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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

What the Church is All About

Reading through the comments on this post, I saw a stunning indictment: "Why is it that the church spends 95% of its time coddling insiders?" That may seem a bit harsh, but I think it might be true.

Just today I had a conversation with a nice young woman named Jenny - yeah, she's interested in the church plant; yes, she loves Missoula with all its beautiful pagans; but when are we going to start a Bible study? After all, what she really wants is to grow, to be around mature people, to become more spiritually mature herself. She wants fellowship with believers, with people who've got it together. But it's ok if we don't offer that yet - she's found another church that does, and she's making friends there, and she's thinking she'd like to get more involved there. I mean, don't you think I can just be involved in both?

What struck me is that Jenny is a consumer. How many times do we desire the fruit of our salvation - sanctification, holiness, calm in the face of trials, peace, love, joy - rather than the vinetender from whom all these things flow. And when we pursue the former, rather than the latter, we end up with neither.

I'm reminded of C. S. Lewis, who deeply desired joy. When he pursued joy, he failed to find it. When he pursued God alone, he also found joy.

The church, sadly, falls into the trap of marketing to felt needs. You desire community? Ah, we have some of that over here! Holiness? Hey, we have a twelve step program in stock!

The church coddles believers - insiders - because the church thinks it needs them (just like the believers think they need the various things the church offers). And yet what everyone needs is what Christ alone offers - himself.

Christ offers us himself (go read about the woman at the well in John 4, and look again at what Christ offers her). And he goes on to say that the call of one who would follow Christ is that of a servant, a follower, one who emulates Christ - not serving himself, but taking the form of a servant and dying that others, unbelievers, weaker brothers, might live.

Christ calls us not to be consumers, but servants. Of those inside the church, and also of those outside the church. The infidels. The unbelievers. The 'sinners' in this world. The cities and neighborhoods in which we live. Not for their own sake, but for his - to call them to join us in this self-denying service of Christ.

This is not a sexy call. It's mother Teresa, toiling away in the slums of Calcutta, never really being recognized or appreciated until after she was gone.

Seek holiness for the sake of holiness, and you will never find it. Seek Christ, and seek to serve those whom Christ loves - the poor, the needy, the afflicted, the oppressed, the lost - and you will not only gain Christ, but you will also find holiness. Only then will be ever really experience peace, joy, satisfaction, fulfillment - as we die to ourselves that others might live.

I'm not sure that's what Jenny wants in a church. But that's what the church is meant to be all about. And that's what it means to really know Christ.


At 8:55 PM, March 27, 2007, Blogger Christian said...

Some additional thoughts on what I'm trying to get at up above. We desire to be settled, to be home. And yet what we need (in order to find our home), is to be displaced:

“To be a Christian means, in a sense, to be displaced. A Christian does not live within herself; she lives outside herself - in God and in her neighbor. Reflect for a moment about the first and more fundamental displacement, on living by faith “in God” or being “caught beyond” and placed “into God.” It is significant for Luther in two ways. First, it releases people from the pressure of having to gain favor with God by what they do. This idea lies at the heart of Luther’s account of salvation. His point is not that what people do does not matter; it matters profoundly - to God, to their neighbors, to themselves. Yet nothing they do changes the fact that God loves them and, if they trust in God, will remake them into new creatures, freed from guilt and capable of loving others.” (Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering rightly in a violent world)

HT: Tony

At 7:44 AM, March 28, 2007, Blogger Molly said...


I agree with a lot of what you said here, but I do take issue with one phrase you used ... whether you meant it that way or not :)

In your second paragraph, you implicitly equate "believers" with "people who've got it together." The instant we fall into believing that believers = people who've got it together, we're automatically excluding 100% of people both outside AND inside the church. The amazing thing about the gospel is that it continually challenges and transforms the unbelief in us ALL. It seems to be a paradox, but if we fellowship in a group that thinks everybody has it all together, we deceive ourselves and none of us are going to grow into mature Christians.

[Incidentally, just from the way you've described Jenny, I don't think she inherently sounds like a consumer; I think she could just be looking for a community where iron can sharpen iron -- God calls us to be part of an active local church because this is THE primary environment where he's designed this to happen. So the question is not IF Jenny will be part of a church, but what kind of member she will be, in what kind of church.]

Back to my original thought, here's a lengthy quote from Bonhoeffer ("Life Together"):

"The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we ARE sinners!

