“Church Membership is a Lousy Substitute for Christian Discipleship”

The mission statement of the local church I serve says that we believe that our job is all about – “Sharing Christ with those seeking meaning and purpose.”  Now, like all such “statements,” these words were carefully chosen and deliberately crafted by a group of faithful church members who were charged by this congregation to enter into a deliberate planning and visioning process – in our case the “Church Unique” process.  And as far as Mission Statements go, I like this one as much as any and probably better than most. I appreciate its brevity and clarity.  But most importantly, I believe that it puts us in the “right jungle” to borrow Stephen Covey’s helpful idea*.

beheadAnd while all of this true, I’ve got to admit that spiritually I still strongly resist this whole idea that it is somehow up to us to decide what the mission of Christ’s church is going to be.  Theologically I believe that the Lordship of Christ, His headship over His body, the church, settles this question for us.  We don’t confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and then do what we want.  No, we confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and then we get serious about doing what it is that He wants.  The only real question for us to consider, it seems to me, is: “What is it  does He want?”  And Biblically, this isn’t that much of a mystery, so long as we are involved in a serious engagement with Scripture.

Say whatever you will about Rick Warren and his “Purpose Driven Church” materials based on the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) and the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40), I still think that he got it exactly right.  I believe that the Church as the Body of Christ has five core functions: “Kerygma” – The Proclamation of the Gospel, or “Martyria” – Witness (Evangelism); “Diakonia” – Service (Outreach); “Didache” – The Apostles’ Teaching (Education); “Koinonia” – Sharing in Community (Fellowship); and “Leiturgia” – Worship.  In an earlier iteration of my congregation’s mission we defined our mission mandates to be a matter of (1) Proclaiming Christ Boldly (“Kerygma”/”Martyria”); (2) Teaching the Faith Effectively (“Didache”); (3) Creating Community Internationally (“Koinonia”); (4) Serving Others Enthusiastically (“Diakonia”); and (5) Worshipping God Passionately (“Leiturgia”).

 * Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall. You can quickly grasp the important difference between the two if you envision a group of producers cutting their way through the jungle with machetes. They’re the producers, the problem solvers. They’re cutting through the undergrowth, clearing it out.  The managers are behind them, sharpening their machetes, writing policy and procedure manuals, holding muscle development programs, bringing in improved technologies, and setting up working schedules and compensation programs for machete wielders. The leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, “Wrong jungle!” [Leadership and Management by Stephen R. Covey – https://leadershipforlife.wordpress.com]

handThe image that you see here is a sculpture from Germany that visually represents these different functions of the church as the fingers of a single hand.  It was explained like this:

Leiturgia is the glue that binds the three fold emphasis together. In a sense, leiturgia is what flows out of witness (martyria), mercy (diakonia), and life together (koinonia). Leiturgia is the Lord at work through His church in the areas of witness, mercy, and life together. The three-fold emphasis is not really a new thing, but something the church has done ever since the Lord founded her; it simply describes what the church does. [http://abc3miscellany.blogspot.com]

Just like this image of the fingers of a hand, what I believe our church’s mission statement does is to put the five functions of the church (“Kerygma”/”Martyria” -“Didache” -“Koinonia” – “Diakonia” – “Leiturgia”)  in the service of a single purpose, namely to share Jesus Christ with those who are seeking meaning and purpose.

Now, the importance of all this came home to me with some real power recently at an incredible interfaith gathering of which I was privileged to be a part in Colorado.  Hearing some wonderful people share the stories of their personal faith journeys, one of the recurring themes that I heard was how many of these people who are now Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Jews started out as Christians, or at least, were raised in Christian homes and went to Christian churches.  And while they are all people of real faith now, men and women  who are just as serious about knowing God as I am – exemplary Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and Hindus – as a Christian listening to their stories, I still couldn’t help myself from wondering about how Christianity, or is it the church, failed them.  They simply didn’t find what they were looking for, what they needed spiritually, in their experience of Christianity at church.  And as somebody who did find what I was looking for, what I needed spiritually in the experience of Christianity at church, and who now is a “church professional” himself who believes in the universality of Christinaity, I was left to wrestle with how and why the Gospel of Jesus Christ failed to touch their hearts, engage their minds and change their lives as it did mine.

Two quick answers are completely unsatisfying to me.

My Reformed friends would simply say that these people who left Christianity to become Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Jews were just not “elect.”  In other words, God never had any intention to “save” them anyway.  I find this impossible to reconcile with the Biblical witness.  The God I know in Jesus Christ is a God who loves the whole world (John 3:16), who desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (I Timothy 2:4), who “delights not” in the loss of a sinner (Ezekiel 33:11) and who has made full provision in atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of the whole world (I John 2:2).  I can’t resolve this dilemma by simply writing off some people.

