Many church leaders contend that it’s necessary to adapt to culture. They see older conventions for planting a church and growing a congregation as outdated. However, Jesus was countercultural and counterintuitive. Therefore, it’s worth evaluating, as we do in today’s post, whether modern deviations from Jesus’ model for building a following (i.e. church) represent compromise to accommodate:
- The Shortcomings of American Culture – e.g. consumerism, laziness, secularism, flightiness, worldliness, immorality, and uncertainty (viewing certainty about anything as arrogance)
- Redefinition of Church as a Place – i.e. shifting responsibility for being the embodiment of “church” from members to pastors and from building disciples to building a congregation
Let’s review 10 of the ways that Jesus’ strategies for growing a following were nearly the antithesis of those most pastors use today to grow a church…
- Narrowed Down the Flock – Jesus weeded out the uncommitted quickly. He set the bar high, then raised it. Jesus extended the invitation to all but quickly demanded a deep, unreserved commitment to follow Him. He didn’t let half-hearted, fence-sitters loiter for long, challenging them to repent and transform or make a bee-line back to their self-centered lives. Setting the bar high necessarily means saying goodbye to those who at some point still aren’t willing to jump over the bar.
Increase the Size of the Flock – Churches are content to let “window shoppers” stare at the merchandise for months on end, while frequent attenders slip out the back door every Sunday and even card-carrying members remain unrepentant and spiritually stagnant for decades.
- Resisted Notoriety – At the height of his popularity, Jesus did the unthinkable. He preached His most controversial, gut-wrenching sermon. In fact, He knew few would be left standing beside Him after telling the crowd to drink His blood and eat His flesh.
Build Brand Equity – Imagine the pastor of a large church in the midst of rapid growth preaching the most demanding, challenging message members have ever heard, knowing with near certainty that few of them would ever come back again. Imagine that same pastor then laying out the full picture of discipleship costs and expectations, knowing it was a pill few of them could swallow? That’s exactly what Jesus did.
- Disappeared at the Least Opportune Times – When the iron was hottest, Jesus often went AWOL. His disciples encouraged Jesus to seize the moment, acting as His marketing reps, but were often disappointed when He was nowhere to be found. Inevitably, when crowds were the largest Jesus had once again run off to a remote location to pray. Rather than make a grand appearance at the festival in John 7, He snuck in discretely. Rather than brilliantly defend himself and save His life in front of Pilate, He hardly said a word. All bystanders were incredulous.
Be Highly Visible – Pastors are the faces of their churches today. They’re pictured on billboards and marketing materials. They’re the voice of the congregation, the public spokeperson. They’re highly accessible, particularly to loyal members (whereas even the disciples often couldn’t find Jesus). Because church today is viewed as a place and pastors, too much of the church’s future rests in the hands of a single personality. If they disappear, the church could disappear as well.
- Spent Nearly all His Time Discipling a Few People – Jesus built a Church but didn’t run one. He understood that His followers are the personification of church – so He built disciples and not buildings. He suffered no administrative headaches or performance anxiety, because He wasn’t putting on a show intended to please anyone. Jesus spent roughly 90% of His ministry time discipling a few people; however conventional church growth models simply don’t allow for pastors and staff to follow suit.
Consumed with Running a Church – Pastors and staff devote an inordinate amount of time to putting on a well-organized, professional-grade event every weekend. Pastors run themselves ragged, often unnecessarily burning out, by assuming responsibilities that rightfully belong to those in the pews. Yet insisting churchgoers BE the “church” personified would send most “nominal”, “cultural” Christians today heading for the exits. Therefore, instead of equipping and empowering disciples, pastors wind up hopelessly stuck in an endless performance loop.
- Low Tech, High Touch – Jesus’ ministry was no frills, letting nothing detract or distract from the simple truths He espoused. His appearance was ordinary – likely not dressed up or clean-shaven. His pulpit was rugged – a side of a mountain or a small fishing boat. His worship services were impromptu – stopping where He was to address those around Him at the time. Yet His message was personal – convicting individual sinners to repent and follow Him.
Create an Experience – Churches meticulously plan and script an emotional build-up for an audience from the music crescendo, to announcements of exciting activities, to an encouraging message, all the way through to the closing song and prayer. Articles abound advising pastors how to apply the science of “customer” experience design to optimize services, like the ideal # of parking spaces per attendee, % of seats to fill before starting a second service, decibel levels, visual effects – even down to seat spacing and cushioning.
- Humbled the Most Influential – Jesus reserved His most harsh words for those you would think had the potential to do His ministry the most good. He didn’t try to win over religious leaders – Jesus insulted them. He didn’t ask the rich young ruler to “come as you are” – Jesus told him to go sell all he owned. He didn’t tolerate the leader of His followers ignorantly questioning the Lord’s plan – Jesus called him “Satan”.
Enlist the Most Influential – In small churches, a handful of members typically have an inordinate amount of control. Pastors worry about the reactions of a patriarch to changes, even those that are seemingly insignificant. They hesitate to confront prominent members and large contributors about sin, knowing that could cause an irreparable split. Moreover, church leaders readily accept criticisms from those same people and make changes to pacify them.
- Went to the Lowly to Build His Church – Of all the places Jesus could have gone to look for His first followers, Jesus went to a lake. Commercial fishermen in that day were less educated and influential than practically any other candidate pool Jesus could have fished in for men. Then, of all people in Jericho, he approached the most reviled man in the city, a traitor collecting tax from his own people for the occupying Roman government – and cheating his fellow Jews on top of that.
Strategic in Planting in an Area that can Sustain a Church – Few pastors have the temerity to locate either in a poor or godless community. However, Jesus knew that those with the least amount of money and the most sin are the most desperate for a Savior – and consequently most willing to submit and endure the costs of discipleship.
- Said Following Him Would be Hard – Even to non-believers and new converts, Jesus clearly spelled out the costs of following Him, carrying your cross and leaving those you love, dropping any unfinished business, and possibly winding up homeless. That’s not exactly an attractive marketing pitch for prospective candidates, and few enlisted for that level of commitment given the potential ramifications.
Says Coming to Church will be Easy – Many churches advertise in flyers and billboards how unintimidating, comfortable, casual, and fun the experience will be at their worship service. Not only “seeker” churches, but the vast majority of churches today stay true to their word (but not God’s word) and avoid any false advertising or “bait and switch” that would accompany laying out the costs of discipleship as boldly as Jesus did. The primary commitment consistently emphasized is to serve and give (to a place) versus to transform (as a person).
- Compassion was Jesus’ Calling Card – Jesus almost always healed and fed, demonstrating His compassion and love, before telling people who He was. He didn’t just preach. He served – every day, everywhere He went. Likewise, Jesus sent the disciples out into the world around them, giving them the power to perform miracles and instructing them to follow His lead, preceding words with action.
Local Missions is < 1% of the Average Church’s Budget – Few churches engage in significant, coordinated community service activities between Sundays. Outreach is largely restricted to occasional service events, particularly during the holiday season, designed largely to build name recognition and check the proverbial “box” without adequate follow up – consequently doing more harm than good.
- Jesus Went Out – He spent time in the temple, but the bulk of his preaching was done out in the community. He engaged those in need – not just with words, but with deeds – exactly where they were. He didn’t wait for them to darken the doors of a church building. He went to them.
Churches Try to Bring Them In – Few churches today follow Jesus’ model. No pastor can “outpreach” Jesus, yet most separate words from action. They’ve replaced as a central mission equipping and sending disciples into community service and evangelism (care and share) with attracting and retaining members.
It’s Your Turn
In what other ways did Jesus’ ministry differ from the Church’s ministry today?