It’s something I have done since my first ministry. On Fridays I walk through the empty sanctuary, sit in each pew, and pray. I pray for the people who will sit there, whoever they may be. I pray that something happens to touch their hearts, strengthen their faith, or encourage them to live radically for Jesus. I pray that I may have words that will inspire them, or convict them if needed. I pray that they will be blessed for coming and that they might see Jesus a little more clearly this Sunday.
But I never thought of praying for the pews that will be empty. Frankly, that’s because my focus was too narrow to think about why some of those seats will be empty on any given Sunday. Sure, I’ve read books and articles on why people leave the church. Recently there has been an abundance of research on why millennials are leaving the church in droves. But I have always read those in the abstract. I have millennials in my congregation, these articles don’t apply where I serve… do they?
Then a friend pointed out a hashtag on Twitter that began trending a few days ago: #emptythepews.
I did the twitter search, and began to read. And my heart broke.
I read stories of incompetent leadership, abusive counseling techniques, and Christians that treat the lost like a pariah. Sure, there were some that left for doctrinal reasons that cannot be compromised, and there were others looking for a chance to roast Christians. But the vast majority were people who were genuinely hurt or confused by the churches they attended. The biggest themes in the thread were:
- The exuberant endorsement of a presidential candidate that has serious moral flaws.
- A failure to speak out on issues of inequality in matters of race while cherry-picking other hot-button topics to speak out against, specifically abortion and gay rights issues.
- Turning a blind eye to abusive situations committed by leaders in the church.
- The refusal to engage in projects that feed the poor, shelter the homeless, or benefit our neighbor, regardless of their race, creed, or orientation.
- Anger. There’s a lot of anger, and some of it is well-deserved.
We need to do better. I need to do better. I need to listen more. Engage my community more. Love more. I especially need to work on loving people who look and live differently than I do.
Does this mean I water down the Gospel? No. Love demands that I present the Gospel in its entirety, complete with its sin-condemning call to holiness. But it also means I present the Gospel to the unsavory, unloved and unwanted. I present it with its inclusive availability to any who would accept it. I present it with its scandalous grace that forgives any sordid past. I present it with its irrational love for broken people and broken lives.
This also means that I need to pray for the pews that will remain empty. Pews that are empty because somewhere along someone’s spiritual journey they were unfairly hurt by a church. Pews that are empty because we allowed politics to poison a Gospel meant for all people. Pews that are empty because we didn’t speak out against injustice. Pews that are empty because we didn’t confront sin. Pews that are empty because we didn’t listen.
So if you are part of the #emptythepews movement, I’m sorry I didn’t hear you before. I’m sorry if I have ever marginalized or trivialized your pain. I’m sorry, and I’m sitting in your seat, and I’m ready to listen. It’s a first step of what I hope will be many towards reconciliation.