Something a visiting speaker said this past weekend has crystallized an issue for me. He talked about his 35 years as a pastor, and said, "All those 35 years, our church was steadily growing, but at the same time, the divorces in my city were growing. At the same time more people were coming to church, teenage pregnancies were rising in my city. I was trying to grow my church instead of impact my city." Here’s what I wrote down:
NO: Grow the church, so the city can be impacted.
YES: Impact the city, and the church will grow.
Jesus said he would build his church, and commanded us to make disciples. It seems to me we’ve got it exactly opposite: we’re trying to build the church, and thinking Jesus will somehow make disciples out of people. Kind of like if we can just get them in the building, discipleship will hopefully happen automatically. We’re trying to do Jesus’ job, and expecting him to do ours. It’s easy to gather a crowd, but quite difficult to really make disciples (especially when you add in that "teaching them to do all that I have commanded" part). So we spend most of our time and energy making the crowd bigger, praying and hoping that somehow disciples will start vaporizing out of thin air.
I do think many pastors have a goal of impacting their city, but they feel that in order to actually do this, they need to grow large enough, or get enough money. They’ve got an "means to an end" kind of thinking, which usually goes something like this: "God has called me to have this kind of impact. In order to do that, I need x dollars, and x amount of people. I’d better get busy getting all those things together so I can do what God’s called me to do." We try to do God’s work man’s way. Years of ministry are spent programming and working toward the goal of getting enough money and people so that we can finally go about the business of having an impact. Trouble is once you get to the magic number, you find that 95% of your energy and resource goes toward making the weekend event happen, because that’s how you got the 1,000 people – you’ve attracted them to your event, and that’s what they’re expecting. They’re not really interested in this "impacting our city" business. And really it’s not fair to them to change the game at halftime. You "sold" them your "services", and they expect more of the same. They never signed up to impact a city, they signed up to hear great music, great speaking, and have their kids go to a great children’s ministry ("The membership fees are really low! You don’t really have to give anything!"). You wanted to gather a group of people who wanted to impact the city, but instead you’ve got a group of people who want you to put on a good show for them. But Jesus said "Seek first the kingdom, and everything else will be taken care of." God pays his bills. He doesn’t call without anointing. He doesn’t command without providing.
Yes, I’m being overly simplistic to make a point. But unless we change the way we "do church," we’re not going to change the kind of people are churches are producing. What kind of person do we want to deploy in the world? What kind of church produces that kind of person? What kind of leadership produces that kind of church? The way we structure church life sends a lot of subtle, but clear cues as to what the church is all about. Ultimately, if churches are going to be turned and transformed, leaders are going to have to step up and make some hard calls. We need to re-evaluate what it is we set out to do, and whether or not we actually trust Jesus to make it happen, if we’ll simply seek first the kingdom.