetuity, what if we looked at all the things we could do before the end. There are not many churches closing these days because they made bold choices, gambled their resources and failed. There are lots of churches slowly petering out, after years of just getting by.

Admitting that God might be calling us to die means changing the way we see death. We so often see death, especially the death of a church, as failure. What if we saw death as a natural part of life and ministry? What if death was expected for our churches? Maybe all those mission and vision, discipleship and evangelism gurus might not seem so important anymore.

4 Our problem isn’t lack of mission, it is wrong mission. 

Most mainline churches in North America were started less than 125 years ago. A lot were founded in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Communities of the faithful saw a need for a worshipping church in their midst. So they gathered members, raised funds to build buildings and call pastors. Energy was high, excitement was infectious, people came because the purpose and mission was clear.

And then buildings were built, funds were raised, pastors called and programs started.

But the mission didn’t change.

Most of the gurus or consultants that church leaders are seeking today have the same message: we have lost sight of the mission. If this were true, I don’t think there would be enough to keep the members that most churches still have from dispersing to the wind.

I think churches still have a strong sense of mission – build the building, raise the funds for pastors and programs. We accomplished those things decades ago, yet we still are trying to organize ourselves around them. Maybe it isn’t breaking ground, but it is making sure the carpets are new, and light fixtures clean, and shingles are replaced. Maybe it isn’t calling that first pastor, but it is making sure the budget can afford to pay for a pastor.

We are still trying to band together around those fledgling goals of starting a new church, even though we achieved them years ago. We don’t realize how people who want more than buildings and funds for pastors and programs are put off by our single-minded concern for those things.

5 We have let worship become entertainment instead of community forming. 

Whether it is mega-church contemporary worship or cathedral mass, whether it is a small community gathered for song and prayer or simple liturgy… our attitudes about worship have been transformed by the world around us. Our consumer culture has been turning us into creatures seeking to be entertained, distracted, and looking for things that appeal to our preferences.

I have heard many faithful church members, who are generally concerned about growing in their faith, slip into talking about worship as if it was a menu of food to choose from or different acts of a play. We enjoy sermons, we like music, we appreciate readings.

We have stopped participating in worship. We have stopped seeing the role of the congregation as integral to worship happening. While most church members wouldn’t agree if asked, we act as if worship could happen without anyone in the pews. We approach worship like theatre that doesn’t need an audience, but that no one would put on without an audience.

Worship should be the ritual action of faithful Christians. Worship should be a way to grow in faith as individuals and as community through prayer, song, word, and sacraments. The things we do and practice in worship prepare us for life in the world. We practice confession and forgiveness, we practice sharing God’s story and our story, we practice washing and feeding and tending to the world around us. We practice reconciliation and prayerful concern for the world around us. The things we do in worship should shape how we live out our faith. Our desire to be entertained should not shape worship.

Admitting the truth to our decline.

Admitting the truth of our decline is not an easy business. When the mission, discipleship and evangelism consultants come by to tell us how to fix ourselves, the hand-wringing that results is easy. But talking about these truths about our decline and how these realities shape us is not easy stuff… in fact, it is nearly impossible.

The fact is, more churches tend to slowly die, rather than truly change and find new life. This shows that admitting these truths in order to change them is harder than dying. Most of the time we will choose to die.

But that is okay.

The flawed ministry that we are doing despite of and in the midst of these truths is not unfaithful ministry. In fact, working with dying, flawed, wrong missioned churches and people is exactly the kind of work our God gets up to in the world. And that is also where we are in trouble. Whether we like it or not, admitting these stark truths about ourselves as we die, is all too often just how God chooses to bring us into new life.

And that is the most important truth of all.


Are churches really facing up to their decline? What other truths are we failing to admit? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

As always thanks to my wife, Courtenay, for her editorial help and insight. You can follow her on twitter @ReedmanParker

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38 thoughts on “5 Truths we don’t want to admit about church decline”

    1. The church right up the street from us, Prince of Peace Lutheran on Colorado Boulevard, Denver, voted 19-13 to stay ipen when the average attendance is less than 30 per week. At Bethany our baptized memberships is over 3000, we reach out to our fellow human beings to spread the gospel, and we celebrate lutheran liturgical worship each week with eucharist at each service. Average attendance is nearly 900. I can’t undesrtstand how trhese folks think they have a mission, but I guess ‘wherever two or three are gathered in my name…” The bishop’s wife had a one-year term call and is now the interim priest at an Episcopal church north of town.

