Dear Church, you already have everything you need.
In this holiday season we are constantly tempted by commercials, billboards and radio advertisements to consider all of the items we are currently lacking in our life. How have you managed to go on living without a blanket with sleeves in your life? This temptation to continually redefine what we “need” is a symptom of our consumer-driven American culture.
While plenty of Christians every year write to bemoan this societal ill, the issue this raises in my own mind is not one simply of individual consumerism, but rather the way this provides a metaphor for where I believe we have landed in much of the dominant expressions of Christianity in our country.
In the same ways we often allow sneaky marketing to redefine our sense of need, I believe we have allowed a pervasive sense of what we think “successful” churches look like to redefine what churches “need” to be effective today.
When you look at much of what is lifted up as the model for church life, leaders are often left with a pressure to perform and purchase. Pastors must perform. You are now supposed to be a social-media marketing expert, a dynamic live-stream quality preacher, the fundraiser-in-chief, a leadership-training guru, a staff hiring and development director, on and on. And you must purchase. Find funds for better lighting. Buy better graphics. Hire a better worship leader. Outfit a children’s ministry area to rival the local restaurant play-land. Launch a new campus.
While the death of the church growth movement has been well documented, this decades long obsession with scheming our way into bigger churches still leaves tentacles of expectation that appear to be choking out the possibility of fruitful ministry in many churches, especially smaller congregations. Instead of focusing on making disciples who can make more disciples, church leaders and pastors spend much time and effort spinning their wheels looking for the next quick fix to reverse their decline.
Even when the attractional model is shown largely ineffective, I still often hear things like, “Well I think we ought to be attractional and missional. We don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater.” That’s a nice sentiment, but what if the thing that was originally birthed was not actually a healthy baby but rather a misguided disease? Then we very much need to strip it out of our system. This is not a post to rail on large churches or people who pursue excellence. I believe in both of those things! But I do believe we need to think more carefully about the ramifications of how many of us have attempted to organize our churches over the last 50 years.
We indeed are currently living in a post-Christian American context. People are not church shopping in the first place, so the idea that you can build a better attraction to make them come is just silly. All the marketing in the world won’t sell me a Snuggie if I think the very idea of a Snuggie is worthless and unnecessary in my life (sorry for all you sleeved-blanket lovers out there). You can do anything you want to sell me, but if I’m not even interested in the market, it just isn’t going to work!
So here’s my growing conviction. It’s not that church growth methodology simply doesn’t work anymore. I believe that what began as an attempt to slow down the decline of the evangelical church in America was actually a fatal flaw that sped up our demise. We swallowed a pill looking for a remedy and ended up poisoned. I believe we are right now reaping the effects of a church culture that for decades was designed at multiplying religious consumers more than actual disciples.
Here are a few of the leftover toxins that I still see plaguing our churches:
- We think there is a silver bullet that will change the trajectory of our churches. Many pastors or church leaders seem to believe we are one hire, one fire, one program, one event away from really turning things around. The Great Commission isn’t in need of a quick fix. It’s in need of steady, faithful, spirit-filled women and men, banded together in accountable community for the long haul.
- We think we need at least a certain minimum of polish and flash to be effective. It seems to me that many churches who can’t afford a building upgrade, new stage lighting, or who don’t have the people or resources for a worship band feel like they don’t have what it takes to grow or reach people. So instead of putting our time into cost-free evangelism and discipleship we put all our time into efforts around pursuing tools that we think will do the evangelism and discipleship for us. The weird thing is, Jesus didn’t have any of the stuff we think is so crucial, and yet somehow we don’t consider him a failure. Peter and Paul, you name the early church hero of your choice, they didn’t have any of the things we seem to “need” to do church today. And yet somehow here we sit, each of us who follow Christ as a testimony of their effectiveness.
- We subtly believe that outreach is done by something rather than someone. The obsession with an attractional model of church shifted our expectation that evangelism is done by some de-personalized church entity out there, without ever looking in the mirror. When personal evangelism is reduced to the expectation that you will invite someone to a special church service a couple times each year, we’ve got a serious problem.
- After not gaining ground, we start questioning, subtly at first, if perhaps it is the message that needs tweaking rather than our methods. There is a temptation to massage our language and our focus to make our message more palatable to the culture around us since it seems they are not so in love with our methods any more.
Here’s the good news. You can stop searching, because you have already got everything you need to be the kind of church that Jesus designed. Whatever you think stands in your way to being an effective church, it may be something on your current wish list, but it’s not integral to the design Jesus instituted. Do you have more than one person? Do you have the Holy Spirit? Check. Check. Then you’ve got everything you need.
This ought to be liberating, especially to smaller churches. Instead of killing ourselves trying to compete in an entertainment market that we’ve already lost, we can invest all of our time and energy in the difficult, slow, and yet century-tested process of developing disciples one life at a time.
Dr. Robert Coleman, in his classic work, Master Plan of Evangelism asks this penetrating question, “When will we realize that evangelism is not done by something, but by someone?”
If that’s the case, there is not a single thing you need to start living out the Great Commission today. Not one. You don’t need any more gimmicks. You don’t need any certain programs. You need people, even just a handful, who will literally die for the sake of Jesus’ mission. (And for the record that’s all Jesus had when he left the earth.) When our churches become utterly obsessed with multiplying full-time Christians who see themselves as missionaries right where they live, work and play…only then I believe, with time and perseverance, will we see the resurgence of vibrant Christianity in our midst.
In many ways I sense that our church in America is faced with the same temptation that Satan offered Jesus in the wilderness. Remember what Satan says in Matthew 4…
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” – Matthew 4:8-9
Jesus is offered a shortcut to glory. Bow down now and you can avoid the cross. Have a kingdom without any cost, the lie goes. Bypass the tough stuff and just skip to the victory. That’s what we want in the church. Growth without any sacrifice. A church kingdom pointing to our triumph without any cross on the way. New disciples without any actual discipleship.
Jesus knew he already had exactly what he needed. There was no room to chase after a short term gain when his Father had already promised long-term victory.
May we come to know the same promise again in the church today. We already know the end! Jesus has promised that his church will prevail! Not even hell will stand against it! So don’t get distracted looking for short-term glory when we’ve got long term glory already guaranteed.
Dear church, this Christmas, put away the wish list. You’ve already got everything you need. The question is not where we are going or if we will succeed, only if we will abandon the journey and wander in the wilderness because we weren’t willing to persevere in what we already know to be true. Stop trying to scheme up a fix to a problem that isn’t yours to fix. And instead spend your time learning to sharing about Jesus with others and discipling them to to the point they can do the same. Hey, it worked for Jesus. And if that was good enough for Jesus, maybe one day we’ll realize it’s good enough for us too.