Today we held a "Ministry Fair" at the church that serves to highlight the many ministries within our church as a way to highlight the sorts of things we do and also to allow others to volunteer and serve in particular areas where we have need. As I stood at my station, I began to think about the church and why I, with my family, attend and serve... and it caused some interesting reflection that I wanted to share here.
It is my firm belief that one of the biggest problems within the church today is that it has become an institution that seeks to change God for the sake of people, rather than to change people for the sake of God. It has become "seeker friendly" and so much so that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been watered down to the point that it is indistinguishable from real Biblical truth. It isn't hard to see... turn around and look at what many churches today preach, teach, and "sell" to people who come in the doors. Instead of calling people to serve God, the church starts to serve the individual. Instead of the church calling individuals to serve the body (which is the church and members of the Christian community, and also all mankind), it seeks to become more palatable to the masses.
In the words of Dietrich Bonhoffer:
"Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."
How did we get to this point? The church used to be something that people gave their lives for (and, in many parts of the world, still do) but here in North America we equate the church to nothing more than a drive-through fast food joint. We have become a McDonalds for the soul. A Subway for the spirit. To me, the obvious answer is that churches want more people, and I believe most have good intentions here. The more folks who come through the doors, the more people who will have that encounter with Jesus and ultimately start down the road of relationship with Him that leads to eternal life. Sure, some churches are thinking that more people mean more finances and they are financially driven although I don't think this is most churches (undoubtably there are more than a few that would fall into this kind of motivation).
The question I have for these churches that are willing to water down the message to get more people in the door is: what do you do with them once you have them? If your lure to get people into the church is to preach messages about how much God loves you (He does) and how much He wants to bless you (He does), and how much it's all about you (it isn't really) then what do you do about the flip-side of the gospel that is just as important, if not more so? If you spend all your time talking about these things and then toss in a message about repentance, about obedience, self-sacrifice, loving your neighbour like yourself, putting God first above all things... if you don't preach these things as part of the "whole package" then the people you brought in with the "it's all about you, baby" message will vote with their feet and walk because this new message isn't what drew them in to begin with. So what are the chances these things will reach the pulpit? Probably little chance because the fear will be that you've changed the menu and you've changed what they came for with something they need, but don't really want. We can't be "bait and switch" churches because that doesn't work and deceives people.
So what are we left with? Starting of as peddlers of cheap grace and staying that way. Or we can preach a full gospel and stay true to it, showing integrity and honesty and deceiving no one.
I believe this is a real fear in a lot of churches today. If they start preaching a full gospel, who is going to stick around to hear it? Sure some will, but for those who came to the church because it met their needs, when those needs are no longer met, they'll leave.
This is the essence of consumer christianity. Thomas C. Reeves, in his book The Empty Church said:
“Christianity in modern America . . . tends to be easy, upbeat, convenient, and compatible. It does not require self-sacrifice, discipline, humility, an otherworldly outlook, a zeal for souls, a fear as well as love of God. There is little guilt and no punishment, and the payoff in heaven is virtually certain. What we now have might best be labeled ‘Consumer Christianity.’ The cost is low and customer satisfaction seems guaranteed.”
But this isn't the way the church was supposed to operate and as a Christian, this isn't how we're supposed to view the church. There are two main points here: the first is that the church has to stop catering to people and be what it was actually meant to be, what God designed it to be. The second is that people have to stop looking at church as something that caters to their needs and making it all about their wants and desires. I believe that if the second happens, the first will also. But some churches just need to make the decision that, even if it means people leaving, they will preach a full gospel truth -- not watered down, not manipulated, and certainly not absent. Why? Because Jesus asked us to make disciples, not patrons.
