Archives For The Church

In this post, I’m going to argue that the Church ought to be (1) a place to feel at home and (2) a place to feel like a foreigner or a pilgrim.

WelcomeGod has so constructed the Church, created as it is through the building material of the gospel, that we can feel fully at home in the Church. There are many places in our modern world where we feel out of place. (I would guess that you’d feel out of place in at least one of these locations: a court room, a bar, a black-tie event, or a boxing match.) But the Church is no such place. The Church is a place to feel at home, to know that we are accepted, to know that we belong.

This complete acceptance is because of what God has done for us in Jesus. We are accepted regardless of what we are or who we’ve tried to be. It is a gospel fact that Christ died for us “while we were still sinners” (Rom. 5:8). The gospel grabs hold of us gently and declares that we are washed, cleansed, re-created. It places us within the Church as full members of the Body of Christ.

Through the gospel, we’re not just given a seat at the table, so to speak, but we become indispensible members. Paul argues that we are such a part of the Church Body that if one of us were missing, the Body would be crippled (see 1 Cor. 12 and Eph. 4:12–16). We belong in the Church.

The same can also be said cross-culturally. No one needs to leave their culture at the door when they enter the Church. This question was settled in Acts 15 when the apostles decided that Gentile converts did not need to first become Jewish (culturally) in order to be Christian. The gospel cannot ever be expressed without culture (we must use cultural forms like language), but the gospel is not bound to any one culture. The gospel can be fully at home in any culture, so we as gospel-made people can be at home in the Church regardless of our culture.

Missiologist Andrew Walls calls this concept the “Indigenizing Principle.” Throughout history, the Church has made itself a place where people can fully belong.

And yet the Church is also a place to feel like a foreigner. This is what Andrew Walls refers to as the “Pilgrim Principle,” and it stands in tension with the Indigenizing Principle.

While the Church truly is a place to be at home, to fully belong, the Church always calls us to change. We are fully accepted in the Church, yet we are always being called into something deeper. While we are accepted as we are through the gospel, the gospel also transforms us ever more into the image of Christ.

Traveler

This, too, can be viewed cross-culturally. Every culture is equally at home in the Church, yet every culture will be called to some sort of transformation through the Gospel. For example, we can be American and fit fully within the Church. But the Church will call us to lay down some aspects of American culture. The Church, when functioning properly, will always be making us feel like foreigners, like pilgrims, in the midst of our world. Being at home in the Church will always mean being at least slightly out of sync with the world around us.

This tension is real, and we must feel this tension constantly if we are going to life faithfully in the world as the Church. Andrew Walls insists that while the Indigenizing (at-home) Principle and the Pilgrim (out-of-sync) Principle are in tension, we shouldn’t be trying to find a balance between the two, as though we should be less than fully at home in the Church, or only sometimes out of sync with the world around us. We can never have too much of either principle, we can only have too little of one or the other.

The goal is to see the Church as a place where we can be fully at home—fully accepted, fully interconnected—regardless of our past, or our culture, or our personalities. And the goal is also to be constantly challenged by the Church to perpetual growth, to never-ending transformation, to the perpetual renunciation of idols that we have subtly soaked up from our culture. We always need both.

This is the mystery and miracle of the Church. The Church is a place to be part of the family and a place to be a pilgrim. It’s a place that reassures us that who we are is enough while also calling us to be more than we ever thought possible. It’s a place of comfort and belonging to a tired and hurting world, and a prophetic voice calling the world to repentance and change. Nothing in this world can be or do what the Church is and does. And this is why the Church is and always has been indispensible.

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the seriesThe Post-Consumer Church

Small Cloud RisingI recently came across Dave Gibbons’ small book, Small Cloud Rising. I know nothing about Dave Gibbons or his ministry aside from the little I gleaned in reading the book, but I’ve been blogging about a “post-consumer” version of the Church, and I want to interact with some of his ideas as a means of continuing that discussion.

