Author Archives: JMorgan

Is Your Church Coming Down with a Cold?

May 24, 17
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Most churches are born healthy.  Church plants are small, underfunded, and grow slowly at first – but they’re normally healthy.  How can that be?  That doesn’t sound like the description of a healthy organization.  Don’t most pastors and church consultants associate size, budget and growth with health?

However, the Bible does not define church as an institution but as collective and worldwide bodies of believers.  Therefore, church health is not a measure of its organizational characteristics but of how healthy its members are.  Are the believers who attend your worship services out of shape or are they so spiritually fit that their love for Jesus pours out of them between Sundays?  Do they consistently eat right (e.g. dive into scripture) and work out (e.g. practice the Great Commission)?  Are they passive, private, pensive or powerful – sharing their faith eagerly and serving others generously?

In those terms, church plants are typically healthy because their leaders and members haven’t yet faced the expectations and temptations that accompany large congregations, big expenses and rapid growth.  Aspiring pastors have little to lose.  They’re hungry to listen and learn.  They have time to invest in personal discipleship.  They get involved in local causes and reach out to help families in need.  They’re unwilling to be diverted or dragged down.  They make sure to surround themselves with those with deep faith and pure motives.  When the church launches, it’s healthy because the pastor and his humble entourage are each individually healthy.

A church plant is like a newborn – it can’t subsist on its own.  It needs the care and nurturing of strong leaders, dutiful servants and faithful supporters.  It won’t be alive at the end of the week without constant attention.  We wouldn’t consider such a fragile being strong and healthy.  However, if the members of that church – even if it’s just 10 people – are each disciples who are making disciples, then what the Lord sees is a church that’s extraordinarily vigorous.

Where the infant church begins coming down with a cold is when it starts to grow.  Similar to when entrepreneurs start a new company, at first they’re heavily focused on understanding the market need, reaching out to the community, serving customers, and training the first few employees well.  Freshmen congressmen likewise listen closely to constituents, make campaign promises they intend to keep, and are eager to fight for the district on Capitol Hill.  But soon the political parties get their hands on those naïve newbies and the lure of power makes them forget the ideals that led them to run for office in the first place.  Entrepreneurs soon get caught up in the bureaucracy of running the business and take their eyes off the evolving needs of customers, despite the fact that it was that laser focus that led to the company’s early success.  Our newborn, once-healthy church follows a similar cycle, battling increasing influence by anchor families, splits, squabbles, personnel, and politics.  It’s all a pastor can do to keep all the parts of the church body moving in united fashion in the same direction.

Those internal struggles are signs of unhealthy members, meaning the church is catching a cold.  However, it’s the response of church leaders to those challenges that determines whether that simple cold will turn into the flu or pneumonia.  Over these next 5 weeks, we will discuss five of those responses that are sure to turn a few sneezes into an ambulance ride to the hospital or terminal stay in hospice…

  1. Centralize
  2. Depersonalize
  3. Internalize
  4. Compromise
  5. Survive

For each of these we’ll discuss alternative responses that can nurse the church body back to health.

Symptom #1: Centralize

As the newborn church becomes an adolescent, it experiences growing pains.  We’ve seen leaders choose one of three possible paths to provide structure for growing congregations and overcome barriers that threaten to tear the fragile youngster apart:

  1. Add layers to the organizational hierarchy and give senior staff more control
  2. Grab greater pastoral control
  3. Flatten the hierarchy and turn over more responsibility to lay leaders and members

The preponderance of blogs, articles and books today suggest variations of #1 and #2, wrongly defining church as an institution and not as the “called out ones” (i.e. ekklesia), “those belonging to the Lord”.  Rather than seeing members as the individual stones that collectively serve as a Church without walls in 1 Peter 2:5-9, they reference that verse to encourage pastors to bring those stones together to build a physical church with walls.  Because they look at church and see an organization run by leaders, they attribute growing pains to poor leadership and recommend institution-building strategies for leaders to follow, like:

  • attract more non-believers through big events
  • get people to do “church chores” or to join small groups
  • be more bold in asking for money
  • hire staff and delegate responsibilities
  • add more services, seating and parking spots to give the appearance of “health”

They say ailing churches should centralize more – the worst possible prescription – because they define “church” incorrectly.  In a manner of speaking, centralization takes the big “C” off “Church” and makes it a little “c” – more about building a single church rather than building the Kingdom.  Because the overall pie of frequent churchgoers in America is shrinking, one church’s growth typically comes at the expense of other local churches (i.e. “transfer growth”).  The big “C” for many churches has now become “Control”.  Too many pastors in our experience hire young “yes” men and women, don’t disciple members, and hesitate to release members into external ministry without staff oversight, instead pushing only internal service options.

A Better Alternative

Rather than institution-building, Option #3 recommends disciple-building.  It suggests empowering and equipping members to take “ownership” of their rightful, biblical roles as the living, breathing church.  There is far more growth potential in a church where members are given some authority to lead as opposed to a pastor-led “genius with a thousand helpers”.  Churches need less centralized control, not more.  As opposed to the advice of nearly all so-called “experts” today, revitalizing a church is not about leading better, it’s about leading less and empowering more.

It’s Your Turn

How healthy is your church?

How (Not) to Rejuvenate an Aging Church

May 17, 17
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Society has been programmed to associate health with youth.  The underlying message of countless television and magazine ads today is that their products will make you look or feel younger.  Men’s health publications are filled with “ED” and “Low T” remedies.  Skin care and hormone replacement therapy options dominate the pages of women’s health web sites.  Cosmetics and plastic surgeries promise surface-level reversal of the vagaries of time and age – making us feel better about ourselves even when we aren’t actually any healthier.  All the emphasis on rejuvenation has even convinced many Americans that how healthy they appear is more important than how healthy they really are.

Church leaders are not immune to the power of those ubiquitous, subliminal messages.  We’re launching a new 5-part series on church health, and rejuvenation is the ideal place to begin.  Many pastors believe rejuvenation is the key to restoring and maintaining the health of their churches.  The addition of young families makes churches feel youthful again – stronger, growing and vibrant.  Yet similar to plastic surgery, seeing more kids in the children’s ministry and fewer grey hairs in worship services do not mean the church is any healthier.

Only pastors who define church as an institution would think to link the recovery of youthful exuberance to the average age of the church members.  For them, attracting younger members is about ensuring the future viability of the church as older members pass away and must be replaced or the church dies with them.  Pastors of aging churches realize how challenging it is to survive on the meager giving capacity of those on fixed incomes.  They understand that building an exciting children’s ministry is a prerequisite for attracting young families, knowing it will have the same effect as TV ads for the latest toy – getting kids to beg their parents to come to church.

However, church is not an institution.  The Greek word “ekklesia” means the “assembly” of “called out ones”.  The English word for church means “those belonging to the Lord”.  Therefore, church health is not about the physical state of the organization – it’s about the spiritual state of its members.  The path to church health is not rejuvenation, just like the path to individual health is not cosmetics or ED pills.  Nursing a church back to better health requires the same prescriptions necessary to restore the health of most people:

  • Eating Right – Diving into scripture, through sermons, group study, intensive discipleship, and individual worship
  • Working Out – Practicing the Great Commandment and Great Commission through following Jesus’ model of serving others and sharing the Gospel

As a result of challenging members to eat right and work out, the collective church will lose weight – and get healthier.  Shedding unwanted pounds is a key to better health for many Americans and for churches as well.  Perennial fence-sitters and church consumers who will never commit to giving their lives fully to Jesus, but simply shop for the best “customer experience”, do immeasurable damage to the body of Christ.  Their lukewarm, disingenuous attitudes poison other parts of the body.  Their presence tempts pastors to make efforts to retain and appease them to avoid losing members and income, depriving mature Christians of the “deeper truths” Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians.  Asking them to “eat better” and “start exercising” would drive many toward the exits, but the church would become healthier as each “morbidly obese” Christian left the building.

