Something Bigger Than Ourselves

“Sadly, many people really are satisfied living as consumers, 
and they are just looking for a place to hold their beliefs together 
and to provide a sense of belonging relationally. 
In other words, all they want are some sermons and some friends. 
They aren’t looking for transformation, 
either for themselves or for the world.”
Hugh Halter
“It is tough to die for self and live for Christ.”
Bob Verhelle, Elder, Lenape Valley Presbyterian Church, New Britain, PA
     Listen carefully and you will hear many church members express sadness that the church seems to be losing ground in North America, particularly with college and post-college age young adults. Membership is down, worship attendance is down and overall interest in church is down, with some exceptions of course. What is unfortunate, writes Hugh Halter and other cultural observers, is that many of the churches that are the exception are the exception precisely because they appeal to the “consumer denominator” of the culture. That is, they offer what the consumer wants, excellent worship, excellent need-meeting programs and excellent facilities.
     Let’s be clear, there is nothing wrong with excellence. Every church should strive for excellence in ministry. Excellence is not the problem. Often the trouble for many churches which are large and apparently strong is that their ministry is only about the delivery of religious services in a consumer marketplace: making sure every need is met with excellence. Little attention is given to the question, “Are we building disciples whose concern is less with meeting personal needs and more concerned about advancing God’s kingdom?” Here is the test: How many times have you heard from someone that the reason they left a particular church is because “my needs” were not being met or “I” wasn’t being fed? Whoever told them that the church was “about them?”
     Reggie McNeal, a leading thinker and writer about missional church and missional-driven ministry, writes that we have it all wrong when we say the church has a mission. That suggests that we are in charge, which again makes it about “us.” No, writes McNeal, the church doesn’t have a mission, the mission has the church. What is important is not “us” but “God” and “God’s mission” in the world. And the church’s primary purpose is not to meet our needs but to be an instrument in the hands of God for advancing “God’s mission.”
     George Barna, another observer of cultural trends that influence the church, recently had his organization ask several thousand young adults why they weren’t interested in the Christian faith any longer. Their response was surprising. “You got it wrong. We are very interested in Jesus. It’s the church we have lost faith in because the church looks no different from the culture…the church seems to be about giving people what they want. We are tired of it being about ‘us’. We want to be about something bigger than us. When the church gives us that opportunity, we will return.”

Do You Have the Courage to Ask?

“My sense of centrality decreases and the influence of Jesus within me increases.”
Earl Creps – speaking of the inner change of persons who begin to live missionally.
     Here is one way of understanding what it means to be a MissionalChurch: a community of persons eagerly living for the Kingdom of God to come.
     Reggie McNeal, one of my teachers at Fuller Theological Seminary, made an interesting observation during my time in his class. He said that most church people are usually reluctant for the Kingdom of God to come. The unchurched persons living in our communities anticipate God’s Kingdom with great urgency. But those in the church are generally reluctant because church membership has become club membership. Familiar customs, traditions and relationships have been developed and club members don’t want to risk losing all of that with God coming along and doing something new.
     Club membership thinking is rarely recognized as such by those in the church, continues McNeal. Church members love God. They want to be about something that blesses others. Yet, in often subtle ways, they fall in love with the familiar and comfortable. Certain ways of doing things become the dominant culture of a local church. New people are invited to join, of course.  But they are invited only as long as they don’t move the furniture around and change cherished customs. No longer are church members willing to give-up their life, figuratively speaking, for the great commission of making new believers. They would rather settle for protecting the way things have always been done.
     I believe the primary reason for club membership thinking among church members is fear. Change in the world is growing exponentially – at a rather dizzying rate – and it always feels that we are about to lose our footing. If we can maintain familiar customs and language at church our lives are steadied. The winds of change may beat around us but at least in our church we can find a hiding place; a place where our spirits may rest. Trouble is – that is idolatry. If we seek rest in anyone or anything other than Jesus, we have misplaced our source of hope for the future.
     So what are we to do? According to the scriptures, we are to confess our idolatry and again place our hope in Jesus alone. And we are to pray. Pray that in following Jesus we may discover that our fears are absorbed in the cross and we become bold once again to look, listen and take notice of the new thing that God is doing all around us. Someone once said that prayer is “fast forwarding” the future – asking that God’s Kingdom will come, whatever it may mean for us personally. So the question becomes, do you have the courage to ask for the Kingdom to come?

