Who Stole My Church?: What to Do When the Church You Love Tries to Enter the 21st Century

Who Stole My Church?: What to Do When the Church You Love Tries to Enter the 21st Century

by Gordon MacDonald


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780785230496
Publisher: Nelson, Thomas, Inc.
Publication date: 01/11/2010
Pages: 248
Sales rank: 552,415
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Gordon MacDonald has been a pastor and author for more than fifty years. He serves as Chancellor at Denver Seminary, as editor-at-large for Leadership Journal, and as a speaker at leadership conferences around the world. His books includeBuilding Below the Waterline, Who Stole My Church, A Resilient Life, and Ordering Your Private World. Gordon and his wife, Gail, live in New Hampshire.

Read an Excerpt

Who Stole My Church?

What to Do When the Church You Love Tries to Enter the Twenty-First Century
By Gordon MacDonald

Thomas Nelson

Copyright © 2007 Gordon MacDonald
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-7852-2601-7

Chapter One

From my pastoral notes:

Yvonne Padula: widow, Wheaton College grad. Husband, Paul (doctor), died of coronary disease in 1997. Long-time Sunday school teacher. Loves traveling, cruises. Grew up in the church. Serious about photography. Will shoot pictures anytime you want. Speaks bluntly and takes no prisoners.

I began our meeting with words I'd rehearsed several times during my drive through the rain to the church: "I feel as if I've failed you." It was a good way to start because it clearly grabbed everyone's attention. And I wasn't trying to manipulate anyone-I meant what I said. I felt I had something to make right with them. The comment created an instant intensity around the table.

"I should have sat down with you long before the last business meeting we just had, and I should have sought out more diligently your feelings about some issues here in the church. I also should have been more candid with you about what the leadership and the elders were trying to do on an evening like that. It really bothers me that apparently you didn't feel consulted when this decision came up for a vote.

"Perhaps we could talk candidly this evening about your feelings and attitudes. Maybe you could explain to me why you said some of the things you said in that meeting."

The group didn't need much encouragement. Once they knew I wasn't going to be defensive, they told me everything that was on their minds and, perhaps, a little bit more than I was ready to hear. Beyond my initial description of the group, I'm not going to overload you with a list of names of those who were at the table. I'll let you pick up the names and something about each of them as we go along. In fact, why don't I let you thumb through the pastoral notes I've taken on each person I've come to know in the church? These are incidentals I've jotted down in a little black notebook I keep on my desk. I'll place one of these at the opening to each chapter.

Connie Peterson, not surprisingly, was the first to speak when I opened things for discussion. "Honestly, Pastor, I don't see why these new people feel that they have to change everything we have done for so many years. I never know anymore what to expect when I come to church. And, I'll be frank, if you want to know the truth, I can't get used to you not wearing a suit and tie. We were taught that you honor God by the way you dress in church."

We were only about six minutes into the evening, and I'd already learned lesson one about meetings like this: don't invite candor if you're a thin-skinned pastor, especially in New England. And I relearned lesson one several more times as the rest of the group seemed to take courage from Connie's boldness. I suppose the fact that I didn't flinch or respond to her comment about my Sunday morning attire signaled to everyone else that they could let fly.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it. That's what I always say," John Sanders, the onetime building committee chairman, said. "These guys around here want to fix stuff that isn't broke as far as I'm concerned."

"They're worried about loudspeakers when what we really need," said Ted Patton, once an elder in the church, "is to get Wednesday night prayer service started again. Prayer meetings are the true test of how much a church loves the Lord. Why, we used to fill the whole sanctuary with people on Wednesday nights."

"Now really, Ted," Lillian Seamands retorted. "How many times did that happen? The sanctuary get filled for a prayer service, I mean. I can only remember the one time ... when Cliff McGinnis was dying."

Turning to me, Lillian said, "Truthfully though, there used to be a lot more people come to midweek services on Wednesday night than come now."

Lillian, I had come to appreciate during my time at the church, was all logic, and she wouldn't let anyone-even me-exaggerate. Ted chose wisely not to debate with her.

I could see that the conversation was only warming up. But, I wondered, was it warming up in a way that fit my objectives for the evening?

"Someone else?" I asked.

"What bothers me is that we don't have Sunday school anymore," said Yvonne Padula. "We used to have a wonderful Sunday school class. Called it the Home Builders. Connie, you and Lars were in Home Builders, weren't you?"

Connie nodded her head and said, "Now that room was packed every Sunday. I remember that Lars would always take up the offering for missionaries. We loved Elliot's teaching." Several agreed and told a few Elliot Coffin stories.