Why Rejuvenation is So Misunderstood…

The prevailing model for running a church is deeply rooted and perpetuated by articles and books by well-known pastors, seminaries and church consultants.  Their teachings and assessments of church health implicitly define church as an institution rather than as “called out ones” or “those belonging to the Lord”, therefore recommending improper remedies based on that flawed assumption, such as:

  • Bring in Young Families – by investing heavily in facilities and programs for children
  • Invite, Involve, Invest – Reach out and pull in (attract and retain) rather than build in and send out (disciple and commission)
  • Multiplication – not of disciples (individuals) but planting more church or launching more campuses, replicating institutions with the same flawed definition of “church” that ignore their intended, biblical “customers” (the lost in the community)
  • Lead Better – leadership is today’s buzzword and hottest selling church-growth concept (yet a solution that simply puts a bandaid on gaping wounds)
  • Measure “Health” – such as nickels, noses, number doing church chores, and average age, all of which see “health” as dedication and loyalty to the institution

When church is defined biblically, suddenly those barometers of organizational health give way to a renewed perspective where the health of individual members of the church takes precedence.  For example, an aging church can be healthy and remain so if:

  • They consume a steady diet of God’s Word, and elderly retirees have more time for personal discipleship than busy families with small children
  • Retirees also have more bandwidth to live out their faith by serving the Lord outside the “4 walls”, whereas every spare minute in the lives of young families is consumed by soccer games and cheerleading practices
  • Healthy older Christians will naturally attract and will be more active in bringing in a whole new generation of healthy younger Christians

Unhealthy Christians of any age are more likely to spend much of their time around other unhealthy Christians, meaning they would probably invite other unhealthy Christians to come to church.  In fact, most unhealthy church members probably don’t invite anyone to church, leading to the same eventual demise experienced by unhealthy aging churches.

Ironically, the oldest members of a church may be some of the healthiest believers in the building.  Rather than push them out (in the ways we’ll discuss next), why not just make them (and everyone else) even more spiritually healthy?

How NOT to Rejuvenate…

This 3,000 member church was aging.  It was located in a wealthy suburb but most young families were heading to the three other megachurches down the road, particularly the one across the street listed among the fastest growing in the country thanks to its strategy of building the city’s “best” facilities for kids.  Although the aging church was growing, well financed and actively engaged in the local community, the pastor was getting increasingly concerned about its future.  He hired consultants who had worked with several well-known megachurches to help them rejuvenate.  Their recommendations were drastic and implemented swiftly:

  • Shut down local missions, releasing those employees and slashing giving to local ministries – because young families have so little time to do any “charity” work
  • Upgraded the band and raised the decibel level – giving it a concert feel
  • Geared sermons toward parenting, relationships and the victory that the Gospel provides to churchgoers
  • Gave out more candy and played more games with the kids – no more boring memory verses
  • Pitched everyone on getting involved in an activity, either serving or a fellowship group
  • Changed the “ask” message from what you should do for God to what He’ll do for you
  • More advertising, touting an exciting kid’s ministry and practical messages
  • Spruced up banners, bulletins, grounds, signage and facilities to make them more attractive
  • Launched a Public Relations strategy promoting the “good” the church is doing in the community
  • Began a heavy push for taking membership classes and joining the church
  • Changed its name to something “consumers” would want (like new life, victorious life, fresh start, hope) and dropped the word “church” when mentioning its name in conversations
  • Removed denominational references and crosses from logos, signage and the outside of the building to appeal to more non-believers
  • Started searching for dying churches to plant campuses under its new brand and attractional approach

The most concerning part is… it “worked”!  Older people left in droves.  Young families started showing up to window “shop” in response to the heavy marketing – although nearly all came from other churches.  Some of the elderly who left were great men and women of God – gone forever.  Discipleship and community impact suffered immensely.  Larger and younger certainly didn’t mean healthier in this case.  Many of the “called out ones” at the church felt it all seemed way too corporate, less like a church and more like tactics a business would use to target a profitable customer segment.

It’s Your Turn…

What concerns you about how that church tried to rejuvenate its aging congregation?  Do you believe it’s possible for a church to get younger and larger but at the same time become far less healthy?

Church is Work, and Work is Church

May 10, 17
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Part 5 of 5

In this last post in our current series on decentralizing church, let’s discuss bringing church beyond just where we live, but also to where we work.  Expanding the footprint of your church means training up disciples and planting outposts in every street, neighborhood, condo building and apartment complex – as well as every job site – in your community.  Most Americans spend far more time at work than at home.  Many of us are with coworkers more than we are with family or friends.  The time we invest in church or volunteering pale by comparison.

In fact, church has been confined and redefined as a place we go on Sundays or an event to invite our non-believing friends.  Christians have largely abdicated their personal responsibility to take the Gospel OUT – instead most simply ask people to come IN to hear it from the “professionals”.

The starting point for decentralizing church is to revert to seeing “church” as people, not a place, and to reclaim our duty to practice prayer, care, share lifestyles wherever we live, play and work.

Who Do We Really Work For?

Christians are the “called-out ones” – the embodiment of “church”.  In a corporate sense, churchgoers are “insiders”, integral parts of the organization – much more like employees than customers (who are always “outside” the company).  Employees have responsibilities; customers have options.  All believers work FOR Jesus and His Church – because they are His Church.  They are not casual participants IN church or “customers” OF church (to attract and retain).

Jesus referred to Christians as workers several times in scriptures.  For example:

“Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.  Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.’” (Matthew 9:37-38)

“Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.  Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts – no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep.” (Matthew 10:8-10)

Why did the Lord put you in your current position?  Maybe it’s not only to make money.  Maybe it’s not just to increase shareholder value.  Maybe it’s not for a sense of accomplishment and worth.  Maybe much of the work God has given you to do at your job is to reach out to coworkers who don’t know Jesus.  When Christians get a job offer and feel the Lord wants them to accept it, there’s a dual purpose – to work with excellence using the talents and gifts God has given them, and to seek out those at the company they’re supposed to lead toward Christ.  It’s God’s plan that if we do the first (work with excellence) — being “fruitful and multiplying”, performing every menial task “as if working for the Lord” – then we’ll have more opportunities for the second.

Christian Employees Have Two Jobs

Many Christians struggle with doing jobs they don’t see as ministry.  My last consulting project before leaving the business world was with a credit card company whose objective was to convince people to accumulate as much credit card debt as possible – not exactly a Christ-like, fulfilling career.  Yet there, like everywhere else I worked, I saw myself as the corporate chaplain for my company, client and coworkers.

There’s no need to separate the sacred and secular.  Should I live my personal life apart from my Christian walk?  No, both should live in perfect harmony.  Otherwise, I’d have a split personality.  I love my son so I talk about him.  I love golf so I talk about it.  I love Jesus more than all of them, so why wouldn’t I talk about Him?

When asked to give my testimony to groups of business leaders, I’m cautioned by event organizers to avoid influencing the audience to follow my lead and leave their jobs to go into charity work, instead helping them understand that their jobs are ministry.   In other words, wherever you’re employed you have two jobs:

  • the one you were hired for and the one you were (re)born for
  • the first pays in cash we quickly spend; the second in eternal currency we can never squander
  • as we already discussed, as church “insiders” we’re more like employees of church than its customers, so we’re on the job both for Jesus and for the company at our workplace
  • ironically, fellow employees who are not believers are “insiders” of the company but “outsiders” from church – so they become the primary “customers” that believers (“insiders” of church) should be pursuing

Or maybe we just have one job with a ministry addendum in every Christian’s job description.  In either sense, “called out ones” should assemble and live out the Great Commission at their place of employment – otherwise, they’re shirking those biblical responsibilities to BE the church where they spend most of their waking time.

Living out our calling at our workplaces turns work into church – and makes church our work.  The office becomes our mission field.  Still, too many Christians are careful to keep their faith to themselves at work, fearing that simply speaking their first boss’ name (Jesus) could put their second job at risk.

