Last week we started looking at a growing epidemic in today’s churches and set the table for a continuing discussion on the subject. This week we’ll tackle the first of four problems at the root of our troubles.
Jesus jukes and John the Baptist quotes about “he must increase and I must decrease” aside, the problem with our current model lies in the fact that we have built an untamable, uncontrollable “big church” system that demands so much time, energy, and manpower, that it requires all hands on deck to maintain. And the larger the congregation grows, the more people we need to help check the rigging, grab an oar, start bailing out water, or any other number of cheesy sailing analogies. And so we spend our time slotting people into a job in the big crew when perhaps what we should be doing is teaching them about the ship, training them how to navigate the seas, and helping them build their own ship and crew.
What I’m trying to say is that the problem with big church is that its direct and indirect focus inevitably is itself. Self-maintenance and even self-preservation gets the majority of our time and we’re left with only small bits of time to beg people to go out and do something- to be something- more than what we’ve taken the time to train them for. Unfortunately, that’s the way it works. The bigger the machine gets, the more we begin to rely on the machine to do the work for us, and our time is spent on keeping the machine working rather than doing the work that the machine is now doing for us. A net zero gain.
Anyone who owns a car, computer, or smartphone knows this to be true. The more advanced our technologies and toys become, the less time we spend doing the work and the more time we spend looking for ways to fix our devices, upgrade them, or trade them in for better, newer models. The business and manufacturing world is experiencing this as well. While many are worried that at our current pace robotics and automation will replace many factory and service jobs and render even more hard-working humans unemployed, the truth of the matter is that for every person replaced on the factory line, there’s a job opening to design and another to service the very machine that’s taking away jobs. And while that slide in emphasis may work in manufacturing, where a personal, human touch doesn’t always make that much of a difference, apply the same model to the church- a place where personal, human interaction is an absolute necessity- well, you can see where the system begins to fall apart.
So where did we start to drift? Like in most things, I believe the fault lies in our constant need to paint our worlds in black and white. In some way, I’m doing that very thing right now. The best way to present a solution to a problem is to first clearly define the problem. Unfortunately, once we do that, we tend to swing the pendulum as far in the opposite direction as possible, creating an unbalanced and unending cycle of never finding the truth- which rarely sits in extremes.
If you’re not convinced this cycle exists, consider the recent generational cycles in the US. Strauss and Howe wrote a book, “Generations”, on this very subject. The “greatest generation” following World War II was a generation that espoused the values of hard work, keeping your nose to the grindstone, and was the last generation to insist that their children attend church institutions like Sunday School. We can characterize them as idealists- survivors of the previous war, they strove to create a better world than what they had currently lived through. Their children- the Baby Boomers- eager to get out from under their parents’ shadows and heavy-handedness, became extremely reactionary. Their interest lay not in work, but play. Not in war, but love. Not in rules, but freedom. And not in religion. “Imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try.” Remember? Focus turned from crafting a better society to staying out of others’ business. Which is a major reason why we had such a hard time on the homefront with Vietnam. The older generation mandating that this new generation carry out values they had long ago rejected did not go over well at all.
The late 70’s and 80’s came and Generation X became the generation of “more”. Gone were the days of peace, love, and happiness. In its stead was the rise of big business, the rat race, and the ruthless climb to the top of the corporate ladder. Economic prosperity grew as this generation did, and now two generations removed from the war, entitlement had replaced hard work. And at the heart of America, everything was about personal improvement and looking out for number one. The 90s came, and with it, a rise in social awareness and civic duty, which replaced the selfishness and internally-driven generation of the 80s. Non-profits exploded in an attempt to help the impoverished and war-torn countries of the world, and the government began to work in the same direction- both militarily and with volunteer programs such as AmeriCorps. Meanwhile, the religious reaction to the “me” generation brought about the Religious Right and the silent majority. Church and politics began to collide- in ways that were often beneficial but too often altogether unhealthy. Everyone had their “duty” to perform if they were to be a good “American” or a good “Christian”.
All of this led to our current generation. We see the population and government struggling with the “religion in politics” issue. We see once again the fight between the “go and help the world” crowd and the “leave everyone alone” crowd. And the church finds itself in the crosshairs. It will be interesting to see the results of these conflicts in the coming years, but one thing is certain. Our inability to live in the gray areas will once again force a pendulum swing, and once again keep the system unbalanced for years to come.
The church experiences similar cycles. And in our recent fervor to get people out of the pews and into areas of service, we’ve made one severe misstep. We forgot who we were serving and what we were building. Now, it was never stated as such. Certainly very few from the pulpit has ever made the call for more children’s ministry volunteers because people need to serve the church. That doesn’t go over well. No, we tell people if they want to serve Jesus, they need to serve as greeters. It’s the ultimate guilt trip and it usually works rather well. That, or it drives people away. Either way, it gets people out of the seats, which was our main goal after all, right?
Our sermon series’ about building the church, complete with construction equipment, hard hats, and cinder blocks… we weren’t really referring to building the actual building, were we? They were merely visuals to reinforce the point, right? Unfortunately, that was lost in translation to our people. If we tell them “we need to build the church”, we show them visuals of physical construction, all while announcing that we need helpers and volunteers to make the gatherings run, the one thing that isn’t heard? The church is people.
Deep down, we as leaders know this to be true. Deep down, we believe that message is carried on the tips of our tongues and is proclaimed regularly to our people. But it’s not. Because even if it’s being said on occasion, people tend to hear more with their eyes and their experiences than they do with their ears. Because of this, we need to be extremely intentional about what is said, shown, and displayed not only from the front of the room but also from behind closed doors. The church will always, inevitably, reflect its leadership.
Are we building an organization? The finely tuned cogs in a precisely designed schematic so that everything happens as planned and we are prepared for any eventuality with accuracy and efficiency? Is this what the bible calls us to do as the body of Christ? More specifically, is this what the bible calls us to do as leaders within that body?
Paul makes it pretty clear in Ephesians 4 what he thought the role of the leaders was to be. The apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers- anyone seemingly in an authority position within the body had a singular mission. “Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ.” (v. 12)
Equip others to go to work and to build up the body of Christ. Too many of us, however, have taken the shortcut route when reading this verse and instead see “Their responsibility is to build the church.” As a result, our churches have taken on more of an appearance of a Fortune 500 company than a body, which is the metaphor used by Paul in the verses following.
Jesus tells us in his last charge before leaving the earth to make disciples. This takes an extremely human touch. More often than not, it’s also a touch that’s more the marathon kind than the hundred meter sprint kind. Systems can’t create this for us. It takes intentionality in our interactions, schedule, and the very way that we teach and train as leaders. We have to be building disciples and disciplers, not building an organization.
What do you think? Share your thoughts below!