Using the Wrong Business Model

When I was an undergraduate student there was much discussion and hand-wringing over the idea of churches using growth models created or perfected in the business world. Some thought it was the only way to go, as growth was growth was growth, and how it occurred should not be an issue. For others the very idea of using business strategies to grow the church was the moral equivalent of worshipping the the house of Baal, and even the thought of incorporating business models was met with the most vigorous gnashing of teeth.

Since I was not smart enough to know much about business, I guess I never really got that exorcised one way or the other.

However, I have now come to see at least one business model that should DEFINITELY NOT EVER be used by the Lord’s church for any purpose. Just for ease of identification, let’s call it the “high risk, high effort, low return” model of recruiting workers.

Because of our current financial situation, I am looking for a simple little part-time job that will help smooth out some little bumps over the next couple of years. I am not looking for an engineering position with NASA, just something for about 20 hours a week. What I have discovered is that many  industries CLAIM that they want seasoned workers, individuals who have a little experience and who know how to put in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, yet the very process they go about attracting said workers is diametrically opposed to the message they are trying to communicate.

Here is a “fer example.” A position opened up in a nearby school system. The pay would have been not much more than minimum wage, the work was basically menial work (the minimum education was an associate’s degree), but it would have allowed me to work with kids, and to get involved in the local community. I opened the process to apply.

It would have taken me close to an hour, if not more than an hour, to fill out the computerized application process. Ridiculously ineffective and counter-productive. I passed.

Consider the alternative: an ad is placed detailing the work and the requirements. At the bottom a simple little statement – if you think you are capable of filling this position, and would like to discuss the possibility further, please contact our office for a brief interview. Poof – all the glittery computer generated hoo-haw could still be completed at a later date, but the “human resources” person (a title that is increasingly becoming a profound contradiction in terms) could have a much better idea of how well the applicant could relate to children – and not just enter data on a computerized form. But, you see, that is not how business operates these days. Fill out the computer form. Let the computer do the analytics. Let the computer spit out the best candidate. Who needs people anymore? Especially in a “human resources” office??

Do we in the Lord’s church adhere to the same philosophy, if not the same technology?

Do we demand high investment, high effort, and high risk for people who are searching for a church home, and then only offer them low rewards for their interest?  Do we make them feel like they are barnacles on the cruise ship of our existence? Do we condescendingly suggest that if they prove themselves to be worthy of our love and attention, that maybe in five or ten years they might be able to assist in the children’s nursery?

I am not suggesting that every new convert who is baptized on the first Sunday of the month be given an adult class to teach on the second Sunday of the month. But, on the other hand, what if someone comes to the church with a lifetime of experience in education, in finance, in leadership, in volunteer organizations – and we still make them fulfill some “internship” or “catechism” before we surrender our precious power and allow them to exercise their strengths and abilities?

One of the simplest principles in all of Scripture to obey is the command to treat others the way we want, and would want, to be treated. Honestly, I don’t think some Christians treat their dogs with the same amount of disrespect and condescension that they treat visitors and new converts. They certainly do not treat those visitors and new members the way they would want their children to be treated – let alone how they would want to be treated.

Whether the church should learn from the business world or not is still a debate that I have not come to master. I guess it would have to depend on the tactic being discussed. I think many businesses use concepts that the church would do well to duplicate – but, my question would be did those concepts come from Scripture to begin with? My guess is, yes they did. Some obviously would not have originated with God’s word.

However, I do know there is one model that the church should run away from as fast as it can.

True growth in the kingdom begins at the bottom, and that is where we as the Lord’s disciples must be actively seeking to serve.

Changing Strategies for a Changeless Church

Read no further unless you consider the following texts: Isaiah 1:11, 16-17; Hosea 6:6 (and therefore Matthew 9:13, 12:7); Amos 5:14-15, 21-24; Micah 6:6-8; Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 4:18-19; James 1:27.

