People can repent. So can churches. A church not seeing life transformation can be convicted by the Holy Spirit to start pushing members out of their comfort zones. Until Christians know the whole truth of what Jesus expects of His followers, they’ll lack the courage to take bold steps of faith – and that’s where God often reveals His love and will. When learning about the Lord (Knowing) becomes a transformative relationship with Him (Being) our families and communities are never the same (Doing). Yet the 21st century church growth movement in America encourages churches to share wisdom and enlist volunteers without expecting transformation, depriving churchgoers of remarkable revelations of God’s love. Since Jesus denounced words and actions without love in no uncertain terms, and Paul labeled it “clanging cymbals”, churches settling for the superficial need to repent.
Churches determined to foster authentic transformation, building a congregation full of sold-out disciples, must avoid contemporary emphasis on:
- Consumerism – Churchgoers are Kingdom employees, not customers. Company employees are expected to learn the manual (Bible), evangelize the message (Gospel), represent the CEO (Jesus), and faithfully serve customers (the lost and poor) between Sundays.
- Division – Supposed superiority in theology, leadership, programs, or facilities invites competition, not transformation. The Lord values the complimentary objectives of humility and unity. Head knowledge that doesn’t reach the heart sows division.
- Pride – A lack of sound biblical grounding (Knowing) combined with prioritizing a church’s growth (Doing) over Kingdom expansion stifles compassion and evangelism. Rather than experiencing transformation (Being), we can become the “frozen chosen”, distancing from the unredeemed masses or unenlightened denominations.
- Legalism – A church focused disproportionately on rules over relationship runs the risk of relying on its own efforts and willpower. It can become judgmental, portraying God as a cosmic killjoy, not a loving Father.
- Theology – Head knowledge without surrender, like faith without works, is dead. Defining church as a place and treating members like “customers” has produced a generation of Christians who’ve heard countless sermons (Knowing) and dutifully serve at church (Doing), but aren’t rooted and grounded in love (Being).
- Politics – Waging a “culture war” via an air attack, dropping verbal bombs on secular society, doesn’t reflect or breed transformation. A ground attack of acts of kindness and truth (spoken in love), shines the light of Christ in a dark, angry world.
- Religion – Faith in God’s name without His character is devoid of His presence. Man-made systems for gathering, indoctrinating, and engaging may grow a church but won’t transform lives. Abiding in God’s love is the first sign of transformation.
- Growth – Churches enamored with numerical growth encourage invitations over evangelism. They centralize around buildings, pastors, and events. They lose the multiplicative leverage inherent in the Great Commission. They teach less intensively (Knowing), challenge less boldly (Being), and engage less externally (Doing).
- Leadership – Christian books, articles, consultants, conferences, and seminaries are obsessed with leadership. Decentralizing – less reliance on a single person – would expand the Kingdom, increase transparency, and reduce leader burnout. One person’s departure or moral failing shouldn’t jeopardize the entire congregation.
- Promises – Business advertising promises to transform consumers’ lives but fails to deliver. Churches promise life transformation, but surveys show most Christians don’t look much different than non-believers. Broken promises are the result of the convergence of business and church commercialism and consumerism.
Impediments to transformation are based in fear (versus faith), Selfism (versus unity), and ambition (versus humility) – all sins normally associated with individuals but frequently committed by churches.
Congregations willing to abandon contemporary church growth practices (when they inevitably fail to produce life and community transformation) should adopt a biblical, Kingdom growth model:
- Pray – as a leadership team and congregation for the Lord to move in the church and city because He is the only Source of love and fruit from our efforts.
- Surrender – because transformation is impossible without dying to self. Love can only be unconditional if it is selfless. As self-interest abates, the Holy Spirit fills the vacant space. Once crucified with Christ, a genuine change of heart surrenders control, the last remaining impediment to effective discipleship.
