I last posted on the weak link in church revitalization. I think it’s only
fair to discuss a weak link as I have seen them among churches and church planting. These are general impressions and shouldn’t be taken as a brand on any particular church (especially any that I have been a member at!). I find that there are several threads that are frayed and needing re-tooling or being done away with altogether.

Church planting has become a very popular buzz word among churches over the last 15 years or so. With the advent of groups like Acts 29 and a fresh initiative from denominations to plant churches, I have found that people (particularly pastors) like to talk, but don’t do a lot by way of actually taking strides in planting churches. Here are some brief thoughts on the problems as I see them.

1) Assuage guilt. Let’s be honest. We read the Bible and churches being planted is a natural consequence of Christians living faithful lives. We look at our lives and our churches and, quite frankly, we don’t see a lot of disciples. We see a lot of people gathering around common preferences. But little, by way of sharing the Good News and people being converted, is happening.

Little is done to remedy the issue in practice. A re-tooling of the way we’ve always done it is just too hard. But, we know it should be important to us. . .so. . .we talk about it. Ad nauseum. We talk about mission. We talk about vision. We talk about evangelism. We talk about loving the lost. We talk about taking risks. We talk and we talk and we talk. Jaws are flapping, but feet are planted. We have this perverse way of calming our conviction by collaborating, but never do.

2) Church planting is TOO cool. Put another way, planting a church is so important and so vital and so awesome that we don’t know where to start. Too many folk have focused on the man in church planting. Too much emphasis and pressure is put on the person planting the church, that if St. Patrick or William Carey themselves came, they probably would be turned away. [ASIDE: This is not hyperbole. I have heard of men being turned away for the very things that these men struggled with.]

Church planting is not too big or too important that we can’t take risks. So many churches put the pressure to do it just right because if it fails, then people will be disappointed and disenfranchised. You know what? Failure does happen. Relationships do fracture. People get hurt. I think this issue is more endemic to North American Christianity than it is worldwide. Brothers and sisters in Africa or South America are preaching the Gospel and churches are being planted. Do we have so many structures and protocol that we often miss the bus of what God is doing in our midst? I’m afraid so. I’m afraid that we want t’s crossed and i’s dotted to a fault.

I appreciate the gravity that folk place on doing it right. That’s not what I’m railing against. I am railing against the acute tendency to faithlessness because we want things to be perfect.

3) We have no clue of what it would look like for the Spirit of God to sweep us off our feet. This is related to 2 above. I am afraid that we so organize and plan that if God swept through our congregations, we would try to stop him. Church planting is messy. I think that’s part of God’s design. In our efforts to be “successful” and to “ensure growth,” we eschew the power of God to mess up our worlds. We compartmentalize and call it being a good steward. We sit down and call it counting the cost. Could it be that God would want to wreck your world? Could it be that the pretty plans tied in a bow is actually a keg of dynamite intended to be blown up?

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Idealism and Realism

One of the difficulties with living is when our ideals come crashing against the rock of reality. That is, I have a dream gets hosed down by the injustices of mediocrity and status quo.

I have been walking through the Core Values of our church plant, Christ the Redeemer, and we just got done walking through our first (and most vital) core value of Community. My wife was speaking with someone following our conversation on the topic of what Acts 2 models for the church by way of biblical community. We see people selling their possessions and giving to those who had a need. We see people welcoming others into the mess of their homes and being vulnerable with one another as they were learning together what it meant to follow Christ’s road to Calvary.

The response of the other mother my wife was speaking with was, “That seems awfully idealistic.” The truth is, it is idealistic. It is the goal for which we aim. Most communities of faith are content with merely showing up. But as Bruno Mars encouraged, we need to show up and show out. That is, the community of faith is not merely a body of people that gather, but they gather with a purpose. It is like halftime where they assess the team and seek to address weaknesses in their offense or defense and shoulder the load together. To accomplish an impossible goal. What is that goal other than displaying the beauty and majesty and wonder of the gracious God who loves the unloveable?

On full display in word and in deed, we see that the Christian community reflects how God enters into our messes and embraces us–in the midst of the stink. This idealism can only be reached by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit…in the very crucifixion of the flesh that seeks self-preservation. The life of faith is a flesh and bone reality that has scars and bruises…and fresh wounds to be bound up. Uncomfortable? Yes. Life giving? Yes.

A Revitalization Weak Link

church doors locked down burnedIf church revitalization is to happen, people must let go of their kingdoms. {Tweet That!}

I just got the latest publication from my alma mater with the subject of church revitalization. On page 24, there’s an ominous graph showing the status of Southern Baptist church decline from 2007-2012 (decline of 29.5%). On the facing page, there’s an even more telling quotation from Al Mohler that reads “Sadly, many churches will die by congregational suicide. Unwilling to be replanted, they simply want a slower decline. This is disobedience to Christ.”

