Ask the average American, whether a Christian or non-believer, to define the word “church” and they’re likely to describe a place or an event occurring on Sunday mornings. That misconception did not materialize overnight. It evolved over decades as church leaders gradually assumed responsibilities originally entrusted to all Christ-followers – to share their faith and make disciples.
At this point, the culture shock of reverting to the biblical definition of church and invoking the Great Commission mandate would have the same effect as yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. But for argument’s sake, let’s consider what pastors would need to do differently to equip churchgoers to carry out their intended role as the personification of “church”.
Let’s also discuss how being held accountable for embodying “church” between Sundays would impact each member’s study of Scripture (Knowing), relationship with the Lord (Being), and interactions with non-believers (Doing). Head knowledge without genuine faith, as well as faith without works, is dead. To be useful in advancing the Kingdom here on earth, we need all three of those – Knowing, Being AND Doing. 1 Corinthians 13 describes those who “know” and “do” but aren’t rooted and grounded in love as “clanging cymbals”. In Matthew 7 Jesus says “depart from me” to those who tout their intellectual understanding and religious works yet live a double life because they never fully surrendered to the Lord.
Church leaders can also err on the side of Knowing, Being OR Doing – emphasizing one or two at the expense of the other(s). A church that bases its math on multiplication, equipping disciples who make disciples, will ensure that teaching leads to an absolute surrender that compels urgent action. Additive churches don’t relinquish control but instead centralize around a building and weekly event. They simply ask members to invite friends to the building to hear from a professional at the next event. They lose the multiplicative leverage inherent in a far more daunting, biblical “ask” – obedience by all Christians to the Great Commission. Churches that subscribe to America’s addition and consumer-driven growth models tend to teach less intensively (to Know), challenge less boldly (to Be), and engage less externally (to Do)…
Prevailing Premise: You can identify a church that’s looking to build an institution (rather than disciples) by the knowledge gap between pastors and congregants. When churches invest in ensuring members have a deep understanding of scripture, that gap shrinks. Those that rely on weekly sermons and occasional small groups as their primary discipleship channels preserve a wide knowledge gap. Much like the religious leaders Jesus confronted, who greedily retained rather than generously disseminated the “keys to knowledge“, most churches today foster dependence rather than empowerment.
Which Can Lead to: Before we discuss the pitfalls of a wide knowledge gap, also beware of churches that hedge too far in the other direction and create an intellectually arrogant culture. In those cases, a highly intelligent pastor provides depth and members take pride in their knowledge of Scripture and theology. However, pride never translates into a humble reliance on the Father. Wisdom in the head often never reaches the heart. A superiority complex prompts criticism of the less “enlightened”, fracturing the universal body of Christ. On the other extreme, churches with a wide knowledge gap fear overwhelming the sheep with solid food and spoon feed milk instead, The seminary graduate is the only one in the room trusted to provide the correct answers (even though that theology degree didn’t prevent a fundamental misunderstanding of the definition of “church” and Jesus’ model for evangelism, i.e. leading with compassion).
As Opposed to: Since God speaks to each of us, we all deserve to be heard. The APEST (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers) are called, but all are commissioned (to make disciples). So we all need to be taught to perform that critical task well. God expects much more of us than most pastors do. A wide knowledge gap relegates a member’s role to obedience (“church chores”) whereas Jesus says we shouldn’t expect any reward for obedience (because we were doing only what we were told). No, our obligation doesn’t stop there – we’re also called to a mission to build the Kingdom (capital “C”). We only fully grasp and fulfill that mission as Knowing transitions into Being.
Prevailing Premise: Knowing about Jesus should lead to knowing Jesus. A special love relationship with the Father is available to everyone. Yet viewing church as a place and not as people is often associated with the perspective that pastors have more direct connection to the Lord. You’d be surprised if you knew how many church leaders struggle in their faith. An institutional definition of church puts a tremendous amount of pressure on pastors to “perform” and to usurp responsibilities abdicated by those in the pews. That model damages faith by assuming control (versus surrender) and risking burnout (versus peace).
Which Can Lead to: Elevating church leaders to unrealistic spiritual stature, seeing their relationship with God as beyond what those not called to the pulpit can attain, detracts from a member’s own sense of closeness to God. That same opportunity to abide in the Vine exists for everyone. There are no “higher levels” that only the APEST can achieve. It’s also worth noting the danger of focusing on “Being” at the expense of “Knowing” or “Doing”. For example, a lack of sound biblical grounding combined with attempts to build an institution can result in the belief that “our church is deeper than others in our relationship with God” and “God prefers us.” That line of thinking can stifle compassion and evangelism – e.g. the “frozen chosen” perspective that “God will save who He plans to save no matter what we do” so “we don’t need to do anything”.
As Opposed to: Truly understanding God’s love is the inflection point where a radical change of heart occurs involving repentance and “dying to self” – knocking down the remaining impediments to authentic discipleship. Obedience no longer becomes about “trying” to be good, but naturally follows “Being” as self-interest abates and the Holy Spirit fills that space.
Prevailing Premise: America’s church growth model makes “success” highly dependent on a single person – the senior pastor. That creates a powerful incentive to conceal flaws and rebuild the “veil” (of perfection) because a moral failing would jeopardize the entire organization. Although pastors do have greater responsibility and accountability, showing the power of God’s grace means being transparent about weaknesses so others can see Christ through them.
Which Can Lead to: A church focusing disproportionately on Doing runs the risk of members relying on their own efforts and willpower. They can jump from Knowing to Doing without Being – in other words, rules without relationship. That can result in legalism, judgementalism and a view of God as cosmic killjoy and not loving Father.
As Opposed to: Disciples follow in Jesus’ footsteps because they have studied His life extensively (Knowing), fell in love with Him (Being) and want to honor Him with their lives (Doing). Truly grasping God’s love for us should change how we live and how we love. If so, then obedience is the automatic response and requires little conscious effort. We will rejoice in the commands of the Lord. Our motives will be purified by the blood of Jesus as we abide in Him. We don’t have to go through the motions or check boxes, hoping our moral house of cards won’t collapse under its own weight. There is tremendous freedom in fully relying on God’s goodness and not our own, which always fails.
It’s Your Turn
Have you seen a church bent on equipping members for their missional purpose, discipling them to ensure biblical knowledge doesn’t sit idle or spring into action without depth in Christ? In your own life, what worldly misconceptions, concerns or possessions are you clinging to that keep you from living a daily Prayer, Care, Share lifestyle?