As is so often the case, I write one post thinking it will be a stand-alone, one-off post, and then all of a sudden I think (or am reminded by someone) of a tangential point, and then a rabbit pops up that needs to be chased, and all of a sudden I’m up to my armpits in blog posts. So, here is the third in an un-planned series that started with me stating unequivocally that the church does not have to change. I am adamant about that point. The core doctrines and practices of the church do not have to change, and in fact, if we do change them, we cease to be the church. I will not give an inch on that belief.

But that got me to thinking about all the ways in which individual congregations are dying, and what little changes they could make in order to reverse some of the decline. So, yesterday I started with the easiest, and most visible, changes that a congregation can consider – those of the physical building in which they meet. I am just astounded by the the fact that so many people are oblivious to the state of their building, and how much that disrepair communicates an unwillingness to change, or an outright statement of indifference.

In all honesty, I have to say that in today’s culture the building probably accounts for only 10-20% of a guest’s opinion of the church – although it is a critical 10 – 20%. That figure varies depending on region of the country and size of the community. In some locations the physical state of the building may rate higher, in some places it might barely matter. Regardless, there is no excuse for a shoddy building. If you are going to meet in one, make it a priority to have that building as visitor friendly as you can possibly make it.

Today I venture into the 80 – 90% of what our culture views as important, and that is the philosophy or philosophies that drive the work of the congregation. It is popular today to say that the “attraction” model of the church is dead – that the only churches that are growing have moved past an “attraction” model to one of involvement or of being “missional” (whatever that means – all I’ve learned is that it is “insider” lingo that if you use it you are cool, and if you don’t use it you are just so 20th century gauche). I have come to believe that thinking is wrong. Every model of church growth is attraction – the difference is how you are doing the attracting. Are you attracting by saying, “Come to our building and join our little band of Christians because we have everything right” or are you saying, “Come join our assembly; we are trying to change both ourselves and our world and we invite you to join us by changing your life and by helping us in our journey.” Both are attractions models, it is just the methodology that has changed.

So, what drives your congregation? If you cannot say off the top of your head, I have one simple test: how big is your bank account, and by looking at the line items of expenditures, where does most of your money go? That, my friends, will identify whether you are tied to your building, or whether you are actually attempting to move outside the walls and impact your community.

I have a couple of “fer real” stories to illustrate my point. In one congregation where my wife and I attended, the elders had a simple strategy regarding their bank account. Every December they looked at how much money was in the congregational bank account, and they looked at their various ministries. Then, based on the nature of the ministry, they divided that money up and sent it off – to preachers, missionaries, community charities – whatever they supported. They started every January with a $0.00 balance in their account. Silly, you say? Irrational, you argue? Reckless, you harrumph? But what about emergencies, what about crises?

The elders were brilliant men, of that I have no doubt. But beyond that they were men of great faith. They did not trust in the church bank account. If there was an emergency – a flood, a tornado, a fire – they knew that the Smith family had a bank account, and the Joneses had a bank account, and widow Brown had a bank account, and so did every other family in the congregation. They knew that on a moments notice those bank accounts would fly open and every need and every crisis would be overcome. They did not worry about what was in the “church” bank account, because (1) they trusted in the power and love of God and (2) they knew and trusted the hearts of their members. There was no question about the vision of the church. It was present each and every Sunday for everyone to witness and to share.

Second, one of our neighbor families could be described as one of the “nones” that everyone is so worried about. They would attend a church, but they were not really looking for correct doctrine or whether the service was done “decently and in order.” They looked at the bulletin to see what the members were up to. They were especially concerned to note whether the church was open about its finances. They wanted to know if the church was active in the community – feeding the hungry, clothing the cold, housing the homeless. Once those questions were met, then they would consider what most of us would consider the more important issues of doctrine and practice.

You see, many congregations are going to have to change their model of attraction. I still believe in the theory of being an attractional church. Jesus said in John 12:32 that, when he was raised up, he would draw all people unto him. I believe that was both prediction and promise. If we raise Christ, HE will draw people to his church. The question is, are we going to attempt to raise Christ up with philosophies that died decades ago – or are we going to get out into the community, roll up our sleeves, and get our fingers dirty?

