A Collaboration or a Conflict?
On my way to the church that I visited on Sunday morning, I passed another congregation of the same general denominational family not six blocks away from it. In its courtyard were bounce houses and dunking booths and on the street out in front of it were food trucks. At 10 am on Sunday morning they were having a carnival and it had gathered quite a crowd.
There was still space in the parking lot at church where I worshiped when I arrived, and there was plenty of room in the pews throughout the service that I attended. Lots of Scripture was read. Meaningful prayers were offered. An intelligent and helpful message was preached. Communion was celebrated. And the community was both engaged and engaging. And the 60 or so of us who were there were blessed.
Both of these churches are self-avowedly “evangelical” or “evangelistic.” Both of these churches want to grow. Neither would disagree that the Great Commission is a big part of why they exist. They both have a “zeal for souls.” If asked, they both would say that people need the Gospel, and that it is their job to make it known. But they are going about it very differently, and here is what I am wrestling with this week – which one has got it right?
As you know if you have been following my blogs, one of the questions that I am devoting myself to on my Sabbatical is the question of how can we become more actively and authentically evangelistic as a church. I’m not interested in just finding a program that works; I’m interested in discovering where the strand of evangelism is in our congregational DNA.
My experience with diets, and I’ve had plenty, is that you can always lose weight on one, but to keep the weight off then you are going to need more than a diet. You’re going to need a change in your lifestyle, and that’s the approach that I’m taking on this evangelism question.
Already it is very clear to me from my reading and visits that to be evangelistic you’ve got to believe that you have something that other people really need. You’ve got to have something to give away, and you’ve got to be convinced that it matters enough for you to be offering it to others. This poses two big questions right away for us at Northway – (1) “What is it that we have?” and (2) “How important is it to us?” The answer that I consistently preach and teach is that the treasure we have as a church is our relationship with God in Jesus Christ, the “Gospel” of forgiveness and reconciliation. This is why we observe the Lord’s Supper every Sunday morning. It’s our touchstone. But this is not Northway’s alone. It is the common treasure of all who call themselves Christians.
What we uniquely “have” as a church is a “thrilling and dynamic window into the Christian Faith and God’s purpose in the world” that is our “particular gift within the larger family of God” (Robert Thornton Henderson). There were some things that the founders of our denominational tradition believed were important enough for them to separate from their Presbyterian origins to become a different kind of church with some different beliefs and practices. Do you know what those things were?
There was passion and conviction in our denominational witness at the beginning of our life, a unique reason to be. Is there still? One of the historians of our Movement used to say that if we don’t remain true to what it is that first brought us into being that we have thereby forfeited our right to continued existence. Does this explain our denominational and congregational decline? Is part of our problem that we don’t know who we are or what we have, and we just aren’t concerned enough about it to find out more about it? I can guarantee you that a church for whom this is true will not be evangelistic. They don’t care enough to be.
This is the first evangelism hurdle that we’ve got to clear. But once it’s settled and we have concluded that what we have matters enough to us to want to share it with others, then the question that I’m wrestling with this week comes into view: “How are we to go about sharing this treasure that we have?”
The two churches from Sunday both believe that they’ve got a treasure that the world really needs, and they’ve both rightly identified that treasure as Jesus Christ. They both have confidence in the Gospel. But how they are choosing to go about offering what it is that they believe they have to the world around them is very different.
The church I attended on Sunday is what I would describe as an “ordinary means of grace” church. So is Northway. We, just like them preach the Word and celebrate the sacraments faithfully. We, just like them pray and practice community, weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice. And we, just like them are actively engaged in mercy ministries from our front doorsteps to the ends of the earth according to our abilities and opportunities. The conviction of an “ordinary means of grace” church is that when you are “Christ-centered” in these sorts of ways that there will be an attraction. Seeing that God is present with us in our life, people will be drawn to us by their hunger for God, and by the evidence that this is a church where they will be fed and can be spiritually satisfied.
The church I drove past on Sunday morning is what I would describe as a “market-driven” church. Their strategy is to gather a crowd anyway they can. Get them on your campus with food trucks and hot air balloons, any bell and whistle that can get their attention will work. It doesn’t have to be crass. It can actually be quite cultured. I’m listening to WRR Classical Music 101.1 as I write my book these days, and every 15 minutes or so there’s a commercial about this church or that church putting on some classical musical program and inviting the public to attend. There are so many in a day that I honestly lose track of the what, and the who, and the where, and the when? But it’s clear to me what they’re thinking. We’ll get them in through the doors with Bruckner or Berlioz, and then when they aren’t looking, we’ll hit them with the Bible and a colorful brochure about the church. It’s a marketing strategy. Jay Lemke called it “the spiritual; bait and switch.”