      The land could besold and used by the Synod for new mission starts!

      We’re in an interregnum and its a splendid time for our church. No happy-clappy, back to the basics.

      http://www.bethany-denver.org

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I suppose it could be possible for a very small church to have a vibrant ministry, but it sounds like a small community unwilling to let go. It is sad to see churches like the small one you mention burn themselves to the ground when they could be fertilizer for something new.

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        1. Yes, fertilizer for something new. Sometimes, when God gives new life, it doesn’t look anything like the old life. Our church died, and some of us formed a house church which is reaching a few people with the Good News of Jesus Christ. And about 3/4 of our members are under 40. God is good.

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  1. Great post!

    “Whether it is mega-church contemporary worship or cathedral mass, whether it is a small community gathered for song and prayer or simple liturgy… our attitudes about worship have been transformed by the world around us. Our consumer culture has been turning us into creatures seeking to be entertained, distracted, and looking for things that appeal to our preferences.

    “I have heard many faithful church members, who are generally concerned about growing in their faith, slip into talking about worship as if it was a menu of food to choose from or different acts of a play. We enjoy sermons, we like music, we appreciate readings.”

    One of the things that is most difficult for leadership to admit is that the reason “the church” views worship this way is because of us. We have trained them how to view it. Of course, not everyone in leadership, but I am speaking of leadership as a class of people. We have built the church according to what we thought was best. Now, reality is setting in.,

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  2. Something I see is that even progressive churches aren’t reaching out to or meeting the needs of modern non-traditional families. I’m a single mother. We didn’t attend today. I have a crack in one of my car tires and no one to help. We got up, got dressed, started to load up and came back in the house and put our pajamas back on. The tire shop won’t open till Monday morning. I’ll be praying just to get the car there without a blow out. And I don’t see other single parent families in the pews when we do go. It’s just me and my kids. In a world where half of families are led by single mothers I can’t help but wonder where they all are. But then I know the answer to that questions: there’s really not much for us at church. We work long hours and lack support. Getting everybody dressed and ready with only two hands is hard. Even progressive churches don’t do much to welcome unusual families. There’s nowhere quite so lonely as a pew. Somedays I have to force myself to go, reminding myself that there’s always a sermon that really is good news at this church when I’ve visited several where the best news was frightening and served only to convince my first grader that God can’t be real if He’s that mean I don’t have extra money to offer or time to give. It’s just not there. Families are struggling and rather than being a source of comfort and aid church is often a source of stress and pressure. Where are the young families? We’re trying to make it day-to-day, working too many jobs, barely seeing our kids, wondering how were going to get the car to the shop and juggle our aging parents and our kids and not lose it. I may be somewhat biased but I think many churches need to remember that the function of community is to help the members. There’s something heartbreaking in seeing churches slave away at all the wrong goals. A new carpet or better sound system won’t help to heal a hurting world. I love my church but I’d jump ship in a heart beat if I found somewhere that loved me too. And even better somewhere that loved two nearly-feral, almost neglected kids who have had their world shattered by dad leaving and mom not being able to meet their needs alone. We just remodeled the kitchen and got a new roof and I couldn’t help but think that for that price tag we could have gone down to the local day-care centers and offered every harried mother an invitation to bring the kids for breakfast on Sunday morning. Make it a pajama party so they aren’t worried about getting everyone dressed. Let communion be pancakes and OJ and let the good news be that We Want You even when your life is shattered and you have no where to go. They won’t notice the new paint but they will notice hugs and open arms and place to be safe from an often frightening world.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. m, your story really breaks my heart. As a pastor of a church that is small in number but big in heart, I still have to remind these people that they have neighbours that need them. Today I preached about the Good Samaritan. Who is my neighbour? Your story is one I’m going to tell next week. We all need to hear the voices of those who need us but don’t feel the love. God bless you, m. I pray that a Good Samaritan will come into your life soon to give you a hand. If you were my neighbour or close by, your children would be welcome in our lives. Don’t give up, stay on the journey.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you for your kind words! I’d like to say I’m an aberration in this world but I’m pretty sure there are millions more very much like me. I’m sure if you look around your town you can find plenty more who need that sort of kindness at least as much as I do.