"Let's talk missions. I've wanted to say this for a long time," Ernie Yost interrupted the brief trip down the Sunday school nostalgia lane. His daughter, Amy, and her husband were missionaries in Colombia. "Missions is really going downhill in this church. The missions budget has been flat for years now. We used to have a missionary conference every year, and there would be several missionaries here from all sorts of places. There'd be pictures and stories and the young people would dedicate their lives to become missionaries.... We haven't had a missionary conference for ... um, at least twenty years. I bet we haven't had a missionary speaker preach one Sunday morning for all those years either. This church just doesn't care any longer about getting the gospel overseas."

I knew that Ernie was having trouble coming to grips with the changing scene of missions in the larger world. But that, too, is another story. And I chose to let his words stand for the moment. I was there, I reminded myself, to listen.

"Well, if we're getting things off our chests-" Russ Milner spoke up, took a breath, and continued, "I wish there was more doctrinal preaching. How are these young people going to grow in the Word if they don't get some good solid teaching? I can remember when Pastor Collier preached through Romans verse by verse. Took almost three years before he got to the end-"

"That was the most mind-deadening collection of sermons I ever heard," Lillian interrupted, just as she'd done with Ted on the prayer service comment.

There was a lot of laughter when Lillian said that, and I got the feeling that more than a few were relieved that someone had said what they were thinking.

When the laughter subsided, Lillian continued. "Sorry ... that just slipped out. But I agree with you, Russ. We need to teach these young people more Bible truth. I don't think they know their Bibles at all. They don't bring their Bibles to church anymore. They don't memorize God's Word like we used to. And I don't think they know any of the Bible stories." Now everyone-even Russ-murmured in agreement.

Then, for a moment, there was silence. It was almost as if everyone had run out of breath; they had to stop and think whether there was anything else that wasn't happening like it used to years ago. And in that moment I made a mistake. I asked a question-I guess I asked it just to fill the silent space: "What do you think have been the better moments you have had in this church? What are your very best memories? When did they happen?"

Want me to be honest? I really thought a few might talk about something that had happened in the last year or two-you know, during the years I had been there. I'm amazed, looking back at the evening, that I would have assumed this, but I actually thought they might forget about all that yesterday stuff and recall something that had happened during the past year or two. A sermon I'd preached, for example. Or last Christmas when we had such a beautiful Christmas eve service, and everyone said it was the best ever. Perhaps they'd remember the day the congregation took up an enormous spontaneous offering for hurricane victims in the South. Or maybe someone would express delight in the housing project we'd undertaken with the Habitat for Humanity people.

I wasn't looking for compliments (well, maybe I was), but I was searching for any hint that the last few years had brought some gladness or satisfaction to them. I was hoping that they could revel in the fact that the church was going forward even though they were no longer in control. But I was wrong.

Their best moments? Let's just say that it went back to things that happened thirty years ago. Such as the weekend in 1972 when the president of Moody Bible Institute had come all the way from Chicago and preached a weekend Bible conference. Several remembered it well. Someone even remembered his Scripture text. One or two others described a citywide evangelistic campaign in the early eighties, and John talked about how the church had summoned all of its faith and energies to build our gymnasium in 1993.

Then this from Ted: "You know, it wasn't any one best moment. It was the singing we used to do ... on Sunday nights. Anyone remember when Joe Lund was our song leader?" Everyone remembered. "The thing I miss most is the hymns. We don't sing them anymore. I miss 'The Old Rugged Cross' and 'I Come to the Garden Alone.'" Then, looking at me, Ted asked, "Couldn't we just sing some hymns again?"

Several weighed in with other favorites: "When We All Get to Heaven," "Since Jesus Came into My Heart," "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder," "It Is Well with My Soul."

I made another mental note (but said nothing) that they had picked song titles that all came out of one particular musical era more than a hundred years ago. That era of gospel singing was reaching its end when they (we) were kids. None had mentioned the earlier hymns of Charles Wesley or one like "Crown Him with Many Crowns"-writers and songs from an even earlier time. They'd been nursed on a form of gospel music that had been around for, relatively speaking, only a short time and thought it was the only hymnody in the Christian movement.

Winn Rilkey, who is a floor manager at Home Depot, was sitting to my right, and he spoke up for the first time. "Yep, you're right. The old hymns had doctrine in them. These new songs the young people sing don't have any doctrine. As far as I can see, it's all about 'me.' And they sing the same lines over and over and over again. Sometimes I just want to explode. How are they going to learn the truth if they don't learn it in the hymns?"

Russ said "amen" to Winn's comments, and it was clear that both Winn and he were convinced that there was a serious dearth of theological content in contemporary church life.

"Couldn't you just make sure we sing at least one hymn each week?" Evelyn Moody asked.

"And couldn't we sing some of those songs without having to stand all the time? I don't think anyone knows how painful it is for a person my age to stand for a half hour-especially in the sanctuary where the floor is slanted," said Arlene Lewis.

