Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Purpose-Driven Church

I’m going to say something that is at once the most obvious and most neglected truth about the purpose of the church out there today; namely, that you cannot decide what the church ought to be doing until there is fundamental clarity about what the church is. But in my observation, there is anything but “clarity” about the purpose of the church. Everywhere you turn, in every book you read, someone is offering a new “bag of tricks” to save the church from extinction in a postmodern, post-Christian world. [I wish I had a nickel for every time over the past 2,000 years someone proclaimed the church “extinct!”] When you actually analyze them, however, they fall into two categories.

The first is what I would call “Church as the Vanguard of the Consumer Culture.” The mottos of the consumer culture are well known: “The customer’s always right” and “He who dies with the most toys wins.” Perhaps the best I’ve heard is the Chase Bank Card commercial in which a man lusts for a new flat-panel television and goes to a big box store to shop for one. It is not accidental that as he shops for his television in the big box store, the venue has a “sanctuary” feel about it, and a choir swells in the background with anthem-like strains: “I want it all; I want it all; I want it all; I want it now!” In such a consumer culture, some in the church have “gotten it” and have adapted their mission and strategy to the culture and its values and have re-invented “church” as sort of a “pious Wal-Mart” competing with the big box “superstore” down the street and giving the customer whatever the customer wants to keep him happy and attending. It actually can get kind of silly - if the customer wants a “low-impact aerobic worship service,” then of course we have to start one.

The second is what I call “Church as Harbinger of Human Hubris.” This is the idea that man, individually or collectively, has within his own resources the power to “fix” the world and turn it into the kingdom of heaven here and now. This is church as “Social Service Organization.” If we can just get people to cooperate and work together and vote the right way, we can bring about the kingdom of heaven right here, right now.

The problem with both of these approaches is that they deny the fundamentally eschatological (read “other worldly”) character of the church as described by Jesus in the gospels; namely, that the church is not here to pander to the world on the one hand, or to “fix” it on the other. The church is rather the Vanguard of the Kingdom of God, in the world, but not of it. That is to say, the church of Jesus Christ is a community of people who’ve caught sight of and been captured by a vision of another world he called “the kingdom of God,” a world that is not only different from this world in vision and values, but is in almost every way that matters competitive with it (see John 17:14-16).

Now, of course, those who argue for the purpose of the church as capitulating to the culture will criticize this perspective as being too “escapist” and “other worldly,” but that criticism is bogus. Until either death or Christ’s return takes us out of this world, we’re in the world; there is no “escaping” it. The question is not whether the church will be “in the world” or “out of the world;” the question is whether the church will be the church “in the world,” or will it instead be some “knock off” masquerading as the church of Jesus Christ.

And so, if Jesus is to be our guide as to the nature and character of his church, then its purpose is clear: “Go into the world and make disciples by baptizing them and teaching them,” is how he put it (Matt. 28:19-20). That the church has an essentially eschatological character is seen in the promise that follows the purpose: “And I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.”

But how do we get that kind of church in this kind of culture? It starts I think with pastors who are more motivated by a biblical vision of church than the latest church growth gimmick or mandate from whatever ecclesiocracy they happen to serve. It takes courage these days to stand before a congregation and say: “We’re in the disciple-making business, and that’s measured more by lives changed and disciplines owned and values embraced than by buildings built or bucks banked or heads counted.” A retired pastor friend who speaks with both perspective and passion about the church says that the biggest challenge facing the church today is what he calls “undiscipled disciples,” people who think they're disciples because they go to church or small group, but whose lives evince none of the disciplines (intellectual, emotional, ethical, spiritual, financial, volitional) characteristic of a disciple of Jesus Christ. They are folk who have been “inoculated” with just enough Christianity to keep them from “taking” the real thing. But if you’re only interested in the short run, that’ll do! It takes tremendous courage for a pastor to plant his life in the middle of a congregation and say: “I won’t let you off; I won’t let you go until all of us attain the ‘measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.’” If you don’t have a pastor like that, get one!


dave said...

I wish stuff like this would get a larger readership. Fortunately your choice for the title could aid that as people stumble upon this looking for Rick Warren. Churches, their ministers and their "members" need to be reminded of who we are and whose we are.

The image that works best for me to explain it to the young people I minister to is that of the Matrix movies. People are "reborn" out of the world of the Matrix into the "real world," fighting agents of the false world who keep the rest of humanity blissfully unaware and enslaved. These freedom fighters seek to free humanity.

Like all metaphors it fails in describing fully the "in it but not of it-ness" of the church. But my youth have a better understanding of what it means to be Christian in a post-christian world.

Thank you for these words.


clayton king said...

Well said. For anyone who might be interested (though I do not assume anyone would be), I have an observation gleaned from 21 years of preaching in different cultures and churches of different denominations. Certainly, the church (where it exists) is going to refelct the culture within which it exists, to an extent. One difficulty seems to be reflecting the wholesome, good, or a-moral elements of a culture while standing and speaking prophetically against the evil, bad, and immoral elements of that culture. One extreme is to embrace the culture wholesale while the other is to rage against evey aspect of a culture venemously. You could almost over-simplify it as radical liberalism or reactionary fundamentalism (I think Neibhur had something to say about this, too).

Which brings me to my point...often times Christians who have been exposed to other cultures of the world (meaning they have traveled some, tasted different foods, learned new words, ridden the train or the tube, slept on dirt floors, bathed dirty kids at an orphanage, and smelled poverty as opposed to just reading about it, etc.) seem to slide more easily into the much needed balance of the "in-it-not-of-it" dichotomy. Not to say that a short term mission trip is the cure-all for what ails the church, but to suggest that literally leaving the comfort and convenience of home (house, church, community) every once-in-a-while, is good for the Christian soul. It puts us in proximity to those entirely different from us, gives us a chance to stop talking about social justice and actually practice some of it, and teaches us lessons we bring back to this consuming Christian subculture that seems to rule the landscape in the United States, at least.

Just a thought...

R. Wayne Stacy said...

I agree, Clayton. Provincialism and its twin, materialism, are at least part of the problem with the church's capitulation to the dominant consumer culture here in the States. It's not nearly so evident in countries where the church's very survival depends upon its being "in the world but not of it."

My late teacher and friend, Dr. Frank Stagg, used to say: "There are a lot a ways to divide the human race - left/right, educated/uneducated, white/black/yellow/red, etc. - but here's one most of us here in the US never think about. You can divide the world between 'weight watchers' and 'the starving.'"

Frank would then go on to say: "I step on the scales every morning praying I didn't gain a pound overnight. The vast majority of the human race wouldn't understand my problem!"

Anonymous said...

In my limited experience with churches it seems that power and control are the driving force in the participation of a lot of church goers. In searching for the truth and trying to be together to serve, one would think that the church would be focused and looking in one direction. But instead I have found that if you want to be involved in a church community you not only battle within yourself with the struggle to give up power to Him but you have to battle everyone elses self too. How exhausting. When you do find a preacher that gives you a glimpse of the Kingdom you only hope everyone else can see it too. And then of course there is the question of whether you are still being held by the Matrix or if you are perceiving what you think you are perceiving. I will never forget the parable you (Pastor Stacey) preached on, it told how neither servant that approached the king new what his fate would be but each was not what they thought it would be. I always remember that when I begin to evaluate myself and my behavior. More proof that as the Bible and Mr.Lewis have said we must deny ourselves completely. I guess if we could all do that at one moment all simultaneously we would be closer to the Kingdom of God. Maybe.

Anonymous said...

Sorry... I know it is STACY!
Please forgive my error.