“People don’t want to just read the responsive reading when they are told to.”
George Barna
“People are weary of all the constraints.”

Perhaps you are familiar with the famous story told by Peter Drucker: “This reporter stops by a construction site and he interviews three bricklayers. He asks the first bricklayer, ‘What are you doing?’ And he says, ‘Well, I’m making a living laying these bricks.’ The reporter says, ‘Oh, that’s great. That’s very noble.’ He asks the next bricklayer, ‘What are you doing?’ And he says, ‘Well, I am practicing the profession of bricklaying. I’m going to be best bricklayer ever.’ And the reporter asks the third bricklayer, ‘What are you doing?’ And he says, ‘I’m building a cathedral.’”
It seems to me that most of us want to contribute to building a cathedral. Trouble is we become so preoccupied with the process of building that cathedral that we forget why we even showed-up for work. Though it is true that the small things matter they can distract us from what its all about – building a cathedral. Of course, the cathedral I speak of is figurative for most of us. Our cathedral may be a meaningful relationship with another, a successful career, a comfortable retirement or purposeful involvement with a charitable and life-changing organization.
As disciples of Jesus Christ (or as “members of the church” some would say) we have each pledged ourselves to building the grandest of cathedrals, The Church of Jesus Christ. I’m not talking about buildings but about people – building people in relationship to the person of Jesus. Young congregations do this well, making new followers and multiplying disciples for Jesus Christ. And as a result, lives are transformed (Hear a mission statement in that somewhere?). Young congregations know that together they are building a cathedral. Unfortunately, as many congregations mature (grow older) they become bricklayers. More time is spent writing “Responsive Readings” for worship than making disciples and placing constraints upon people who want to do ministry. Example: Telling someone that before they do something great for Jesus in the church they must first have committee approval and then Session approval. And friends, do I need to tell you that both bricklayers and cathedral builders become tired? Yet, of the two, cathedral builders rarely notice.
If we are going to be effective for Jesus Christ many reading this will need to change their focus and the way they speak around the church. Bricklayers argue about such things as “the worship service is too long” or, “someone is sitting in my place.” Cathedral builders care more about whether lives are being changed.



“We intend what is right, but we avoid the life that would make it reality.”
I have met very few “bad” people in my ministry though defining “bad” with any precision is a slippery slope. Most people I know, and have known, are basically good and decent people. They have been people who belong to churches and people who don’t. Membership in a church is a weak benchmark for identifying the character of people. That conviction has continued to be strengthened by people I meet who demonstrate considerable generosity, both financially and with volunteer time to nonprofits, and have a grace about them that simply blesses all who know them – yet they personally appear to have no interest in the church.
Many of those good and decent people have also shared with me that they intend much more with their lives, greater generosity, greater demonstration of love for others and greater movement toward some identified set of aspirations, core values or moral standard. They want to be so much more than they are now. The difficulty is that identifying a pathway “from here to there” isn’t done. What they “intend” for their life is rarely realized by the lack of a purposeful approach.
For Christians, the primary “intention” for life is to grow in the character of Christ. This isn’t one choice among several. Christlikeness is the intention, it is what “Christian” literally means: to become a little Christ. Naturally, this intention will rarely be realized without a purposeful approach. What is unfortunate is that for some who take a purposeful approach to growing in the character of Christ, they take the wrong road. That road may be marked by profession of perfectly correct beliefs, more study of the Bible or greater participation in the activities of the church. These are certainly good activities but each are insufficient for realizing our intention to be Christlike.
Dallas Willard, perhaps the most influential thinker in spiritual formation today, argues that there are two primary objectives for realizing authentic character development in the likeness of Christ: falling dearly in love with our Heavenly Father, constantly delighting in Him and realizing that there is no condition to His love for us and disrupting habitual patterns of thought, feeling and action that diminish Christ in us. The first is developed through the regular reading of scripture, not for more information but to experience the presence of God and regular worship, private and corporate. The latter is accomplished by developing intentional practices that, over time< become formative of our nature such as the practice of solitude and prayer, expressing gratitude regularly and financial generosity. The life that is pattern by these two objectives will find its way into the embrace of Christ.