“…It would seem that this has all occurred because of the expectations of those around us, the expectations of other Christians. It is these false, man-centered expectations that have caused the dilemma we are in today. The expectations of God, and the challenges of the scriptures are diluted to fit into our easy, comfortable, certain, and risk-free lives…”
I am a people pleaser. Some might accuse me of loving attention, and being in the center of it. As a young man in the midst of “ministry”, “church planting”, or whatever you want to call it I am haunted by what the world deems as effective ministry. (Most define effectiveness by the numbers of people we are able to draw to ourselves, and into our weekly events). I have chosen to pursue the narrow path, though difficult, and seemingly impossible. By no means do I have it figured out, and will spend the rest of my life seeking to stay on this path. This is the path that seeks to pour into a few others at a very deep level. Loren Cunningham, in one of his books, breaks down what it would look like if each Christ follower spent three years pouring into 11 people, sending them out, and then starting over again. By the end of the 13th three-year cycle the entire world is reached with the Gospel of Jesus. The problem with this is that no individual could receive credit for a movement of God like the one described above. Only God could be traced back, and given credit for such a thing happening. I often wonder if any human will ever live in such a way that does not expect credit, or glory for things they think they have done, but insists that God be glorified.
I am convinced that man’s expectations for numerical growth have crippled the growth of the kingdom of God. I know far too many burned out “church planters” who sought to plant a church, but could not meet the high expectations of the “mother church”, or other supporters. On the other hand, I know far too many “church planters” who have “succeeded” in the numerical growth of a “congregation”, therefore, meeting man’s expectations for success, but generally speaking, have failed to raise up true disciples. Of course, the “success” puffs up, and leads to pride. God is soon squeezed out of the picture, and little Glory is given to His name. Man’s kingdom is grown, and God’s kingdom is seemingly ignored. The type of success described above usually revolves around a single person who is a type A, driven leader. (Please know that I am not referring to ANY one church in particular for either of these examples. If you are suspicious that I am speaking of YOUR church then you may be seeking the approval of someone besides God, and the mere fact that the word “YOUR” is before the word church should bring conviction from the Holy Spirit). Once again, I feel there is a healthy balance with everything. I do not think large churches that grow fast are bad. I simply feel that when the pursuit of numerical growth at a weekly event takes priority over discipleship we have strayed far from the example Jesus has left us in scripture. Of course, I do not know a single pastor who would actually admit to pursuing numerical growth over discipleship, but a simple glance at a church’s budget, and how much energy is put into weekly services is a simple way to reveal the truth.
A new metric for success: One challenge I frequently submit to myself, and others who seek the narrow path is this: “If you were to, hypothetically, remove the weekly service from the picture, what would be left? Clearly, if there is not a large ‘chunk of meat’ remaining (Home teams/small groups, local/global investment, outward focus, and other things that should function outside of a weekly event) then there is a problem.
The scary thing is that so many of us fall into the trap of what man tells us is “effective ministry”. I have, and continue to struggle with this daily. Though we say with our words, in theory, and on paper that we hold discipleship, accountability, seeking the welfare of our city, intimate relationships, etc. as highly important, our default is to focus on how smoothly run, and attractive our weekly service is. If we can successfully fill a room full of people once a week then we have accomplished success. Our vision begins to get cloudy, and we trick ourselves into thinking that our brilliantly communicated “sermons” are what is primarily needed in the lives of those involved in our churches.
Just one example: Barna Group research disturbingly shows that less than 25% of weekly church-goers attend a small group with other believers during the week. The good news is that this percentage has almost doubled since 1994. However, in 14 years we still have less than a quarter of our “congregations” plugged into an environment that allows for intimate, accountable, discipleship relationships. (http://www.barna.org/FlexPage.aspx?Page=Topic&TopicID=45) Scary.
We must stop treating people as numbers on our weekly attendance records, and start focusing on individuals. In order to do this we must drastically change the way we do things. We simply cannot continue doing the same things over and over expecting different results. One practical way to do this is to allocate more time, energy, efforts, and resources on things other than our weekly gatherings. I wonder what would happen if we shifted our view of “church” off of a weekly large group gathering, and onto developing intimate relationships with other believers in order to be Jesus in our neighborhoods, jobs, schools, lives, etc.?
Have our church buildings, and services become our idols? Have we accidentally allowed them to replace the pursuit of deep, Biblical community with others?
7 “In that day men will look to their Maker, and turn their eyes to the Holy One of Israel. 8 They will not look to the altars, the work of their hands, and they will have no regard for the Asherah poles [a] and the incense altars their fingers have made. 9 In that day their strong cities, which they left because of the Israelites, will be like places abandoned to thickets and undergrowth. And all will be desolation. 10 You have forgotten God your Savior; you have not remembered the Rock, your fortress. Therefore, though you set out the finest plants and plant imported vines, 11 though on the day you set them out, you make them grow, and on the morning when you plant them, you bring them to bud, yet the harvest will be as nothing in the day of disease and incurable pain.” Isaiah 17:7-11
“Jesus set us free from ourselves. Turn us to you, and your expectations. Empower us, by your Spirit in us, to grow YOUR kingdom, and not our own. Teach us how to seek your approval through our faith in you. Amen.”