...When he did that [die for our sins] Christ made the Church, and in it our brother, a blessing to us. Now our brother stands in Christ's stead. Before him I need no longer to dissemble. Before him alone in the whole world I dare to be the sinner that I am; here the truth of Jesus Christ and his mercy rules. Christ became our Brother in order to help us. Through him our brother has become Christ for us in the power and authority of the commission Christ has given to him. Our brother stands before us as the sign of the truth and the grace of God. He has been given to us to help us. He hears the confession of our sins in Christ's stead and gorgives our sins in Christ's name. He keeps the secret of our confession as God keeps it. When I go to my borther to confess, I am going to God.

So in the Christian community when the call to brotherly confession and forgiveness goes forth it is a call to the great grace of God in the Church."

At 8:19 AM, March 28, 2007, Blogger Christian said...

Hi Molly, I think we might be saying the the same thing here (there was a hint of sarcasm in my voice as I wrote that, precisely for the reasons you've identified).

Yet that's how people often _see_ the church, and that's how the church often _markets_ itself. "Hey, this is the place for the good guys, the saints, the pious" - and that's often what we end up looking for.

As Bonhoeffer rightly notes (thank you for quoting him here), the church is meant to be a place where we can be broken. And I'm just saying that most of us, and most churches, are not really serious about being a community of brokenness.

I think we like the idea, but I also think we don't _really_ want the reality of it, because it's messy and uncomfortable and leaves us nothing by which to commend ourselves. And yet that reality is what we desperately need most, because only in our brokenness do we reality see our need, cling to Christ, and truly grasp the gospel.

At 5:23 AM, March 29, 2007, Blogger Mark said...

At the risk of seeming to "pile on" you along with Molly...

Your depiction of Jenny seems to me to come off needlessly (and I'm sure unintentionally) harsh and judgmental. At least as you relate her, it didn't seem like she wanted only personal growth and fellowship. Seems like as a pastor your concern should be for both the lost and the sheep.

I've witnessed some "missional" churches who in their zeal to be all about the lost end up dying on the vine because eventually the believers begin to drift away to other churches. They do so because they are not being fed. To desire to grow in Christ is not "selfish"; it is an integral part of what we are called to in our walk with Christ. Now I would agree with you that if a believer is only after personal growth and fellowship, he or she is out of balance and deserves rebuke. But that didn't seem to be what Jenny was asking for.

Please don't forget that as a missional pastor you have a responsibility to both "catch 'em and clean 'em" to put it crudely. I know you know that, but your post frankly comes off as disdaining Christians who desire to be shepherded as well as encouraged to go out and seek the lost.

At 8:03 AM, March 29, 2007, Blogger Ryan said...

I would like to chime in with one a few thoughts here after reading Molly's comment and Christian's second comment.

Christian said, "I think we like the idea, but I also think we don't _really_ want the reality of it, because it's messy and uncomfortable and leaves us nothing by which to commend ourselves."

I think this might be true in a lot of ways, but more of a difficulty is that someone has to lead the way in the brokenness/confession category in order to create a culture of it. Let's face it - no one wants to be leader of the brokenness club (except Jesus) and so we pretend we aren't broken and people come into churches thinking those Christian people have it all together.

Mark - your comment is the big conundrum in pastoring any church - and the problem with consumers - if they aren't fed they look elsewhere. What they don't realize is that true food involves mission. Mission and Shepherding aren't mutually exclusive. In fact, I'd argue that shepherding happens in the context of mission - look at Paul or Jesus for that matter - it just seems that you want to pit mission against some notion of "true discipleship," but I believe that there is no true discipleship w/o mission and we'd be doing Jenny a huge disservice if we just gave in, huddled up with a bunch of other Christians and did a Bible Study. Especially since what initially attracted her to the Missoula Project was her zeal to be more missional.

At 9:24 AM, March 29, 2007, Blogger Mark Traphagen said...

Ryan wrote:

"...we'd be doing Jenny a huge disservice if we just gave in, huddled up with a bunch of other Christians and did a Bible Study."

See the bolded word. My point exactly.

Nowhere was I posing one against the other. I was asking for a wholistic approach. To say that "discipleship happens in mission" is very hip, but a gross over-simplification in my opinion. Yes, teach and encourage your people to be missional. But you must also teach them sanctification, etc. It is not either or.

At 10:43 AM, March 29, 2007, Blogger Ryan said...

Hey Mark,

Thanks for the response - I'm realizing how lousy this medium is for this type of discussion. One clarification - my use of "just" was not meant as "only" or "singularly" but was meant to highlight "giving in" or "surrendering."

At 3:30 PM, March 29, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just learning so much by reading what has been said here. I hope you don't mind if I also add a quote from Bonhoeffer ("Life Together" chapter 1) (BTW the only reason why I'm posting it is because -I'm- convicted over it.)

“Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves."

