I’ll never forget the car I owned when I first moved into the world as an adult and began to learn what it took to be take care of myself. It was a gift from my parents and it lasted me through some of the most memorable moments of my life. It was the car I drove during my senior year of high school, cruised in throughout my college years, the car I drove off with my beautiful bride after our wedding, the car I moved all of my belongings into our first home in, and it gave us good quality traveling on so many vacations during the first 5 years of our marriage.
This car was very precious to me because it represented my adulthood and the freedom it gave. Every Friday afternoon you could find me washing, waxing, polishing, vacuuming, and shining up that car to a showroom finish. I didn’t let anyone eat in it, I didn’t hotrod it, I put a dynamite stereo system in it, tinted the windows to keep the inside cool, and made sure that it was checked out by a mechanic on a regular basis. It was an investment that I knew would pay off in the long run giving my family comfortable and safe travels for many, many years.
Sadly, while I was gone on a long-term training for the Army, my precious car slung a rod and was no longer drivable. To fix the car would cost more than it was worth and it was time for it to be hauled off to the scrap yard to be sold off for parts. No matter how nice and clean the car looked, how comfortable the interior was, how great the music sounded, or how much emotional attachment I had for it, it was no longer serving its purpose. If it didn’t get me down the road, it was no longer doing what cars were meant to do and had to be traded out for a vehicle that would carry us from place to place.
I have come to view church communities in a similar fashion as I did that car. It can look the best, have a comfortable atmosphere (cushioned seats, air conditioned, variable lighting, etc.), professional grade music, and people who genuinely care for each other; but, if it does not serve its intended purpose it is like my old car and needs to be traded out for a newer model. See, the purpose of the Church is love God, love people, and make disciples. Sadly, many church communities fail to do the very thing they were created to do.
I have read numerous books about church models (and am even in the process of writing one myself) and know that there is as much variety in ways that church communities accomplish the purpose of the universal Church as there are vehicles on the roads. I studied this subject in-depth during my years at seminary and have had great conversations with pastors, minister, chaplains, missionaries, and volunteers about the positives and negatives of the different ways a church community can operate. What it all boils down to, however, is that the Church is meant to share the Gospel with the world and make disciples.
Sadly, study after study (my favorites are by the Barna Institute) continue to show that the membership in local church communities is dwindling despite a greater appreciation for spiritual matters in this postmodern generation. In the 80s & 90s people came to church services because it was the accepted thing to do. Yet, as our world culture has shifted in perspective people have seen the Church as more of a symbol of the past rather than a current, thriving group that is active in the community and making a difference the lives of people. This, I am sad to say, is far too often the truth.
What has happened is that as culture in the world concerning spiritual things has changed, the Church has failed to adapt with culture. I do not mean that we should subscribe to pluralism and accept everything our culture deems acceptable. Instead, we must do as Paul did and become all things to all people so that we might reach some (cf. 1 Corinthians 9). We must adapt our methods but keep the message the same. The same message that conquered the paganism of the Roman Empire and reached across the world is still able to change the world today if we can just get it out to the world in a meaningful way.
How do we do this? There are a great many methods but I will draw the basis of these ideas from George Barna’s Revolution study and my own research.
Here are the basics:
Realize that church communities should value God’s presence over a style preference. This means that what we have treasured in anything from the hymns & pews to rock music & concert atmosphere are meaningless if the people in the community are not actively seeking God’s presence in their daily lives. The Church must help its members understand that worship is a lifestyle and not an environment style.
Get past internal conflicts and focus on being present in the community. In the small town I live in, there are so many church communities there is actually a ‘church street’ where 7 church communities operate side-by-side in competition with each other. The Church has divided itself by denomination, race, gender, version of the Bible, and style of music so much that the competition to ‘swap sheep’ rather than draw new sheep into the sheepfold. The answer to this is getting off the soapbox and into the community building relationships rather than focusing on membership.
Meet the real-life needs of people. The old-but-true saying that ‘people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care’ still applies today. People could care less about coming to church when they cannot feed themselves, clothe themselves, pay their bills, or have a steady paycheck. The Church needs to get out of their buildings and off of their wallets in order to meet these needs. Then, they will earn a seat at the table with the community and be able to share the Gospel with both word and deed.