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    2. I feel the same way and I am single and male. If the church did a better job at loving people it might not grow but it *would* attract passionate people. And passionate people tend to not keep their mouths shut which attract other passionate people. I am one of those passionate people who has given up on the church and religion precisely because I experienced being invisible and unloved. The church was geared towards under 26 singles and married people and there was no place for a 34 year old single person.

      As someone on the autistic spectrum I have a different attitude than most, I don’t care for committees and organizational meetings and mission statements. To paraphrase Nike slogan, “Just do it”. The idea about serving people breakfast on Sunday morning is amazing. But it’s an idea that likely would die in committee because it would be considered to “uncomfortable” or “radical”.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m sure it would be quite uncomfortable for very many people. Me with two kids and no man seems to be about all the discomfort that can be handled and, at that, not very well.

        We like to keep “undesirables” at a distance rather than form real relationships with them. Collecting cans to drop off at a food bank=good. Going to the food bank and hugging “those people”=bad. Becoming one of “those people” has forced me to confront a whole new reality in this world.

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    3. Not by might and not by power
      But by spirit alone will we all live in peace.

      Adapted from Zachariah IV:6

      If you place your faith in God, you must accept that which He brings you. You are never given a problem that doesn’t bear a gift for you in it’s hands. That doesn’t mean your course will be easy.
      It’s not unlike God, historically, to let people suffer. I personally do not understand this part, but if you are faithful you must convince yourself that this is God’s will.
      A good practitioner of the faith may be able to explain that.
      Remember, Jesus preached his sermons from mountains and fields, and many believe, as described in this discourse, that the physical church has become something of a den of money-changers.
      Not to set the course back or compound the difficulties cited in Reverend Parker’s post, but remember you don’t need a church or a congregation to be faithful, to pray, to seek God’s help or live a good Christian life.
      All you really need is faith.
      You are loved.

      May you find peace,

      Paz

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      1. Funny, I was just reading a thing about suffering, which squares with my experiences, that it leads to greater insight and compassion.
        I do think it is often easier to find God outdoors than in church. At least, that’s been the case for me.
        I don’t know why I am where I am right now. And I have had a good many doubts and questions about it. Faith that can’t take doubts and questions isn’t any faith at all.
        Thank you for your encouragement and reminders; I need lots of those.

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  3. Erik, I’ve been following you for a while now and your articles are usually spot on. I agree with you on this one wholeheartedly. It’s the same in my denomination that clings to a 19th century military model and because of our public persona and our “good works” we’ve become a slave to it. Everyone want to give us money; no one wants to attend our churches. Perhaps we just have to keep being the voice in the desert calling, but remember what they did to the prophets 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ahhh, Pastor Eric again great food to ponder! You raise many interesting points: important truths – the elephant in the room. You reminded me of my previous career of working with people undergoing major change in corporations. People preferring to cling to what they knew rather than facing the elephant and all the unknowns that accompanied that elephant even when what they knew no longer worked! People who had made huge time and control investments in amassing what they knew being asked to step into the unknown where things could get out-of-control. The whole nurturing of the letting go process thing. But what I really want to comment on is #5, “Our desire to entertained should not shape our worship.” I concur wholeheartedly. Your statement that worship should reflect what we do in real life resonates very strongly. I think you hit the nail right on the head! In fact, when I think on my comment last week about pondering why I had left an evangelical church after 8 years, I remember prior to leaving the church I had a growing uneasiness about the catchy performances meant to appeal to the diversified congregation. Usually I enjoyed those performances, but I think I reached a point where I felt I was loosing sight of the fact that God isn’t about me and certainly not about pleasing me. I’d lost the relationship thing and boy is that a BIG thing – love your neighbour thing – helping each other out, the forgiving thing. Skipping ahead to your conclusion, I can’t help but wonder when we both personally and as a church, face-up to and admit the “stark truths about ourselves as we die,” we are finally acknowledging we have reached the end-of-ourselves and once again realize we are not in control at which point God is ready to again use us for His will.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Very thought provoking! I personally found number five interesting today. I visited a very small missionary baptist church where the congregation participates in the service by saying their prayer requests–just shouting them out when asked. I had never seen that before abd it felt very intimate and real. That is one church where worship is actually worship, not entertainment. Great post.