- Disciple – intensively and personally, starting with the pastors and multiplying rapidly as disciples become disciple-makers. Churchgoers need guidance and pathways toward deeper levels of Knowing, Being, and Doing or their faith may fizzle. Strategies to move attenders from “crowd, to community, to core”, a euphemism for a route to church membership, should be replaced with Prayer/Care/Share discipleship tracks.
- Measure – what’s important, not “nickels and noses” that prioritize one church (little “c”) over the universal Church (big “C”). Examples of Kingdom metrics are the number of discipleship “generations”, degree of life change, collaboration in city-wide Gospel initiatives, and the dent made in poverty alleviation.
- Listen – like Jesus to the Holy Spirit and to people in the community to understand their most critical spiritual and physical needs. We shouldn’t ignore the Spirit who lives in us or the city in which we live. God speaks to us regularly through multiple channels. The only question is, are we listening?
- Respond – to real world problems like Jesus did each time He encountered the hurting and hopeless, serving them with dignity, not through arms-length hand-outs but a loving hand up. Churches who cut back on local missions programs tend to simultaneously ratchet back discipleship because compassion provides so many opportunities to share our faith and lead others closer to the Lord.
- Engage – people in the true work of church (GC3– Great Commandment, Great Commission, Great Calling), not just routine “chores”. We should prepare members to be “pastors” of their families, workplaces, and neighborhoods because they’re the only representation of Christ that the “Nones” (no religious affiliation) and “Dones” (done with church as we know it) may ever encounter. An institutional definition of “church” puts tremendous pressure on pastors to perform and to usurp responsibilities abdicated by those in the pews. Jesus expects much more of churchgoers than most pastors do.
- Welcome – those who sincerely want to know and worship Jesus, including impoverished families our church serves, even though they may not look or sound like “us”. Too often, churches reduce God’s love to a one-way street, focusing on benefits that accrue to us as His children and heirs. Instead, we must reciprocate and reflect the Agape love of our Father to non-believers and even our enemies. We should go “out” personally as Jesus did, not filling holy worship services with those who don’t worship Jesus and go through the motions (of prayer and singing) without emotions (of love and awe).
- Steward – by keeping fixed costs at bay, not falling into the trap of consumerism, justified as required to attract the “world”, that lock churches into vicious cycles of borrowing, building, and fundraising. Churches historically allocated a much larger percentage of budgets to loving and serving families in need of help and hope.
- Obey – as individual believers and as a church, seeking the Lord’s revealed will for our ministries, surrendering our priorities and goals. The Bible clearly establishes a direct relationship between our love and sin. We obey who we love, and vice versa. Only the Lord knows our hearts, but church families should hold each other accountable when there’s little evidence of transformation.
- Learn – by watching to see what the Lord is doing within our body and our city, making adjustments yet never veering from our God-given vision. God speaks to all of us, not just the APEST. Not everyone is called, but all are commissioned. A wide knowledge gap between pastors and congregants indicate attempts to build an institution, not (transformed) disciples. Fostering dependence by retaining the keys to knowledge (via sermons and small groups alone) is reminiscent of the religious elitism Jesus confronted.
- Persevere – because as churches transition from church growth to Kingdom growth, those who are first to navigate the Knowledge, Revelation and Transformation process may grow impatient and dissatisfied with the pace of change. Those former consumers, now Kingdom “employees”, will be ready and anxious to transform their church, workplaces, families, and neighborhoods. Resistance will come from the “old guard”, protective of the status quo and closed to “outsiders”. Culture shock will cause some of them to leave as well. But to get healthy, sometimes we have to lose weight.
- Resist – temptations to revert as society evolves. Stay the course, remembering that church is not a place but people, so transforming lives transforms a church. The world will demand growth-oriented modifications in leadership, facilities, and programs that may look like transformation to the naked eye – but won’t fool an omniscient God who’s not impressed by external appearances.
The biblical path for churches is countercultural and perilous in America today, but when hasn’t that been the case for Christians at almost anytime or anywhere in the world?
It’s Your Turn…
Have you seen a church repent of growth ambitions or survival instincts that were hindering life and community transformation? Please share that story…