How to Become a Better “Employee”

If few Christians are doing well at being the personification of church at work, boldly living out prayer/care/share, then they’re underperforming in their occupation as Christ-followers.  Members are Jesus’ workers yet they aren’t worthy of promotions or pay raises when they refuse to call on “customers” – coworkers who have no relationship with our CEO.

Church leaders are the corporate trainers for Christian employees, preparing them to be effective evangelists in their workplaces.  Pastors should be evaluating how well its members are performing at that job – serving as lights in workplaces so often filled with the darkness of greed, backstabbing and apathy.  Yet today intensive discipleship has given way to small group meetings and churchgoers now evaluate the performance of pastors rather than the other way around.

Instead of viewing churchgoers, even mature believers, as those with a responsibility to obey the Great Commission, too many church leaders just hope they’ll show up next Sunday.  It never occurs to them that church members were essentially employees who could be “hired” or “fired”.   In Romans 16 (vs. 3, 9, 21) Paul refers to those he “hired” as trusted co-workers.  In Matthew 18 (vs. 15-17), Jesus gives instructions for “firing” church members who persist in sin.

Seeing members as “employees” charged with doing the work of the church at their respective workplaces would encourage leaders to recruit, challenge, disciple and evaluate.  Employees of a company must be trained effectively to sell and market to customers or the business goes under.  Is your church adequately equipping members to serve as effective ministers in their places of business?  If not, it’s encouraging a pastor/event/building-centric definition of “church” rather than a decentralized view where believers understand it’s their role to bring church into their office buildings on Monday morning.

It’s Your Turn

Like me, have you found that being vocal about your faith in the workplace, while generally frowned upon, makes you the person coworkers come to when they’re going through health struggles, marital problems, or other personal issues?

Check out these valuable resources:

Institute for Faith, Work and Economics

Theology of Work Project

Made to Flourish

Christian Employers Alliance

Does Your Church Care About the Poor?

May 03, 17
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Part 4 of 5

So far in this series on decentralizing church, we’ve discussed the power of infiltrating communities by planting house churches and neighborhood groups in every street, apartment complex and condo building in America.  Institutional church is not going away – nor should it.  However, bringing church closer to the doorsteps of non-believers is biblical and more effective than hoping those who don’t worship the Lord will show up at a worship service.  Reverting to the scriptural definition of “church” where members ARE its embodiment would put the body of Christ in direct contact with more non-believers.  Knocking down the proverbial “4 walls” would also overcome the rampant skepticism, past disappointments and poor perception of institutional church.  Finally, more house churches, neighborhood groups and disciples would help alleviate another critical impediment to effective ministry – understanding local needs.

Somewhere along the line, the challenges of running brick-and-mortar churches and understandable inclination to “take care of their own” distracted leaders from another imperative Jesus, the disciples and the Church modeled for 1900 years – caring for the poor.  Jesus had great compassion for the poor outside His “church” family.  He found it difficult to walk past the ailing and hungry without stopping to help – typically healing and feeding before telling people who He was.  Jesus also gave the disciples instructions and power to follow His example.  When Paul left Peter to witness to the gentiles, “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.” (Galations 2:10)  Until the past 100 or so years, churches were the food bank and homeless shelter, and started most hospitals and schools.

Through history, churches knew the needs because they were on the front lines of compassion.  That’s not the case today.  Most churches only run occasional service events – which many would argue inadvertently do more harm than good by providing a temporary hand out, not a sustained hand up.

However, there is good news.  In addition to launching more house churches and starting neighborhood groups, there are other ways brick-and-mortar churches can gain a better understanding of local needs and follow Jesus’ model – reclaiming a central role in serving the poor.

But it will require a significant change of heart, priorities and budgets.  Does your church’s leadership need to undergo those changes?  Does your church truly care about the plight of the poor in your city?

To help you answer those questions, review the following five criteria and decide for yourself…

1. Leaders “OWN” What They Care About

If consulting hundreds of companies and serving thousands of churches has taught me nothing else, it’s how to recognize what’s important to the leaders of an organization. The first sure indicator of a leader’s priorities is the responsibilities they personally choose to “own”.  In looking at churches in America today, pastors have assumed a number of responsibilities that were not intended to be primarily theirs and abdicated others scripture calls them to “own”:

  • Abdicated Compassion – …to the government, secular charities, ministries and even denominational associations.  Jesus exemplified Prayer/Care/Share, knowing people “don’t care what you know until they know you care”.   In effect, pastors unwittingly try to out-preach Jesus when their churches don’t open the door to the gospel message by leading with compassion.
  • Assumed Roles of Members – …for evangelism, discipleship and caring for other members.  Pastors have become more hesitant to ask churchgoers to step out of their comfort zones.  For example, rather than risk losing members to the church down the road by insisting they take personal responsibility for sharing their faith, most pastors simply ask them to invite people to church to hear from the “professional”.  It’s no wonder record numbers of pastors are burning out considering how many responsibilities they have usurped from the rightful “owners”.

2. Leaders SEEK HELP WITH What They Care About

Meet The Need began 15 years ago because I asked my church where I could serve in the city of Atlanta to make a difference for the Kingdom.  Their response – be a greeter next Sunday.  When I prodded about opportunities to help the poor in the community, they were stumped, referring me to a local ministry.  History recently repeated itself.  My current church hadn’t mobilized members to serve in the community in the year since I started attending.  So I offered to organize three service days at a homeless mission and orphanage over the holidays to get the ball rolling.  The events went well but leadership hasn’t mentioned anything about doing any local missions activities since then.  However, they just asked me to serve as a greeter.

Meet The Need’s own Board of Directors has suggested on many occasions that we market Meet The Need as a system for recruiting and managing internal volunteers rather than as a local missions system, realizing “church chores” are of far more interest to pastors.  Yet I have refused, insisting we continue hoping church leaders will one day assume greater responsibility for the biblical imperative to serve the poor.

3. Leaders ORGANIZE AROUND What They Care About

Pastors hire staff to lead music, finances, communications, child care and small groups – nearly all focused around managing church affairs.  Key staff roles report up to the senior pastor.  Few churches today shake up the contemporary organizational chart, flatten the hierarchy and empower members in ways that would exponentially increase the church’s ability to serve and pursue its intended “customer” – the hopeless and helpless in the community where it is planted:

  • Forming neighborhood groups, as we discussed last week
  • Planting ministries run by lay leaders to fill cause-related gaps in the city
  • Restructuring into semi-autonomous, medium-sized subgroups around geographic or cause lines to generate collective impact (since entire congregations are hard to engage and smaller groups lack the scale to make a significant difference)
  • Form internal teams to work with particular local ministries and/or issues
  • Specifically assign staff or lay leaders to manage local missions and discipleship, and elevate those positions to a high standing within the church

These organizational structures involve entrusting, equipping and releasing members into ministry.  They require pastors to relinquish some control.  They mean risking the consequences of asking for more commitment from the congregation.  They force leadership to rethink budgets.  Yet all of those changes are necessary to fully leverage the power in the pews to maximize community impact.

4. Leaders INVEST IN What They Care About

When churches were the food bank and homeless shelter, as they were throughout church history, a substantial percentage of their budgets were poured back into supporting and serving the community.  Today that number stands at under 2%.

Allocating a higher percentage to serving the poor typically makes the most sense to pastors who see a connection between local missions and growing a congregation.  If the latter is the primary goal, then why plant a new ministry when you could launch a new campus?  Why create mission-shaped communities when you could kick off more fellowship groups?  New campuses and small groups build the brand and increase loyalty, while decentralizing threatens to distract members from the normal business of church.  Planting ministries and forming mission-shaped communities do more to reach those who won’t darken the door of a church than planting another internally-focused campus or small group.  If non-believers are increasingly uncomfortable coming to church, leaders should invest more in going to them.

