There’s a great blog/podcast for church leaders that I love to follow, Carey Nieuwhof. One of the posts he wrote just before Christmas (http://careynieuwhof.com/2014/12/impending-death-rebirth-cool-church/) really resonated with me. As I’ve been involved with the discussion, I have also realized that I have a lot to say about this particular subject.
So, I thought I’d share it with you.
But, before I begin, let me be clear. I believe in the church. And I don’t like it when Christians tear down other Christians…when churches tear down other churches. This is not going to be that kind of a post. There’s plenty of content like that out there. It won’t take you long to find it.
With that said, I also think we need to be honest about the current state of the church. I don’t think we are doing ourselves any favors by trying to hide what is going on. The church is in decline.
Fighting for our former position in society will do us no good. It will not help if our interest is in “being seen as a Christian nation again.” I understand the desire. I do. But it is sideways energy.
And it is not the way for us to gain influence in our society. But, we’ll get to that in a bit.
Fighting for the former means.
I have always thought it should be the job of the older and wiser members of a church community who have the depth of understanding to be able to set preference aside. Never setting aside mission. But, set aside their personal preference because they understand the means are the vehicle for connecting with the next generation. I have no problem with a fight to keep the church on mission.
But too often the fight has nothing to do with mission.
Too often the fight is centered around personal preference, and it is mission that gets sacrificed. And when mission is the thing that gets put on the back burner, there is a whole pressure cooker of preference that it just waiting to blow beans all over the ceiling. (I may or may not have experienced first hand what happens when the pressure regulator comes off while pressure cooking beans…just as I may or may not have seen someone mop the ceiling.)
When preference takes over, we forget that the point of the church is the fulfillment of the great commission. This is our function. This is what we are designed for. When the means with which we accomplish that mission become more important than the mission itself, there will inevitably be fights, bickering, backlash, power grabbing and eventually division, strive, discord and ultimately the loss of influence in society.
Yes, there are other functions and activities that the church is supposed to do besides the great commission. But, if you’ll read Paul’s words carefully, you’ll also notice that the point of those functions is for the building up of the body. Those are the things we do to prepare us to do what we have been built to do.
This is where my concern for the church is exacerbated. This isn’t just a bump in the road for us. There is potential massive decline ahead of us. The baby boomer generation has begun to retire. Generation X is a smaller generation, by number, and have, in large part already left the church. And if we thought the church was struggling now, just imagine how it will be in 10-20 years when many of the boomers are gone. Now is the time to sound the alarm.
This means that our hope (as it has always been) lies solely is in reaching the next generations.
Too many churches have caused too much pain and sent a lot of people away from the church. For those who left because their preferences weren’t being met, I’m not that concerned. But for those who left because they didn’t want to be around those fighting for preference, I am greatly concerned. And as long as we’re focused on fighting to preserve what was relevant for us, we make the gospel and the church all about the preferences of those who are already in. And I don’t see that anywhere in scripture.
May I be frank for a moment and speak to my fellow Christians who are clinging to a means instead of mission? For the sake of the next generation, please let go. Please find it in yourself to become the support for the leaders of today’s church who are trying to reach the church of tomorrow. Don’t make their life miserable by clinging to your means. Make their life joyous by fighting for mission.
And if you’re a leader who is clinging to the means of of the past, for the sake of the mission that you once believed in – the mission that was at one time the passion that drove you to pursue ministry – please either get back on mission or get out of the way. (That may sound a little harsh, but I’m a pastor so I feel a little more freedom to speak sternly to my co-laborers.)
But, the pendulum has swung too far.
Just as the church has been greatly sidetracked by an outdated means of ministry, there is a completely separate faction that has swung to the opposite extreme. The extreme of cool.
Relevance is important. But cool does not equal relevant. Sometimes those are the methods that are relevant. But if the end goal is to be cool and hip, then we’ve lost track of mission too.
All the lights and video in the world will not necessarily make you relevant. If you don’t focus on mission, it doesn’t matter how cool your church is because you won’t be changing lives. You’ll just be attracting a crowd.
And there have been just as many casualties of cool as there were of outdated means. The church has sacrificed a great many souls on the altar of cool. If you are pursuing the coolest thing because that’s what’s cool, you’re not doing much better. And we will drive off just as many people.