Gibbons’ book is clever, thought-provoking, and engaging. The book uses clouds as a metaphor for our approach to “doing church.” Gibbons uses Babel as a symbol for a typical consumeristic church, the kind of church that he had originally set out to create. Babel builds a tower up through the clouds in order to make a name for itself, in order to build an empire. He contrasts this approach of rising through the clouds in greatness with the story of Elijah waiting for rain to end the drought in Israel. The answer to Elijah’s prayer came with a small, barely noticeable cloud on the horizon. Gibbons uses this image of a small cloud to represent God’s people joining together to flow out into the world and bring God’s blessing.

Gibbons says that he had tried to build a grand church around his dream of what a church could do in his town. But he became uneasy with this approach, realizing that it would require the mass-production of church members in a one-size-fits-all pattern.

“Instead of rallying people around the pastor’s dream, I wondered: What if we equipped our people to discover—and live—each person’s God-given destiny?

This is an important question to ask. It’s not wrong for church leaders to have a vision for their churches, but Gibbons’ question pushes us beyond what we might like to see our churches accomplish, and invites us to dream about what the unique people that God has brought around us might accomplish if we equipped them according to their gifts and callings. He continues:

“The effort to build more walls required a one-size-fits-all training manual focused on unleashing the power of the mass. Names are not really necessary for achieving the success of someone else’s dream. In a nameless culture, everyone began to:

Look the same.

Do the same.

Require the same.

Conform to the norm.

It was all the same kind of same in a place without names.”

Gibbons became very concerned about knowing people’s names, knowing their stories and abilities and passions, rather than simply calling them to fall in line with church-created programs designed to mass-produce disciples in a common mold. He confesses that the church had originally functioned this way:

“Instead of knowing their names, we asked them to sign up.”

“Nearly all of our job descriptions engaged projects and programs inside our walls. We asked an entrepreneur to lead a church Bible study and requested an artist to paint crosses in the nursery. Most of our resources went to creating spectacle and precious little into shaping lives. By failing to know and equip our people, one creation at a time, we defrocked them of their priestly roles in the real world. We began to witness mechanically and call that evangelism. Because we looked more and more the same, we branded others because unique people scared us.”

I want to be clear that I don’t know enough about Dave Gibbons or his ministries to know whether or not I would advocate the solution he came up with. But I do find his questions and many of the concepts he wrestles with in Small Cloud Rising compelling. We might find Gibbons’ probing questions threatening, as if he’s saying that all of our hard work in creating programs to minister to people is worthless or harmful or self-focused. But I don’t think we need to take it that way. Instead, I think we should take this as a challenge, and we should push ourselves to dream a little. Don’t start with the logistics, just dream about what could be:

  • What if we could get to know the individual people in our churches?
  • What if we could find those areas in each person’s life where they are unusually gifted and passionate?
  • What if we could find a way to equip each person according to their unique situation?
  • What if we could send people out of our church walls with an understanding of the mission that God has given them and how that fits with their unique talents, passions, and experiences?
  • What if we could resource our people as we sent them out, so that every time they hit a snag in furthering God’s kingdom beyond the church walls, the pastors and the rest of the church body were right there, offering support, creative solutions, and a never-ending supply of encouragement?

The truth is, we can be overly critical of our churches. Our churches are not doing everything wrong. But I love these sorts of challenges. I love calls to dream about what the church could be. I love imaginative suggestions as to how we might embody discipleship in our churches and how that might flow out into the surrounding communities. If we would all engage in this imaginative process more often, we would find it easier to move beyond the consumeristic rut that many of our churches have fallen into.

 

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the seriesThe Post-Consumer Church

In my previous post, I argued that consumerism has affected the church in ways that we rarely consider. We don’t try to convince church members that they need to be buying more stuff, but our structure and overall approach does tend to communicate that each person’s role in the church is more about consuming the goods and services (in both senses of that term) that we offer and less about living as the body of Christ. In this model, church is where we go, it’s the organization that plans our activities; but it’s not necessarily who we are.