Many of my interfaith friends would say that I really shouldn’t worry about which path a person finally winds up on because they’re all heading in the same direction anyway and  that they will all eventually wind up in the same place.  All the trails lead to the top of the mountain, or so they say.  And while I take a very generous view of the way that God is at work in all of the different religions of the world, believing that God has not left Himself without witness anywhere or in anyone (Acts 14:17), I still believe that at the end of the day everyone who is saved will be saved by what God has done and is doing in Jesus Christ.  As Peter put it is one of the early sermons in the book of Acts – “There is salvation in no one else… there is no other name under heaven by which people can be saved” (4:12).  Now, I’m not sure that people have to necessarily know that it is Christ who is saving them, but I do believe that it is nevertheless Christ who is saving them.  I have written about this previously (see “Getting to the Top of the Mountain” – October 15, 2012; and my 5-part “What About Them?” series in the summer of 2012).  And so I can’t resolve this by simply writing off Christ either.

So, where does that leave me?  If I can’t explain this by writing off either people or Christ, what’s left?  And the thing that I see most clearly before me is the church.  If people didn’t find what they were looking for in their experience of Christianity at church, that leaves me wondering about the experience of Christianity that they had been offered at church.

jonesIn his spiritual autobiography, A Song of Ascents (Abingdon – 1968), E. Stanley Jones described his “half conversion” when he was just a kid.  At the end of an evangelistic meeting at his home church in Baltimore he went forward to give his heart to Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.  He described it as fumbling for the latchstring on the gate to the Kingdom of God, and what he said that he came away from the whole experience with was church membership instead.  He went forward seeking life and love, forgiveness and reconciliation, and what they gave him instead was a chart of the church’s structure, a list of its committee chairmen, a pledge card and a chance to usher.  He got outwardly in the church without getting inwardly in Christ, and he said that the whole experience delayed his spiritual awakening by years.

chandlerMore recently, Matt Chandler has written about this phenomenon in his book The Explicit Gospel (Crossway – 2012).  When his church began to experience explosive growth and large numbers of people were confessing Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and being baptized, Matt says that he began to hear a recurrent theme in their public testimonies.  Almost to a person they talked about growing up in church, going every Sunday morning and sometimes even on Sunday evenings and Wednesdays too, being part of Sunday School classes and youth groups, going to summer camps and conferences and on mission trips.  But when they got to Matt’s church, they said that it was then and there that they heard the Gospel preached for the very first time in their lives and gladly responded in faith!  Matt says that at first he didn’t believe them.  He chalked it up to hyperbole, overstatement, and enthusiasm.  But as he began talking to these new people individually and probed their stories more deeply, he came to the realization that they were telling the truth.

“How can you grow up going to church every week and not hear the Gospel?”  I quickly decided that these people had heard the Gospel but didn’t have the spiritual ears to truly hear it, to receive it.  Fortunately, the Holy Spirit wasn’t going to let it go that easily. The question began to haunt me.  I decided to have a few conversations and interviews with what we have called the de-churched men and women attending The Village Church.  A few of them confirmed that my hunch was correct. They could go back and read journals and sermon notes from when they were teenagers or college students and see that they had indeed heard the gospel.  However, what alarmed me most was the number of men and women who couldn’t do that.  Their old journals and student Bibles were filled with what Christian Smith in his excellent book Soul Searching called “Moral Therapeutic Deism.” …This mode of thinking is religious, even “Christian” in its content, but it’s more about self-actualization and self-fulfillment, and it posits a God who does not so much intervene and redeem but basically hangs out behind the scenes, cheering on your you-ness and hoping you pick up the clues he’s left to become the best you you can be.  The moralistic, therapeutic deism passing for Christianity in many of the churches these young adults grew up in included talk about Jesus and about being good and avoiding bad – and God factored into all of that, but the Gospel message simply wasn’t there. (12-13)

rockAs Paul explained in I Corinthians,  there is a “scandal,” literally a “stumbling block” to the Gospel of Jesus Christ (1:23).  It is possible for sincere, thoughtful spiritual seekers to reject the message of what Christ has done for them and refuse the experience of reconciliation and peace that He offers, and it’s entirely possible that this describes some of my interfaith friends who recently shared their stories with me.   But what I am left wondering about is if what they rejected when they left church was not the Gospel, which E. Stanley Jones and Matt Chandler both suggest that they might not have even ever heard at church, but something else, something less than the message of God’s grace in the person and work of Jesus Christ that I would argue is Biblical Christianity. And more directly relevant to us and our life together as a church, what are we offering to the people who come through our doors on Sunday mornmings who are looking for meaning and purpose, and what are you taking with you when Sunday mornings are over and you head back into the world? Church membership is a lousy substitute for Christian discipleship. In fact, I’ve personally found that knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection (Philippians 3:10) is the only thing that makes any sense of the church at all!  Here’s one of the things that I’ve learned in my 50 years of following Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior – when you take Christ, the church comes as part of the package, but that sequence is critical. I don’t want a church without Christ, and I don’t get Christ without the church. And so the best way to serve the church is to be absolutely clear about who Christ is and what Christ has done.  We’ve got to be in the business of “Sharing Christ with those seeking meaning and purpose.”  DBS+





Filed under Soundings

2 responses to ““Church Membership is a Lousy Substitute for Christian Discipleship”

  1. Sue Kesler


  2. David Shirey

    Deep, rich, satisfying, and provocative. Just what the doctor (the Great Physician) ordered for me as I strive to offer leadership in my church at this point in our history. Thank you for your fine, fine words.

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