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  6. Thank you for this!! I have been feeling similarly about this. I have wondered, and a friend actually has stated to me, have we made “church and/or the building” a golden calf? I agree that maybe some are too worried about the numbers to keep the church open instead of their “bucket list” and trying to reach out to those who need to be shown God’s unconditional love. Great food for thought!

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  7. Some great points. As a Youth Pastor a lot of this resonates with me. I take heart that Jesus said “Go into all the world….” and not “Bring all the world into church….”

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  8. I agree, but with a added thought. Two more things, or three you might think about. 1) We are in the Last Days of the Gentile Age, people are becoming Wax Cold to the Gospel of Jesus; 2) There are so many False Church’s in the United States. You have everything from Prosperity, Speak It, Receive It, Social Gatherings and the Homosexual Church’s are on the Rise; 3) No one want’s to be Obedient to God’s Holy Word, they do not want to Live it, to be a Living Epistle. They say it is to hard, to many worldly pressures, they don’t want to become out cast.
    Our time, is growing short…we live in a day that calls Darkness, Light, and Light, Darkness, that Good for Evil and Evil for Good!
    I Encourage all of the Brother’s and Sister’s, hold on fast, Jesus is coming!
    Amen and Amen!!!

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  9. Very interesting. But, you didn’t mention the culture wars. As a millennial myself, I meet many who find the church “homophobic and anti-feminist.” Which, isn’t true, but we have come off that way.

    And, by the way, if you’re looking for all the Millennials in the church, I know where they are. They are all the in the Prayer Movement. This is nationwide movement of thousands and thousands of young adults who use use worship and learning the art of prayer to change nations and history. There are schools, upon schools, and they rent out stadiums to have huge prayer gatherings around the country.Go to thecall.com. I thought the same thing about Millennials myself, until I traveled in the prayer movement for several years. There are thousands upon thousands of them, and people “graduate” from it at about 30. Maybe what I am trying to say is, we are still here. We’re just underground, and while we still respect the church, we’re doing it a little differently now.

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    1. The Problem that the Younger Generations do not understand, nor will they ever admit, is that the Church, is Broken. Jesus set His in Order as follows: Apostles, Prophets, Evangelist, Pastors and Teachers. This Order was never to diminish but was to carry the Church until that day Jesus came back. 3 of the Five Offices have been put down, ignored, even saying they do not exist, that is the Apostle, Prophet and now even the Evangelist. Between Man and Satan they have made Pastors the Head and Teachers are any one with a pulse, even thou the Word says, “…let not a novice teach…”. In Ephesians it says, “And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone;”. These two main Offices are still needed today, the Apostle was to make sure the Word was Correct in ALL Ways and the Prophet was to give the Church Direction. Amen and Amen!!!

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      1. Perhaps they are looking for something or someone they can relate to. You claim to be young, but your writing style smacks of liturgy. Does your pulpit? Liturgical revival only appeals to the young in a vintage sense. But In the end they find it stuffy. This is why many abandon Christianity, seeking to reinvent the faith, by starting with the source: Jesus. From there, what faith looks like is open.