Stan Baker began speaking the minute Arlene appeared to be finished: "I'm going to say it before someone else does. I miss the choir." (There were several umms of apparent agreement.) "We had the best choir in town (more umms). And we had some great singers-Barbara O'Neil, for example. Ted Steele played the organ. They're gone now." (The supporting umms seemed deafening.) "Now," Stan said, "all we get is five people up in front with microphones stuck in their mouths ... as if they're eating ice cream cones."

I thought the last comment unkind, but it was instructive to see things I'd never considered from someone else's point of view.

Moments passed as people around the table recalled various musicians from the past: soloists, trumpet players, someone back then who was extraordinary on the marimba, and a man who played the musical saw. (They had to explain this to me, and take my word for it, you don't want to know.)

Then Stan spoke up again: "What I really want to say is something about giving. These young folks don't give faithfully. They're driving all these nice cars and buying cabins up north ... all this stuff. I'm on the counting team, and I've got to be careful about what I say. But I'm telling you"-and he almost whispered the next words as if he was afraid of eavesdroppers-"they're not giving; they don't tithe. When there are large offerings from them, it's almost always designated to a project or a program. But their giving to the general fund is pretty bad. I'm telling you, this church is going to be in trouble in a few years if it has to depend on the giving I'm seeing from the younger members."

For a moment I felt as if an undercover FBI agent was briefing us.

There was a heavy silence again as people processed what had been said. Outside the wind was blowing even harder and the rain was beating more violently on the windows.

The silence was broken when one of the women-Yvonne, who, I must admit, is a favorite of mine-looked at me and said with great sadness, "All I know is that someone stole my church and I'd like to get it back."

Yvonne said this with a severe determination in her voice. It was as if a precious thing had been taken from her life during a burglary. As if something of great sentimental value had been snatched away, never to be seen again. I sensed that she felt violated.

I was aware that almost everyone nodded when Yvonne spoke. And for another moment we lapsed back into silence. I was hard-pressed to know how to respond. My instinct was to feel totally repudiated. I felt as if she was saying that I was part of the band of thieves or at least the driver of the get-away car. For just an instant I had a terrible feeling that the group was telling me that I'd lost their confidence and that the sooner I resigned from being their pastor, the better.

I decided to break the tension by suggesting that we take a break. Some of us needed a glass of water. Some of us, given our ages, needed to go to the bathroom. And I knew I could use both-plus a few minutes to think. That last comment of Yvonne's had blown me out of the water.

During the break several found ways to approach me and affirm their affection. They feared that some of the things they'd said hurt me, and they wanted to reassure me that their comments were not personal. But despite their protestations, I couldn't help but take what had been said very personally. And I must tell you candidly, I was falling into deep self-doubt. This meeting wasn't supposed to be about me-but then again, maybe it was. This mess of feelings and divisiveness in our church was reaching a crescendo on my watch.

When we reconvened around the tables, I told the group how much I liked being with them. And I was being truthful. In spite of my bewilderment at their barrage of criticisms, I really did like them. They were good people. But how could I get my arms around this conversation? I was at a loss.

"You're not sorry you got us together?" Arlene asked. "I was thinking that you'd probably want to kick us out of the church now."

"No, Arlene," I said, "I needed to be reminded of the things you miss so much. But I do worry for you, because some of these programs are never going to come back. They were things our generation made happen in our best days. But now another generation wants to make other things happen. And we have to figure out how we can accept this and rejoice in their vision. In a sense they're just doing what we did to our parents. You don't think for a moment that our mothers and fathers liked all the stuff we changed, do you?"

That comment froze everyone for a moment.

"You know, Gordon's right," someone (I'm not sure who) finally said. "I can remember my father complaining that we were going to kill off the church when Pastor Fredrickson brought a TV camera into the church and started putting our worship service on cable. 'God never intended for a television camera to be in a church,' he'd say. He actually walked out one day!"

"Lots of people walked out from time to time," said Ernie. "Remember the first time Barbara O'Neil sang along with a recorded orchestra on the sound system? Whoo-ee! I thought old Cameron Coulter was going to have a heart attack. He was up the aisle and out the door in a flash. I was sure that he was never coming back."

Evelyn laughed. "Cameron was even more frosted when Pastor Kelso told him that he'd been the one to encourage Barbara to do it. But he finally cooled off and came back after a few weeks."

Stan said, "When you're the treasurer as I've been, you worry less about people walking out and more about people who show their unhappiness by withholding their giving. And we've had a lot of those in the past. They let you know real fast how they feel about things. They just stop giving, or they designate their money to a missionary and away from the church."

"I've done that," Arlene said. "I probably would have done it again if we'd voted to do that sanctuary thing last week."