Years ago many Churches of Christ shied away from community outreach because they believed (erroneously, I might add) that to do so was to participate in the “social gospel.” I believe that fear has to be firmly and finally eradicated from the mindset of many congregations if they are to stem the exodus of young families, and if they are to ever attract non-Christians to their worship services. Stated bluntly, but to borrow an old adage, people today do not care what you believe, unless and until they see you living what you believe. If we believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ, we are going to have to learn how to live that gospel. I am not saying we have to change our view of the roles of men and women, that we have to turn our worship services into three-ring (or three screen!) circuses, that we have to become “open and affirming” of sinful practices, that we have to change our view of salvation, church leadership, or our worship practices such as the Lord’s Supper. I repeat, the church cannot change certain immutable truths and practices.

But, returning to those texts I listed at the start of this post – can anyone seriously question that community outreach and care for those who cannot care for themselves is not a part of the gospel? That justice and mercy are any less important than baptism and the sanctity of marriage? That false (vain) worship is any less of a sin than homosexuality?

After one of my earlier posts, a good friend suggested that churches need to learn how to church. I know “church” is not a verb, but I like that thought. It’s brilliant, actually, even allowing for the grammatical imprecision. We need to learn how to church – beginning with personal discipleship (blog post #1) and moving through congregational re-alignment and re-dedication to serving their communities with the flesh and blood of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let us never surrender an inch of what the church is, and should be. But let us always be alert to ways in which the church can be the body of Christ in the community of which it is a part.

Change – or Die!

Yesterday I was emphatic – apoplectic almost – in denying that the church had to change. What must occur, I said then and I say now, is that individual members must learn what true discipleship means. When the concept of individual discipleship is fully grasped, differences between generations (that is fueling so much of the demands that the church must change) will disappear. There will not be a “builder church” or a “boomer church” or a “Gen X church” or a “millennial church.” There is only one church – Christ’s church, and we don’t get to make the rules. That was yesterday’s post.

Today I want to argue that some congregations must change, or they will die. I am drawing a fine line between a congregation and the one church. What was true for Ephesus might, or might not, have been true for Jerusalem or Rome. What was true for Corinth might or might not have been true for Antioch. Each congregation of the Lord’s people is unique and different, and so each has a life span, and in that life span there are changes and adjustments that need to be made.

What needs to be fully understood is that I am not talking about doctrine – God’s word stands firm and I don’t need to or want to repeat yesterday’s post. We cannot add to or subtract from teaching that is as old as the apostles. Some things never change – and the church does not have permission to re-write holy Scripture.

What I am talking about is the aspects of a congregation that have nothing to do with God’s word. I am talking about meeting places and philosophies that drive a congregation. I am talking about things that might have been true one or even two generations ago, but are simply no longer valid (or, be as important as they once were). Congregations that meet in homes do not share as many of these issues. Congregations that rent space to meet have a few, but not as many. Congregations that own their meeting spaces have most, if not all, of these issues.

Just as a starter – walk around your building (if you rent or own) as if it was the first time you entered the building. Block out all previous experiences. Walk in with the wild eyed wonder of a child. Look with eyes that have not seen before. Get as many member as you can to join you.

How bright is the building? How many unlit or burned out light bulbs are there? How welcoming is the general entrance? Are there signs pointing to rest rooms? Are there signs pointing to the main auditorium? Are there signs pointing to classrooms? Is there someone posted near the front who can answer general questions (maybe not accosting people as they enter, but conveniently close enough to be helpful)? Is the carpet clean? When was the last time it was vacuumed, or deep cleaned? Is it worn or does it need to be re-stretched?

Walk into the auditorium. Does it have pews or chairs? Are the pews so long that no one (and I repeat, not even a long time member) will sit in the middle of the pew? Are the pews so close together that there is no room for diaper bags or walkers or walking canes? Are the pews upholstered or bare? If upholstered, are they clean or do they show the results of far too many communion service boo-boos? Do you still use song books? If so, in what state are they? Are they new and fresh, or “rode hard and put up wet”? Do you have a pulpit? If so, how “separate” and apart from the people does it present the preacher? Is the preacher glued to one microphone or do you have a wireless microphone system? How well does the sound system project? Are there dead spots in the auditorium? If you use an over-head projector, is the screen blocked at any point? Do members sitting on the extreme edges have a clear view of the screen, or is it distorted? How fresh is the projector bulb, or lighting arrangement? Do you have the ability to dim the lights in the auditorium, or is it “all on or all off”?

