After 9 posts on the same topic, it’s time to draw some conclusions. But this will all have to be taken as very preliminary. After all, Willow Creek hasn’t finished their study of 500 additional churches.
Nonetheless, while I wouldn’t presume to know all that’s wrong with how we do church, I think we can put our finger on some serious problems typical of American evangelicalism.
Of course, many writers have written many, many books on how to do church better. Here, in response to Willow Creek’s “Reveal” study, we’re focusing just on the problems that trouble the most mature of the church’s members.
(And none of this is pointed particularly at Willow Creek. Rather, I’m speaking very generally. I don’t know all that much about how they do church.)
1. A failure to challenge members to be actively involved in the needs of the church’s surrounding community.
In short, we ignore the imperatives taught by Jesus in the Judgment Day lesson of Matthew 25, where we’re told that we’ll be judged based on how we care for those in need.
I list this first because it’s the biggest single weakness of the American evangelical church I can see, when held up to the standards of scripture.
I think it’s unlikely that surveys of church members will point up this weakness, because we’ve failed to teach our members to really care about such things. Rather, our most Spirit-filled members just feel a deep sense of unease and lack of fulfillment.
2. Treatment of education and Christian fellowship as the ultimate ends of Christianity.
We can’t decide whether Jesus died to form a social club or a community college. No, actually, we’re largely unconscious of this behavior of ours. But when you ignore one spiritual imperative–care for the lost and hurting world–you have to replace it with something else. As a result, our churches do not routinely graduate their students from education to service to others or from fellowship within the church to community-changing teamwork. It’s no wonder some of our members feel empty.
3. A failure of church leaders to be servant leaders and shepherds as taught by Jesus.
As we build bigger and bigger congregations, and as members demand more and more of their churches, the churches respond by taking on more and more of the features of big business. In fact, they are big business.
But the Biblical model of church leadership is one of servant leaders and shepherding. This doesn’t mean that business concepts never apply, but it does mean that face-to-face relationships are of the utmost importance. Church members aren’t customers. They are sheep in need of a shepherd.
Our leaders thus fail us in at least two ways. First, we leaders often fail to lead. Rather, we take surveys and give the members what they want, rather like the worst of our politicians. We think this is service, but it’s not–not when the service we are called to is leadership. Leaders lead.
Second, we often get too far removed from our membership. In a bigger church, it’s hard not to. And, I think, this places a limit on how large churches should get. Churches should never outgrow their leaders’ ability to know and care for their members as individuals.
I’m not suggesting that elders must be servant-leaders and shepherds to suit the prevailing cultural climate. Rather, they must do this because Jesus commands it. But when we fail, we create huge problems for the church.
Our failures cause many members to reject the institutional church. After all, we live in an anti-authoritarian culture. We don’t respect people purely because of their position. The members don’t demand sinless perfection or organizational genius. All they want is to be loved as individuals by their leaders.
4. We are overly focused on church growth.
Now, I know this sounds like heresy, but bigger numbers is not the most important thing. I mean, sometimes the leaders have to make unpopular decisions and risk losing members. A few years of declining numbers may be essential preparation to become a more effective, more mature church.
Sometimes, we have to work for the growth of other communities. We need to feel free to sacrifice a popular local program in order to build the church in another town or continent.
I can’t find the link, but a few years ago I read about an American church that had raised enough money to build a new auditorium and return to a single worship service after years of split services. The members decided they’d rather spend all that money to buy up thousands of acres in Mozambique, build schools, dig wells, and install sewerage.
They are converting people by the thousands in Africa while improving even more lives–at just the cost of continuing to meet in two services instead of one.
5. We are too politically partisan.
Christianity is, by nature, very political. One of the most important political truths is that Jesus is Lord–and Caesar is not. That’s a truth that got many of our forebears killed.
But we’ve forgotten this. We let the political parties set our agendas because having political power has become more important to some of us than being true to Jesus.
For example, in the 2004 presidential race, the evangelical churches were very concerned about abortion and legalization of homosexual marriage. And so they ignored all that was wrong with the Republican platform and shilled for President Bush. And abortion is still legal and Bush has none absolutely nothing about homosexual marriage. Zero.