Bonhoeffer continues:

“Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both. .... Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hinderance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”


At 7:45 PM, March 29, 2007, Blogger Christian said...

Thanks, Anon - that was definitely along the lines of what I had in mind.

To be clear - I still think Jenny is something of a consumer. But I would add that I am too (usually I'm a bit more sophisticated about it, so that it's not as obvious). But all too often I come to God with my hand out, looking for what I want to get, rather than being content simply to have God himself.

My original point is that far too often, the church gets caught up trying to meet felt needs. And we need to be careful here, because the place God meets all of us is in our felt needs - but the way he meets us is not by (simply) giving us what we want; on the contrary, he gives us himself (and in gaining him, we find our felt needs satisfied as well, although given the nature of our sanctification - or lack thereof - it may take us a while to get it).

Bonhoeffer's point, however, is that we need to be disillusioned with everything less than God. And my point was that the best way for us to see that - and to get God - is to engage missionally as God has done already.

To see mission and sanctification as something which can exist apart from one another is a big mistake in my mind.

At 7:49 PM, March 29, 2007, Blogger Christian said...

PS - What saddens me a little is how much response this post generated, and how little response Dianne's post generated...

At 9:56 AM, June 08, 2007, Blogger Steve F. said...

Wow...ok, so I'm kicking my own butt for having missed this one. Mea maxima culpa, Christian.

Lots of powerful stuff in here, but I think Molly and Christian both hit the nail on the head:

Christian: Yet that's how people often _see_ the church, and that's how the church often _markets_ itself. "Hey, this is the place for the good guys, the saints, the pious" - and that's often what we end up looking for.


The tragic thing is, this idea of looking for "the ones who've got it" is not a bad idea. After all, for the first 30 years of my spiritual life, I went to drowning people for swimming lessons, and got annoyed because all I got from them was "glub, glub, glub." Today, I gotta believe there is going to be some help where I'm going.

But where I have seen the greatest, most passionate response to the Gospel is where we get out of the "country-club for the saved" mentality and recognize that the church is more "a MASH hospital for sinners." (And anyone who says they have it all together and are "righteous" can go write Romans 3:10-12 fifty times on a blackboard somewhere.)

Acknowledging brokenness attracts broken people. The people who reached me most were people who admitted they didn't have their "poop in a group," so to speak. In fact, it happened the first time I walked into church in Kansas (see here).

Broken people need Jesus, and are often willing to listen to us talk about him. Now there's some 1st century "marketing" for you....

Molly: Incidentally, just from the way you've described Jenny, I don't think she inherently sounds like a consumer; I think she could just be looking for a community where iron can sharpen iron -- God calls us to be part of an active local church because this is THE primary environment where he's designed this to happen.

I'm with Molly 100% here. There are some people who will join your church-plant because they want the sense of newness, of excitement, of passion that often comes with a start-up.

The mission of a new church tends to be much different than a hundred-year-old church; a church of 30 or 50 has a much different dynamic than those of 300, or 1000. And people are drawn to what they are used to; it's sad, but true.

The church I'm getting involved with here in NW Ohio is a very traditional, landlocked Lutheran congregation, which 8 years ago started changing their focus and their outreach. So they now have people who attend one of the two "traditional" services, or the main "contemporary" service (forgive the crass terminology, here). Yet members from both services go over to their "satellite" church that meets in a local theatre. The satellite service's relatively open worship service seems attractive to (notice, I didn't say caters to) the mostly-unchurched. So, yes, I think there can be cross-over without being a "consumer."

The Church as an institution, however, often DOES coddle believers, because churches that are fear-driven often focus on survival - will we meet budgets? How will our denominational reports look this year? Do we have people to serve coffee this Sunday?

At that point, the church's mission becomes about protecting the delicate jugular of members and contributions. And anything that threatens that jugular is avoided like plague. So even the controversial sayings of Jesus - like loving your neighbor regardless of what he thinks about Jesus, for instance - get put by the wayside.

The best discussion of this is in 44 Questions for Congregational Self-Appraisal, by Lyle Schaller. While the title is cheesy (like "Ten Spiritual Gifts" or "Five Smooth Stones"), it really points out the vastly different directions that a congregation can be headed. (Admittedly, this is much more important for an older congregation needing renewal - but it's helpful to ask the questions.)

(If you don't like the book, let me know, and I'll buy it from you. I've given away about a dozen, and I'm all out now.)

Enough for now. By the way, if you enjoyed [rhymes with kerouac]'s post there, check out The Following Jesus Manifesto and Awesome God. Heck, just take half an hour and read his blog for a while. Always cheers me up.
Peace -


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