A relatively recent Gallup Poll indicates that only half of adults surveyed could name any of the four Gospels. My sinking heart tells me more than half of Americans could name one of the judges on American Idol. And this lack of Bible knowledge also translates into a lack of church attendance and affiliation…
So what does the church do to combat this pathetic reality? The modern church, in all its human wisdom, has decided to be something it’s not. For example, to show men that the church is masculine and cool, we plan things like rock climbing adventures and paint ball excursions; and we have conferences that teach men how to be better fathers and husbands. For women, it is much the same: Christianity is there to help you be a better wife, raise better kids, and have a more contented life. Not that there is anything wrong with these things per se, but it misses the main point by a mile.
…Many in the American church seem intent to communicate under false pretenses… We’ll bring people in with music, food, fun, and games; and we’ll make them think being a Christian is about whatever interests them. We’ll play on their felt needs, and we’ll do research to determine what “seekers” want in a church. We’ll stick our collective fingers in the air and then we’ll become what people what us to be. And finally, after all of that work, once we have people in the church, we may eventually get around to telling them, “Oh, by the way, Jesus died for your sins.”
…Whether overtly or subtly, we are telling people they should be Christians because it will make them better in their particular area of interest. The American church is playing a huge game of spiritual bait and switch. At some level, we must be ashamed of the basic message of Christianity, and we don’t believe that on its own it is powerfully interesting-to men, to women, to boys, and to girls. [http://www.modernreformation.org]
In many ways this is the struggle that has been raging in the American soul since the days of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and Charles Finney (1792-1875). Two of the greatest evangelist/theologians that the world has ever known, they had very different ideas about how people become Christians and join the church.
Jonathan Edwards was an “ordinary Means of Grace” church evangelist. He said that it was the church’s job to be faithful to Jesus Christ and it was God’s job to draw people to it. Genuine conversion is the work of the Word and the Spirit. We can’t do anything to make people believe and join the church. All we can do is to be as faithful to the Gospel as we possibly can so that when God brings people to us, the saving work of God in Jesus Christ will be plainly seen and readily accessible. This was the approach of the church that I attended on Sunday.
Charles Finney was a “market-driven” church evangelist. He believed that if you will just scratch where people itch, and do it with enough flash and flair, then they will come to get scratched by you, and while you’ve got them there being scratched, if you are clever and creative enough, then you can convince them to become Christians and join the church. This appeared to me to be the approach of the church that I drove past on Sunday morning.
My struggle is that I want to believe that Jonathan Edwards is right, but what I see is that Charles Finney works. The carnival at the church that I drove past last Sunday morning was jammed. The pews of the church where I sat were not. So, is the solution more bounce houses and food trucks? I’m not ready to draw any conclusions yet. But some things are becoming clear.
- We’ve got to recover “a passion for souls” and a confidence in the Gospel at Northway. We’ve got to know who we are and what it is that we have to offer as a church, and then we’ve got to start acting like it matters enough to offer it to others, to think that they need what we have too.
- We can’t be content just to passively receive the means of grace ourselves on Sunday mornings. God has given us His Word, His Spirit, His Son. We have the Gospel. But through ministries of prayer, hospitality, compassion, instruction, service and invitation we have got to share more deliberately what we have with people who come in through our doors each week, and this means that we’ve all got to come to church ready to minister. But we can’t stop with that. We’ve also got to increasingly become more open with our families and friends about what it is that we believe, and why it matters so much to us, and how Northway nurtures it. The “question-posing” lives that Northway helps us to live by connecting us with Jesus Christ need more and better explanations. We need to tell the people who know us the best why we are the way we are, and how being a Christian at Northway is a big part of it.
- We’ve got to rethink the language that we are speaking as a church. The power of 2 of the 3 churches that I have visited so far has resided in the way that they have affectively spoken the message of the Gospel in the vernacular, the language of the people. This is especially true in their ministries of music. This is where their worship was connecting deeply with people.
- And we have got to do a better job of letting people in general know who we are and what we are about. We don’t have the market share that the Baptists, Methodists and Catholics do in our culture. We are a very small denomination. People don’t naturally think of us when they think of church. And so we’ve got to do something to raise our profile, but to do it in a way that isn’t a betrayal of the Gospel by making us the content of our own proclamation. There can be no bait and switch.
Paul told the Corinthians that he planted, and Apollos watered, but that it was God who gave the growth (3:6). I’m not sure that being planters and waterers is an endorsement of Finney’s techniques, but it certainly establishes the fact that we have a role to play in the process, even as it anchors its final success in the promise that Edwards saw so clearly – God gives the growth. When we know and believe this, we never have to despair. Spirit-dependent, Gospel-driven, Christ-centered churches will always be the kind of churches that God can use. And that’s us. DBS+