This Pandemic Is a Chance to Rethink Your Church’s Mission

Pandemic reveals who you are and what you’re made of. It scours away the pretenses under which you operate. It unearths the true character of your church.

The covid-19 coronavirus outbreak is already an unprecedented disruption. While some are hoping for a quick return to normal, realistic models show nothing less than eight weeks of drastic cutbacks. Major events in June are already being canceled.

What does your church look at this stage of the pandemic? Will your faith community look the same coming out of the coronavirus lockdown? Or will this drastically change your congregation?

Here’s the long and the short of it. This is a chance to rethink your church’s mission. Or to put it more bluntly, this calamity provides a window of opportunity to finally get with the mission of following Jesus.

Here’s the problem. Too many North American churches focus far too much money, energy and time on the Sunday morning gathering. Their resources, their staffing and their property are all largely directed toward putting on a good show for their paying consumers. The mission of way too many churches is to keep people coming and giving. Do whatever it takes, or so the logic goes, to get butts in the pews and money in the coffers.

Unless I’m badly mistaken, Jesus never called us to do what most churches today view as their central focus. These are luxuries we greatly enjoy, but they should not be our mission. Producing wonderful worship is not the mission. Preaching a good message is not the mission. Amazing children’s and student ministries are not the mission. Even providing an inviting space and good coffee for fellowship is not the mission.

Let me be clear about one thing. This is not a post against big churches per se, even if some are great offenders in this regard. Small churches can be just as guilty of putting all their eggs into the Sunday-morning basket. Far too much of what most churches do goes into producing a product they can feel proud of on Sunday mornings. This is true in big and small churches alike.

This pandemic will lay bare the fact that many North American churches are focused on consumerism instead of discipleship. And in this midst of this crisis, we have a chance to repent and refocus on the mission of going into the world and making disciples.

Jesus did not call us for the purpose of meeting on Sunday in a church building. He called us for the purpose of being his people. To be salt and light. To be the pillar of truth. To be resident aliens. To be disciples. To be the family of Christ, the household of God. Perhaps this temporary shutdown is a chance to refocus our churches on the mission of Jesus.

Where can you find healthy models of how to commit to the mission of Jesus? I’d argue that they are all around. In immigrant churches. In minority churches. And in third-world churches. The role of pastors in those churches is not to deliver an outstanding product on Sundays but to know the Good Shepherd and to be a shepherd all week long. The role of worship in those churches is not to titillate the senses for a few minutes on Sunday but to give people the words and the music by which to live all week long. The focus of these churches is totally different because they are still on mission—something we would do well to rediscover right now.

While your church is furloughed, you might be tempted to spend your energy on live-streaming messages or on technical gadgetry to wow your people and keep them from forgetting to donate. Instead, use this as a time to reconnect with God, your church and your neighborhood. Go for long walks and greet your neighbors. Read your Bible. Pray without ceasing. Publish your cell phone number so anyone in your church can text you. Do the unexpected. Be like Jesus.

I pray for a quick end to this infectious disease. Most of all, though, I pray that God will be at work to transform your church into the kind of people who can truly make a difference, into people committed to the mission of Jesus.

Investing in the Church’s Interior Health

The present condition in Churches of Christ looks bleak. I have a three-part thesis as to how we got here. It’s more complicated than this, I know, but this informs what I think is (and isn’t) needed at this crucial juncture.

First, Churches of Christ thrived in the can-do era of post-World-War-2 America because we were the can-do church. With our simple, reproducible, rules-based system, we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps like few other religious groups. We grew like wildfire in regions of the United States that were either depressed or rapidly developing.

Second, Churches of Christ crashed when three things happened at once. Our hard work began to produce prosperity but also “works of the flesh.” Members no longer felt the urgency to work so hard. Plus, they were weary and ready to rest—perhaps on their laurels. Our society changed as well, and most of our previous target audience was no longer receptive to a can-do message.

Third, despite some shortcomings, Churches of Christ had been blessed with two positive traits of inner vitality—personal piety and strong Christian relationships. Personal piety began to decline once the wealth of our members increased and the restrictive veil of legalism pulled away. Without personal piety, strong relationships became more cliquish than Christian. As a result, Churches of Christ lost their key elements of interior health.

Churches of Christ are in a troubling place. We’re declining rapidly. Some of our best and brightest young people are leaving and are unlikely to return. And most of us don’t really know who we are or what we stand for in the current landscape of American Christianity.

