Throughout the history of the Church, it was our principles that divided us. Now, it’s our practices. Denominations formed primarily due to doctrinal or theological differences, not all consequential, around baptism, predestination, morality, infallibility (of Scripture), liturgy…to name a few. On the surface, it may appear that Christians today are still divided on principle, just a new set of topics like gay marriage, gender ideology, politics, COVID vaccines, women pastors…to name a few. However, our varying opinions on those issues are simply a result of decades of bad practices within the Church in America.
Christians are split, perhaps more than ever, over issues that plague society but have no business dividing us. Our secular culture sees our churches and believers taking sides in “their” debates – and scoffs and dismisses Christianity because of how quickly we turn on one another. John 17 and 1 John 4 say that our unity and love for each other will draw people toward Jesus, so it’s not surprising that we all lose when we divide. The overall “pie” is shrinking with 40 million adult Americans, 15 million of whom are evangelicals, no longer attending church.
The underlying problem destroying the unity Christ desires for His Church is a lack of grounding of Scripture, leading us to be easily swayed by arguments against or in favor of the world’s concerns. Ephesians 4:11-16 explains those dynamics, their implications, and the solution to our division far better than I can…
“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”
Pastors and other church leaders unite the body of Christ when they teach the truth and make disciples who aren’t fooled by the next convincing podcast, article, or video that comes along. Unfortunately, few churchgoers today have reached the maturity Paul described in Ephesians 4, not knowing the Bible well enough to identify or refute ideas (whether promulgated within or outside of church) that could divide us. Several decades ago, the Church Growth Movement instituted a set of practices around a repositioning of churchgoers as “consumers” who’d likely start “shopping” for another church if their pastor disclosed the full truth of Scripture. They became conditioned to being catered to rather than challenged. Expectations flipped from members serving as Kingdom “employees” engaging in prayer, care, share, and discipleship all week long to pastor “performance” on Sundays (and whenever else they were needed).
To accommodate that reversal from the biblical vision of a church as its members, decentralized and equipped “for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God”, the Church Growth Movement withheld biblical truths about those expectations. Instead, it prescribed a set of church-centric, self-centered practices borrowed from businesses proven to drive organizational expansion – but nearly always at a cost, pitting competitors against one another. We discussed a couple of those practices in our last post (replacing personal evangelism with testimonials and invitations to a church service), but there are others…
1. Local Trumps Universal
Kingdom-building should always supersede building (or job) preservation. However, graduating from seminary and graduating from meeting in a school (to having a building) are celebrated milestones involving debt and obligations that require fiduciary responsibility. Jesus preached His most challenging sermon at the height of his popularity. How many pastors would take that chance right after closing on the mortgage for a new property that represents the culmination of years of blood, sweat, and tears? Yet without full disclosure of what GC3 entails for every Christian, the church can’t accomplish is primary mission of multiplying disciples who make more disciples. Before Jesus’ ascension, people went to tabernacles to meet with God, but now the Holy Spirit lives within each of us. From a Kingdom standpoint, a church structure not used to make disciples (due to concern about how to pay the bills) should be recommissioned.
2. Size Implies Superiority
Coaches, consultants, and celebrities (pastors) continually emphasize the importance of church leadership. The Church Growth Movement implies “success” is based on size and growth is attributable to the leader’s capabilities. Yet Jesus was content to pour deeply into a few people, knowing that a small number of disciples fully committed to following Him would have exponentially greater impact than thousands of lukewarm churchgoers. For example, Kingdom unity in a city often suffers when large churches plant new campuses and attract members from small churches who can’t match their performances and programs. When Walmart crowds out mom-and-pops, no one is happy except corporate executives. Surveys reveal only 16% of Americans and 17% of Christians have a positive view of megachurches, and only 17% (19% of believers) think well of “famous” pastors.
3. Transactional Outreach
Diagnosing the condition of the heart behind local missions is not difficult. Churches focused on growth conflate outreach and advertising, work in silos over short durations, and celebrate an overstated impact. Churches genuinely concerned for the welfare of those they’re serving collaborate with others, uniting in year-round relational initiatives that move the needle on poverty. They’re not concerned about exposure opening the door to members joining another church or giving to local ministries. They build networks not around theological differences (e.g. denominations) but unique strengths and capabilities, considering how little “c” churches map together to form the big “C” Church (e.g. to fill gaps where resources are inadequate to address critical causes and reach all with the Gospel). Yet Church Growth Movement subscribers deemphasize evangelism since members aren’t prepared to take advantage of opportunities to perform the consummate act of love.
4. Competitive Advantages
Pastors should be excited and pray for the success of churches arriving in their community. Differences will quickly become apparent, providing excuses for division, but if both churches prioritize Kingdom growth over Church Growth, then unity is possible. Instead, survival instincts often prompt leadership meetings about upgrading facilities, amenities, programs, and children’s ministries to stay “current” (code for “competitive”). Compromises may be deemed “necessary” to keep up with the times – more liberal perspectives on morality, shorter weekend services, salvation without repentance (by repeating a few phrases), or encouraging invitations rather than ownership of evangelism. Convenience without conviction or commitment are hallmarks of the Church Growth Movement.
Competitive advantages won’t attract if they’re not advertised. The Church Growth Movement rubber stamps mailers, online ads, signs, and billboards – rebranding them as “outreach” to replace a conspicuously business-oriented term with church-friendly jargon. Advertising who Jesus is and what He did for us on the cross is commendable, but touting a church’s differentiators is a questionable and divisive practice. Christians unhappy with their current pastor are the ones responding to ads promising a “casual environment”, “a church your kids will love”, or “no perfect people allowed”. The word “outreach” implies connecting with non-believers to serve and tell them about Jesus, but “outreach” (i.e. ads) by churches that only appeal to churchgoers amounts to “stealing sheep”. The kind of church advertising we need are Christ-followers living prayer/care/share lifestyles within their circles of influence. Instead, reluctance to become or make disciples has left most churchgoers without sufficient knowledge of Scripture to unite on the same side of current politically-charged, hot-button issues – driving non-Christians away from our faith.
It’s Your Turn…
What do you see as the primary source of division tearing Christians apart today? Is it doctrinal, theological, or liturgical principles? Is it our varying opinions about social issues? Or have competitive practices spurred by the Church Growth Movement diminished our biblical understanding such that we’re not sure where we should stand on those issues?