“Ultimately, each church will be evaluated by only one thing – its disciples. If your disciples are passive, needy (“feed me,” “visit me,” “take care of my needs”), consumeristic, and not moving in the direction of radical obedience, your church is not good.”
“The unseen culture of a church powerfully shapes her ability to grow, mature and live missionally.” J.R. Woodward
The wonderful Presbyterian pastor, Craig Barnes has advanced – with considerable force – the singular notion that “It’s not about you.” A popular speaker at leadership conferences and as a guest in churches of every size, Barnes has crafted his “stump speech” around those four words. Thousands have heard those words enumerated in various and imaginative ways but the message remains: the work of the church is not, has not and never will be about “you.” What remains, of course, is the question, “Just what is the work of the church about?” Simply, the work of the church is about the Missio Dei – the Mission of God.
Unfortunately, something of a heresy has infected a great number of churches in North America. I limit this observation to North American churches only because my personal observation and reading has been so limited. The heresy of which I refer is a change of culture from the one that shaped the church of the New Testament; a change from the New Testament church’s self-understanding that it existed to advance the work of God in the world to the present North American understanding that the church exists to provide religious goods and services to it’s privileged members. As someone once observed, the Sunday morning offering has become membership dues and those that pay expect certain privileges. The church has become another club.
There is good news. Emerging in the last two decades is a recovery of the original charter of the church – the church exists for God’s ongoing work in the world. Church members, rather than being “club members” who demand goods and services are now identified as “disciples” who accept personal responsibility for God’s mission. Widely, this recovery is referenced as the “Missional Church.” Quite simply, this fresh understanding of the character and mission of the church is a movement from “What can the church do for me?” or even the more noble question, “What can I do for God?” to discernment of where God is presently at work and joining that work in a meaningful way.
Churches who are now possessed by this new culture are renouncing the heresy that once held the church captive. Abandoned are the artifacts of a culture that seeks to meet the personal needs of members. This old way of thinking about and being church is experiencing a New Testament rebirth that calls all church “disciples” to ministries appropriate to the spiritual gifts that they have been so endowed by God. Anything less is now recognized as idolatry – “me” before God.
How might a “membership” culture be changed into a “discipleship” culture? Reams of paper have absorbed gallons of black ink orchestrated by those seeking to address that question. Many helpful insights have been provided. What many have discovered is that specific tactics and strategies vary from region to region and church to church. Cultural change in a specific church is difficult work and requires more the careful hand of an artist than the blueprint of a strategist. But there are two biblical principles that drape over all tactics and strategies like a sacred canopy: repentance and prayer.
The Book of Jeremiah is instructive. In the eighteenth chapter, God has Moses tell the people – who are on the wrong track – that if they “turn from their evil,” then God’s response will be, “I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring.” What God is speaking of is “repentance,” by both the people and God. Simply, if the people turn and go the other way – the meaning of repentance – then God will also turn and go the other way. Many Christians are often surprised to learn that God has invited us into a dynamic relationship with God. And that relationship is sustained and nurtured like all relationships – through regular and substantive conversation. Such conversation with God is commonly called “prayer.”
Any cultural change within a particular congregation must begin with the leaders acknowledging that they are “going the wrong way.” Ministry that has been designed to serve the people and all their perceived needs must give way to a fresh commitment to the mission of God. Then leaders must do what leaders do – lead the people to a fresh encounter of the scriptures and understanding of the dominant theme found there – God’s mission in the world. Naturally, all leadership must acknowledge a dependence upon God for hearts to be changed and people mobilized for ministry. That is what will shape the content of their prayers.
This is not to say that people’s needs do matter to God. The church only has to point to the cross of Jesus to demonstrate God’s concern for God’s people. What scriptures do say is that ministries to the needs of the people is to be done by the people of the cross-shaped community – not necessarily by the leaders, ordained and elected. Leaders direct the people into meaningful participation in the mission of God and the people minister to one another as the larger mission of God is advanced. This is what the Reformed Church has called “the priesthood of all believers.”
Neil Cole is right. Each church will be evaluated by only one thing – its disciples. Attention to the expectations and behavior of any particular church will reveal whether it is a church that functions as another club in the community or a missionary force for God’s purposes.