Can a Christian be liked by everyone when Jesus said we’d be “hated by everyone”? His prophecy was not “if” but “when you are persecuted”. Jesus was hated and persecuted. Our only escape from a similar fate in our world today is to be very little like Him. Churches are charged with making disciples who understand and live out Jesus’ example. However, most cherry pick aspects of Jesus’ teachings and life, knowing adopting the whole package would put churchgoers in harm’s way. They emphasize His love and mercy, His forgiveness and sacrifice, knowing it was Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God that led to His death. There’s no risk in being nice and kind, but proclaiming Jesus is the Son of God exposes Christians to hatred and persecution in many nations, including ours. Jesus is the only hope for humanity, the cure for its terminal illness, but surrendering to a Savior flies in the face of all the world holds dear – power, control, wealth, tolerance (of sin), and self-righteousness.
“The gates of hell will not prevail against” the Church, but cultural Christianity is no threat to Satan’s domain. Churches that challenge members to diligently obey the Great Commission will make enemies not only of Satan, but of secular humanists and any religion based on mankind’s goodness, not God’s. A church with no enemies is likely focused on building a congregation and not disciple-makers that transform their community. If members and visitors love the sermons, music and programs with little turnover, proudly displaying “I love my church” bumper stickers on their cars, that may be a bad sign – that they’re not getting the whole story of what following Jesus entails. Why would anyone turn down a free ticket to heaven with no expectation of sanctification? On the other hand, if church consumers storm out in protest, that may be a good sign – that leaders are being forthright about the costs of discipleship.
Churches can have too many enemies or too many friends by making both in the wrong ways. In fact, those paths can intersect – making enemies in trying to win friends (e.g. when members breed cynicism about a church by not living according to the beliefs they profess).
Making Enemies the Wrong Way
Contemporary American church growth models have shifted loyalties and priorities inward, toward attracting and retaining members rather than training and deploying disciples, alienating “outsiders” by instituting a…
- New Definition of Church – Centralizing “church” around a place, pastors and a weekly event gives the unchurched the impression that the only path to God passes through the front door of a church, when all have direct access to the Father. Reducing the “ask” of congregants (who are the embodiment of “church”) to inviting people to church services disenfranchises those not only authorized but commanded to play a key role in God’s redemptive plan. Meanwhile, our culture is losing faith in institutions, particularly churches, putting their trust in self and a shrinking number of close relationships. Directing non-believers to a church building or a leader was never the intended roadmap to the Father and doesn’t work well in post-Christian America.
- New Definition of the “Customer” – In business, whoever pays is the customer. Not so with churches. Those paying the bills are the (unpaid) Kingdom employees who should be trained to pursue the real “customer” – those within their circles of influence who don’t know Jesus. However, the discipleship required to execute that biblical model is too time-consuming to dare request of people churches hope will come back next Sunday. Treating members and not the community as “customers” also explains why the Church has almost entirely outsourced the integral role it played for 1900 years on the front lines of compassion confronting issues (e.g. poverty) near and dear to Jesus’ heart.
- New Approach to Sin – To make the experience more hospitable and comfortable, most churches address sin less frequently, directly, and aggressively today from the pulpit and within the congregation. Marketing slogans like “no perfect people allowed” under the guise of humility fuel hypocrisy as churches adopt the world’s definition of “tolerance” and circumvent biblical commands to preserve the holiness of the body of Christ.
- New View of Society – However, lowering moral standards internally hasn’t translated into lower expectations of those outside the 4 walls. Even though it’s unreasonable to judge non-believers by rules of a God they don’t worship, pointing fingers is much easier than sharing the Gospel. Judgmentalism is the logical consequence of retention and growth strategies that deemphasize personal discipleship, accountability, and evangelism.
Imagine the chaos if employees at a hospital swapped places with customers, demanding medical attention from patients. Treating Kingdom employees sitting in America’s pews like customers, doing their jobs for them and trying to meet their expectations (rather than raising expectations of them) – all while largely ignoring the real “customer”, the “lost” in the community – explains the decline in church attendance, influence, impact and perception. Having too few disciples (inside the church) creates too many enemies (outside the church).
Making Enemies the Right Way
Churches no longer have a prominent voice in America, the price for conforming to culture or fighting ill-advised battles against it. For Christians, there are only a few hills worth dying on…
- Jesus – The name of Jesus invokes both power and ire. When I’ve given speeches in schools, His name is the only word I’ve been forbidden to say out loud. The mere mention of it brings non-believers face to face with their (suppressed) need for His grace and forgiveness. Ironically, most admire Jesus and His teachings but few churchgoers have the courage to speak His name, much less share about Him, where it’s not socially acceptable.
- Truth – Most churches have reduced evangelism to a testimony and invitation to hear the Gospel (and get answers to tough questions) from a “professional”. Yet if they do come to a church service, they may not hear the entire story – the good news (grace) without the bad news (sin). Members are better positioned to build the relational equity through time, love and compassion required to open (closed) doors to confession that surfaces sin, sorrow that leads to repentance, and acceptance of God’s grace.
- Holiness – Churches are sacred houses of worship, a gathering of the ekklesia or “called out ones”. Congregants should be equipped and commissioned to lead friends and family to the foot of the cross, and then invite those new believers to join the kirk or “fellowship of those belonging to the Lord”. All are welcome but not at the expense of the unity and integrity of the body.
- Justice – Churches must not turn a blind eye to the powerless and defenseless like the unborn and the persecuted. Venting anger at those who don’t live by God’s standards may make us feel better about ourselves, but anger is only righteous if it is on behalf of others, particularly those who can’t help themselves. Yet taking a stand for preborn infants and persecuted Christians invites animosity from those who question their viability and value.
Jesus loves the Church – it’s His bride. As John’s visions in Revelations reveal, Jesus expects a lot of His Church – evangelism, truth, holiness, and justice are among His non-negotiables.
Making Friends the Wrong Way
Some strategies churches use to make new friends and keep current ones aren’t biblical, like…
- Convenience – Transactional, event-oriented worship, activities and compassion
- Self – Emphasizing what Jesus does for “me”, not what we do with Him
- Fun – Cutting back on Bible study for kids and ramping up games to attract parents
- Catering – Giving people what they want (like businesses) rather than what they need
- Conforming – Making the Word fit the world, avoiding controversial passages
- Clinging – Not dealing with toxic members because it risks stunting growth or a split
- Measuring – Counting nickels and noses rather than disciples and impact
Attempting to make a faith predicated on the sinfulness of human nature appealing by appealing to the sinfulness of human nature is clearly contrary to Scripture.
Making Friends the Right Way
The alternative to, and complete opposite of, growing a church by exploiting self-interest is…
- Prayer – Seeking personal and community transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit
- Dying to Self – Risking hatred and persecution for the sake of the “lost” who we love
- Confession – Admitting we’ve made church and our faith too self (internally) focused
- Repentance – Turning from therapeutic religion that exploits consumer-driven interests
- Humility – Elevating Jesus, not our church, realizing humility is at the core of Christianity
- Dependence – Childlike trust in God’s goodness, not our own, to combat the world’s independence
- Compassion – Relational hands up, not transactional “hand-outs” that perpetuate poverty
These strategies are too passive and counterintuitive for most Type A, business-minded Americans. Parting ways with those not aligned with Jesus’ vision for His Church hurts growth in the short term, but losing weight always makes us healthier in the end.
It’s Your Turn
Has your church made enemies by holding its ground for what is truly biblical or made too many “friends” by doing what is expedient?