I had lunch yesterday with a local pastor. We talked about church, ministry, and what our vision(s) are for ministering in an increasingly skeptical culture. We also talked a lot about our town.
The town we live in has over 120 churches. It’s a town of only 55,000 people within 65 square miles. As my previous pastor used to joke, “It’s easier to find a church than a liquor store in this town.” Yet the bulk of the population remains “unchurched” (which, by the way, is a word I’m learning to loathe – more on that later).
When discussing the number of churches in Decatur, the local pastor I had lunch with said, “It seems that most church leaders want to plant 3-5 acre brick and mortar kingdoms instead of HIS Kingdom.”
As I drove home from the meeting, I couldn’t help but think about that statement. “3-5 acre kingdoms.”
Sadly, he’s right. Almost every church I pass has a “story” – a history, if you will, about how they used to be part of this church, or how they split from another congregation. Don’t confuse this with multiplication, mind you (that would be good), because it’s more aptly described as division as congregations got torn apart over the years (probably because the organ was too loud or someone sang a Michael W. Smith song instead of a hymn back in 1992). I can’t help but look at these churches and not see the baggage of their past – and how each one, because of differences of theology and style, have become mini-kingdoms.
Maybe it’s also my problem, though. Maybe it’s because they’re not “my” kingdom that I see them this way.
Which leads me to believe that, sadly, my pastor-friend is probably right even about those leaders/pastors with the best intentions. Why? Let’s be honest. Most of our “visions” for church begin with criticism about how churches do things certain ways. At its core, that’s not a bad thing. We have to be willing to take an honest look at the current state of our churches and ask what needs to change. Some of the greatest resurgences of the Gospel throughout history started with someone seeing a problem and making changes to do something different.
But as our visions are given form – as churches are planted or ministries are started – it’s all too easy to think, “I’ve figured it out. They haven’t.” Rather than reflect on the need other congregations may still be meeting through their ministries, we dismiss their “vision” as irrelevant. Worse, we might not even consider them as partners in expanding the kingdom. We may even see them as obstacles, rivals, or (dare I say) enemies. In fact, I heard a little 10-year-old girl call my daughter an “enemy” once because of the church we attended. (I wish I was making that up).
I could insert in here a paragraph or two about how there ARE problems with churches that do make themselves obstacles to the Kingdom through their traditionalism or judgmentalism. But right now I’m thinking more about how WE act, not them. Are we arrogant with our vision? Are we judgmental of them? Do we think we have the monopoly on what God can do in a community? Do we want our Kingdom to succeed (and secretly want to outdo the church down the road)? Do you think that people with different visions are against you? Do you find conversations with people whom you left behind (or they left you behind) awkward?
Our sheer differences can reveal a hidden, sinful belief: If you’re not with us, you’re against us. Or, at the very least, you just don’t get it. We will call you selfish or lazy. How could you not want to be a part of THIS?.
3-5 Acre Kingdoms. Ironically small visions.
Maybe the problem boils down to what it is we think we are planting/building. There are so many out there who are planting or wanting to plant “churches.” And they want to get the “unchurched” in their doors. By it’s very design, the very nature of planting a church is to establish a local expression of the body of Christ. After all, local expressions of the church are found in Scripture. Build it and they will come. That’s how it’s worked for thousands of years.
Or has it?
Looking more closely at Scripture, you find that Jesus built up disciples, then they built the church by going into the world. Let me restate that: The disciples built the church by going into their local communities and bringing the body of Christ to them.
And this brings me to why I’ve developed a problem with the word “unchurched.” What makes a person “unchurched?” Is a person “unchurched” because they do not attend our gatherings, or are they “unchurched” because no one has taken the love of Christ into their community and loved them?
There may be a fundamental flaw in our thinking when it comes to whom we are trying to reach: We define the “unchurched” as those who are not attending our EVENTS. Once they attend, they become “churched.” Maybe they get involved by serving, joining a life group, or some other “next step.” But there is the inescapable assumption that – even if we’re drawing them in through invitation and/or snazzy attractional “shows” – their moving from “unchurched” to “churched” is a motion that they are responsible for. We invite them into OUR world. For all practical purposes, we invite them into OUR 3-5 acre kingdom, even if our intentions are for a far greater Kingdom.
Here’s another part of the problem: When we build 3-5 acre kingdoms to draw people into our walls and they do NOT come, we believe that we have failed. If those we want to reach attend another church, we wonder, “What are they doing that’s better?” (or, “what are they doing that’s cheating?”). We may actually celebrate that they went somewhere else, but still find disappointment that they didn’t latch on to OUR vision.
But if we build God’s Kingdom by taking the gospel beyond the brick and mortar walls of our institutions….
If Christ’s followers become the body of Christ and WALK into the culture and engage people on their level…
Then we don’t care about our 3-5 acre kingdom because it does not exist. The movement of God isn’t tied to a location or certain crowd of people. Christ isn’t alive in the gathering of the church, as much as He’s alive in His people as they embody the love of Christ to the world.
That’s how the Kingdom of God works. We reach an unchurched person by bringing church to them – not the other way around. And as they become part of the body of Christ, we disciple them so that they, too, extend the love of God into their spheres of influence. There is no 3-5 acre kingdom when you’re ultimate goal is to send people out.
Even where there is still a worship “service” that might take place in 4-walls where the people have gathered to celebrate…
Even though there is still great value in attractional ministry (Jesus did very attractional things)…
When your DNA is about making disciples and sending people OUT to build the church, then you are not living like a people building a kingdom of land, brick, and mortar. You’re living like a people spreading the Kingdom of God to the world.
John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone using your name to cast out demons, but we told him to stop because he wasn’t in our group.” “Don’t stop him!” Jesus said. “No one who performs a miracle in my name will soon be able to speak evil of me. Anyone who is not against us is for us. – Mark 9:38-40.