5. Leaders MEASURE What They Care About

Organizations always measure what they see as their primary intent, purpose and strategy.  As we just discussed, because church growth usually takes precedence over community impact, the predominant metrics among churches today are “nickels and noses” – giving and attendance.  Someone reading the prior few sections of this blog post could even draw the conclusion that:

  • Church leaders assume the biblical responsibilities of members in order to avoid overburdening congregations and keep the church growing
  • Members give money to the church to compensate church leaders for assuming those responsibilities

What if a church assessed its “performance” using a set of metrics that exhibited a Prayer, Care and Share mindset?  That church would measure disciples built and sent, total lives impacted for Christ in the city, and the dent it has made in local hunger, homelessness and child neglect.  Adopting those metrics would bring grave challenges and raise difficult questions – like how that would alter the prospective use of the church’s funds?

It’s Your Turn

In looking at those five criteria, have you determined that your church does not truly care about the poor?   If so, what could and should you do about it?

A Powerful Idea for Increasing Your Church’s Footprint

Apr 26, 17
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Part 3 of 5

Last week, we discussed the role of house churches in decentralizing the Church in America, “taking ground” for Christ on every street, apartment complex and condo building.  The New Testament speaks frequently of both house churches (“the church that meets at their house”) and city-wide gatherings (“the church at/of ____”).  Despite the allegations by advocates for house churches and brick-and-mortar churches, contending that the other is deeply flawed, there is an important role for both. 

Regardless, traditional church as we know it here in the U.S. is well-entrenched and not going away – nor should it.  Therefore, the question becomes how can churches do a better job of expanding their footprints?  How can churches combat tendencies today to become “skyscrapers”, bringing people in to a single structure that occupies a small parcel of land for a short time?

The Importance of Decentralizing

When the work day is done, a skyscraper empties, people get back in their cars, commute home and close the garage doors behind them.  Churches look much the same, with empirical and statistical data showing fewer Christians break that mold and share the gospel with coworkers, friends and neighbors.  Most view church as an activity rather than a lifestyle, squeezing it in between obligations to provide and care for their own families.  Christians, like non-believers, work hard all week to earn enough to pay the bills and run themselves ragged with baseball and cheerleading practices after work and on weekends, leaving little time to fulfill their biblical role as the embodiment of “church”.

While it is difficult to argue with “providing and caring for my family”, there is cause for concern when so many churchgoers today use that as an excuse for abdicating their responsibility to live out the Great Commission on a weekly, if not daily basis.  It begs some sobering questions:

  • Do people think their Christian neighbors seem different or are just like everyone else?  Some studies suggest most see no distinction.
  • If the kids and grandchildren of Christians follow suit and do little to serve and share the gospel with their neighbors, then where does that leave the future state of the church and our nation?
  • The Lord put us in our communities for a reason – how many opportunities are we missing to fulfill His purposes in the lives of those around us?

In light of those questions and the reality that church gatherings in buildings will (and should) be a fact of life, what kinds of structures can churches put in place that would encourage and facilitate more evangelistic engagement?  In other words, given how efforts to attract and retain members are contracting the Church’s collective footprint, are there any conventions that pastors would find palatable for bringing “church” out into the surrounding streets without resorting to subdividing into house churches?

We’ll talk about one of those ideas today and a couple more next week…

“Taking Ground” through Neighborhood Groups

Many people responding to last week’s blog post refer to house churches and small groups interchangeably.  However, there are significant differences.  Small Groups are formed as part of established churches, whereas house churches are churches unto themselves.  Small groups are typically heavy on fellowship and light on teaching, whereas house churches typically involve more intensive Bible study.  Few members of a church participate in Small Groups, whereas house church is a church so all participate.  Small groups usually replicate the church’s “skyscraper” mentality, gathering and scattering – just on a smaller scale.

However, there is a way that brick-and-mortar churches can approximate the decentralization and reach of house churches while keeping its current model intact.  Many churches are experimenting with turning their small groups into Neighborhood Groups.  Neighborhood Groups, if functioning properly, look much more like house churches than small groups in terms of intentionality about:

  • Commitment to reach that neighborhood with the gospel
  • Seeking opportunities to serve neighbors in distress
  • Inviting neighbors to attend (because it’s not designed as a worship service, Neighborhood Groups are a more appropriate venue for non-believers than traditional or house churches)
  • Deeper discipleship in preparation for evangelism

To that last point, Neighborhood Groups overcome a disturbing dynamic we’ve observed in working with thousands of churches.  Churches that pull away from discipleship typically simultaneously retreat from local missions – and vice versa.  Discipleship and missions go hand in hand – a church not preparing members to share their faith know any compassion efforts would bear little fruit, and likewise churches who rarely deploy members into ministry provide them fewer opportunities to witness. The Bible makes that same connection between “growing” and “going” in the Great Commission (“to make disciples”) and in Acts 1:8 (to “be a witness”).

How to Turn Small Groups into Neighborhood Groups

There are a number of best practices for transitioning small groups into Neighborhood Groups:

  1. Define “Neighbors” Literally – Intentionality requires focus.  For purposes of a Neighborhood Group, it will be more effective in reaching a community if it defines “neighbors” as those living on the street where the group meets or near each respective member’s home.  Jesus defined “neighbors” more broadly to include everyone everywhere.  Nothing here refutes Jesus’ definition; however, when a Neighborhood Group views “neighbor” in that larger context it may miss out on its responsibility, collectively as a group and individually, to reach those right outside its back door.
  2. Seek Out Needs – Even in wealthier communities where needs are not so obvious, people have issues.  Rather than poverty, there is alcohol abuse, spousal abuse, rocky marriages, parenting problems, depression, poor health, and a host of other opportunities to rally around neighbors.  Many of us are reluctant to ask neighbors personal questions, afraid we may be asked the same questions in return.  Airing dirty laundry to those in the house next door is a scary proposition – you’re stuck with your neighbors.  However, Christians should be vulnerable and willing to disclose their weaknesses, otherwise neighbors may never see the strength of Christ in them.  Like we mentioned earlier, Christians who try to give off an impression of perfection look just like every other neighbor.  Neighborhood Group members should step forward to find out how people are really doing – getting beyond the facades.  As you unveil your issues and ask about theirs, you may discover they overlap, giving you the opportunity to lead them to that same hope you found in Christ.  Remember that unlike you, non-believers may have no one to confide in – they don’t have the benefit of a church family and may not feel comfortable sharing with anyone else.  You may be the closest thing to “church” they’ll ever experience.
  3. Avoid One-Time Events and Gimmicks – Much has been written in recent years about the dangers of transactional assistance for the poor, one-and-done interactions that feed the perception that Christians are merely fulfilling an obligation rather than genuinely concerned for their welfare.  The same principle applies to Neighborhood Groups.  Walking to the door, knocking on it and handing neighbors a “Blessing Bag” takes courage but will have no sustained impact if there’s no follow up.  Similarly, a neighborhood barbecue is a wonderful outreach but only if it is followed by additional events or connections.  Neighborhood Groups must resist the temptation to which nearly all churches have succumbed – “checking the box”.
  4. See Itself as the Neighborhood’s Church – Neighborhood Groups should act as a house church in this respect.  It should be first on the scene when trouble strikes a family.  It should become a support group for neighbors facing life’s most difficult challenges.  Rather than simply inviting non-believers to church, Neighborhood Groups should connect with them frequently while respecting their desire for (and right to) privacy.  All communities should look and act like a loving, supportive family – but most don’t.  Neighborhood Groups can overcome those divides – with residents serving as de facto “pastors” of that neighborhood.
  5. Use Tools to Manage its Relationships and Activities – A task as important as being the “church” of a neighborhood deserves the same level of coordination seen in brick-and-mortar churches.  Meet The Need has software (at no charge, of course) that empowers Neighborhood Groups to track the needs of local families and communicate them to the larger church body (if the Neighborhood Group can’t meet all of them).  At a church-wide level, envision the power of a “heat map” showing the pastor of a church its footprint – the locations of all its Neighborhood Groups and the pockets (and types) of needs in each neighborhood – across the city.