I deeply appreciate the fact that many leaders in Churches of Christ want to turn from decline back to growth. I respect this tenacity and hopefulness. They are correct in that we do not evangelize or disciple well. Perhaps an influx of new blood will get folks to once again think proactively about matters of faith. In churches that are relatively healthy, this may indeed be the needed cure.

I worry, however, that most of our churches have a deeper problem.

In 1990, I moved to Prague, Czechoslovakia. Less than a year removed from the Velvet Revolution, Prague was spectacularly stunning on the surface. It had avoided the ruinous bombings of World War 2. The ensuing decades of Communism meant very few Americans had ever visited. Walking the streets revealed marvels of medieval grandeur.

I gradually learned a harsh truth. Behind the ancient, sparkling façades were buildings in devastation. The broken economic policies of Communism produced too little revenue to maintain or modernize most buildings. Once Communism ended, the reality of their condition became increasingly clear. Rot and decay were just below the surface.

Beauty on the outside doesn’t mean health on the inside. The communist overlords of Czechoslovakia placed a priority on making things look good. They had wanted visitors and citizens alike to believe that the country was healthy and strong. What mattered most was the illusion that everything was okay.

In the thirty years since the end of Communism, the Czech Republic has received billions of dollars in foreign investment. Little by little, decrepit and decaying buildings have been renovated into modern apartments, offices, hotels and business space. Plumbing, wiring, and gas lines had to be replaced along with adding high-speed internet connections and other contemporary necessities. Buildings had to be retrofitted to meet current standards of safety and accessibility. It’s been an amazing undertaking, but the interior of Prague’s historic center now matches the quality of the façade. Prague is no longer a city where the illusion of health is all that matters.

In Churches of Christ, I hear many stories about churches grasping for a quick fix. They seem to think that a veneer of health will increase numbers which in turn will (they hope) create real health. Start a new program. Hire a young preacher. Overhaul the building. Just fix the façade, and all will be okay.

I disagree. Strongly. We need more than an exterior makeover. Dying Churches of Christ won’t be rescued by the “Church Impossible” team.

The only way forward is for most of us to invest in the interior health of the church. This may or may not result in short-term numerical growth.

Investing in the church’s interior health means to take up the cross and to grow spiritually. Any other proposal is an attempted return to the can-do mentality of a previous generation. The can-do approach is human-centered: “By our might and ingenuity we will fix this thing.” It’s a way of the flesh—a way producing death, not life.

Instead, we need a cross-shaped, Spirit-led path that relies on God’s provision and leadership and that embraces the way of Jesus. Among many others, one text sufficiently demonstrates my point.

Eph 2:11-22 describes how the church is built. It’s a cruciform text, meaning that the cross lies at its center. Here’s the movement of Paul’s passage. He starts by saying that we are divided “in the flesh” (v. 11). Jesus takes us “into his flesh” and brings us together (v. 14), putting to death hostility and division “through the cross” (v. 16). Thanks to Jesus, we all have access to the Father “in one Spirit” (v. 18). All this happens so we can be built together “in the Spirit” as God’s dwelling place (v. 22).

The passage moves from the flesh to the Spirit via the cross. Death and division are only defeated by moving to and through the cross. From the point of cruciformity, Jesus hands us over to the Spirit who takes on the work of building the church. Later sections of Ephesians make even more sense when you understand the centrality of the Spirit’s work in building the people of God (4:1-3; 5:18bff; 6:10-18).

So let’s summarize Paul’s teaching. The result of human striving is division and death. The result of the cross is that we are given over to the Spirit who builds us into God’s dwelling place.

Now let’s sum up our predicament in Churches of Christ. Long story short, we got into our current mess by relying on ourselves. While we were “fortunate” enough to grow in an era that welcomed such an approach, it eventually left us tired, inward-focused and devoid of the Spirit. Does anyone really think we can rescue Churches of Christ by relying once again on our own might and ingenuity?

Instead, I propose these two difficult yet crucial moves. First, take up our cross and follow Jesus. We must learn what it means to live a life shaped by Kingdom ethics. This means to hold the things of this world loosely and to increasingly depend on God to provide. When Jesus said that it’s difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God, he was talking about us.

The second move is to live into the Spirit. We must learn what it means that the Spirit of God equips the people of God for the mission of God. We can’t fill ourselves with the Spirit, but we must seek God’s filling instead of fleshly remedies. And we must trust the Spirit to use us to build the church of God.

