Last week we wrapped up our series on Selfism by sharing our belief that Christ will #EndSelfism through His Church. However, it’s unlikely the Lord will use churches that practice Selfism (i.e. seeking growth by appealing to Selfist interests) to #EndSelfism. In other words, churches won’t transform lives and cities if they’re reluctant to challenge congregants to step out of their comfort zones to evangelize, disciple, serve the poor, and take responsibility for being the “church” personified. When brand, size and revenues matter, the tendency is to cater to the expectations of churchgoers rather than challenge them to meet the Lord’s expectations of His followers.
Many people have asked me over the years to point to a prime example of a church I’ve seen live out the key principle of this blog – the biblical definition of “church” and its intended “customer”. Often I’d name one, only to watch it eventually succumb to pressure from culture or consultants to adapt, rejuvenate, innovate and/or expand. Inevitably, those roads all lead to the same destination in America today – to the prevailing church growth formula (Invite, Invest and Involve) responsible for (mis)defining “church” as a place and the “customer” as those sitting in the pews. Other times, I’d mention a young church with little to lose and much to gain by challenging its members to compassionately serve and boldly proclaim the Gospel, eager to achieve its newfound vision of reaching its community for Christ. However, once that outward focus generated momentum, most pastors realized they now had something to lose and infrastructure to build, and turned attention inward to continued growth and sustainability.
I’ve worked with thousands of churches across the country, but it wasn’t until 2017 that I finally found the answer to that burning question. I stumbled on a church that has stood its ground and withstood the test of time. It’s been around for over 150 years, led by doctrinally-sound pastors conducting services every Sunday like any other church but also following Jesus’ model of leading with compassion and then sharing who Christ is every single day of the week – serving meals, sheltering homeless, responding to disasters, and helping addicts get clean. This church carries discipleship to an extreme, taking members, staff and individuals it serves through Christ-centered training programs year-round.
The Lord led me to this church as only He can – through miraculous circumstances that were undeniably orchestrated by Him. A friend of mine who serves as an advisor to this multi-site church’s local congregation asked if I would meet with the Senior Pastor to discuss strategic planning. He and I had worked together to provide strategic guidance to the city’s Chief of Police and he believed I could help the church. When I walked into the foyer that morning, I saw my friend talking to another good friend of mine. I asked, “What are you doing here?” and he said he was the Chairman of the church’s advisory committee! That was “coincidental” enough – but then the three of us went into the Senior Pastor’s office and the pastor said to me, “I know you!”. Turns out I had given a speech at a church in Atlanta about Meet The Need several years earlier and he “happened’ to be in the audience. In fact, we both remembered he and I having a conversation in the foyer of that church after my presentation. At that point, none of us had any doubt that Jesus, the Master Strategic Planner, arranged for us to be in that room and wanted us to collaborate.
As I began investigating the history, vision, mission and activities of this church, a light bulb came on. This church had never subscribed to the separation of church and compassion ministry. It worshiped, praised and discipled as fervently as any church I had ever seen, yet wasn’t content to let the government, secular charities and ministries assume the lead role in caring for those in need. It remained the “light…on a hill” talked about in Matthew 5:14 that churches had been for 1900 years, when they served as the local food bank and homeless shelter.
Yes, this church, The Salvation Army, has set an example I believe all churches should follow. Because no pastor can “outpreach” Jesus, all should see compassion like He did – as the first steps down the path leading people toward salvation. What if Jesus never healed anyone or fed anyone? What if Jesus never did any miracles to demonstrate His love and power? Or what if He restricted those acts of kindness to an outreach event during the holiday season? People came to hear what Christ had to say because they knew how much He cared.
The Salvation Army is a Spirit-filled blend of the Great Commandment and the Great Commission – making disciples who love the Lord and their neighbors. Even the name, two distinct words melded together to form one cohesive mission, speaks to the inseparable interweaving of introducing the world to “Salvation” through deploying an “Army” of disciples into cultural battlefields armed with love, mercy and justice. In contrast, most churches today hold church services, offer “lite” forms of discipleship (like small groups) and dabble in local missions on occasion.
As modeled by The Salvation Army, scripture calls for combining…
- Church & Ministry – The term “ministry” was traditionally associated with the evangelistic and compassion work of the Church, yet now has been redefined to refer to an internal volunteer role within the church (e.g. greeters) or an external Christian social services agency. The Salvation Army equips and mobilizes all its internal resources to evangelize and serve. For the Army, “church” and “ministry” are synonymous. (Matthew 9:37)
- Place & People – At The Salvation Army, few who attend a church service slip out the back door. Nearly all churchgoers are called into active duty. Given the nature of The Salvation Army’s work, the culture doesn’t lend itself to simply inviting friends to a church service and letting “professionals” handle evangelism and discipleship. (1 Corinthians 12:27)
- Social & Gospel – The misguided tenets of the Social Gospel movement at the turn of the 20th century do not exempt today’s pastors from following Jesus’ example of prayer, care and then share. The Army “fights for good” not to earn salvation but out of deep appreciation for what Jesus did on the cross and a desire to pay His love forward. (Luke 7:22)
- Worship & Compassion – Jesus said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” James said, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” Tithing, serving, rituals and other religious “works” mean much less to the Lord than reaching out to those in need of help and hope. For The Salvation Army, worship and compassion go hand in hand. (Matthew 23:23)
- Belief & Faith – Many in churches on Sundays don’t believe. Others believe but lack faith. The Bible says, “even the demons believe”, but haven’t surrendered. Good works, obedience and “fruit” don’t save but are proof of faith and surrender. The Salvation Army’s mission is based on that principle – “to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.” (James 2:19)
- Justification & Sanctification – Professions of faith and baptisms are key measures of success tracked by most churches. However, asking people to raise their hands and repeat a phrase shouldn’t be an end goal, just a starting point. The Salvation Army hopes for conversion, but sets the goal at holiness. That work of progressively greater obedience to the command to love God and others fully is never done as long as we have breath. (Romans 12:1)
- Prosperity & Poverty – Most churches subscribe to either a prosperity or poverty gospel. They teach that God wants it all or wants us to have it all. Rarely is diversity of income levels or philosophies about the use of wealth found within a single church. However, like the early church, The Salvation Army brings together high capacity donors and impoverished individuals under the same roof. Contributions don’t just fund buildings and pay staff, but go directly to aid the poor inside and outside the congregation – transforming lives, not offering handouts. (Acts 4:32)
The Salvation Army’s tag line is “Doing the Most Good”. Some charities find that phrase offensive, believing they do just as much good. Their confusion stems from the fact that they consider The Salvation Army a charity and not a church. Among churches, its true identity, there’s no doubt that The Salvation Army is “doing the most good”.
It’s Your Turn…
If all churches made it as difficult as The Salvation Army to distinguish between each of those 7 sets of terms, do you believe the Church could #EndSelfism in America?