What is the answer? How do we regain our influence?
It’s really quite simple. If we want to be heard, if we want to have influence, if we want to see a move of God, all we have to do is what we’ve been told to do. The mission.
We’ve lost our influence because we have exchanged mission for preference. We’ve lost our influence because we’ve sacrificed mission for our own selfish pursuits and pleasures. We are no longer credible because we’ve elevated ourselves over the work that Jesus did. I don’t know about you, but I’m so far from perfect and have made far too many mistakes to be the one who decides what the mission should be. We cannot allow ourselves in our imperfections to overthrow the mission. And if we can’t get back to that, we will never be heard.
Is relevance important? Yes. Is it more important than mission? I don’t think that’s the right question.
The question is, does the great commission require relevance?
18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
At first, my answer to that question was, “no.” But upon further study I have found that I was wrong. It’s not explicit in the text, but it is implicit. In a few ways.
1. All authority in heaven and on earth.
If Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth, aside from the apparent, could it not also imply that Jesus’ authority coupled with Jesus presence empowers us to accomplish the mission in whatever method is necessary?
I’m not talking sinful methods. I’m not talking manipulative methods. But, within what is useful for building the kingdom, doesn’t Jesus’ authority cover all manner of preference?
2. Make Disciples
What is necessary if you’re going to make disciples? You have to have people to disciple. If the people who are available for us to disciple can only be reached through a method that is different than our own preference, doesn’t that mean we need to change our method to even have the opportunity to disciple them?
Our most important task as followers of Jesus Christ is to make disciples. It is not to make ourselves comfortable. If making disciples requires us to be a little uncomfortable, then our job is set comfort aside so that we may receive the title of “good and faithful servant.”
3. Teach them to obey.
A part of making disciples is teaching. We have to teach people to obey Jesus’ commands. Does this require relevance? Well, have you ever tried to get children to listen to a long lecture? Have you ever tried to teach adults using sock puppets? I have. And because of that, I know that relevance is a requirement of teaching. Even more so if we are teaching for the purpose of obedience. It’s one thing to teach to dispense information. It’s something else entirely to teach for obedience.
I think the gospel is the most relevant message of all time. Its relevance transcends time. Christ died to save sinners. It doesn’t matter where you live, it doesn’t matter what language you speak. It doesn’t matter how old you are. If you’re a sinner, Christ died to save you.
If the gospel is the most relevant message of all time, why have we worked so hard to disguise it beneath to many layers of personal preference?
How do we save the church?
I hope that’s an alarming statement. It should be alarming because the church technically shouldn’t need to be saved. And yet it does. It needs to be saved from its continued pursuit of tarnishing the gospel of grace with things that have nothing to do with it.
But, the church needs some help.
I could be wrong. Definitely been wrong before. But it just seems that the trend is intensifying and with people not feeling societal pressure to be religious, they wont’ put up with irrelevance for much longer. They’ll just be done.
With the decline we have seen in the church’s influence, we don’t have the luxury of being irrelevant. We coasted for a long time because we had influence. But, those days are gone.
If we are going to change the world we live in, we have to live as those who are different. We have to have been changed by grace. We have to believe in the mission and give our lives for it. Our lukewarmness is what has made us unpalatable to the unbelieving world around us.
I guess the question is, do we believe enough to put mission first? If not, we have some repentance ahead of us.
And if we’re not willing to repent of our preferential ways, we should neither be surprised when our churches shut down.
We don’t get to forsake the mission. The mission is the most important thing. And we must do everything we can to fulfill it. Even if that means giving up things that are precious to us. Even if that means putting our preferences aside. Because, is it really worth holding on to your preference if it keeps someone from hearing the most relevant message of all time?
If we saw the mission of being the church as the most important thing, I don’t think we would care what the means are that we use to share that message. But by either fighting to retain what was relevant to us when we found Christ, but is no longer relevant to current and future generations or by dismissing the need for relevance as worldly we silence our own voice.
The saving grace for the church is to speak up. But not with protests and preferences. The way we speak up is to live out the mission. The way we speak up is to make the great commission the most important thing for us and our churches. Setting preference aside, let us press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of us.