When Bush pushes items that really ought to concern American Christians–cheaper AIDS drugs for Africa, debt relief for the poorest nations, even the faith-based initiative grant program–American evangelicals only yawn. (I’m told that some grants went to non-faith-based organizations due to a lack of response from the community of faith!)
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that we are involved in politics to preserve our lifestyles and communities the way we want them–not because of any truly selfless love.
6. We assume that everyone is just like us.
“If they’re poor, it’s because they’re lazy. After all, with my talents and education, the only reason I might be poor is if I were lazy.”
“I enjoy classes on fine points of theology; therefore, that’s what everybody else enjoys.”
As a result, as churches tend to be run by studious, analytical types (like me), we offer little of interest to the right-brained, creative types. Art, story telling, drama … all find little room for expression … which is surprising when you recall how important these talents were to churches in the past.
Just so, we often offer very little for the doers among us. Some hate classes but love to get things done. But those who skip classes are treated as suspiciously unspiritual by us. In fact, we often define “spirituality” as “loving Bible study” rather than “loving people.”
7. We have an incomplete theology of evangelism.
In Becoming a Contagious Christian, by Bill Hybels and Mark Mittelberg, the authors point out that different people are able to convert others with different styles of evangelism. Among these is what they call “service evangelism.”
Though this style tends to get less press than the others, and it often takes a much longer period of time before producing spiritual results, it’s one of the most important of all the evangelistic approaches. …
You may not have the knowledge of Paul or the courage of Peter and the Samaritan woman. But you’re a whiz at making meals or fixing cars. I hope you can see how those things, and so many others like them, can be done in a way that points people to God.
Amen! Although this is a classic book on evangelism (highly recommended, together with the sequel, Mittelberg’s Building a Contagious Church), very few churches take this idea seriously. Rather, we pound “friendship evangelism” and inviting people to church as the only methods worth talking about.
But the scriptures talk almost exclusively about service evangelism.
(Matt. 5:14-16) “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
(1 Pet. 2:12) Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
It’s a good thing that this method works so well–we can all do good deeds. And we can do good deeds as a community. And there are lots of good deeds that need doing.
Notice that in all the practical wisdom found in scripture–lessons on how to live as a Christian–very little is said about inviting your friends to church. But there are dozens of verses about doing good deeds for others.
We are a literally minded people who fail to see the connection–but it works. It works because helping others not only is very attractive in itself, but also because it changes us to become more attractive. And it makes us proud of our congregation and friends there. Which makes it easier to invite people to church. More importantly, it makes us proud to tell our friends about Jesus.
8. We don’t pray as we should.
Ever since Jim Cymbala’s Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire was published, we’ve understood how important prayer is to a healthy church. But we’ve struggled to get our members to pray as we’d like.
Part of the problem, I think, is our modern, scientific mindset. Even though we’re people of faith, we just have trouble relying on the supernatural.
Another problem, though, is that as Americans we believe in being self-reliant. And affluent churches are filled with successful people who are pleased to use their gifts for God. But they don’t see the need for God’s help, as they are such very capable people.
I don’t know how to get people to pray as they should. But I’m thinking–and this is just a guess–that if we were more involved in the desperate, hurting lives of others, we’d be driven to our knees in prayer. As Jesus said, some demons only come out with prayer.
And so, in conclusion … what’s the solution?
The church-growth strategies of a few years ago were easy sells. Not many needed persuading that it would really help to upgrade our worship and classes and facilities. And it was, by and large, true. It just wasn’t enough.
This is a much tougher sell. We’re, quite understandably, afraid of the unknown. And this could easily lead to having different kinds of people in church. And who knows what kinds of decisions they’ll push on the rest of us!
We like our social club/community college churches. They are comfortable and safe. Giving them up is threatening. We’d rather keep debating doctrine and hosting parties (I mean, “fellowships”) for each other.
As a result, this will be a much slower, more difficult transition. Often, it will be the smaller churches that lead the way, as bigger churches have a lot of debt and a lot of inertia and can’t risk losing 20% of their members over an “experiment” such as this.
But some big churches will take the plunge. And a few will come up with methods that work and that can be reproduced in other churches. But every church and every community is different. And so, I doubt we’ll find a one-size-fits-all solution. But, hopefully, we’ll figure a way to share ideas–successes and failures–and work together to change the church–and the world–for the better.