It’s Your Turn

Have you ever been part of a small group that truly acted as a Neighborhood Group?  How did that externally-focused label or mentality affect its reach and impact?

How House Churches Could Reverse the Decline

Apr 19, 17
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Part 2 of 5

If the ABCs of Church Revitalization and the Hallmarks of a Healthy Church revolve around the decentralization that accompanies adopting the biblical definition of “church” and holding those “called out ones” to the Great Commission standard, then it’s worth following the decentralized church to its logical conclusion.  House churches were the predominant format for church gatherings in the New Testament and are common today, particularly in countries where economics or persecution preclude expensive or conspicuous church buildings.  There is evidence that house churches are gaining momentum in America as a rising number of churchgoers have grown frustrated with the prevailing, contemporary version of church that concerns itself with attracting and retaining members.

Movements spawning many of these house churches recognize the tremendous opportunities house churches have over brick-and-mortar.  However, simply replicating waist-deep discipleship and externally-oblivious models for conducting church, only in a smaller context, will fail to realize that potential.

Potential Advantages of House Churches

Let’s look first at the opportunities that decentralizing Church into homes across America provides to generate greater Kingdom impact than gathering Christians into larger buildings.  Again, being afforded these opportunities does not mean that all house churches are availing themselves of them.

  • Footprint – Imagine a church in every apartment building.  What about a church on every street in your city?  Today, Christians leave their homes to convene in what I call “skyscrapers”, churches that do not take up much ground.  In contrast, house churches are a way for the ekklesia (assembly of “called out ones”) to set up shop on every street, condo and apartment complex in the country.  A church building cannot be erected on my street – the Home Owners Association would never approve of it.  Management of an apartment complex would not likely allow a church to sign a lease.  A condo association would not permit a church to buy a unit.  But HOAs, apartment owners and condo associations cannot prevent people from meeting in a person’s residence to worship.
  • Infiltration – Cults and religions hostile to Christianity are known to form cell groups to infiltrate communities and quietly increase their presence and following.  Wouldn’t it be interesting if the reverse were true – for example, Christians planting house churches in Muslim-dominated neighborhoods?  It would not be surprising if house churches in those communities met with resistance, testing the resolve and faith of churchgoers in ways rarely experienced in America but a daily occurrence in China and for the early church.
  • Relationships – Every pastor knows smaller settings create opportunities for closer relationships.  Small Groups are the primary path churches take today in their effort to foster those smaller settings.  However, only a small percentage of members participate in Small Groups and most Small Groups only run for several months per year, cycling new members in and out.  In contrast, house church members don’t just meet one day per week for a few months, but often do life together as a united community of believers for years.
  • Depth – Weekly worship services and occasional small group meetings aren’t making many disciples.  A 30 minute lecture and fellowship meetings run by untrained individuals are insufficient for those Jesus intends to be His hands and feet between Sundays.  Life transformation is intensive and relational, better fostered in a house church environment.
  • Commitment – It’s interesting that where house churches dominate the worship landscape, like in China and the early church, the Church sees rapid growth.  There aren’t many lukewarm Christians at those house churches – fence-sitters and non-believers don’t feel it’s worth the risk to attend.  Consider what a house church service would look like if a few non-believers were present.  What if half the house church was filled with skeptics?  If worship did still take place, it could become awkward or uncomfortable.  The service would possibly morph instead into an evangelistic intervention.
  • Evangelism – Rather than invite non-believers to church, it may seem more appropriate to a house church member to invite them out for a coffee.  As we discussed in our 4-part blog series last month, worship services were not intended to make non-believers feel comfortable.  Instead, churchgoers were to live out Acts 1:8 and to “go and make disciples” through personal relationships, and then bring those new believers into worship services.
  • Neighboring – Closer proximity to neighbors would presumably make house churches more aware of their needs and more intentional about serving them.  Fewer members means each has a sense of greater accountability for doing their part to live out a Prayer, Care, Share lifestyle.  It’s more difficult to hide from that responsibility when there are so few to carry the load on behalf of the house church.
  • Costs – The easiest way to multiply churches is to plant house churches.  The costs to start up and build brick-and-mortar churches are prohibitive for most.  Small churches are struggling mightily to maintain financial viability in light of recent economic downturns, decreasing giving per congregant, and losing ground to Walmart churches that provide better music, facilities and programs.  Maybe the Lord never meant for churches to be so expensive to operate that such a large number could be experiencing extreme financial hardship due to high fixed costs.  Instead of seeing the Church’s footprint expand (through proliferation of cost-effective house churches), we see its footprint shrinking and at risk of further decline.
  • Hierarchy – Other religions put in place stringent governance structures and hierarchies to exert authority over followers.  Jesus strongly resisted and called out religious leaders who tried to control the actions and behaviors of those they considered less righteous.  House churches flatten the hierarchy, still allowing for leadership prescribed in the Books of Timothy and Titus, but shifting from a one-to-many church model to a decentralized many-to-many model.  Less emphasis on a single individual necessarily means more onus on each member to BE the church personified all week long.

Potential Issues with House Churches

There is a solid biblical foundation for house churches given their prominence in the landscape of the early church.  However, there is significant resistance to house churches among many seminaries, pastors and other church leaders.  Two of the most common concerns they express relate to:

  • Qualifications – Some pastors believe a house church operating without a leader who has graduated from a seminary is not legitimate.  They doubt the doctrinal foundation of churches where anyone but a biblical scholar preaches or where the group shares the exegetical workload.  One counterargument is that many house churches are “networked” and itinerant or local leaders act as sounding boards and elders over multiple house churches (i.e. “appoint elders in every city”).  It’s worth noting that seminaries build their curriculum to prepare pastors to work within a brick-and-mortar framework.  Also, it’s concerning that the institutions training today’s pastors are teaching and perpetuating a church growth model that is precipitating its decline in growth, impact, influence and perception.  Much like the most brilliant minds on Wall Street who graduated from Harvard and Princeton didn’t foresee the last decade’s financial collapse, the biblical scholars of our day continue to subscribe to a definition of “church” that defies the Great Commission and possess an understanding of Jesus’ approach to evangelism that defies the second half of the Great Commandment.  In other words, maybe mature Christians who haven’t been indoctrinated in the principles for making a living running a church are better qualified to lead one.  Today, seminaries are producing more aspiring pastors than the shrinking number of church buildings can support, yet churches aren’t producing enough disciples to launch a home church in every apartment complex and street in America.  Instead, ambitious churches aim to plant more churches under their brand and control.
  • Heresy – Pastors of brick-and-mortar churches contend that group-think and under-educated leadership often lead house churches into wayward theology.  Studies showing that smaller churches tend to veer off the biblical highway more often than megachurches would seem to support their claim.  However, even small churches that meet in a building are still dependent on a single pastor to unveil his version and interpretation of biblical truth.  For the reasons mentioned in the previous section of this blog post, a house church format inherently distributes greater responsibility for teaching and accountability for personal growth than a brick-and-mortar church and therefore may be less likely to run off the Matthew 5:19 rails.

It’s Your Turn

Have you observed a house church or been part of one that took advantage of those opportunities and avoided those pitfalls?

Hallmarks of a Healthy Church

Apr 12, 17
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Part 1 of 5

What we described in last week’s post, whether you realized it or not, was a decentralized church.  If you implement The ABCs of Church Revitalization, the orientation of your church will necessarily shift away from a pastor and building-centric mentality.  Over the coming weeks, we’ll build on that ABC foundation, those elementary principles, and provide practical steps and proven models to vastly increase your church’s footprint through decentralization.