For Christians, the church was not meant to serve our needs. We were meant to serve the church, to be obedient to the call of God. In Luke 9:23-34 (TLB), Jesus says:
Then he said to all, “Anyone who wants to follow me must put aside his own desires and conveniences and carry his cross with him every day and keep close to me! Whoever loses his life for my sake will save it, but whoever insists on keeping his life will lose it;
We need to understand that sometimes we won't get what we want. We need to understand that sometimes the pastor will preach a message that digs a little deep and makes us uncomfortable and that it isn't a license to leave to find somewhere else that preaches something a little softer. We need to be ok with change and that sometimes people will rub us the wrong way and instead of looking for the exit, realize that we have a place here and maybe, just maybe, this is a good opportunity for growth. The church is called the Body of Christ and we don't get to define what that looks like. God calls us, and has designed us, to be a part of one body. In 1 Corinthians 12 the Bible talks about the body and how we are necessary parts of it, and in Colossians 1:18a the Bible tells us that Jesus is the head of the body:
He is the Head of the body made up of his people—that is, his Church—which he began
So we see that it's not up to us to determine whether or not we belong, whether or not we should leave, whether or not it meets our needs. Instead, we need to know that we do belong, we should only leave if the Lord directs us elsewhere (after all, He places us where He wishes), and we need to start thinking about meeting the needs of others rather than just being in it for ourselves.
My wife and I have been attending Christcity (started back when it was Bethesda Christian Fellowship) for about 18 years now. We have seen pastors move on to other churches, we have seen many friends leave for a variety of reasons, and we have seen people who have remained loyal to that body of believers much longer than we have. In fact, today we honoured the retirement of our Treasurer who has served faithfully for 46 years. I can honestly say that remaining this long has not been without it's challenges! Some of the people who have moved on have been very dear friends and it would have been so easy to leave with them.
Except that my wife and I understood and acknowledged that God planted us in that church 18 years ago and we don't have the option of leaving until He says so. This isn't about loyalty to one pastor, or even one building. It's about loyalty to the God who said "this is where you belong" and understanding that God commands blessing when we remain in unity (Psalm 133).
And so we have, and God has rewarded us immensely for remaining faithful to the place God has called us. But even more than that, we don't come to the church as consumers, we come to the church as contributors. When we come as contributors, yes, we consume, but we also take part.
This can easily be compared to the open source ecosystem. There are many consumers of open source (in fact, a whole lot of what you use today, whether you realize it or not, is effectively consumed open source software, be it your phone, TV, router... heck, even your toaster). There are, comparatively, few contributors. And yet the contributors to open source will tell you, time and time again, that contributing to open source makes all the difference and there is great satisfaction to be had. In fact, I'd say that open source contributors believe "it is better to give than to receive" because they know they will receive so much more than they contributed, because they are able to reap the fruit of the labours of others who, like themselves, contributed to something that was bigger than just "me".
This is what the church is meant to be. We are meant to be partakers, to partner with God and the church He designed. We are meant to serve. We are meant to walk alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are meant to be active parts of the body. And we are meant to be loyal and committed to the body, in the same way two people are committed in marriage. I find the imagery of Christ and His Bride so potent because Jesus has made commitment to the church in the same way a husband does to his bride, and the church is meant to have that same level of commitment to her Husband. And we, in turn, are meant to have the same level of commitment to both the Bride (church) as members of the body, and to the Husband (Jesus) as the Bride.
I'll wrap this post up with Acts 20:28-35 (TLB) as a warning for both those who lead the church and for those who are a part of the church:
“And now beware! Be sure that you feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his blood—for the Holy Spirit is holding you responsible as overseers. I know full well that after I leave you, false teachers, like vicious wolves, will appear among you, not sparing the flock. Some of you yourselves will distort the truth in order to draw a following. Watch out! Remember the three years I was with you—my constant watchcare over you night and day and my many tears for you. “And now I entrust you to God and his care and to his wonderful words that are able to build your faith and give you all the inheritance of those who are set apart for himself. “I have never been hungry for money or fine clothing— you know that these hands of mine worked to pay my own way and even to supply the needs of those who were with me. And I was a constant example to you in helping the poor; for I remembered the words of the Lord Jesus, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”