The Problem with Church (Definitively Explained) … And How to Fix it in 3 Easy Steps.

August 27, 2018 | Written by Jonathan Cleveland

Formation is a series of posts about ideas and truths God is using to shape us at Pulpit Rock.

…ok, that was a misleading title.

But I’m glad you clicked on it, because it shows that you just might care about what church is and what it should be.

I’ve (metaphorically) clicked on hundreds of titles like that through the years. It seems like literally every week someone is releasing a new book, hosting a conference or posting an angry blog that basically says “I know what is wrong with church, and I know how to fix it.”

Granted, as a pastor I tend to be on all the mailing lists so it is possible I see this stuff more frequently than most. But surely, you’ve observed that discussing the problems with church has become a favorite pastime of church people.

A few years ago, I started noticing how different these discussions are from how the Bible talks about church.

When the New Testament talks about church it is talking about people – the word that we most frequently translate as “church” is the Greek word ecclesia which means “the called out ones.” Church refers to a group that has been set aside for a purpose. Yet, so much of the discussion about church in our culture centers around organizations and leaders. (I understand organizations are made up of people, and leaders are people too… but church is much bigger than its organizational footprint and leadership culture.)

I wonder if the only thing that needs to be “fixed” about church is the way we view it. I realize that as the church we are all incredibly flawed and always in need of restoration and “fixing.” But I’m also beginning to believe that if we accepted church for what it is intended to be many of the debates about church would fade away.

Allow me to offer two possible ways to approach church. One that invites us to obsess about “fixing it” and one that frees us to be the church in beautiful ways.

Sometimes we think about church like an oak tree.

Oak trees are amazing. This one is called Angel Oak Tree. It’s in South Carolina and the diameter is 187 feet. It is enormous… majestic… stunning.

Sometimes we think about church like it is an oak tree – where everyone comes and sits in the shade of this amazing thing. It is the majestic destination that brings us back every week. The bigger it is, the better it is. And in the shade of its branches we learn and we grow. It needs a strong trunk (Senior Pastor) and lots of branches (ministries) that can support thousands of leaves (people).

I’m sure you are ahead of me and already see that there are a lot of problems thinking about church this way. Some of those problems play out in the news while the world watches. Other problems may never become public, but are just as damaging. And ultimately, this way of thinking invites a constant debate about how to “fix” the mighty oak. Because in this metaphor, the tree matters more than anything else.

Oak trees are impressive.

But do you know what is even more impressive? Aspen groves. Like this one. This is called “Pando the Trembling Giant.”

It is a grove of aspen trees in Utah that covers 106 acres. Botanists discovered a few years ago that all of the trees in this grove share identical genetic markers. That means that under the ground is one massive interconnected root structure.

The jaw dropping truth is this grove is really just one giant organism! (Likely the largest organism on earth.) While there is no tree in the grove that competes in size with the Angel Oak Tree – all the trees in this grove together weigh over 6,000 tons!

I don’t know how to fix church. But I think viewing church like an aspen grove changes everything.

Church is one giant organism made up of lots of people (trees), each person is a unique expression of the kingdom of God on earth (we have the same DNA). And while every tree in the grove is different – some are big, some are small… no one tree matters more than any other. Each tree has its own beauty – reflective of the shared DNA, but unique and uniquely beautiful.

What would be the implications of thinking about church like a grove instead of an oak?

The goal shifts from getting big to releasing people into their own story of God’s Kingdom on earth.

The question: “is our church growing?” becomes far less relevant. We start to gravitate to better questions like: “Are people learning to announce and demonstrate the reign of God on earth through Jesus Christ?”

Every person becomes more important, and no person becomes too important.

Leadership is still important in the grove. But it isn’t TOO important. What matters most is that everyone is stepping into Jesus calling together. And if a leader fails… that is heartbreaking, but if it wasn’t about that leader in the first place, then the grove can continue to thrive.

Spreading becomes more important than gathering.

If you have Aspen trees in your yard, you know that an aspen sends out roots and from those spreading roots, new little trees pop up through the ground. An oak tree gathers resources to it. In “oak tree church” the goal is to get everyone to the destination. But “aspen grove churches” would be more focused on sending people out so that they can grow.

The focus is on a shared DNA not sameness.

“Oak tree church” tends to unite everything under one logo. “Aspen grove church” seems like it would encourage anything that is growing with the DNA of the grove. That would mean anything that is demonstrating the reign of God on earth through Jesus Christ would get supported, regardless of who gets the credit.

The DNA of church is not the “Pulpit Rock Brand – and all it’s subsidiaries.” It is the reconciling and restoring work of Jesus Christ on earth. And when you start looking for ways to help that work grow (instead of looking for ways to grow the brand) something amazing happens. You start to see that the Kingdom of God is really doing quite well on earth (even if church attendance is down).

The other benefit of this, is you are able to bless and honor what God is doing through other people without feeling the need to manage it and control it. There is less pressure on everyone to sign the 90 point doctrinal statement, and more pressure on everyone to demonstrate the kingdom in tangible ways.

The Church always prevails despite the ups and downs of individual churches.

In an aspen grove, individual trees sometimes die and fall. But the grove itself keeps spreading and growing.

In “Oak tree church” thinking – the loss of an oak is devastating and costly. In aspen grove thinking individual trees come and go. The focus is on the health of the grove. It is easy in church to care more about the survival of the institution than you do about the Kingdom. If pastors were honest, they would admit that they battle this temptation every day (I know I do). But when we hold the institution loosely and work for the Kingdom people begin to thrive and institutions come and go.

I still sometimes read the latest book on church. And from time to time I check out the latest angry blog. I love going to conferences where thoughtful people are discussing the state of the church.

But I’m convinced of this – Jesus cares more about us being the church than he does about us fixing the church. And that is freeing to me. That gives me hope. That makes me value my brothers and sisters more and value the institution (or my role in it) less.

Ultimately, thinking of church this way opens my eyes to the Kingdom of God that is constantly spreading on earth through the people called church.

I love that you are a part of our grove.

I hope you feel your role is as important as mine.

And most of all, I hope you experience, demonstrate and announce God’s kingdom wherever you are planted … because when you do that, you are the church!

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4 thoughts on “The Problem with Church (Definitively Explained) … And How to Fix it in 3 Easy Steps.”

  1. You might be interested in Terry Bennetts messages/writings on church… “the inward kingdom” (
    Or the reflections of T. Austin Sparks (see “Daily Open windows” on Facebook)

  2. Jonathan, your article on “The Problem With Church …” was very well done and obviously reflects significant forethought. Thanks for your perceptions. I would only add that probably on the day of Jesus’ returns there will be people making proclamations about “The Problem With Church”, all the while oblivious to the fact that they = Church. Years ago I had a little insight when considering the statement, “the reason I don’t like church is that they are always asking for money.” It dawned on me that if the members of the church gave the way they ought to there would be no financial discrepancy between what was needed and what was given, and thus no reason for stressing finances. This reflects the issue that it is always easier to criticize, than it is to take ownership, and to BE church. Please keep providing these stimulating insights, and we will try to keep incorporating them into our lives.

    • i think you are right – when we see ourselves as church, that changes everything. i love the quote “the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.” to me, that is the calling to BE church. thanks for the encouragement!


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