Look through the phrases in the next section and check off the ones you’ve heard leaders at your church say recently.  If you’ve heard at least 15 of them, then chances are your church is fairly healthy.  By healthy, I mean biblical.  Each of those phrases is a sign that your church is being properly run as an ekklesia or “assembly” of “called-out ones” equipped to live out the Great Commission rather than as a centralized institution where people are treated as “customers” to attract and retain.  For comments you haven’t heard, see if you’ve encountered the corresponding “red flag” phrases, which indicate tendencies to depart from the biblical definition of “church” and its intended “customer” – i.e. the “lost” in the community that the ekklesia should be pursuing.

By the way, churches too often associate growth with health.  However, getting bigger doesn’t necessarily imply more disciples or Kingdom impact.  Many churches become larger the wrong way – by attracting non-believers and “stealing sheep” from churches that simply can’t compete with the facilities, amenities and programs they offer.  In fact, for most Americans, losing weight is the first step to better health.  Likewise, a church that invokes the ABCs will drive away many not ready to commit to living for Jesus, leaving only those who accept their biblical responsibility to BE the church personified, making the church temporarily smaller but permanently healthier.

Phrases Pastors are Often Heard Saying in a Healthy Church…

  1. “It’s your responsibility to lead people to Christ.” VS. “Please hand out these invitation cards.”
  1. “Dig in to scripture and learn how to share and defend your faith.” VS. “Just tell your story because no one can refute that.”
  1. “Surrendering to Christ is about life transformation into His image.” VS. “Simply repeat after me…”
  1. “Let’s see where the Holy Spirit leads our worship service today.” VS. “This is the way we’ve always done it.”
  1. “If you’re not making any disciples you’re not living out the Great Commission.” VS. “Support the mission team we’re sending to our sister church in Haiti next month.”
  1. “You should be the pastor of your neighborhood.” VS. “We’re a pastor-led church.”
  1. “Your street, workplace and family are your personal mission fields.” VS. “Can you lead a small group this Fall for us?”
  1. “Changing lives of those less fortunate requires forming lasting relationships.” VS. “We need a few more volunteers for our holiday outreach event.”
  1. “We’re planting a new ministry to reach underprivileged youth in our community.“ VS. “We can’t take on any more local missions projects until we finish construction of the new building.”
  1. “We’re going to set aside the first fruits of all giving to bless the ‘least of these’ in our city, following Jesus’ model of leading with compassion.” VS. “Without your generous support, we can’t meet our church expenses this year.”
  1. “We’re launching a personalized discipleship track we expect all members to complete.” VS. “We’re launching our new Small Groups and hope many of you will join one.”
  1. “Small Groups should act as Neighborhood Groups, responsible for praying, caring and sharing the Gospel with those where your group meets.” VS. “Our Small Groups are designed to build friendships and foster fellowship among our congregants – they’re welcome to study whatever curriculum they’d like.”
  1. “How can we more fully utilize our facilities throughout the week to meet the pressing needs all around us?” VS. “We can’t host those foster care workshops because they conflict with our Wednesday night services.”
  1. “I wonder how our church’s impact would increase if we raised up and planted ‘home churches’ in local apartment complexes.” VS. “How can we boost weekend attendance?”
  1. “Every deacon, elder and their wives should be discipling a couple people if we’re ever going to transition from addition to multiplication.” VS. “Deacons and elders are already overwhelmed as it is managing church affairs and visitations.”
  1. “Let’s relieve those three members from some of their responsibilities here at the church and mentor them to help start their prison ministry.” VS. “We can never find enough volunteers to tackle all the roles we have to fill each weekend.”
  1. “Our worship services are designed to equip and refresh the saints for the work of ministry.” VS. “We give the invitation every weekend because there are so many non-believers among our congregants and our members aren’t very good at sharing their faith.”
  1. “Actually, the fact that he is a long-time member and influential leader is exactly why we have to go to him directly about this.” VS. “If you confront him about that, I don’t think we’ll be seeing him again and it could cause a split.”
  1. “Our goal here is not loyalty to our church, but a life changing relationship with the Lord.” VS. “Too many people are slipping out the back door – how can we get more to engage here at the church?”
  1. “Our leaders alone can’t possibly reach this area for Christ – we need an army of servant evangelists.” VS. “Our city continues to move away from the Lord – there’s little we can do but gather and pray that their hearts will change.”

Resistance to Decentralizing

If you’ve heard the second phrases far more than the first ones, it’s not surprising.  If your church operates in a centralized mindset, you’re in good company.  Decentralization does not come easy.  Churches have banked their futures, jobs, finances, etc. on the “skyscraper” concept – not taking up much ground; growing up but not out.  Most church leaders feel adopting or morphing into the church structures and models we’ll be addressing in the coming weeks would risk all they’ve worked so hard to build.  They fear relinquishing power, knowledge and responsibility much more now than they did when they first planted the church and had little to lose.

It’s Your Turn

What other statements have you heard at a church that would indicate a predominantly centralized view and definition of “church”?

The 5 ABCs of Church Revitalization

Apr 05, 17
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Over the past few weeks, we’ve contended that churches attempting to attract or accommodate the unrepentant isn’t biblical.  “Church” is by definition the assembly of “called out ones”, not designed for non-believers.  Those for whom church is intended are expected to maintain the purity of Christ’s bride, turning from their lifestyles of sin.

Yet today nearly all churches invite non-believers living in sin to attend and few confront members about their sin as outlined in Matthew 18.  They ask, “How can Jesus expect us to reach those who don’t know Him and run a viable church if we take the biblical definition of ‘church’ and Matthew 18 seriously?”  However, the issue is not with the validity of God’s word, but with our modern American model for conducting “church”.  Seminaries, consultants, books and articles have all conspired to convince pastors and churchgoers that verses in the Bible clearly defining what church is, who should be there and how sin should be dealt with are no longer applicable.

But there is another way – a biblical way – that would revitalize the American Church and reverse the rise of the Nones (claiming no religious affiliation) and Dones (done with church)…

  1. Activate to Attest (vs. Advertise to Attract)
  2. Build Bold Believers (vs. Build a Brand)
  3. Commission to Cultivate (vs. Convene to Commit)
  4. Disciple to Disperse (vs. Distance to Distinguish)
  5. Equip to Empower (vs. Engage to Enjoy)

1. Activate to Attest (vs. Advertise to Attract)

Church is not a place. It’s you – it’s me.  That’s what the Bible says.

Therefore, “attractional” church is an oxymoron.  Individual Christians ARE the church so people should not be drawn to a “what” but a “whom”.  The most appropriate and likely interactions non-believers will have with “church” are their encounters with individual believers.  Millions more would find Jesus if we each accepted personal responsibility for being “church” between Sundays rather than abdicating it by simply inviting reluctant friends to a worship service. 

Attest means “to provide or serve as clear evidence of” or “declare that something exists or is the case”.  However, few churchgoers have been prepared by church leaders to attest powerfully and personally.  The Great Commission is best carried out through relationships with discipled Christ-followers, but nearly all churches have discontinued personalized discipleship programs.  Instead, they advertise messages that in effect “steal sheep” from other churches and encourage members to invite the unrepentant to hear from the “professional” evangelist next weekend, severely underutilizing the power in the pews and undermining the purity of the “assembly”.

Frankly, there’s not much “attractive” about Christian messages in American culture today.  Dying to self, admitting you’re a sinner in dire need of a savior, linking arms with those viewed as judgmental, and risking alienation isn’t exactly appealing in this increasingly inhospitable society obsessed with personal identity.  The best way to overcome staunch objections and embedded resistance is through one-on-one relationships.

2. Build Bold Believers (vs. Build a Brand)

These two objectives are in direct conflict.  Challenge casual or even frequent attenders to undergo the disruptive transformation involved in adopting a prayer/care/share lifestyle, and risk a brand-busting exodus.  Unveil a new budget proposal reflecting Jesus’ model of demonstrating love and compassion before telling people who He is, and face an incredulous and angry bunch of deacons and elders.  Confront sin among influential families within the church and watch your hope of a new building, widely considered the key to growth, walk right out the door.

