Christians prove they personally know the one true God only when they undergo a transformation reflecting that life-altering, seemingly unimaginable possibility. Likewise, churches persuade non-believers that they know the infinite Creator only when they reflect that miraculous reality by taking an “otherworldly” approach to conducting their affairs.
Unchurched observers aren’t convinced anything supernatural is going on inside of churches whose principles and practices look much like what people see within their personal social circles and workplaces. The foundations for the belief systems of churches (Spirit) and the world (flesh) are diametrically opposed, so when efforts to attract and accommodate non-believers blur those lines, society doubts our connection to the Divine.
It’s even conceivable that atheists secretly or subconsciously once wished churches operated atypically to provide a ray of hope, an alternative to the emptiness of a life about power, position and possessions. Attempts to conform church to cultural norms has dissuaded many from seeking answers there because they ironically, inadvertently became too indistinguishable to clearly convey His image. According to surveys, the primary difference the unchurched notice between Christian and secular organizations is in their criticism of culture. Conformance nor criticism provide the path to standing out from the crowd in ways that prove we worship the one true Lord and Savior.
Society Would Believe Churches Worship the Creator If…
Our nation would stop drifting from the Lord and gravitate toward Christ if churches had less in common with secular organizations that people encounter every day. Persuading the world that churches know the promised Messiah who offers forgiveness, reconciliation and salvation would require looking as different as Jesus did. For example…
- If the love churchgoers had for one another exceeded what people saw anywhere else – Scripture says people will recognize Jesus’ disciples by the love they share. Yes, prevailing definitions of “love” diminish society’s ability to distinguish our love from theirs, but church splits and factions over tradition, leadership, doctrine and even vaccines are apparent to those outside our “4 walls”.
- If the metrics churches used to measure success looked nothing like those businesses track – Revenues, headcount and footprint are corporate terms that unfortunately correspond to the primary ways pastors gauge progress – nickels, noses and (multi) sites. Income, employment and expansion should be byproducts of discipleship, evangelism and compassion – not worldly goals that fuel cynicism about the Church.
- If church planters didn’t follow the typical entrepreneurial lifecycle – Companies begin with a mission and engage the community to understand local needs. That outward focus leads to growth, which spurs a transition to managing and retaining those customers. Once the entrepreneur has something to lose, turning attention inward can take their eyes off the initial mission, evolving needs, and community engagement. Sound familiar?
- If church leaders stopped treating members like customers – Equipping and multiplying disciples is a longer yet far more certain and biblical path to church growth. Becoming and making disciples is also more time-consuming than busy, cultural Christians are willing to endure. So churches invest the vast majority of their resources into providing what Americans enjoy – exciting, educational yet not too challenging “fast food” experiences.
- If churches didn’t outsource critical functions like compassion to government, charities and ministries – When corporations outsource manufacturing or customer service overseas to underpaid workers in undemocratic nations it angers Americans concerned about jobs and justice. Americans also notice that churches have outsourced costly compassion to other organizations for similar reasons – to focus on more engaging, lucrative activities.
- If denominations were more united than the world around them – Churches should be an oasis, offering a respite from this highly divisive period in our nation’s history. If our God were big enough to overshadow our stark differences, non-believers would certainly take notice. If churches collaborated frequently to move the needle on real social issues (e.g. grade level literacy), they would bridge the sacred/secular divide that defines our culture.
- If churches were less political than today’s average citizen or corporation – Most churches find themselves on either end of the Politically Correct or Politically Incorrect spectrum…rarely in the middle. Both extremes repel large swaths of people, providing progressives with ample examples of churches that arrogantly condemn and conservatives with ammo against churches that cave to convention.
- If churches were more forthright than post-modern society about the depravity of all humans, including members – The culture war raging in our nation is centered around one fundamental disagreement…whether human nature is inherently good or bad. Media drives home the message that every individual is a demi-god while mocking Christians for presumably thinking they’re better than everyone else.
- If Christians presented absolute truth with greater abandon than our relativistic culture – Churches can be just as guilty of “living my own truth” when they are selective about what they teach from God’s Word. Scripture doesn’t leave a tremendous amount of room for omission or interpretation, yet most pastors tend to underemphasize Jesus’ less palatable commands like serving the poor, making disciples, and truly repenting of sin.
- If churches were more welcoming but less accommodating than the average social club – Country clubs are exclusive, but then go over the top to cater to those who make the cut. Places of worship should be holy, designed for those who worship Jesus, and should rally the congregation to meet the needs of other members. However, churches must be demanding, not offering “cheap grace” (simply attending, joining, and tithing), but challenging members to bear the costs of discipleship rather than outsourcing those responsibilities to pastors.
- If churches trusted God enough not to plan and program as meticulously as businesses – Many of the Nones and Dones once attended church regularly but are firm in their resolve never to return because they see it as no different than any other human institution. They waited for years to witness the inexplicable but instead discovered only carefully scripted choreography of music, sermons and programming behind the curtain.
- If we were less anxious than society to return to “normal” post-pandemic – A world clamoring for safety and security watched to see how churches and Christians responded to adversity. The Church’s impact, influence, growth and public perception were suffering before COVID-19, so society believes it must be desperation to avoid bankruptcy (much like retailers) driving them to want to get back to a “business as usual” that wasn’t working.
- If churches were less transactional than our promotional, short attention span culture – Events, commercials, sound bites and Tweets resonate with Americans. In an attempt to navigate society’s attention deficit, we’ve not only compacted worship services but church activities and outreach as well. Since poverty is about broken relationships, our seasonal community service events actually do more harm than good, producing dependency, cynicism and shame in those unable to make ends meet.
- If churches did a better job than other organizations of responsibly utilizing their capacity – Investors and consumers reward companies for maximizing utilization of their facilities. Yet churches possess a tremendous amount of square footage that sits largely idle most days of the week. That waste of space which could be leveraged to serve and engage the community year-round is akin to a wealthy family who rarely visits a second home.
- If church leaders and business leaders took a less self-interested view of one another – Many walk away from church with a bad taste in their mouths due to underutilization of their skills. They hoped to make a significant impact in the lives of others yet felt taken advantage of doing “church chores” beneath their capabilities. Rather than equipping members for Kingdom work in their circles of influence, members were encouraged to abdicate ministry roles by inviting friends to come to church to hear from “professionals”.
The body of Christ should bear little resemblance to man-made constructs. Our philosophies, purposes and priorities should be radically transformed because an omniscient, omnipotent God is guiding our every move. To the naked eye, it’s hard to believe pews are filled with people possessed with power from an indwelling Holy Spirit if we operate much like for-profit organizations. We’re responsible for miscommunicating the truth of who God is if we compromise to conform to the world’s image rather than His.
It’s Your Turn
How can churches offer a shining alternative to culture by differentiating in ways that reflect the truth about the love and grace of almighty God?