Before I took a vocation in higher education, I wanted to church plant or revitalize. Regarding the latter, I remember one specific example (which is not an isolated incident from other friends who have tried to pastor churches that were dying). Let me briefly tell you the story.

I wanted to plant a church in a certain neighborhood in Charlotte last year. Due to various events, the plant did not happen (for another post perhaps, or at least a coffee conversation). Concurrently with the plant not happening, a friend told me about a congregation of about 50 folks (average age 65) that had an interim pastor and would need a full-time pastor in the near future. I called the two deacons of the church to have lunch with them. I shared with them my desire to pursue the position, my desire to serve the community, and my willingness to raise my own support because they didn’t have the money to pay my salary. They never called me back.

Part of the back story–and something I will be writing on in the future–is that the church suffered from 3-4 different fellows who tried to pastor there and essentially left the congregation reeling with debt and power struggles. This caveat aside, there is a disease in our churches where people are afraid of change because they are fundamentally afraid of losing control. That’s right. Churches, like so many institutions, are afraid of losing control. What is sad about this state of affairs is that people do not own the church, Jesus does. We are merely called to gather as fellows servants, not politicians who jockey for control and perpetuity to their “legacies.”

May I plea with my brothers and sisters who are in declining churches. It may be time for you to gift your building and resources to a new generation. It may be time for you to celebrate all that God did in your midst and to rejoice at the opportunity to bless the next generation who is charged with proclaiming the glorious gospel of Jesus once you are buried. Please don’t let you building and your resources that you invested for the sake of the Name be buried with you. Joy is not meant to be boxed up and buried with you. {Tweet That!} It is intended to live on in the lives of those that come after you.

Time after time, I have been warned about not pursuing a pastoral position because there are “powers that be” who don’t want to see change. Might I submit that it is not change people are afraid of, but control? Have we assumed that because I gave my money, I have some kind of ownership? Sure there is an investment, but never. Yes, I said never. There is never ownership. The Church is owned by One. Those who are members of that Church have the privilege to invest and to love and to gift.

Now, like with any blog post, there are a hundred caveats. This serves as merely a starting point in the dialogue. A starting point and a plea.

What did I miss? What caveat would you offer? What story can you share of your experience, or am I alone in this?

I love this song by the Gettys, which captures my pleading and desire:

Affinity Ministry IN the Diverse Church

Everybody targets a group. I think it’s a little misleading to suggest that it’s actually possible to preach and teach the gospel and just expect that a diverse set of people will come and hear. . . . I’m also a little unsure why you would say that targeting a group makes sense overseas, but not in America, as if America is uniform. Do the poor, addicted, orphan and widow or even ethnic minorities just show up because we are in the pulpit teaching and preaching? The call is to “go and make disciples of all nations (ethnos),” not stay in your pulpit and everything will sort itself out.

It is wrong to assume that “preaching the Gospel” = “preaching from a pulpit.” Going is implicit in preaching. Being in the pulpit is one form of preaching. Scripturally, however, preaching is synonymous with evangelism. Evangelism entails going.

It is true, by virtue of our finitude, we will target someone. I cannot preach the Gospel to all people at the same time. I must decide to walk up to one person or a group of people and open the Scriptures with them. I cannot go to another group at the same time I am going to this group. It is impossible.

You might consider that unfair to the person asking the question–as that is not exactly what he meant. Yet, I find that this over-arching truth of finitude helps contour the discussion on target groups. That’s why I mentioned what is obvious, but too often unheeded.

I agree with Tim Keller’s assessment that we are always drawing near to one culture and drawing away from another culture. My critique would rest on whether we should be content with excluding and embracing should determine a philosophy of ministry for an entire church.

Sure. There are people who enjoy jazz music to organ arrangement to acoustic guitar to electonica as their tastes for singing to the Most High. Sure. There are those who like to wear tighter jeans to sporting the sag to pastel chinos. Sure. There are those who prefer Latin to colloquial. Sure. There are those who communicate at a high level and those who like a little earth in their verbiage. Does all this mean that you should have a jazz-only service–or any mix of preferences? Could we not have a ministry under the auspices of a local church targets an affinity group: say, a Goth ministry on Friday nights? Could we not have a hipster Bible study on Monday afternoon? Sure. Under the umbrella of a local church.

How is this different than building a church around a target audience? Worlds. (1) It affirms the distinctions in culture, but does not compromise the multi-cultural dimension of the Babel-redeeming Gospel. (2) The affinity ministries disciple in such a way that diverse expressions of worship and devotion are not merely understood but celebrated. (3) The church gathered on Sunday would have Goths, hipsters, and jazz musicians relishing and enjoying each other’s fellowship around the Table of Fellowship and Reconciliation.