As I’ve been pondering the problem the Willow Creek Community Church is struggling with, as described in their Reveal study, I’ve begun reading Robert Lewis’s The Church of Irresistible Influence. I happened across this quote in this 2001 book–
We saw more clearly than ever before that our church members were unchallenged and stifled because they were cut off from the divine mandate of bridge building [to the community]. It was easy to understand why many evangelical Christians sound strange, while looking so much like everyone else. Trapped in the small and mirrored room of introspection, reduced to the size of his or her own appetite, the average Christian has precious little motivation for real, radical change. With the Great Chasm [between church and community] uncrossed, the focus inevitably shifts from the transformed and compelling life–the necessity of becoming salt and light in a needy and searching world–to a much more superficial desire to “look Christian” to other Christians.
(p. 30) Wow! I wish I could write like that!
So, there it is. The reason so many evangelical Christian feel unfulfilled is that the church has focused on everything but being salt and light to the world. It does make sense.
Now consider how Lewis evaluates the results of this realization–
Today our church has moved forward and flourishes under the banner of this compelling idea. It has done exactly what great ideas do: it has challenged us to be more than a club. It has pushed us beyond the self-satisfying borders of success. It has pressed, rallied, and organized us to work at, pray for, and measure ourselves by, a much higher and weightier standard: influence. The kind of radical influence Jesus talked about. The kind that makes for peace, not war. The kind that serves, not shouts. The kind that draws admiration, not a reaction. The kind that connects with unbelievers, inspiring them to the point of actually drawing praise from their lips.
Few people at Fellowship Bible Church feel stagnant and bored any more–not since we have embraced the higher calling of bridge building.
Is it any wonder that churches so often settle for much less than what God has called them to do? If spiritual maturity is defined in terms of living the life and serving the world (which it should be), then most evangelical churches are, at best, investing in only the first half of the battle. Today we need the additional investment of developing a process that relentlessly equips people to serve better, not just live better. If not, we doom them to a self-focused immaturity and the church to the sidelines of the community. …
Now imagine the personal transition to [irresistible influence]! Making this move usually involves a reversal of critical perspective: from being served to serving, from finding community in the church to impacting the community as the church, from retreating to influencing, from isolation to engagement, from the church of my needs to the church of good deeds. I would challenge anyone to find a greater or more dramatic personal transition. It’s huge!
(p. 94). Notice how different this is from the old church-growth mantra of “meeting felt needs.” It’s the exact opposite!
It’s been said that “the church isn’t a museum for saints; it’s a hospital for sinners.” That’s not entirely true. We are more of a field hospital–a MASH unit that treats wounded soldiers so they can fight the good fight.
Now, I’m severely tempted just to sit here and retype the entire book … but that would violate several laws. So … buy the book. Or check it out of the church library. Read it.
Josh Hunt, a consultant on church growth, makes some important observations about the impact of this approach–
Can I make a confession? A lot of Sunday School lessons are boring to me. … How many lessons have I heard on, “You are sinning and you need to quit.” … I have studied it and studied it and studied it.
The implication of Hebrews 6.1 is that we ought to move on at some point. But, how do you move on without leaving some people behind? Some people clearly need the basics. The two-tiered approach could insure that everyone got the basics, but once you got the basics you could be challenged beyond the milk of the word.
To be clear, in the Little Rock model, people don’t move from the basic tier to advanced theology. They move from a small group to ministry. It is like we do in real life. We go to school for a while, then we go to work.
This is not the system we use, but it’s a solution to a problem we’ve wrestled with. How do we simultaneously meet the needs of new members and old? And how do we transition people from passive spectators and students to committed laborers in the Kingdom?
Now, consider this. Lewis’s church has been fabulously successful and his book has sold well. But very, very few churches have adopted his approach. Why not?
Meanwhile, Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Church has had a dramatic impact on the American church. Lots and lots of churches have a Membership 101 class. Hardly any expect all their members to be involved in ministry to the community after three years of study.
I’m a big Rick Warren fan and respect much of his work. But he seems to me to have a blind spot when it comes to benevolence. In The Purpose Driven Life, Warren lists 9 ways a Christian can grow close to God-
- Naturalists–by being outdoors
- Sensates (sounds like a genus of dinosaur, doesn’t it?)–love God with their senses (big on vanilla incense)
- Traditionalists–ritual, doing what they’ve been doing for 500 or so years, connection with the past
- Ascetics–solitude and simplicity
- Activists–doing something to make the world a better place
- Caregivers–by meeting the needs of others
- Contemplatives–love God through adoration
- Intellectuals–”love God by studying with their minds.”
Of course, this isn’t really a list of ways of growing close to God. It’s a list of ways of feeling close to God, and that’s a different matter altogether. Indeed, the unintended–but plainly taught–lesson is that we get to pick whether to be activists who try to “make the world a better place” or caregivers. If we’d rather meditate or sing or smell incense, that’s okay, too, just so long as we achieve a warm and fuzzy feeling about God.
Similarly, some teaching on spiritual formation speaks of Christians having four ways of approaching God–through study, prayer, contemplation, and service. Again, depending entirely on your personality type, you may spend your life in study or you may serve. It’s your choice. After all, Christianity is all about you.
This just so very American and Western. Christianity is buffet of self-indulgences–and it sells! Why wouldn’t it?
(Matt. 10:37-39) “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
(2 Cor. 5:15) And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.
Now, this is, in truth, a bit harsh as to Warren’s work. Warren’s church is very much involved in many good works. But it is nonetheless very typical of evangelical Christianity–stressing moral living, church and small group attendance, and spiritual disciplines, such as Bible study and prayer–but never really making the point that we were saved to have an impact on the world that surrounds us.
And so, in the next post, we’ll reflect a bit on why the American evangelical churches are so very reluctant to actually get involved in their surrounding communities.