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Why churches shouldn’t try to survive

Survival can easily become the overriding value of a church. You won’t see it on a church website, but it is powerful. The desire to survive is natural. Every living thing wants to survive. Animals’ lives are consumed with the fight for survival. Humans strap themselves up to machines that extend life long past the time natural death would have occurred. Survival is not a bad thing—at least not inherently bad. But when it becomes the guiding value of a church it has devastating consequences.

Mabel is passionate about survival. She has never traveled outside the United States, actually, she’s never traveled more than ten minutes from her home. She goes just far enough to get food and other necessities. She considered food delivery, but you can’t trust those delivery drivers. She knows she should exercise to stay healthy, but going to the gym would require more driving. She considered a treadmill for her house, but that belt moves so fast it would probably throw her right off. Sometimes she walks up and down her stairs, but lately she’s been avoiding that because if she fell no one would be there to help her. She’s an expert at eliminating danger. She doesn’t use the stove, stays firmly on the no-slip mat in the shower, and washes her hands every five minutes.

In doing every thing she can to ensure survival Mabel lives an existence with no purpose, no friends, and no enjoyment. Mabel doesn’t make a difference in anyone’s life, not even her own. She is an increasingly lethargic, boring, ineffective person because of her passionate desire to survive.

I’m sure there are more, but here are three destructive outcomes of the need for survival.

Survival Makes Us Shallow

The more we let the need to survive take over, the shallower we become. Instead of listening to the Holy Spirit we preach what we think people want to hear. We give up the call to carry our crosses for the call to pick up a free latte. Survival lends itself to a shallow form of Christianity.

Survival Keeps Us from Sending

Our call as a Church is to go to all nations and make disciples of Jesus. If we send people to volunteer in other places they may give some of their money to those places instead of us. If we highlight going our best leaders might be called to go somewhere else.

Survival Sucks Our Faith

God has always called His people to move into the future in faith. He called Abram to leave his homeland without knowing where he was going. Jesus called the disciples to follow him without telling them what that involved. When we need to survive we can’t step out in faith because we might fail.

Function Junction

Picture this scenario, one you’ve encountered hundreds of times in your life.  You are meeting someone for the first time–a roommate, a friend’s friend, a co-worker, the auditor from the IRS (just got my taxes done yesterday, so I have residual IRS thoughts).  You get through the pleasantries–hi, how are you, my name is, your name is–and now there’s the first brief moment of silence.  What do you ask?  Or if they’re quicker on the proverbial draw, what do they ask you?  With just a handful of exceptions the question tends to be, so….what do you do?  And as soon as they tell you their occupation and you tell them yours you both start to form opinions of each other.  Because we all have at least some general thoughts about what teachers are like, or architects, or doctors, or pastors.  So we begin to decide some things about this new person based purely on the work they do.  With time and a growing relationship these impressions can fade, but I find it interesting that we go there to begin with.  We self-identify and judge others based on function.

“When asked to identify themselves today, people commonly refer to their career, job title, employer, or educational achievements.  This response illustrates how the culture of modernity roots a person’s identity in one’s achievements and place in the social order, especially the economic social order.  What identifies people is their function–what they do rather than their character or their personal qualities.”  Missional Church, p. 28

While we have launched headlong into postmodernity, we still maintain a great deal of residue from our four hundred year stay in modernity.  One of the things we’ve retained is this propensity for identifying ourselves and others based on function and achievement.  I see whispers of moving away from this, but I think it’s something we should work hard to accelerate.  It’s not wrong to share our job or achievements, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we identified ourselves and sought to know others for who they are instead of what they do?  This is important on a personal level, and for followers of Christ it is important on a communal level as well.

“By this all people will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  Jesus

Too many times churches, if they are known at all, are known for what they do–their function.  They are known for having a huge building, for entertaining the kids well, for having great music, for a good speaker, and on and on.  And despite all these things, study after study says people who are not Christians know churches as judgmental, cold, indifferent, hypocritical.  We need to be known for our character, and in particular for the way we love.  This will never come from a building or a program.  These can be tools we use, but if all the focus is placed on growing the physical manifestation of the church and it’s bill of services, we neglect the thing our founder called us to be known for–our character.

So I suggest that individually and communally we all seek to be known for who we really are, rather than what we’ve done in the past or what we do now.  This will be a deeper and truer way of understanding and impacting each other.

Debriefing Easter

On Sunday our family went to a more traditional church (by which I mean a church that meets in a building every Sunday morning, has programs, coffee, etc.) for the first time in a couple months.  It’s amazing how much our perspective has changed since we started with Infuse (our mission-focused community of faith).  There were a couple things that seemed to really stick out.

