On the often misplaced focus of much of the attractional church
To state the obvious, words matter. They give shape and substance to ideas, and ideas, when put into play, often have far-ranging influence. As an observer of the ecclesiastic landscape of the American church, I find myself grieved and dismayed by the subtly misplaced focus of many in the latest iteration of entrepreneurial church leaders. I think that the root of the problem may be found in the phraseology used to describe those they are attempting to attract. The particular term I have in mind is ‘unchurched.’ In reading the prominent leaders in church growth circles, one finds admirable evangelical admonitions to reach the community, but those that need reaching are most often described as the ‘unchurched’. The clear inference by the terminology, maybe intentional, but maybe not, is that the solution to being unchurched is to get people ‘churched,’ terminology not found in the Bible.
There was at time, not so very long ago, when biblical language was used to describe those to whom the Gospel was to be sent. Those not redeemed by Christ, people who had not heard the good news of a resurrected Savior, were described as lost, as pagans, as a field where the Gospel seed needed to be sowed. Today, the rhetoric is much softer, much less offensive. The ones needing the Gospel are often described as being ‘far from God’ with the inferred task of the Church being that of a guide tasked to lead those far from God near to Him. The biblical language, however, never mirrors the inoffensive language of contemporary evangelism. Rather than being described as far from God, the unregenerate are described as being spiritually dead, as being lost in sins and trespass. Rather than being described as seekers, they are described in the Bible as being rebels, as being hostile the God of the Bible. They may be seeking a god, but the god they look for is not the Triune God revealed in the text of the Old and New Testament. The so-called unchurched do not need church, they need a risen Savior. The redeemed in Christ are the church. The Sunday gatherings are for the redeemed to be fed from the word by an under-shepherd, a pastor.
The world wants to hear what it needs to do to approach a god and what that god will do for them – in the here and now – in return. However, the offense of the Gospel is that you are helpless, that you can do nothing, that it all has been done for you, that it had to be done for you. The offense is that you cannot even choose God if left to your own devices. Unfortunately, in seeking to avoid unnecessary offense, there is an over-reaching that leads to a place where the real and cutting edge of the Gospel is often dulled to make it often impotently palatable to the so-called unchurched.
Further issues seep to the top of this linguistic morass. The very nature of the Church, the bride of Christ is redefined in this evangelical linguistic sleight of hand. If the problem is that many of the community are unchurched, then the solution to the problem, as aforementioned, is to get them involved in church life, to get them churched. To get the unchurched into church requires clever marketing and content relevant to meeting the felt needs of the unchurched, a tactic that may often lead to the eradication of the true offense of the Gospel. The real and present danger is that the church may become, without intention, the de facto savior. The church helps you fix your money problems. The church helps you fix your relational problems. The church helps you overcome your addictions. Jesus is mentioned, but sometimes, and I think without intent, only as one attraction among others. When you listen to video testimonies recorded by many churches, you so often hear people speak of how they found their meaning, their help, their restoration at their church…and Jesus saved them, too. From what they are saved from is not often made clear in these testimonies. I have even heard testimonies where the ones sharing their story actually proclaim that their church saved them.
Rather than preaching, rather than expositing the text of the Bible and tending to the flock as did pastors from the birth of the church, the new breed focuses on their leadership skills, often at the expense of their Biblically mandated pastoral duties. Rather than partaking of a rich biblical meal served up by a scholar/pastor, everyone is exhorted by the CEO/leader to shape up and get with the program. If you expect to get fed by him, shame on you. You need to quit being selfish. You need to get busy and volunteer for this, volunteer for that, get out and shill for the church. Fill up those seats. Get people in the door by giving away prizes, by putting on cheap knock-offs of television shows like ‘Deal Or No Deal’ during the sermon. Start the service by having the band play some twenty year old hair band heavy metal song or some honky-tonk drinking song. I have seen all these antics first hand. With great and unintentional irony, those who wish for more substance in the preaching, who hunger for something beyond the constant rotation of sermons on money and relationships, on how to reach their full potential, are the ones disparaging labeled as consumers. Sometimes sheep are starved and goats are entertained.
As a not so subtle segueway from the previous statement, the interesting thing is that these methods and messages seem work at their intended task of getting people outside the church inside the church. What happens once inside and embedded in this church culture is that you become worker in an organization more than a member of a family. I have heard some in this cadre of leadership state that Jesus has saved you, but the rest is up to you, so get busy! I have also heard these leaders state that their leadership is more important than their preachership, and that is a true statement in context with the newly and errantly redefined church. Rather than sheep that need shepherding, the church attendees are seen as a potential pool of free labor, volunteers that need leadership to enable them to perform efficiently. The internal structure of the organization is not unlike that of any number of successful secular businesses. Too, as a business, these churches are successful. Many have, in leveraging technology to grow multi-site video campuses, become franchises. They market their brand, their pastor, with great acumen. The metrics are easily understood and tracked. It is a game of numbers, both in bodies and money. If both grow, then success is evident. If both do not grow, then the leader tweaks the organizational machine, firing or hiring, so that the output increases. It all becomes performance driven rather than grace driven.
At the end, where does it all lead? I think the answer is found in this post from the influential pastor/CEO Perry Noble of NewSpring Church which ends with this question: “Here comes the BRIDE…is your focus on her?”
If you can, Christian, tell me what is wrong with that question. I will tell you as to where the focus should be: the Bridegroom. Let your mind linger for a while on this image of a bride fascinated with her own beauty as the Bridegroom waits for his bride to tear herself away from the mirror. Behold, He is standing at the door knocking as she becomes lost in her thoughts of finding innovative ways to to market herself to the world.
I stumbled upon this video at FBC Jax Watchdog that validates some of assertions made in this post, especially in the member vs. owner language. Here you find a mix of core truth and egregious error. Much more could be said, but for now, watch and weep…
Grace seems to have taken a holiday from the church…
This post, written upon leaving NewSpring, may be of interest…