Notice that you can be very involved, you can have a great heart, and you can be doing genuinely beneficial things within this consumerist model. There is a real difference between consuming lattes and consuming sermons and programs that help you learn more about God. I don’t mean to suggest that the consumerist model that has influenced most of our churches is somehow wicked, but I am suggesting that this consumerist approach shapes our lives in unintended ways.

In this post, I want to explore the concept of discipleship and how the consumerist mentality might be skewing your perception of it.

 

First, Keep the Church in Proper Perspective

I want to present discipleship in the highest possible terms. From the moment that sin entered the world in Genesis 3, God has been at work to reverse the effects of the fall. His plan of redemption focused in on Abraham, then Israel. It played itself out through the kings and the prophets. And then God’s plan of redemption took on flesh in Jesus. For the disciples, it was obvious that through Jesus, God was bringing his plan to redeem the world to completion.

But when Jesus died, raised from the dead, and returned to his Father, he handed the mission to the Church and sent the Holy Spirit to empower us for this purpose. So the Church is more important than we can imagine because God has made it so. As David Platt says, the Church is God’s Plan A, and he has no Plan B.

The Church carries on the mission, and Jesus gave us the mission in two words: make disciples. So whatever goals or plans we have for our churches, they had better fit within that command to make disciples. We are not allowed to have plans for our churches that do not fit within God’s plan for his Church.

 

Small ChurchThen, Evaluate Your Church’s Programs

And this brings us to church programs. Jesus never commanded us to have men’s ministries or women’s ministries or youth groups or any of the other programs that fill our church bulletins. Does this make our programs bad? Of course not. But it should make us think about what our programs are for. Since Jesus set disciple making as the church’s agenda, our church programs need to be focused on making disciples.

I’ve seen many great examples of programs that create disciples. I’ve seen ministries that help men and women grow in their ability to follow Jesus and provide them with tools and opportunities to reach out and make disciples. Programs are not bad. But if we’re not careful, programs can become focused on hundreds of things that are unrelated to making disciples. I’m not anti-program at all, but I am firmly convinced that programs can become a distraction.

So the crucial thing is that we evaluate our programs to ensure that the busyness in our churches is focused on making disciples.

In the consumerist church, programs are the unspoken goal of the church. If we can get people attending services and participating in programs, then we’ve got a successful church. But if our people are fully engaged in programs, yet they are not growing as disciples or actively making disciples, then our churches are actually not pursuing the mission Jesus left for us.

Ask yourself what your programs are producing. Who is coming out of these programs? Are you producing people who sit in on program after program, who can work through curriculum with the best of them, who know which services and series they need to attend in order to be fed? Or are your programs producing people who are actively meeting needs, who are following Jesus in real-life situations, who can skillfully and lovingly show a friend, neighbor, or coworker what it looks like to follow Jesus? One of these is a legitimate goal for our churches, the other is not. One fits the consumerist model, the other does not.

All of the momentum in the modern church movement pushes us to continue with the consumerist model: keep attending, keep signing up, keep being fed. And we may indeed become better disciples and disciple makers through attending, signing up, and being fed. But this is the not the end goal. If our people are not taking the next step and making disciples, then our programs have replaced discipleship, and that is a turn of affairs that we have to fight with every fiber of our ecclesiastical being.

 

 

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the seriesThe Post-Consumer Church

In many American churches, consumerism is being used as a vehicle for the gospel. With lessons gleaned from the entertainment industry and the world of marketing, these churches present the gospel using forms of communication familiar to every American. Many people hear the gospel through this type of church. It’s effective. But should they being doing this? And what do we mean when we say it’s effective?

[For any theology/missiology nerds reading this, what I’m seeking to address here is an issue that involves contextualization and syncretism. If you care to explore that connection, view this footnote: [1]]

So let’s consider the consumerist model of doing church. Consumerism is all about creating products that will appeal to consumers. In the church, this can look like anything from performance-oriented bands to entertaining sermons to polished programs. I can sense many of you preparing to throw stones at other churches at this point, so before you do that, consider: all of our churches do this to some extent. I have yet to encounter a church in North America that avoids all elements of the consumerist model. I want to be clear that the enemy is not entertainment, programs, or “being relevant.”