Excerpted from Who Stole My Church? by Gordon MacDonald Copyright © 2007 by Gordon MacDonald. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Who Stole My Church? 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 19 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great book and I highly recommend it to Christians who think that their church shouldn't change to accomodate the "younger" generation. I loved the challenges and found myself forgetting that the church mentioned was fictional. I also found myself relating to many of the aspects of this book and seeing how I grew up with the same "old mind set". I'm glad I don't think this way anymore!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
txpd More than 1 year ago
This book had been recommended to me several times. I'm very glad I chose to read it. It uses the approach of fiction to gently give helpful ideas on an issue that many church-goers find very threatening. I'm serving on a Pastor Search Team right now; the timing of my reading this is perfect.
Old_PI More than 1 year ago
This was assigned reading by. My pastor. The story line tells us of an older church that has severe growing pains. The story explains why churches must evolve to stay relevant in today's world. I found the book to be both informativena d entertaining. Our church is having some similar problems and I expect I will be part of a focus group similar to the one formed in the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An excellent read! God used this book to renew a sense of compassion in me for other generations while also reaffirming my beliefs. Great insight!
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TightButRight More than 1 year ago
Finally someone published the truth about the church. I don't agree with everything that is going on with the church but this book give the best true explanation of that has happened to the church, why we are in the state we are in and is a must read for those christians that want an explanation if nothing else.
choirboyGR More than 1 year ago
This book will be helpful to anyone struggling with changes occurring to fast or too slowly in their church. Full of insights and historical information presented as a fictional account that keeps your interest and allows the reader to identify themselves (and others) among the characters. Not preachy. The author presents his point of view early on but allows the reader to reach their own conclusions as they see the feelings and responses of the characters. Authentic.
ChrisM58 More than 1 year ago
MacDonald's book ought to be required reading for every pastor and church leader in the American church. It is written in such a readable fashion that it would be no chore for any serious student of church health to breeze through the text. However, while a work of fiction, don't make the mistake of simply reading this work for its entertainment value (though you will undoubtedly find yourself laughing and crying as you follow the journey of this small group MacDonald has created). MacDonald does a masterful job of weaving valuable church health principles based on solid theology throughout the drama of his fictitious congregation. Dealing with one of the hottest issues facing the 21st century American church, MacDonald guides the reader through the minefield of generational conflict and provides some practical guidance in how to unite believers, regardless of age, in the pursuit of God. Not a "pie in the sky" treatise, MacDonald even includes a storyline of the heartbreak most every pastor experiences as some people in their midst reject their leadership and turn their back on the church. Overall, though, this is a story of hope. Congregations do not have to be divided along generational lines and wars do not have to be waged over the traditional and the contemporary. Opening the lines of communication and, most important, a willingness to submit to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, makes possible not only the co-existence of the generations within a congregation, but the love and appreciation that can truly unite all people, of all ages, into a body of believers.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
freshlookTW More than 1 year ago
this book would be an eye opener for those that want to move foward in the development of reaching out to spreading the word from the church to the world as it exist today very informative and valuable direction.
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DianaShores More than 1 year ago
"Who Stole My Church: What to Do When the Church You Love Tries to Enter the 21st Century." Wow... was someone standing behind me when I expressed these exact sentiments? Gosh, what happened to the hymns? Better yet, what happened to the hymnals? What happened to the choir? What is all this multi-media stuff going on up on the screens? Ok, I see the words, but where is the music? Doesn't anyone sing in harmony anymore? What is all this "praise" stuff anyway? Guitars, drums, singers dressed in jeans (and even some with holes in them...). Where'd the organ go? And what is all this clapping and swaying to the music... who stole my church? This book really opened my eyes as to what is going on today in the church... and in the world. There are major changes happening in our younger generation. And I hate to say it, but I saw myself in this book and didn't really like what I found. I've been resisting all this change without even realizing how much I was distancing myself from the delightful younger generation... including my own family. Gordon MacDonald is right on with all the major events that are going on today. As he writes his book, he introduces us, chapter-by-chapter to the cast of characters. I guarantee that you will find yourself in one of them. The delightful outcome of this book is that it helps us all to understand the various generations, and how to appreciate our differences. The end result is that if we hold to past traditions in the church, we will lose today's children. They will soon be taking over, and their lives were nothing like our childhoods. They were not raised in the stable 40s and 50s (or earlier). It's a totally different world today. After reading this book, it was like a sudden "aha!" appeared. I now understand more of what is happening and have made the decision to switch from the more traditional service in our church to what I call the "praise" worship.... the contemporary blend. I don't want to feel "old"... I want to join the younger generation and get with it. They like to smile and be happy in church and not be so sullen and quiet. That can't be all bad......
Sharonksouza More than 1 year ago
I borrowed this book then loved it so much I had to order one for myself.