Place the burden of sharing the Gospel on every Follower of Christ and not just the pastor. Over the last century it seems as if the pastor has become the only one expected to share the Gospel with other people. When asked, I have experienced so many excuses from Christians as to why they fail to share the amazing Good News of God’s salvation with others. The most common seems to be that they are not well trained like the pastor and leave it to him to present Christ in a clear way. This travesty needs to be overcome through training, education, and experience. God does not want to use just a handful of pastors with seminary training, but rather, he wants every believer to take part in the awesome partnership of making disciples.
Be equipped to have real conversations with skeptics. If we will be honest, we were all skeptics at some point in our lives. Before we surrendered our lives to Christ we examined the evidence and found God worthy of our lives. Someone presented the truth to us in a real and relevant way and every believer should be trained to do the same. This ties in with #4 but I wanted to make sure that we understand that there is a difference between being able to share the Gospel confidently and being prepared to have a deep discussion with a skeptic. This practice, called Apologetics, is not saying ‘I’m sorry’ but rather being prepared to give a defense for our beliefs and have solid reasoning for those beliefs. Without this, Christians will get trampled in conversation with skeptics and leave them without any sound reason for placing trust in Christ.
Change the church community you’re in or find one that actually makes Disciples. This is probably the hardest step in this list of basics. Many Christians have become emotionally attached to their church community and stay plugged in even if that church community is not serving its intended purpose. Just like my car from my early adult life, I was so emotionally attached to it that I did not want to get rid of it. After all, it looked great and had a comfortable interior with a great sound system. Yet, it would be foolish of me to keep sitting in that car with the A/C blowing and the radio blaring ignoring the fact that the car would not take me anywhere.
The same is true for many Christians in their church communities today; they are sitting in the building in their comfortable seats, the climate controlled air systems, the friendly atmosphere, the smiling congregation, the eloquent pastor, and the professional quality music. Yet, they are making little to no impact for the Kingdom. Their ‘car’, as it were, is not going down the road. On the highway of discipleship, there are so many cars sitting on the side of the roads with their radios blaring and the A/C blowing but they are not actually going anywhere.
So what can you do? The first idea is to try and fix the church community you are in. You can admit that there is a problem and that the check engine light is on for a reason. You can pop the hood and try to diagnose the problem. Maybe you need to get involved in your community or perhaps you need to change your atmosphere to be more inviting to those who live near your building. Maybe your pastor needs to teach on real-life issues or you need to dedicate more of your budget to meeting the needs of the people in your impact area. Once you have identified the problem, you can fix it and get the vehicle of your church community rolling down the highway again.
Sometimes, however, this won’t work. Perhaps the vehicle is too far gone for you to fix, the things you can fix still won’t get the car rolling again, or maybe you are just too inexperienced of a mechanic to fix the problem. If you run into this dilemma, you need to trade in your current model for one that actually works. Let me be clear, this is not an excuse to leave your church community to find a more comfortable one. Like many consumers in America who trade their well-working vehicle in every few years for the latest and greatest model, many Christians hop from church community to church community to make themselves feel more comfortable. This is not what I am advocating for at all.
What I am saying is that, if you cannot fix the church community you are in, you need to get involved in one that is actually making disciples. The method is not near as important as the message itself. And if the church community you are in is not moving down the road of making disciples you need to find one that is and get going. Remember, the goal of the Church is not to look pretty, feel comfortable, or have beautiful environments, it is to make disciples. Failure to do that is failure to follow the commands of our King.
I hope that this list is something that you’ll pray over. It is something that I am currently struggling with when I look at how the Church in America is operating and failing. So many church communities are satisfied with the status quo because they are comfortable. Comfort is not the name of the game, making disciples is. We must realize that our ability to be relevant to this current generation is riding on whether or not we can get out of our buildings and into our communities. If we fail at this we may find ourselves like the church buildings found all throughout Europe; beautiful and historic but empty and useful as a reminder of the past.