It’s easy to be superficial in our dismissal of consumerism in churches: “Their worship is so showing…they’re so ‘seeker sensitive’…people are only going to that church because the children’s ministry is a huge production…” But the problem is actually far deeper than all that.

It’s not wrong for people to be entertained. It’s not wrong for pastors to carefully craft their sermons so their congregation will be entertained so they will stay engaged so they will take another step on their spiritual journey. Skill, professionalism, excellence—these are not the problem.

The problem with consumerist models of doing church is the way this approach shapes us. And it does shape us—deeply.

Visit the mall regularly and you will be shaped. You won’t notice the shaping, of course. You think you’re going to the mall to complete your errands, or perhaps just to enjoy the atmosphere. But you’re being trained to view life in a certain way. You’re imbibing an embodied vision of “the good life.” You are “listening” to powerful “sermons” about the way your life could be if you’d only shop here, if you’d only adopt this lifestyle, if you’d just give this product a try.

Why are so many people going to quickly purchase the new iPhone 6s when it releases? (Or the Android equivalent.) No one is actually eager to buy it for the two or three things it can do slightly better than the previous version. People are going to quickly adopt the newest iPhone because the advertisers are masters at training our desires. They know how to bypass the head and go for the gut. The malls, the commercials, the coffee shops, the auto dealers, the layout of our cities—all of it pushes us towards a specific version of the good life: have this, live this way, and you’ll be happy.

Now mentally walk into an American suburban church. The service is carefully tailored to appeal to you. Programs are designed to meet your needs. You choose which church activities you want to sign up for. The church staff is the production company and you are the consumer.

“It’s different,” you might say. “I’m not being offered a ‘product,’ I’m being offered Jesus. I’m being drawn into worship.” Yes and yes. And this is why I’m not accusing the consumerist mentality of being evil. People do come to know Jesus through this approach—often!

am arguing, however, that this approach subtly shapes our view of the gospel, its purpose, and our role in the mission of God. For the first Christians, church was anything but consumeristic. They didn’t need to advertise programs to meet one another’s needs. Their lives were intertwined enough that they just knew where the needs were and did what they could to meet them.

When church is set up in such a way that every aspect of our spiritual life is presented like a sales pitch, wrapped in entertainment value, and tailored to catch our fancy, we’re bound to misunderstand the purpose of it all. We’re bound to miss the reality that we don’t go to church or volunteer at church, we are the church. When we embrace the consumerist mentality, we get the impression that all God expects of us is to sit in on services and attend programs.

But there’s more to the Christian life than this. And the tragedy of the consumerist model is that we’ll never allow our people to experience how much more there is until we stop marketing to them. The gospel calls us to self-denial, not savvy shopping. We have to find a way to view the people in our churches as members of a body rather than costumers, attendees, or even volunteers.

So instead of assuming that attracting large groups and gathering loads of signups for our programs is a neutral way of communicating the gospel, what if we all stopped to consider how our approach to “doing church” shapes the people we’re reaching out to? What if we asked if there is a better way to do what we’re doing, a way that will communicate the gospel effectively without unintentionally validating the consumeristic mentality of the shopping mall? The reality is that many of our churches are doing pretty well in this respect, but we could all afford to do better.

 


[1] In my missiology classes, we talk about principles of missions: how to best present the gospel in a certain culture. One important concept we discuss is “contextualization.” How do we take the cultural forms we encounter in a given society and accurately express the gospel in terms that are familiar and compelling to that group of people? For example, when you enter a Middle Eastern society, you’ll want to start by presenting the gospel in the local language. That much is easy. Other questions are more difficult: Should we refer to “God” (a generic English term for the Divine Being) as “Allah” (a generic Arabic term for the Divine Being)? Or does that go beyond contextualization and enter the realm of “syncretism,” which is missions-talk for mixing two religions together? The goal is to find the cultural forms that can best express the gospel and to avoid those that might distort the gospel. It’s not easy to do, but it’s an important concept. Missionaries and missiologists are careful to think through these questions as they bring the gospel to new cultures. Yet few in America have ever considered how the cultural forms they utilize affect the gospel message they are trying to communicate. Specific to this post, how can we contextualize the gospel in North American cultural forms while avoiding syncretistically distorting the gospel? My argument is basically that utilizing the consumeristic methods of the shopping mall have led us past contextualization and into syncretism.

