In February of 2016, I wrote a piece on this blog about what I thought church might look like in the future. I have continued to think about that while watching the American church now from the outside instead of the inside.
I still believe that church was and is God’s idea of a way to have representation on this earth. I don’t pretend to have all the answers nor do I think that everything I write is always dead on. I share my thoughts and that is all.
In the last five or six years of my pastoral ministry I had a high degree of frustration. On the outside or to the person looking on the church I was serving would have looked healthy but that notion would have been based on the now “acceptable” way to judge ministries and that is nickles and noses. Momentum is another way that people judge or evaluate leadership. Are the numbers going up or down? Are people staying or leaving?
It is enough to strike fear and frustration in the heart of any pastor. These questions are not the right questions to ask but they are the ones that will be asked. Could it be that church leaders have done a great disservice by being led to lead in a secular manner? In other words, business principles have been applied to the church or Kingdom of God that have nothing to do with biblical accountability or fidelity with the message of Jesus.
Jesus pretty much turned everything upside down from a leadership standpoint. What He taught would go against most everything thought to be acceptable in the North American church culture. I’m afraid we bought into it and judged our churches and ministries by the wrong standards. And we still are.
Jesus taught that the first would be last. The way up is down. Pick up your cross. It will be a narrow road and few will find it. Sell what you have and give to the poor. Blessed are the poor, the broken or mourning, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure, the peacemakers, the persecuted and the insulted.
He modeled in His own ministry how success is not the goal. He chose to live and model faithfulness with the first disciples 24/7, for three years, and at the end of that time they were still pretty much a mess. He never worried about “church attendance.” In fact if anything Jesus preached and taught in a way that drove away the consumers who were following Him in hopes of receiving something. He called for us to be faithful whether the numbers were going up or down. He called for us to pick up our crosses . . . not to wear around our necks or on our charm bracelets but crosses of burden, challenge and pain. In the Kingdom of God, blessing is often associated with suffering, persecution, and seasons when things are not going according to our personal will and plan. Jesus was faithful to the will of His Father and it resulted in death.
For churches in North America the last fifty years or so have been filled with schemes and ideas taken from the secular world of leadership. We have built our churches on leadership principles that are not in sync with the word of God. I am not suggesting that they are sinful but I am strongly suggesting that they are secular and not biblical. The result has been and continues to be churches that have soared in attendance, excelled in the production of church services, appealed to and attracted both saints and sinners to be part of the next big thing. Jesus never called us to the next big thing.
What if He wanted you to lead a church 0f 200 people or even less? You would not gain the approval and status created by denominational hierarchy for truly the standards that make the district web pages are simply nickels and noses or offerings and attendance if you need it clarified. You might not be the big church in town with all the bells and whistles that make you an attraction or appealing to the already Christian masses.
If the way up is down, could it be that we should take on downward mobility as the new model for the American church? It might mean that we just follow Jesus with our whole hearts allowing Him to be Lord but I assure you that is not a message people are lining up to hear today. After being part of a church that had sustained growth for over 13 years, I can tell you that for the last five years or so I knew something was desperately wrong and it wasn’t all me. On the outside we were continuing to grow but I laid awake many nights thinking and trying to figure out how to change people from being weekly consumers to servants of Jesus. I worried about the mountain of volunteers it took to sustain the multiple services and the amount of money that it took to sustain a church that largely *served itself except for a handful of community outreaches a year.
*(serving yourself is a reference to attractional worship services designed to draw crowds of people. It is serving yourself when you mostly attract church people from within or transfer growth because of what you are doing.)
Tim Suttle in his book Shrink writes the following:
Churches write mission statements, vision statements, or purpose statements. They spend hundreds of hours crafting these things, teaching their congregations what they mean, and then using them to guide the entire congregation. Mission or vision statements are the language that supports a church model. It’s what we say to convince church members that the way things are at this church is the way God wants them to be. The problem with this kind of thinking is that the church does not have a mission, strictly speaking. God has a mission, and he gave that mission a church. The church’s job is to humble ourselves and empty ourselves for others, and in so doing we bear witness to the lordship of Jesus Christ.
So this sounds good but what does it mean? It means that in North America the churches that are leading the way may not be always going in the right direction. We ascribe way too much importance to churches that have figured out the formula to large attendance and mammoth buildings.
Could we possibly rediscover what the bible says about discipleship and following Christ wholeheartedly? Could we focus on neighborhoods surrounding our churches and really do the hard work of being neighbors in the biblical sense of the word? Is it possible to be part of a church that figures out how to serve outside of the Sunday morning extravaganza and invest the majority of our time and resources serving others outside our four walls instead of ourselves? Might it be possible to discover God’s story in our community and find a way to join what He is wanting to do instead of what we are wanting to do. Our goal has to be higher, nobler and more biblical than just trying to grow numerically.
Again let me borrow from Suttle’s writings,
“A lot of people think the pastor’s job is to make a church survive or thrive or get bigger or be better, but that’s not a pastor’s job. Those sorts of things are best left up to God. In fact, I’d be a little wary of any pastor who thought he or she could deliver on those promises, because that’s not the church’s job. Instead, the church is simply supposed to be faithful. And faithfulness takes on many forms, but most of the time it sort of looks like dying: dying to ourselves, dying to each other, dying a little bit every day for our family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and all of humanity. But we know with death comes resurrection. And resurrection is the great hope of our faith. That’s how the church works.”
So you have a church? You either attend it or maybe you are responsible to lead it. Embrace faithfulness to God’s word and God’s principles of leading and loving. It may take years to make the changes in your thinking but commit to pursuing doing church God’s way and not the American way.
I am glad for the Declaration of Independence but I need to remind you that even that is just an American document and that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not biblical concepts. They may be good for a Country but not so much for authentic Christ following. We serve a Savior who calls us to lay down our lives, give up our rights and to live in the joy of the Lord not the fickle happiness of our circumstances.