Where Did Church Go?

The Church Lab’s pep talk to those of us on the winding religious road in America.

Carrie headshot.jpg

Rev. Carrie Graham, founding pastor of The Church Lab

Church these days can often be a “butts in the seats” kind of game. There is not just competition from other worshipping communities of a multitude of faith traditions, but also at yoga centers, co-working spaces, coffeeshops, meetups and podcasts that pipe wisdom into the ears of joggers and drivers alike. The latter options provide community and connection in a way that the Protestant church could exclusively offer just decades ago in the United States. None of these options create stressful experiences around when to stand or kneel, what outfit to wear early on a weekend morning, or whose names one can remember when folks likely only see each other a couple of times a month at best. So, what is the point of church, and what is it for in 2019 and beyond?

Worshipping communities of many traditions do offer distinctive experiences, but you won’t find our culture encouraging such experiences in commercials or on billboards or even in your spam filter. Worshipping communities offer spiritual maturity - an ongoing growing opportunity that both provides an uplifting sanctuary for our souls - alongside a continuous sharpener of the wisdom our traditions each offer, literally to the infinite degree. There is no limit to the depths that a lifetime of spiritual engagement can offer when it comes to encountering a wholehearted life experience. Worshipping communities representing traditions that have wrestled with these questions and practices for thousands of years are here amongst us, ready to offer specific approaches that bring limitless depth for any generation, throughout any lifestage, period.

 What a beautiful opportunity! Wow!

But where are all the crowds filing in for such fulfillment? There are a couple of massive obstacles in the way of this beautiful opportunity. The communities and their leaders are the first. You are the other one.

Worshipping Communities and Their Leaders

Let’s use Protestant churches as a very live example of this obstacle. Congregations and their leaders become their own obstacles for growth because the very framework we’ve come to depend on often threatens to take the place of God and the richness of life we experience when seeking God. This framework says we have services that must be in certain types of rooms, with certain types of furniture in certain arangements, led by certain types of rhythms, and fully funded by a devoted community that focuses on resourcing the church above any other commitment. However, the gears that run these frameworks have turned against each other in recent years, creating a well-meaning but inevitably discombobulated system.

Our society is no longer unified about which religion to engage with, if any religion at all. This can be scary to those who have been inside the church walls all this time. For instance, when congregants demand that the leadership provide them with the comfort of their historic rhythms, movements and songs, regardless of theological integrity, they may be making a dangerous trade. Perhaps they could instead trade their own comfort for the accessibility newcomers need. People coming in are looking for a place they feel at home enough to encounter both connection and spiritual depth. Some church leaders or congregants may yearn to create this accessibility by shifting old patterns. But they are often kept hostage by tithers who say, “You better make the decision we want or we’ll leave.” Decisions of integrity become difficult, as the systems that once helped the mission of church now work against its own health. Stewardship is just one example of something that can become twisted into power plays that shut down new ideas with the stroke of a pen.

The Church Lab is, in large part, an experiment in how to align the workings of a ministry with its mission in our shifting religious landscape. How can the community, the leaders, the funding, the environment, the communication channels, the very operations, all align themselves with the mission? How can The Church Lab also come alongside leaders and systems to say, “What vital things need to be shaken loose which are bound out of habit - ultimately keeping communities from fostering meaningful growth in their spiritual lives?” What needs to be sacrificed so that, out of the ashes, a new expression of a timelessly meaningful core can be offered to communities? This is an exciting question worth pursuing. It often takes leadership finding help and support. The Church Lab seeks to be that for other communities going through “integrity growth spurts,” if you will.

Of course, the only way it can be pursued is if we first commit to get out of our own way.


It’s true, admittedly, and probably not a surprise to you. We are often our own problem. We like to talk about change as long as it doesn’t need to be difficult or internal, even though that’s often how the very world is ultimately changed. We like to talk about depth, as long as it doesn’t ever hurt to reach for it. For instance, we often talk about the country desperately needing to build bridges. However, we don’t rush out in great numbers to make friends with folks with whom we vehemently disagree so we can listen deeply to understand them, and not try to convince them of anything. We talk about the need to welcome folks into our communities, but it is hard to grieve the death of the tools we have used for so long to connect with God and others. It is hard to take the netless leap of faith that there are tools to be shared, tools others can invent, perspectives not yet heard that can delight and grow us closer to God and maintain the timeless pieces of our traditions that could never go extinct. What the church and other worshipping communities offer are depth. They offer growth in wisdom offered in the crossroads of ancient communities and our world today. There is mystery that we often opt to oversimplify, for comfort’s sake. There are questions that would grow us, but we often don’t believe God is big enough to tend to them, or we ourselves choose to ignore them. This is extremely hard work. It is not quickly “sold” on anyone. There are no shortcuts. It is not easy.

Rarely do humans volunteer for change, and almost never do we dedicate ourselves week in and week out to not just a service, but a lifestyle that involves great commitment with few metrics. Not so marketable when put that way, eh? This lifestyle won’t make us money. It won’t make us look glamorous. To the contrary, such work will likely confuse people. They might judge you, lest you fulfill the religious stereotype of judging them first. This lifestyle will not numb difficulty. However, it will bring riches that cannot be conceived outside of dedication to depth, plied with a specific direction.

The Church Lab just completed its 5th year of ministry. We are experimenting, day by day, with what faithfulness looks like when it is sustainably offered in this changing religious landscape. Here, we are continuously striving to remove the obstacles that we, our communities, and our leaders may toss in our own way. Even as we strive to deep dive into spiritual maturity, forsaking religiosity for its own vanity’s sake, we trip up. We sure can benefit from any blueprints in the making.

The Church Lab is in the blueprint making business. We seek to foster care, commitment, depth and service through dialogue over sustained periods of time in a diverse micro-community. At times we also do so via worship and outreach and intentional discipleship (depth development). We are learning how this shapes and deepens folks’ spiritual lives, within the specific depths of their chosen tradition(s). As mentioned above, The Church Lab also experiments with its own operational alignment so that it can also walk alongside other traditional and nontraditional systems and leaders, caring and supporting them through risky but worthwhile operational discernment into the next exciting, faithful chapter of religious life.

No matter the numbers, let’s grab some tools and join hands as we follow this road together, wherever it may go. There are many blueprints to record as we are led on new paths, many lessons from our adventures to share with those depth-seekers to come.

Who’s in?

Email carrie@thechurchlab.org for more info.