One is the extent to which everything seems commercialized.  Every program, sermon series, or even service event has its own set of graphics, reasons why you should come for it, and tag line.  I know that churches need to announce the things that are going on so people can plan on being at things they want to come to–but this seemed different.  I really felt at times like I was at an infomercial.  I’m still processing this, but I’m struggling with why it’s necessary to work so hard to get people to come to things.  I mean, if people are really following Christ and that church is their community, then shouldn’t they be finding ways to stay connected to the community without having events sold to them?  And I know that churches function on the assumption that Easter is one of two big chances a year to speak to people who aren’t in church very often, but even with that being the case, it seems like the plea for people to be a part of the church is based on coolness and what the church “can do for you” instead of on a committment to Christ.

(A quick aside here–I’m going to write about one more thing, but I think it’s important to note that I believe what I’ll write about comes from a slow drift in spite of the good motives of church leaders, not from insincere intentions.  We have come to live in a time where churches often see themselves as one option competing for a market share of people’s time, resources, and energy–so over time they employ the same means as the rest of culture to try and stay relevant and viable.  We live in a culture of strategy, and much of the time church leaders are schooled by the leading marketing and strategy gurus of our time, then translate what works in the business world to the church.  Thus, churches become Christocentric organizations (which should inherently be sacrifical) running on business models (which are inherently focused on organizational success), which is an oxymoron.  A church shouldn’t really have anything to market or sell, but that’s where they end up because they believe it’s the only way they can continue to grow.  And growth should be a good thing, but if consumerism and marketing has corrupted the message the church is able to communicate then they’re growing for the wrong reasons and are in danger of communicating a different gospel than the gospel of Jesus.  Because no matter what is preached from the pulpit, people learn as much from form as they do a sermon.  (In communication lingo, the medium is the message.)  So my next observation needs to be seen in light of churches and church leaders having great intentions, but also being significantly impacted by a culture that constantly markets to consumers to increase market share.)

So my observation is that there is a lot of clever strategy employed but little space left for the power of God.  What if for Easter Sunday (or any other Sunday for that matter) someone read from Scripture, maybe explained it a little bit (or even led a discussion), people praised God (through music or something else), and there was at least half an hour left for prayer?  But this doesn’t happen.  I think we’re afraid that people would get bored, and I know this is true because in the past I’ve led prayer times where I didn’t want to have too much quiet because I was afraid of boredom.  What if people didn’t come back?  What if people didn’t think we were cool?  Those thoughts mean I think my programming is more powerful than the Spirit of God.  Do you see the issue here?  We have to make sure something hooks people to bring them back.  And that hook almost always ends up being something we produce.  So what if some people did get bored?  So what if some people never did come back?  This certainly isn’t the goal, but Jesus usually said something that made people leave when the crowds got too big, we seem to go the opposite direction.

I know there’s a line to walk here, because God has given people gifts as teachers, singers, musicians, artists, video producers, and other things that should be used in the context of Christian community.  The problem is NOT that churches use video, soloists, drama or whatever else.  The problem is that we seem to think these things are necessary to hook people and make churches grow.  So what are people drawn to?  The image of a church or Jesus Christ?

Advertising Faith

On Saturday the fam and I decided to get out of the house.  We made a stop at the library (where Michelle actually met a new woman and set a playdate with her (for the kids of course) this week!) and then went on to a toy store near here that has a train set and lots of toys for the kids to try and break so we have to buy them.

After following Ayla around the store aimlessly for about 45 minutes I figured it was about time to go.  We put our coats on and headed out the door.  As we exited into the cold Chicago (well, technically Chicago area) afternoon a few people walked briskly by us and shoved something into Michelle’s hand.  The guy who forced the leaflet into her hand didn’t say anymore than a gruff “here.”  With two kids to juggle and a diaper bag we didn’t have a chance to look at it until we were on the way home. 

You can probably guess what it was for–a new church opening in a theater in the area.  It looked nice, very professionally done, but I couldn’t help thinking this trio was going to do more harm than good on their pamphlet-distributing mission.  If we were people seeking a faith community (which is who they seemed to be targeting) I can’t imagine we’d check this one out.  Professional advertising still doesn’t outdo friendliness and service.  Imagine if one of them had offered to carry our diaper bag to the car and actually interacted with us like regular humans!  That might have compelled someone to check out their church, but their manner on Saturday probably wouldn’t do much more than further ingrain some negative stereotypes of Christians.  Perhaps the most ironic part was that the slogan on the brochure was “No Perfect People Allowed,” maybe they were just trying to live out their slogan.

The point is, following Christ through kindness and compassion will speak far more to people than the flash and presentation of our gathering places.  And I think Jesus would be far more concerned with the former as well.