Walk down a hallway. Are the bulletin boards bright and cheerful, updated frequently? Are class rooms bright and inviting? Are teachers present EARLY enough to greet every student? Is the furniture in each room age appropriate? Do you have available technology for each classroom (TV or video monitors, overhead projectors, etc.) In classrooms for small children, is there enough staff so that a child (or children) are not left with one single adult at any time? Do you have a system so that only a parent (or designated other) can claim a child after class? If doors close and lock, do you have a glass window so parents (and others) can view the room?

Visit the restrooms for both males and females. Are they clean, bright, and fresh? Are there appropriate supplies (toilet paper, soap, paper towels or hand dryers, hand lotion, tissues)? Do you have adequate space for the handicapped? Do you have adequate accommodations for the little ones – step stools or smaller facilities? And, sad to even ask the question, are the facilities clearly marked and do you have a policy clearly stating that the restrooms are for the  gender of biological birth and not some whimsical choice?

What about the outside? Is the parking lot clearly striped? Are there spaces reserved for handicapped? Are there spaces reserved specifically for guests and visitors? Do you have members outside to meet and greet visitors? If you have a lawn and landscaping, is it cared for weekly? Is there signage directing guests to the main entrance? Is there adequate assistance for those in wheelchairs, walkers, or with small children? If there is a playground for children, is it monitored? Is there a place for the littlest ones to play free from harassment from the older ones? Do you have a video surveillance system? If so, is that fact clearly identified? If your meeting space is in an area that is prone to theft, do you have regular patrols protecting the vehicles of your members and guests?

I could probably go on, but I think you get the idea. Every single one of these questions will be answered by your guests. Your members may not even notice, and that’s the rub. When most members of a congregation walk into the building they don’t even see those things. They see weddings, and funerals, and special VBS days, and they see the faces of the saints that used to sit on the left hand side five pews back. A visiter will notice if he or she has to ask for directions to the restroom, if there is no toilet paper in the stall they use, if the carpet is dirty, ripped, or worn, if they have to sit on a cramped, bare pew, if it is so dark they cannot read their Bible, if they cannot hear the preacher, if they have to wait past the start of class time for their child’s teacher to show up, if their song book does not have the page the song leader calls out. Visitors will notice – and judge. And, rightfully so! Nothing says “We do not care about growing, in fact, we would rather die” more than a building that is a poster child for neglect and carelessness.

Most buildings were built during the age, or at the very least, with the philosophy of “build it and they will come.” That theory no longer holds true. The outreach of a congregation now is more important than the building (next blog post!), but at some point a guest is going to want to visit the worship assembly of the congregation. What I wanted to point out in this post is that, except in very rare cases where there is a member (or a group of members) who are really sharp about these issues, a congregation can actually communicate that it is NOT interested in outsiders and visitors by the condition of its building. If that is the case, no preacher, no teacher, no new program, no latest and greatest church growth model, will change the guest’s opinion of the congregation.

And, if said congregation is unwilling to change, it will die. It will take time, obviously, but the last one out the door will turn off the lights and they won’t come on again.

For some congregations all that is needed is a wake-up call and a general work day. For others it may mean spending several thousands of dollars refurbishing and re-newing their worship and education space.

The church of Christ cannot change – but look at your meeting place carefully. Your congregation might have to!

GOAT Debates, Stupidity, and a Theological Connection

A few posts back I pointed out that I rarely write on purely political issues. I never write on sports related topics, because this is a blog on issues related to theology, and also because so few people share my brilliance in sports conversations that it would be embarrassing if I did so (joke!). Alas, most rules are made to be broken, and I find myself beside myself with frustration approaching apocalyptic proportions, so I figured I had better get this post out of my system.