The goal of building a church simply does not reconcile economically or morally with the mandate of building disciples.  It becomes a choice – define church as a place or as people, and then act accordingly – but in making that decision, keep in mind the Lord isn’t interested in egos or logos.

3. Commission to Cultivate (vs. Convene to Commit)

Churches should gather to scatter – come in to prepare to send out.  Yet too often the commitment pastors seek isn’t to become a disciple of Jesus Christ but dutiful, faithful church members.  Because they now treat those inside the church and not those on the outside as “customers”, pastors emphasize conventions that build loyalty to the institution but don’t build disciples – e.g. small groups vs. one-on-one discipleship, “church chores” vs. local missions, and tithes vs. offerings.  Seeing congregations as “customers” positions pastors and staff as “church” tasked with keeping people coming back, serving and giving.  It centralizes what the Bible intended to be decentralized, turning the Great Commission into the Great Commitment.  Its emphasis on institutional growth breeds Comfort, Complacency, Confinement, Conformity and Compromise.

4. Disciple to Disperse (vs. Distance to Distinguish)

As we centralize “church” by overburdening “professionals” with responsibilities that are rightly yours and mine, we drive a wedge between Christians and non-Christians.  The Presidential election illustrated the widening gap between “us” and “them”.  Rather have meeting “them” where they would prefer to be and personally telling them about Him (maybe at a Starbucks or Panera), we sequester into buildings that don’t prepare us to share that Gospel, hoping some day “they” will come with us.  Then, we don’t follow Jesus’ model of leading with compassion, instead speaking out on social issues before we have “earned” the right to do so – further damaging our public perception.

You would think distancing ourselves would have the effect of making Christians look less like the world, but it has done the opposite.  The death of discipleship within America’s churches means fewer assume the attributes of Christ and adeptly engage non-believers.  The expenses involved in running centralized organizations makes churches look more like corporations and pastors like CEOs.

5. Equip to Empower (vs. Engage to Enjoy)

How can Christians not look like society yet still engage it?  A non-believer is far more likely to enter into a conversation with you than they are to step into a church.  In other words, assuming the Bible’s decentralized definition of “church”, seeing it as home churches, neighborhood groups or individual Christ-followers, brings “church” to the masses rather than waiting for people to darken a church door.  In that light, the job of church leaders becomes to prepare members to succeed in the “marketplace”, teaching them how to take advantage of the many chances they’ll have to share their faith once they see themselves as the embodiment of “church”.  Unfortunately, most Christians struggle to find the courage or the words They’re not sure what to say, nor are they bold enough to speak up when the opportunities present themselves.

Because church members view themselves as “customers”, shopping for a new church if they’re not satisfied with their current one, they feel they’ve done their part when they’ve secured the “referral” – inviting someone to church.  In business, after a customer makes a referral, it’s the company’s responsibility to close the sale.  Today, churches typically don’t push members for more than a “referral”.  Frankly, most Christians don’t feel their churches have provided them the theological training to do much more.

It’s Your Turn

Over the next 4 weeks, we’re going to dig deeper into what the Bible says about decentralizing church and models that adhere more closely to biblical principles.  What are your thoughts about how the structure and operations of churches in America today have deviated from God’s word?

When Did Churches Stop Confronting Sin Among Their Own?

Mar 29, 17
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As promised, let’s pick back up on a critical issue we addressed in passing last week – Conformity.  Just as telling one white lie requires more lies to cover the first one up, not following one biblical principle has led churches to break a couple others.  Enticing non-believers to join a worship service that shouldn’t be designed for them has led churches to look much more like the world than they should – both in how they operate and behave.  Those adaptations to accommodate non-believers (and retain members) have been costly, both monetarily and morally.  In other words, as a consequence of those first two breaches, churches have sacrificed the holiness and purity Jesus expected of His Church.

What the Bible Says…

Throughout the Old and New Testaments, rooting out sin among God’s people and removing it from their presence was a consistent, recurring theme:

Old Testament

  • Commanding Israel not to intermarry with godless nations
  • Destroying everyone and everything belonging to conquered, pagan peoples
  • Using only unblemished, spotless animals for sacrifices
  • Washing all items involved in religious rituals meticulously
  • Quick retribution for those who turned to false gods

New Testament

  • Jesus overturning the tables of the merchants in the temple
  • Jesus’ reserving his greatest condemnation for hypocritical religious leaders
  • God striking down Ananias and Sapphira for lying at the first church at Antioch
  • John listing out the sins and issuing calls to repentance to each of the early churches in the Book of Revelation
  • Paul insisting that evil people be removed from the body in his letters to churches

Yes, Jesus spoke much more gently to those outside the church who were guilty of sin (e.g. the woman at the well and the woman caught in adultery) than He did to those defiling the church from within.  His parables about the Pharisees:

  • held them accountable for the sins of multiple generations
  • accused them of persecuting the prophets and killing the Son of God
  • said that unchurched Samaritans, who they reviled, had more compassion
  • called them “whitewashed tombs”, clean on the outside but filthy on the inside
  • exposed their arrogance, saying those they looked down upon “went home justified”
  • implied there’s a special corner of Hell reserved just for them

The Lord wants sin out of the Church.  In addition to the Old and New Testament examples above, Ephesians 5:25-27 spells out clearly that Jesus expects His Church, His bride, to remain “without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless”.  Matthew 18:15-17 outlines the process for keeping churches “holy and blameless”.  Church leaders are commanded to deal directly and unapologetically with sin among churchgoers.  First, a fellow church member or leader should confront that individual, then if necessary bring along one or two other “witnesses” to make the case to that person.  If none of that works, their sin should be shared publicly with the whole church, and failing that the member should be removed from the church body.

What We Do Now…

All Christians know John 3:16 but few are as familiar with the verses that follow, like v. 20 “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed”.  Are churches today allowing sin to remain hidden and entrenched rather than exposed and eradicated?  Have you seen a church that consistently follows the Matthew 18 process?

Pastors envision the likely consequences of taking Matthew 18 literally, wondering how quickly it would empty the pews.  Current church growth models strongly discourage invoking the Matthew 18 process:

  • Asking congregations to invite non-believers to worship services and advertising “the perfect church for imperfect people”, seeking to maximize the number of unrepentant sinners within the “4 walls”
  • Hesitating to discuss sin directly from the pulpit (at a “corporate” level) for fear of bringing the collective church ”down” versus building it up, making non-believers feel unwelcome, or facing accusations of preaching “fire and brimstone”
  • Being careful not to offend non-believers, new believers or even “mature” Christians (at an “individual” level) who continue in life choices that are contrary to God’s word because crossing the wrong person could cause a split and fracture the body

For reasons we’ll discuss in the next section, church leaders rightly assume that few churchgoers are willing to confront another’s sin or be confronted about their own.  What pastors and Christians do today instead is to confront sin that happens:

  • OUTSIDE of their church, railing against those in other parts of the country undermining or questioning Christian values
  • OUTSIDE of their city, careful about getting involved in controversial morality issues too close to home for fear they might be ostracized or vilified in the media
  • AGAINST their church, eager to root out any recalcitrant “lone wolves” among the body with a poor attitude infecting the rest of the congregation (the subject of many articles and books)

In other words, churches are more inclined to tolerate…

  • …sin inside their church than sin outside the church (despite Paul’s emotional appeal to do the opposite and even though “outsiders” don’t consider themselves subject to God’s law)
  • …sin among their Christian friends than among those they don’t know
  • …sin against the Lord than sin against their religious institution (i.e. church)

What Jesus, David, Paul and John all shared was a righteous anger against professed believers who sinned against God and corrupted His holy Church.  They hated all sin but saved their most forceful words for those who brought sin into the church.  Why do pastors and Christians now seem to redirect nearly all of their “anger” toward those outside the church, rarely looking internally to take the “log out of their own eyes”?

