Over the past few weeks, we’ve contended that churches attempting to attract or accommodate the unrepentant isn’t biblical. “Church” is by definition the assembly of “called out ones”, not designed for non-believers. Those for whom church is intended are expected to maintain the purity of Christ’s bride, turning from their lifestyles of sin.
Yet today nearly all churches invite non-believers living in sin to attend and few confront members about their sin as outlined in Matthew 18. They ask, “How can Jesus expect us to reach those who don’t know Him and run a viable church if we take the biblical definition of ‘church’ and Matthew 18 seriously?” However, the issue is not with the validity of God’s word, but with our modern American model for conducting “church”. Seminaries, consultants, books and articles have all conspired to convince pastors and churchgoers that verses in the Bible clearly defining what church is, who should be there and how sin should be dealt with are no longer applicable.
But there is another way – a biblical way – that would revitalize the American Church and reverse the rise of the Nones (claiming no religious affiliation) and Dones (done with church)…
- Activate to Attest (vs. Advertise to Attract)
- Build Bold Believers (vs. Build a Brand)
- Commission to Cultivate (vs. Convene to Commit)
- Disciple to Disperse (vs. Distance to Distinguish)
- Equip to Empower (vs. Engage to Enjoy)
1. Activate to Attest (vs. Advertise to Attract)
Church is not a place. It’s you – it’s me. That’s what the Bible says.
Therefore, “attractional” church is an oxymoron. Individual Christians ARE the church so people should not be drawn to a “what” but a “whom”. The most appropriate and likely interactions non-believers will have with “church” are their encounters with individual believers. Millions more would find Jesus if we each accepted personal responsibility for being “church” between Sundays rather than abdicating it by simply inviting reluctant friends to a worship service.
Attest means “to provide or serve as clear evidence of” or “declare that something exists or is the case”. However, few churchgoers have been prepared by church leaders to attest powerfully and personally. The Great Commission is best carried out through relationships with discipled Christ-followers, but nearly all churches have discontinued personalized discipleship programs. Instead, they advertise messages that in effect “steal sheep” from other churches and encourage members to invite the unrepentant to hear from the “professional” evangelist next weekend, severely underutilizing the power in the pews and undermining the purity of the “assembly”.
Frankly, there’s not much “attractive” about Christian messages in American culture today. Dying to self, admitting you’re a sinner in dire need of a savior, linking arms with those viewed as judgmental, and risking alienation isn’t exactly appealing in this increasingly inhospitable society obsessed with personal identity. The best way to overcome staunch objections and embedded resistance is through one-on-one relationships.
2. Build Bold Believers (vs. Build a Brand)
These two objectives are in direct conflict. Challenge casual or even frequent attenders to undergo the disruptive transformation involved in adopting a prayer/care/share lifestyle, and risk a brand-busting exodus. Unveil a new budget proposal reflecting Jesus’ model of demonstrating love and compassion before telling people who He is, and face an incredulous and angry bunch of deacons and elders. Confront sin among influential families within the church and watch your hope of a new building, widely considered the key to growth, walk right out the door.
The goal of building a church simply does not reconcile economically or morally with the mandate of building disciples. It becomes a choice – define church as a place or as people, and then act accordingly – but in making that decision, keep in mind the Lord isn’t interested in egos or logos.
3. Commission to Cultivate (vs. Convene to Commit)
Churches should gather to scatter – come in to prepare to send out. Yet too often the commitment pastors seek isn’t to become a disciple of Jesus Christ but dutiful, faithful church members. Because they now treat those inside the church and not those on the outside as “customers”, pastors emphasize conventions that build loyalty to the institution but don’t build disciples – e.g. small groups vs. one-on-one discipleship, “church chores” vs. local missions, and tithes vs. offerings. Seeing congregations as “customers” positions pastors and staff as “church” tasked with keeping people coming back, serving and giving. It centralizes what the Bible intended to be decentralized, turning the Great Commission into the Great Commitment. Its emphasis on institutional growth breeds Comfort, Complacency, Confinement, Conformity and Compromise.
4. Disciple to Disperse (vs. Distance to Distinguish)
As we centralize “church” by overburdening “professionals” with responsibilities that are rightly yours and mine, we drive a wedge between Christians and non-Christians. The Presidential election illustrated the widening gap between “us” and “them”. Rather have meeting “them” where they would prefer to be and personally telling them about Him (maybe at a Starbucks or Panera), we sequester into buildings that don’t prepare us to share that Gospel, hoping some day “they” will come with us. Then, we don’t follow Jesus’ model of leading with compassion, instead speaking out on social issues before we have “earned” the right to do so – further damaging our public perception.
You would think distancing ourselves would have the effect of making Christians look less like the world, but it has done the opposite. The death of discipleship within America’s churches means fewer assume the attributes of Christ and adeptly engage non-believers. The expenses involved in running centralized organizations makes churches look more like corporations and pastors like CEOs.
5. Equip to Empower (vs. Engage to Enjoy)
How can Christians not look like society yet still engage it? A non-believer is far more likely to enter into a conversation with you than they are to step into a church. In other words, assuming the Bible’s decentralized definition of “church”, seeing it as home churches, neighborhood groups or individual Christ-followers, brings “church” to the masses rather than waiting for people to darken a church door. In that light, the job of church leaders becomes to prepare members to succeed in the “marketplace”, teaching them how to take advantage of the many chances they’ll have to share their faith once they see themselves as the embodiment of “church”. Unfortunately, most Christians struggle to find the courage or the words. They’re not sure what to say, nor are they bold enough to speak up when the opportunities present themselves.
Because church members view themselves as “customers”, shopping for a new church if they’re not satisfied with their current one, they feel they’ve done their part when they’ve secured the “referral” – inviting someone to church. In business, after a customer makes a referral, it’s the company’s responsibility to close the sale. Today, churches typically don’t push members for more than a “referral”. Frankly, most Christians don’t feel their churches have provided them the theological training to do much more.
It’s Your Turn
Over the next 4 weeks, we’re going to dig deeper into what the Bible says about decentralizing church and models that adhere more closely to biblical principles. What are your thoughts about how the structure and operations of churches in America today have deviated from God’s word?