As I write this the NBA finals are in progress, and so is a debate regarding who is the greatest of all time (GOAT) in the history of the National Basketball Association. During football season the same debate occurs, so it is not a malady that is restricted to the NBA. I find these debates inane, insane, vacuous, foolish, asinine, absurd, frivolous, fatuous – my thesaurus fails me. They are ridiculous. I make that conclusion based on three indisputable facts: (1) the overwhelming majority of those engaged in such debates are barely out of their second decade of life. Their “all time” basically amounts to what has occurred since the early 2000’s. (2) The players they think are the GOAT are playing now – duh. It is just “Chronological Snobbery” on steroids. It if is today it has to be the GOAT, there is no yesterday in these yokel’s life. That leads me to (3), these mouthpieces and their loyal minions have absolutely no sense of sports history – or of history at all, for that matter. Here is where the entire conversation breaks down because of its utter, complete, and total, absurdity, vapidity, and idiocy.

Consider the debate in the NBA – the two names most frequently put forward are Michael Jordan and LeBron James, two made-for-TV stars who have piled up almost as many fans as they have millions of dollars. No Kareem Abdul Jabbar, no Bill Russell, no Larry Bird, no Magic Johnson, no Wilt Chamberlain no “Dr. J” Julius Erving, no “Pistol Pete” Maravich. The debate is so bogus as to be – well, see the adjectives above. The points of contention between the contestants are usually points scored, games won, championships won, and some other more esoteric stats. But, just for a history lesson for those of you who are uninitiated, let us consider how the game of basketball has changed:

  • Before 1954 there was no shot clock.
  • Before 1951 the free-throw lane was 6 feet wide. In ’51 it was widened to 12 feet, and then in 1964 it was widened again to 16 feet because of the dominance of Wilt Chamberlain.
  • In 1978 the officiating crews were increased from 2 to 3 officials. The number was then reduced back to two, and a few years later increased back to three.
  • In 1979 the three point line was introduced. It’s furthest point has varied between 23 feet 9 inches and 22 feet (the furthest it can realistically be placed in the corners of the court).
  • Before 2001 defenses had to play man-to-man defense, and a variety of rules regulated illegal defenses. In 2001 those restrictions were completely eliminated.
  • For some fascinating reading, check out double u double u double u dot NBA dot come slash analysis slash rules underscore history dot html.

The point is, a player in 1979 was awarded three points for the exact same shot he would have been awarded two points for just a few months earlier. Jordan and James are both the beneficiaries of a wide-open, perimeter game that did not exist prior to the three-point line being introduced. Players prior to 1954 were schooled in the “get ahead and ice the game” theory of winning games – after 1954 the pace of the game has increased, and with it the opportunities to score greater and greater number of points. The number of referees clearly has an impact on the game – those who played with two refs played a different game than those who have played with three refs. In terms of rule changes, eliminating the “illegal defense” penalty was huge. Once again – to compare offensive statistics today to those of decades past is to compare apples to oranges.  And, for my coup de grace, one single player was responsible for adding four feet to the width of the free throw lane – the afore mentioned Wilt Chamberlain.

Michael Jordan did not change the game. There will never be a “LeBron James” rule – well, except that players favored by the NBA/ESPN will never be officiated equally with the hoi poloi, the common masses. Wilt Chamberlain changed the game. “Dr. J.” Julius Erving changed the game with his unequaled athleticism. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson changed the game in a way that has had a profound impact for Jordan and James – moving the game from the post to the perimeter. All of this is lost in all the chatter about points and championships and blather, blather, blather.

Space does not allow an equal examination of the NFL, but let us just consider a couple of questions: do you honestly think Tom Brady or Drew Brees would have the kind of numbers they have if they had to play with the same rules that governed the game when Fran Tarkenton or Roger Staubach played? Or just reverse the question – what kind of numbers could Staubach or Tarkenton or Terry Bradshaw or Kenny Stabler have produced if they had played with the same kind of receiver friendly, “don’t touch the quarterback” kind of rules that benefit today’s tutu wearing prima-donnas?  I rest my case before I am thrown out of court for my obvious contempt for that very same court.