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        1. See, you are one of millions that refuse to Live according to the standards that Jesus our Lord set. God is unchanging, but man and Satan has tried to destroy what God has set. I would also suppose that you are against God’s Standard of Marriage, where as, the Man is the Head, and the Wife is the Helpmate, they are not equal. Between Man and Satan, there are two entities that had to be destroyed or distorted, the Office’s that Jesus set and Marriage. Rather you want to consider it or not, you are playing into the Satan’s hands. When the Office’s were being destroyed, the Marriage’s were being destroyed at the same time. Unfortunately, you have been a tricked. Let me ask you…do you Honor your Mother and Dad, or have you part of the rebellion. Our Schools, Politics and Society have dictated how things will be. Do you know, that God’s Word says that in the Last Days that 1) if it were not for God, we’d all be lost; 2) that only a remnant will be saved! I am not out to change God or His Way’s, but I am out to restore the Foundation that Jesus laid. You really need to consider your ways and match them to God, instead of trying to get God to match your way. Do you know that it says in the Last Days, that people will not listen to Gods Word ant more, that they will Judge things according to themselves. You have no idea what is at stake here. Amen and Amen!!!

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          1. Hmmm…..well you do not know me or my “ways” as you called it. But the lack of love and understanding in your writing may be an indicator as to why young people may not come to your church. Jesus said that all the law can be summed up by one commandment: love. Love God and people. The rest is all details to be sorted out in time. The Bible also says its his kindness that brings us to repentance. Gods laws are not possible unless he gives us the grace to carry them out…which he dispenses slowly as much as we can handle. Otherwise it is just legalism that weighs upon us like a heavy burden until it is too much and we walk away from the church.

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            1. …thous is the problem… Obedience to His Word. Your generation, is one of rebellion. What did Paul say…shall we just sin because of Grace…God Forbid! You do not understand that God, is a God of Love and in that Love is Holiness and Order. Take away those things…you have chaos!

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              1. My generation, along with all the rest, at its core are just broken people who need love and meaning and hope. 1 cor 13 says that you can obey the law all you want, but if you do not have love it is useless. When we understand how much God loves us, how much his heart breaks for us, then we WANT to please him. So ythat is why i think that if the church could communicate how much God loves each person, and how he can bring them hope, the rest will work itself out. Never give up on people. They are God’S creation, passionately loved by him. If he loves my generation, then maybe you can too. 🙂

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                1. Its not a mater of Loving you, it is a mater that you want to be loved in a compromise to Gods Word. As we should, I love everyone, but hate the sin they are in. Because of all the Compromising Love, we now have churches that are against marriage, they want homosexuality to be okay, they are for abortions! The church of today is not based off Gods Holy Word, but of programs that soothes the itching ear. Its time, past time, for the Church to repent!

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  10. Hello there,

    I currently attend a growing contemporary church. I’ve also spent years, in more traditional settings. As I consider your post, it’s clear that you’re giving some food for thoughts.

    Our pastor has run into similar arguments about worship and theories on church growth. May I take a stab at something you mentioned? For my church, we don’t view worship as “entertainment”.

    Yes, the songs are mostly contemporary and some classic hymns mixed in. It’s all done on a keyboard, guitars and drum. What kinds of songs do we sing? It’s not loud and celebratory; rather, it’s a soft and intimate.

    The songs are ingrained with the Scriptures and descriptions of God’s love for us and they are an expression of our love for Him. Who comes to our church? There’s plenty of young people and old people coming into our church.

    Here’s the key. Clearly, my Father is doing something amidst the many churches. Worship should never be about entertainment; rather, it should be a tool to help connect our heart to the One, who loves us.

    As a popular Christian artist once sang, “I’m returning to the heart of worship. Jesus, it’s all about You! It is not about me.” Though I do love some of the old hymns; I prefer a soft contemporary style.

    Hope this helps. Have a blessed day.

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  11. Yes the would sometimes like to hear lies bet is our work to keep telling them the truth, truth is so hard to hear bet most be told pastors most stop bing afraid to say the truth even if u say the truth and members live the church it shouldn’t border bet what u should do is to keep praying for them if see sometimes when we are worry that people are living the church we don’t even think that because of God bet because of the money that is coming in through that person because most people that us when we say the truth is the people paying their tithe and bringing good money to the church bet we most know that this work we are doing is not for the earth but for the heaven rase and only in heaven we will get our reward God bless us all in Jesus Amen

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