Take a brief look at Church History and you’ll realize that the Church is kind of an icky place. Or at least, it often has been. I love my church, and you probably love yours too. But historically speaking, the church has a tendency to be really really messed up.

The Church has a lot of blood on its hands. Protestants have killed Catholics and vice versa over the practice of Communion. Reformers literally drowned Anabaptists who believed that baptism was for believing adults and not for infants (“You like to be baptized? Let me hold you under a little longer…”). Think of the Crusades. Or of corruption within the church throughout the Middle Ages. Simony (selling church leadership positions to those looking for a good political career) was a recurring problem in the church. Our modern sex scandals are nothing new in terms of Church History, except that many times in the past the promiscuous church leaders have been unrepentant, unapologetic, and unashamed.

Think of the times that the Church has advocated slavery, has fought against human rights (unbelievably, Martin Luther King, Jr. had to “fight” against Christian churches), or has stood by and done nothing while holocausts were afoot.

Think of the hypocrites sitting in the pews around you. People actively involved in affairs even as they pretend to be devout Christians. Think even of yourself: Who among us truly practices what Jesus preached?

We get pretty worked up when people accuse the Church of being hypocritical, but let’s admit: they have a point. The Church can be (and often has been) a dirty bunch. That’s the case with all human enterprises.

Imagine God hiring a PR representative: “Well, God, you’ve got a decent reputation, at least in some circles, but that Church you continue to hold on to is not doing you any favors. You have a growing constituency of people who love you but hate the Church. For centuries upon centuries a large demographic has stayed completely away from you because of the Church. It’s time to distance yourself. Be God, do the good things you want to do in the world, change lives, bring healing to impossible situations—all of that. But do it without the Church. The Church is only bringing you down.”

Simony, a practice common throughout the Middle Ages, means buying a church leadership position.

I’d fire any PR rep that said something different. The Church is a huge liability for God.

And yet God refuses to abandon the Church. He refuses to distance himself. It’s true that we cannot confine God’s activity within our church walls. God works all around us in ways we couldn’t possibly imagine. Yet he remains inextricably tied to his Church.

And he has tied himself to the Church by choice. This was his idea. God’s mission in this world has always been about redemption, about reversing what went wrong with the fall, about defeating evil and healing what has been broken. His mission moved through Abraham and Israel, through David and Isaiah, and finally reached its climax in Jesus. But then God did the unthinkable: he passed the mission on to the Church. The Church! This wandering, embarrassing, inept group has inherited God’s mission to fix the whole world. And God did this on purpose!

As David Platt says, the Church is God’s Plan A, and he has no Plan B.

Why has God stubbornly refused to distance himself from the Church? Because his plan of redemption will be brought to completion through the Church. Because God does great things through those who are weak. Because God chooses the foolish things of this world to shame the wise. Because God takes earthen pots and uses them to unleash his glory upon an unsuspecting world.

churchI am as broken as anyone in Church History, yet God uses me. My church is as full of sinners as any other church in history, yet God is bringing healing and purpose and life and hope to the world through this ragtag group of Christians I call my church body. We will continue to mess up. We will continue to be weak and cowardly. We will forget the mission and get worked up about things that don’t matter. We will continue to be a liability. But God will not abandon his Church.

And because God will not abandon His Church, we will continue to bring healing that far exceeds our abilities. We will continue to embody reconciliation and forgiveness and peace, though in ourselves we lack these resources. We will continue to show the world that Jesus is alive, that the Spirit of God has not for a single second neglected God’s mission, that the Spirit fulfills the mission through the apparent foolishness of God’s Plan A Church.

God has not dumped the Church, and he never will.

“On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).

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