Before I get too far astray with sports, let me ask, is there a connection to theology here? Yes, and I’m glad I asked. The same incomprehensible lack of knowledge of, and even interest in, matters of church history is plaguing the church today. It it was said, or written, before, say, 1980 (just to be generous) whatever was said or written is bunk, garbage, worthless. I received my D.Min. in 2015, and the method of church growth that was the front burner issue for my classmates is now considered to be passé. The great theologians of the church are not just ignored, they are openly scoffed at – oh, the humanity!

My point, so brilliantly illustrated (by the facts themselves, not by me) by the GOAT debates in the NBA and NFL, is that without a firm knowledge of, and even a love for, our history, we make some of the dumbest, stupidest, most vacuous and ridiculous statements. We live in the present – to be sure there is no going back – but our present was created by the past. To argue in sports who is the greatest of one generation – that has some merit, as long as the rules of the game are the same and each “contestant” has had the same limitations/benefits as the others. So, to argue whether Jordan was better than James is a legitimate debate as is if Brady is better than Brees or Rodgers. But to argue who is the greatest of all time? Oy. Beam me up Scotty, there is no intelligent life on this planet.

In the church, we cannot return to a glorious “golden decade” or century or whatever, because one never existed in the first place. We do not have to fight the same battles our forefathers (and mothers) fought, nor could they have imagined the battles we must fight. If we try to keep fighting battles that were done and over with decades (or centuries) ago, we are only wasting our time. If we do not address the issues facing the church to day – well, who will?

We learn from our past in order to be better equipped to fight our battles today. We should not worship our past heroes, but let us never forget them, either. Let us love and cherish our history for one very important reason if for no other:

If we know our history, at least we will not be stupid enough to waste our time with debates about the GOAT.

Sports rant over, hopefully for ever. We now return this blog to its original intended purpose.

The Bible’s Greatest Silence . . . and the Church’s Loudest Cry

I don’t know what got me started on this, but something dawned on me the other day. The Bible says absolutely nothing about a topic that, you would think from the amount of ink (and pixels) it receives, is the most important subject in the entire canon. That subject is making the message of the Bible relevant, or “contextualizing” it, to the culture to which it is spoken. You can search from Genesis to the maps in the back of your Bible and you just will not find God telling his prophets (or authors) to make sure they write, and speak, so as not to offend or criticize their audience. Yet, again, you would think that the greatest offense of the church in the twenty-first century is doing just that.

I guess I started thinking about this because in my daily Bible reading I am reading through Isaiah and Jeremiah. Both of these prophets are just brutal when it comes to pillorying their opponents, the idolaters. Or, if you would like, read Ezekiel and see what he thinks of those who say they are married to God and yet sleep with other gods. Keep going and see how Micah, Amos, Hosea, and the other “minor” prophets deal with apostasy, idolatry, and social injustice. I think Amos calling the aristocratic ladies of Israel a bunch of “fat heifers” (in the West Texas translation of the Bible) was a brilliant stroke of political correctness (not!).

Yet, in today’s limp-wristed, namby-pamby world of emotionally insecure snowflakes, such language is just atrocious (see what I did there?). Preachers have to be “culturally sensitive” lest they be accused of being “tone deaf,” “judgmental,” and “unfeeling.” Grrrr. If you remove all the “tone deaf, judgmental, and unfeeling” sections out of the Bible, what are you left with? Remember Jesus called his opponents a bunch of snakes? I am not suggesting we today have the same kind of clairvoyance that Jesus had, but honestly . . . to think that he never offended anyone is just ludicrous.

But, but, but – what about Paul and the Athenians, you ask? Okay – let’s go there. First, Paul was invited to speak at the Areopagus because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection, not because he was espousing Plato and Aristotle. Second, it did not take Paul long at all before he got to the point about God’s judgment and the need for the Athenians to repent. And finally, while he did have some success in Athens, Luke leads us to believe that the majority of Paul’s audience either mocked or just ignored him. The problem was not Paul – it was the Athenian refusal to hear God’s word.