What Changed…

I am often the target of that anger from those defending institution-building.  I question the status quo – the prevailing redefinition of “church” and its intended, biblical “customer”.  I’m considered a rabble-rouser for turning over the proverbial “tables” at churches seeking growth by catering and clinging to members (rather than challenging and equipping them to reach the lost in their community).  I’m not opposed to church growth of course, but only how it’s being pursued today.

In fact, the Matthew 18 process has historically stimulated church growth, not diminished it.  As members took responsibility for their sins, corrected one another through discipleship, and reflected Christ’s love and compassion to a watching world, the body of Christ was strengthened and blessed.  However, in an environment today where “church” is defined as a place to go on Sundays and the responsibilities of attenders have been reduced to inviting friends to a worship service, the Matthew 18 process has become far too personal and demanding for American churchgoers.  With sin left largely unchecked and discipleship waning, the Church is no longer growing – in size, impact, influence or public perception.

The reluctance of church leaders to hold members accountable for their actions is further evidence that churchgoers are increasingly treated as “customers”.  No longer seeing them as the embodiment of “church”, but redefining “church” as the institution itself, is why few churches…

  • …deal directly with personal sin, particularly in the family of a patriarch or matriarch
  • …risk the financial consequences of following Matthew 18 with significant contributors
  • …offer intensive, personalized discipleship
  • …still have “accountability” groups

The “customer is always right”, so they’re never questioned or insulted.  Yet customers can complain and criticize when they don’t get what they want.  Likewise, pastors no longer feel at liberty to confront churchgoers personally about sin, yet readily accept criticisms from them (and even heap praise on them when they lift the slightest finger to serve inside or outside the church).

It’s Your Turn…

Wouldn’t God’s plan for purity and remedy for sin among His children – confession, repentance, forgiveness and restoration through Jesus Christ – be more pervasive if the Matthew 18 process were followed by more churches?

I Have a Confession…

Mar 22, 17
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Part 4 of 4

In writing the last of these four blog posts asking the question “Do Non-Believers Belong in Worship Services?“, I realize I need to make a confession.  As I’ve studied the scriptures on this topic and shared the repercussions of the “seeker” movement on the hundreds of churches I’ve worked with over the past 15 years, it’s become clear I’m guilty of many of my own assertions.  Although I’ve tried to be a voice for discipleship, compassion and evangelism within churches I’ve attended, I haven’t done enough in my own life to combat the powerful temptations and tendencies that attempts to attract non-believers have created toward Comfort, Complacency, Confinement, Compromise and Conformity.

I CONFESS my propensity to overindulge in…

1. Comfort

For too many years, I’ve treated church as a place I go on Sunday mornings.  Failing to grasp that the Bible defines “church” as me (and all other believers), I haven’t fully lived out the enormous responsibilities that definition entails.  I’ve enjoyed eloquent sermons telling me how to be a better husband and father, yet didn’t share the gospel of Jesus Christ a single time that week.  I’ve worshipped the Lord, hoping the band will play one of my favorite songs, yet didn’t tell any of my neighbors how much I love the Lord before the following Sunday.  I’ve let the children’s ministry entertain and tell Bible stories to my son, yet didn’t unveil just how much more it may cost him to be a disciple.  I’ve served as a greeter and usher, yet didn’t serve anyone in Jesus’ name once I stepped out of the building.  I’ve fellowshipped with my Christian friends before and after church services, yet didn’t intentionally connect with any non-believers all week long to be the “church” for them.  Even though seeker churches have tried to make church as comfortable as possible for non-believers, studies show that I’m likely the closest skeptics will ever get to “church”.

In all of this, I allowed church to become far too comfortable for me as well.  However, Jesus never sought to make anyone comfortable.  He made them squirm, coming right out of the gates preaching repentance and sending disciples out into the mission field with no money or accommodations.

2. Complacency

I often forget that unsaved people are going to Hell.  Or maybe I just find it difficult sometimes to come to grips with the full extent of the dire consequences facing those destined for eternal damnation.  Am I more happy that I’m not going to be there than I am concerned for those who will?

Not to shift blame, but I believe the presence of non-believers in worship services has contributed to me (and other churchgoers) thinking that pastors bear primary responsibility for rescuing the lost from the brink of Hell.  First, we naturally assume that pastors are on the hook for leading any non-believers who show up at church that day to Jesus.  Then, as pastors have stepped up requests for congregations to invite their unchurched friends, that perception has gradually widened to grant pastors responsibility for all conversions.  By asking to us invite more and discipling us less, the job of Christians has been reduced to convincing non-believers to attend a church service so their pastors can preach the Gospel to them.

However, if only believers were in church then churchgoers couldn’t possibly abdicate their evangelistic role to pastors.  Without the option to invite those who don’t worship the Lord to a worship service, the task of sharing the Gospel would necessarily fall to church members.  The assembly of “called-out ones”, the biblical definition of church, would have to fulfill their intended disciple-making roles – and be prepared by pastors to do so effectively.

I wish I (and all Christians) had a sense of urgency around the Great Commission mandate commensurate with the fate awaiting those we love who don’t know Jesus.

3. Confinement

I confess I tend to huddle up with my Christian friends, inside and outside of church, because they think like me.  A form of groupthink pervades our conversations, affirming each other despite our essentially dormant personal ministries when compared to what Jesus actually expects of us.  Although the biblical meaning of the word “church” implies that relatively few non-believers should find salvation inside of a church building, we count last weekend’s professions of faith and congratulate ourselves, taking partial credit for a duty we’ve wrongly entrusted to the “professionals”.

Modern day church growth models have centralized and convened Christians into “skyscrapers”, prominent buildings that only occupy a small footprint.  We gather under one roof one morning with our like-minded brethren speaking openly about our faith, then scatter into our workplaces and neighborhoods where we rarely broach those subjects.  Some of us reassemble one evening during the week into Small Groups with fellow believers into a house where we once again boldly proclaim the Gospel to each other while non-Christians on that same street go to bed hurting and hopeless, with no one to encourage them to take their problems to the Lord in prayer.

The “seeker movement” taught us that church is for everyone.  Come one and all and do life together.  Since all are invited IN to a church, fewer are well equipped to go OUT and be the church personified.  Rather than build disciples, we build institutions. We worry more about those who are INSIDE the church and less about those who are on the OUTSIDE looking in.

4. Compromise

I don’t rock the boat often enough.  Sometimes I don’t live out the Prayer-Care-Share lifestyle I urge others to adopt.  Like the church leaders I criticize for offering slow indoctrination into the Gospel and limited discipleship for fear of alienating non-believers they deem unprepared for either, many times I’ve hesitated to speak a truth that John the Baptist, Jesus and the disciples knew all needed to hear even though few would accept.  I blog about the dangers of “stealing sheep” from other flocks and attracting people to an event they weren’t meant to attend in the first place even though I’m not alleviating the pressure on pastors to advance the Kingdom and keep the lights on, instead forcing them to pick up my slack whenever I fail to lead people to Jesus, disciple them and (only) then invite those newly “called-out ones” to a worship service.

5. Conformity

Another area where I’ve compromised that we’ll discuss more next week is tolerance of sin – in my own life, within my church and in the lives of Christian friends.  Paul (in 1 Corinthians) and John (in the Book of Revelation) spoke in no uncertain terms about the importance of keeping the church body holy.  However, in our efforts to attract and retain non-believers, we’ve become more cautious about confronting sin within our churches.  I tiptoe around issues of sin in Small Groups and personal conversations for fear of offending non-believers, new believers or friends I want to continue to like me.  In raising our sin threshold, we’ve lowered God’s bar.  As a result, churches and church members look a lot like the world in how they operate and behave.   We’ve adopted the world’s “I’m ok, you’re ok” attitude about sin – you don’t bring up mine and I won’t bring up yours.  Although our sensitivity to sin within our churches has decreased, God’s hasn’t.

It’s Your Turn…

Which of those tendencies do you recognize within yourself and/or your church?