One of the great tragedies in Christendom is the shift toward thinking that the church is an institution. In the church where I serve as pastor, I’d been feeling like we had been sort of spinning our wheels in maintenance and mediocrity for a couple of years and that we need to seek from God a new vision for our church. Typically, when we talk about new vision we begin to look at ministries, programs, and campaigns to revitalize our church’s brand to the community in order to draw more people to our church (building), and theoretically, to Christ. This natural flow reveals that, no matter how adamantly we state that the church is the people, we still actually view the church as the institution.
It’s good to meet with city, state, and county leaders in an effort to discover the needs of our community. What typically happens after that, however, is church leadership targets one or two groups to focus on and directs the efforts of the church (institution) to that/those areas. It sounds great, but here’s what’s really happening. Most often, with no ill motive, the church (leadership) crafts a vision to build a bigger church (institution) and then campaigns to win the “buy-in” of the church (membership) to get them on board with their vision for growing a bigger church (institution). No matter what we say or teach, how we do things and the way we operate reveals our deep-rooted belief that the church is an institution–a business–and the goal of church leadership is to grow a successful one, which means attendance numbers are up, budget numbers are up, and there are a host of ministries (or “Christian amenities”) to keep those numbers happy and coming. This approach works. We can build a very successful business this way, but the more I pray into how and where I need to lead our church, the more of a burden I feel that this is failing, miserably, to build the kingdom of God.
What if the goal of church leadership was to equip, encourage, and empower the saints (the church) to make a difference in their world…whatever that may look like? Leaders don’t like that idea because it means less power and direct influence, and feels chaotic. Rather than one streamline vision, the church enables each member to fulfill the vision God has for their life. At first I felt a little like Lord Business from The Lego Movie wanting to keep everything orderly, categorized, and structured in a way that makes sense to my mind. What God began to unpack for me was a bigger picture that was more beautiful, diverse, and powerful than anything I could have come up with by talking to the city council or my leadership team. …I’m putting the Piece of Resistance on the Kragle.
We need be a church that makes a difference. Really, that is the extent of our vision. The church–the people of God–need to have an impact in their communities or we are not at all Christ’s church (his people, his bride, his presence in this world). The way we intend to do this is by engaging, encouraging, and equipping a generation of change makers. We want to help our members discover the fulness of their identity in Christ, and then discover their life’s ministry by identifying what James Glenn calls their “holy discontent.” What are those issues, problems, or that brokenness that you see, and it breaks your heart. Andy Stanley asks two vital questions to address this: 1) who are you? and 2) what breaks your heart? As we identify these areas, we will connect people with like passions and encourage them to prayerfully dream about how they can make a difference and affect change in that area. Then church leadership will invest resources, time, and energy into partnering with our members to make it happen. This just seems so much more biblical. I wish I’d come up with it. Rather than inviting the membership into my vision to build a bigger church (institution), the church (the people) empowers each individual member to fulfill the vision God has for their life.
In the book of Nehemiah, our hero hears a report about the condition of Jerusalem. His heart is broken and he is compelled to make a change. Knowing God, his character, and his promises, Nehemiah is convicted (convinced) that the state of affairs in Jerusalem is not God-honoring, it’s not okay and he is compelled to make a difference. He needs to make a difference. Not “need” like “I need to start working out again,” but rather ‘need’ as in “I need to breathe.” This is what we mean when we say “we need to be a church that makes a difference.” Our very lives find expression and meaning in fulfilling the purpose and work of God in and through us. That work is so much bigger than any one plan or direction, and we can do more as the church (Christ-centered community) that we can as the church (institution). If your vision as a leader doesn’t leave room for God’s vision for people, then your vision is too small…and self-centered.
We cannot build a resort with every Christian amenity that keeps people on our campuses, fat, happy, and comfortable in a powerless and trendy version of Christianity so sedate that enemy hardly takes notice. We need to live in the world: engaging the broken, lost, wounded, and rebellious–secure in the righteousness, truth, and love of Christ–encouraging them with the love and truth of Jesus Christ. We, corporately as individuals, need to make a difference in our communities and the leadership of the church needs to return to a servant-leadership and shepherd God’s people into God’s calling for their lives instead of trying to compel them with a slick sales pitch into our purpose.
The church, like a tiger, is beautiful, powerful, and dangerous. We’ve caught that tiger by it’s toe and rendered it largely ineffective. Maybe we need to loose the restraints of ministries and programs and set the tiger free to find its own way, led by the Spirit rather than a business model. It means letting go of some power and influence, but personally, I think that’s a good thing! I’m excited to see what God does in and through our fellowship in the coming months and years. And maybe more churches will catch this greater vision along the way and we’ll see transformation on a scale that can only be a work of God.