God never berates his spokesmen (and women) because they do not “contextualize” their message. In fact, it is the very opposite. God only blames the hearer, not the preacher, for unbelief. Such audiences have “ears to hear, but do not hear, and eyes to see, but do not see.” If the message is God’s message, then the responsibility is on the hearer, not the preacher, for acceptance. God never  reprimanded Isaiah or Jeremiah or Ezekiel or any other prophet because the people’s ears were plugged up or because their hearts were hard as stone.

I don’t think today’s problem in the church is that we do not contextualize the message.

I think the problem today is we don’t believe the message ourselves – so why should the world think any different?

What Would Happen If You Disappeared?

What would happen if you disappeared? Well, not you personally, but what would happen if your Bible class, your small group study, even your congregation disappeared? Disappeared as in, poof, and you are gone – no farewell speeches, no lingering goodbyes, no last words of comfort. I am not talking about would you miss that class, small group, or congregation. Obviously I think the answer to that question is “yes.” I am asking if others in your congregation, or your community, would notice?

Would your congregation truly miss your Bible class, or would things just go on as normal, albeit with a smaller number in the record book? Would your congregation miss your small group Bible study, or would they even notice your absence? And, more critically, would your community miss your congregation if it just suddenly ceased to exist?

These are tough questions that very likely cause some discomfort. We all want to think that we are important, that we are contributing to the welfare of our congregations and our communities, that we would be missed a la George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life if we just were no longer around.

Another way to ask the question is this, “What is the reason your Bible class, your small group study, or your congregation, exists?” The answer to that question will be revealing. If the only answer you can come up with is to be the one, true, pure and undefiled Bible class, small group, or church congregation, then I will bet dollars against dimes that no one would even notice if you ceased to exist. (Either that, or they might rejoice.)

You see, no one who meets to study the Bible or to form a small group Bible study, or even to form a Christian church congregation does so with the express purpose of being a wrong-headed, corrupt, run-of-the-mill, pure vanilla Bible study, small group or church. Every Bible class proclaims fidelity to the text. Every small group believes itself to be special. Every congregation makes a claim to be the church, or at the very least a vital part of the entire church. Nobody intentionally promotes obscurity and inferiority. So, if your only claim to fame, or for existence, is that you are somehow special, join the list of every other special group or church. To paraphrase one of my favorite lines in Fiddler on the Roof, “a rabbi who praises himself has a congregation of one.” You will not have much of an influence.

I suggest that if you want your Bible class, small group study, and especially your congregation, to have any kind of meaning in this world, you had better have more purpose for its existence than just being different, or more special, or more unique, or some other qualifying adjective. Virtually every survey and study over the past 10 years has documented how members are leaving Christian churches by the hundreds. People are simply fed up with endless arguments over subjects that have about as much meaning as the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. Unchurched people, and dis-enthused former members, are seeking for a Christianity that has a pulse – that is vital and real and meaningful. Doctrine does matter – it matters a lot* – but only if it can be embodied, if it becomes an incarnational truth.

Have you noticed that at the end of the first, and arguably the definitive, sermon in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus stated that only the person who does the will of my Father will enter the Kingdom of Heaven? (Matthew 7:21-23) The sermon that has been “spiritualized” to death is one of the most definitive statements that stresses concrete obedience as opposed to mere consent.

Ask your preacher. Ask your elders. Ask your deacons. Ask your Bible school teacher. Demand an answer from yourself. If your group disappeared today, would anyone notice tomorrow?

*Studies have shown that those congregations and groups that are managing to grow in this climate of shrinking churches are those congregations and groups that have clearly demarcated doctrines and beliefs. Those doctrines might be Calvinistic or Arminian, charismatic or fundamentalist, but those doctrines must translate into changed lives and meaningful ministry. People are NOT doctrine-phobic as some might believe, but they are discerning when it comes to identifying doctrines that matter, and those that are just used to separate those who say shibboleth from those who say sibboleth.

