After working in ministry for nearly two decades, Sharon Bollum said that she found herself somewhat jaded by the spiritual state of the Christian church, wondering whether American houses of worship were really having a viable enough impact on believers' lives.
In fact, Bollum recently told TheBlaze that she had reached a point in which she would have been "surprised to find a healthy church" at all. But after embarking on a journey to visit 40 churches in just 40 weeks, her perspective changed, as she was left uplifted and armed with fascinating data about what successful churches are doing to create viable worship environments for congregants.
"I used to be a full-time church pastor and … I started wondering if all of the work we were putting into these Sunday morning experiences … was resulting in people being more like Christ," Bollum said, describing what launched her "40 Churches in 40 Weeks" journey. "And if we're not accomplishing that, what's missing, what can we do?"
Bollum said she found herself running into people who she had known over the years who had changed churches, with some of them bouncing around numerous times in search of the right fit.
That dynamic further had her wondering what, exactly, was going on in American churches — so she decided to dive deeper and to write a book about the subject.
"[I was] trying to define what healthy church is and what are the red flags of an unhealthy church. Let's face it — there were so many people who left church because they were hurt," she said. "So I thought if [I] could help to define that for people, then how much more impact might we make in the world around us?"
After writing a few chapters, Bollum, who said she planned to base the book on visits to churches around the U.S. to see which were doing ministry well and which needed to improve, spoke with a friend who had a contact at HBO. After hearing about the project, the HBO staffer suggested that Bollum record her interviews while on the nation-wide trip and turn them into a documentary — a suggestion she liked.
And that's what set the groundwork for "40 Churches in 40 Weeks," a documentary and book project that led Bollum to visit 47 houses of worship across America last year, meeting with faith leaders and parishioners to better understand the state of the contemporary church.
"I started looking at a map and picking places I'd like to visit and then my eyes fell to Interstate 40," she said, noting that the roadway, which extends from California to North Carolina, ended up serving as her central route. "I started getting butterflies across my stomach."
From there, she began Googling churches along the interstate located near the cities she planned to visit, being especially careful to select churches that "all shared the same statement of faith." This meant eliminating Catholic, Mormon and Seventh-Day Adventist churches so that she could focus more on other houses of worship in the Protestant realm that shared streamlined theological sentiments.
The process, of course, didn't come without its challenges, as she began emailing and calling churches to setup meetings.
"It's disappointing to say how many ignored us all together and how many said, 'We don't want anything to do with what you're doing,'" Bollum said. "One of them even said, 'Please do not visit our church."
And even among some of the houses of worship that she and her team did visit, Bollum said that they were ignored or overlooked — something she found troubling.
"If someone was taking a big chance for the first time in their life … and they're not well-received — or worse, they're treated poorly — that can have a tremendous impact on whether they return again," she said of those churches. "Everything that they do, whether they are in church or or out of a church, is a reflection of all of us."
Fortunately, Bollum had a great many positive experiences along the route as well.
As she worked her way across the U.S. on four separate trips, she asked pastors questions about the visions and missions of their churches — and assessed how well members of those churches were able to organically reflect and convey those sentiments.
While she said that 99 percent of the pastors she spoke with said that their congregations would be able to convey the intended messages, Bollum said almost none of the congregants she spoke with were able to do so, showing the need for a deeper connectedness within churches.
"I thought, 'How much more effective would we be as a church community if we understood the mission and were part of it?'" she told TheBlaze.
Bollum, though, said that the entire experience has helped to elevate her own faith, as she encountered many amazing leaders who had a great deal of wisdom in how they conducted church affairs.
"As I'm watching the footage now I'm shaking my head and just crying," she said, noting that she'd consider about 75 percent of the churches she visited as being spiritually healthy. "There's so many people out there who are concerned about … the health overall of the church and they … have healthy, vibrant church."
Bollum continued, "It's actually been a huge encouragement from me, because I started out from a pretty discouraged spot."
While she said she most certainly visited some "duds" that received failing marks for a variety of reasons, she said that the churches doing things the right way didn't necessarily fit any specific mold.
"They weren't of any one denomination," she said. "Some were more formal and classic and some were contemporary."
With her journey complete, Bollum and her team are now reviewing the 100 interviews they conducted and will be pulling out the "magic moments" that she will include in a documentary and accompanying book. Find out more about "40 Churches in 40 Weeks" here.