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Which Way The Congregation?

Sooner or later, all of us in church leadership are confronted with a pretty basic decision. This decision will affect just about everything we do. It will determined the character of our assemblies and the kind of outreach we do. It will have an impact on how we grow and the nature of that growth.

What’s really scary is that some congregations seem to make this decision by default without really discussing it or even thinking about it. I’ve known some that just sort of went along with the flow and didn’t seem to have any sort of strategic vision at all.

Now, I think it’s a fairly safe bet that all of us want our congregations to experience dynamic and vibrant growth. At least there are few, regardless of what they think in their heart of hearts, who would say that they didn’t want it. The real question is how we will go about fostering it.

This goes way deeper than any method or technique. I’m talking about the beliefs and philosophy behind the techniques, methods and programs. Whatever you happen to think about the “driven” movement (and I have a pretty dim view of it) one positive thing about it is that it brought some of the issues into the open and got some congregations thinking about them.

Again, I’m not talking about methods and techniques. For example, this whole business of being “seeker sensitive” is merely a symptom of something much deeper. It is a reflection of an underlying philosophy. It’s that philosophical choice I want to talk about.

Let me give you a little background. None of us involved in starting the congregation where I used to serve had ever participated in a church plant before. Since we were concerned about a lot of the trends and problems we saw in the congregations from which we came, we intentionally tried to do things differently. One of the differences was that we deliberately disregarded almost all of the things the church planting gurus say are necessary to get a congregation going. Truth be told, some of us weren’t even aware of the conventional wisdom about church plants. We weren’t trying to build that kind of congregation, so my attitude was, (and still is) that many of the dictums of the ‘experts’ simply didn’t apply. And, against all pronouncements and predictions of the experts, it worked. Yes, we made our share of mistakes and, if I had to do it over, I’d do a few things differently. But, as it happened, things worked out much better than I envisioned. I figured that after 6 months we might have 35 people in attendance. Much to our delight, average attendance was about 60, right from the start.

But the honeymoon ended. Attendance plateaued and even went down a little. Things started to seem a little stale. We started getting criticism. There’s no doubt that we needed to improve some things. We made some changes which helped things run smoother, but there was still some dissatisfaction below the surface. Things came to a head when a person who claimed to be representative of the feelings of a fair-sized number of others presented us with a laundry list of things which needed to change before they could really commit to the congregation.

This situation illustrates, I think, the central dilemma, the crucial decision, which the leadership of every congregation must face. It is impossible to be all things, to all people, all the time. There will always be different interest groups trying to pull the congregation different directions. No matter what you choose; no matter what direction you take, there will be some dissent and disagreement. Not even Christ could always get everyone on the same page. How do you choose what to do?

It seems to me that unless a congregation merely allows itself to be blown in whatever direction the wind is blowing at the moment, it can choose to follow one of two basic principles:

1) It can figure out what demographic it wants to reach and shape itself to appeal to that group of people.
2) It can figure out what its core values are and expect those who join the congregation to subscribe to those values.

There is a fundamental and irreconcilable difference between the two approaches. You’ve got to choose between the two. If there’s a third option, I don’t know what it would be.

Those in the first camp justify it with Paul’s statement about becoming “all things to all men” in order to save some by “all possible means.” (1 Corinthians 9:22) It’s my personal opinion that many who quote Paul to justify the direction they are taking their congregations are taking his statement out of context. Be that as it may, those who adopt the first path allow external forces to shape, and ultimately control, the church.

This is one of the crucial problems inherent in the “driven” philosophy. The approach is based on what the corporate world describes as “customer satisfaction.” Tailor the message so it will appeal to “seekers.” Give the people what they want. They’ll come if they feel comfortable. Concentrate on the needs people feel.

Another component in following this path is adopting what one writer calls the “utility principle.” In other words, do what works. To paraphrase a statement I’ve heard, “Don’t try to figure out what the Lord will bless. Instead, put your efforts behind what the Lord is already blessing!” Aside from the obvious problem that if everyone followed the advice, nothing new would ever be started, how do you ensure that it really is the Lord who is blessing? How do you measure success? All too often outcomes are judged by worldly standards – people like it, the offerings are up – rather than by the objective standard of God’s Word, whether it happens to be popular or not.

Is following the first path the choice the Lord would have the church make? I think not. It seems to me that this whole philosophy runs counter to much of what Christ taught. If Jesus was concerned about customer satisfaction He surely would not have preached His sermon on the Bread of Life. He lost most of His followers over that one.

He also didn’t cater to “felt needs.” For example, the woman at the well wanted a better water supply. Jesus gave her something very different. As another example, Jesus deliberately delayed answering the summons form Mary and Martha when they called Him to heal Lazarus. In both these cases Jesus ignored the “felt need” in order to deal with the much deeper and fundamental spiritual issue.

Jesus set His brothers straight about the “utility principle” when they urged him to “show yourself to the world.” Jesus told them, “The right time for me has not yet come; for you any time is right. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil.” (See John 7:3-7) Ouch!

So, what about the second option: deciding what your core values are and expecting people to conform to them? By now, you’ve surely gathered that I think that this is the path which congregations should follow. But it, too, is not without its pitfalls. Perhaps the biggest one is defining what those core values really are. If you’ve ever had to write a statement of faith, you know how difficult it can sometimes be to decide a) exactly what you believe, and b) what is absolute and in what you can allow differences of opinion and compromise.

A related problem is not being willing to change in areas which are non-essential. But if Christ allows freedom in certain details, why shouldn’t we?

It’s also easy to define yourself, or your congregation, by what you aren’t and don’t believe, rather than what you are and the things you do believe.

Okay. Show-time. So, what values do I consider core? Here’s a partial listing. Some of it may surprise you. (Some omissions may surprise you, too. For example, I haven’t listed some basic and fundamental doctrines. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t in the core. I just wanted to mention some of the more unusual items.)

1) The cross of Christ must be central in all we do. By its very nature, the message of the cross is either a stumbling block or foolishness to those in the world. But we must not do anything to take away the cross’ offense lest we also minimize its power. We must be certain to speak and teach about sin and the cross’ role in redemption, even though it is not popular to do so. We must continue to talk about the need to crucify self even though it runs counter to the values of our culture.

2) The assemblies of the church are for Christians, not the “unchurched” unbeliever. The assemblies are primarily for the building up, training and encouraging of the saints, not evangelism. They are not “seeker sensitive.”

3) A plurality of leaders. Most congregations I am acquainted with are led by a so-called ‘Pastor’ whose role is an un-biblical hybrid (a friend of mine calls it a “bastardized role”) between that of an Evangelist and Elder. It is essential for congregations to adopt the New Testament model of leadership where congregations are led by several equal Elders who actively speak, teach, shepherd and oversee the congregation.

4) Mutual edification. We must get past the idea of the professional clergy. Past the idea that only those trained to do so may speak. We must foster an environment where people are transformed from spectators into participants.

5) Emphasis on spiritual growth. Quality is more important than quantity. Christ-likeness is the goal. In time, quality (Christ showing through the lives of His followers) will attract quantity.

In many ways, choosing and following the second path is harder. It runs counter to most of the thinking in church growth circles. For sure it won’t build a mega-church. But I’m convinced it will build mega-Christians!

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