Making It Real

There is an old saying that has renewed relevance in today’s religious world. I grew up hearing of Christians who were “so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good.” It was a sharp comment; it needs to be pulled out and sharpened a little bit more. All across America, and indeed throughout the Western world, authentic biblical Christianity is taking a beating. Not only is the philosophy of humanistic atheism experiencing somewhat of a rebound, but people are leaving churches by the scores. What is occurring, and why it is occurring, are questions that occupy both sociologists and theologians. I think one answer that deserves some examination is the idea that for far too many people Christianity has simply become a concept to think about, a few doctrines and principles to believe. However, for real life, one must turn to philosophy, and increasingly that philosophy is rooted in the self. This is true of both secularists and Christians!

I want to illustrate my argument with a common scene – one that I encounter quite frequently but one that I am sure any of my readers have experienced as well. Maybe even you are guilty. But picture a class or discussion where the teacher is really getting personal – really getting down to “brass tacks” and laying things out “where the rubber meets the road.” He, or she, can begin to see some light bulbs come on, and there are some signs that the class is beginning to formulate some honest-to-goodness concrete applications for the lesson. Then, just as some real work is about to take place, the resident Pharisee blows the entire discussion up with a comment that, on the surface appears to be a profound addition to the conversation, but in reality shifts the entire focus off of a concrete (and therefore possibly costly) application and places it in the realm of a “spiritual” application that is utterly worthless.

You see, the Pharisees (or perhaps to be fair, at least a sizable majority of them) had no problem with spiritual application of the biblical text of their day. The Pharisee that came to test Jesus knew the greatest command of the law, and the second as well. It was no problem to assert that one was to love God, and to love one’s neighbor. The Pharisee just could not get his mind wrapped around the idea that a Samaritan, of all people, might actually be the example of biblical love that God was commanding, and that waylaid, half-dead travelers might actually be the necessary recipient of  such love.

What is going on that so many people are leaving the church, and why so many people are hesitant to consider becoming a part of the church? Another “preacher’s story” might help. A little boy and his father were discussing the sermon they had just heard. The little boy asked his father, “Daddy, what is a Christian?” The father went into great detail about how a Christian is one who has dedicated his life to Jesus, who lives according to God’s word, who tries in many ways to make the world a better place, and who realizes he is not perfect but still tries to be the kind of person that God wants him or her to be. The little boy was quiet for a while and then said, “Wow, daddy – do we know any Christians?”

I have to confess that for far too long I have been a part of the problem and not a part of the solution. It is far too easy for me to retreat into the “spiritual” so that the “real” does not cost me anything. Also, when someone attempts to blow up my classes with a “Sunday School Answer” that is meant to spiritualize the application instead of making it explicit and verifiable, I acquiesce far too easily.

Let’s be honest here – I want the Pharisee’s answer, not Jesus’s.

One of the things I have learned from reading the Old Testament carefully and meditatively (my “spiritual” side) is that God was really, seriously concerned that hungry people be fed, that naked people be clothed, that poor people be given the chance to earn their keep, that issues of justice be administered fairly without any fear of bribery or other manipulation. I am utterly convinced that Jesus, the twelve apostles, Paul, Luke, and the Holy Spirit who inspired the New Testament authors are just as vitally concerned about those issues.

A man cannot hear the gospel if his stomach is growling.

What we call “spirituality” and the concrete issues of social, racial, economic, and environmental justice are not polar opposites. The church has been duped into thinking that we either focus on “saving someone’s soul” or making sure they have a decent job, adequate clothing and enough food on the table. Why should anyone pay any attention to our pleas that they be baptized if they know we steadfastly support efforts to deny them basic God-given rights?

I have been asked what is the greatest problem facing the church today. I have been asked what my thoughts are as to how we can reverse the trend of people leaving the church. I honestly do not have the perfect answer, but I think I have a clue: If we want people to fall in love with Jesus to the point that they will commit their lives to him and become active, productive members of his body, maybe, just maybe, his body needs to start caring about what God cares about and behaving like Jesus behaved.

Philippians 2:1-17, anyone?