Without such emphases, I fear that any effort to renew our churches will look like the misguided efforts to beautify façades without investing in livable buildings. Do we have the vision to see what is most needed? And do we have the courage to avoid the quick fixes and instead invest in the church’s interior health?

God’s Mission Requires Radical Prayer, Fasting

If your church is like mine, then you likely spent the past 25 years deconstructing the unhealthy elements of your faith. You slowly and painfully stripped away the toxic lies. A previous generation had taught a legalistic view of faith, and you needed to undo that. You finally realized that salvation was not dependent on church attendance, a cappella music, weekly communion, or (gasp!) getting every single skin particle and hair follicle beneath the watery grave of baptism. Jesus saves, not our works or rules. Hallelujah. Amen.

But something was lost along the way. A baby got thrown out with the bath water. People lost interest in church. With your deconstruction complete (or close to it), your church now struggles to populate its activities, classes and programs. Your church members apparently got the message that the bar for salvation is low. As a result, they don’t find your offerings compelling enough to sacrifice much of their time and energy for them.

Churches are asking too little of people. Simply hoping that people show up for a midweek gathering or a weekend coffeehouse is too shallow a commitment, and your church people know it. That’s why they struggle to make it a priority.

People want to make a difference in this world. Call it narcissism. Call it the Instagram effect. Call it the wisdom to know that your time is short. Doesn’t matter what you name it. It’s a reality. Most folks can sniff out irrelevance.

They don’t want to be like Eddie, the long-time employee of a hardware store. When Eddie retired, someone asked the owner if they were going to hire a replacement. The owner answered, “No, we’re not hiring. Eddie didn’t leave a vacancy.”

No one wants to be like Eddie, yet churches keep replicating models and methods that make people feel as useless as Eddie. Here’s something to consider. If your church and your church’s programs were to disappear tomorrow, what difference would it make in the lives of your members and your community? Would it leave a vacancy? Would anyone notice?

Along with a couple friends, I once helped lead a young man named Zdenek to Jesus. We spent a lot of time together over a period of several months. One of the best things that happened to him, though, was that we were separated for three years before I moved back near him.

In that interim period, Zdenek had to seek out Christian guides to disciple him. He ended up in a residential discipleship program that emphasized prayer, fasting and evangelism. I visited him there and instantly felt as though I had wandered into a world of committed Christians who were perhaps more sold-out for Jesus than I was. It was humbling.

A year or two later, Zdenek had married and felt the call to dedicate himself to ministry. He embarked on a 40-day fast (forty days!) during which his only nourishment was from fruit juices. I’ll never forget his visit to our apartment near the end of that journey. He looked emaciated and walked with great deliberation. Zdenek told us that he felt weak but that his mind and spirit had never been clearer. He was completely in love with Jesus and wanted to spend his life serving him. And he has continued to do so. I marvel at Zdenek.

Honestly, Zdenek should be thankful that we didn’t disciple him. The Lord led him to Christians who weren’t recovering from the pain of legalism but who were sold out to radical acts of discipleship like prayer and fasting.

What would you give to have a few people like Zdenek in your church? What if your church could finish the deconstruction of the past and could start with the construction of disciples? Not everyone wants to go all in for Jesus, but I’m convinced that many are longing for a deeper sense of commitment and belonging. Instead of giving them Wednesday night Bible studies or a snazzy lounge, how about teaching lifestyles committed to prayer, fasting and evangelism?

Almost every church I know wants to attract young adults like Zdenek. You’re likely fishing around for programs or styles that will cater to his demographic. And like most churches I know, you probably want easy answers that don’t require much more than money or cosmetic changes.

But here’s the reality. Joining God’s mission requires radical acts of discipleship such as prayer and fasting. I believe God’s mission will only break out in your church when you can return to the simple yet powerful practices of early churches as in Antioch: While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit spoke, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying, they laid their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:2-3).

As one astute church person commented, “Your church is producing exactly the results it’s designed for.” Are you producing Eddies? Or are Zdeneks multiplying in your midst? Take an honest inventory.

The Dark Side of Grace in Churches of Christ

Jason Locke

Jack Whittaker’s huge Powerball jackpot cost him just about everything.

The drawing was on Christmas Day 2002. The Powerball lottery had reached frenzied proportions for what would be the biggest, undivided payout in history. Occasional gamblers like Jack Whittaker only played when the jackpot was a couple hundred million or more. At his regular morning stop for coffee and biscuits in Hurricane, West Virginia, he bought what would be the winning ticket.

Whitaker was 55 and already a wealthy, successful businessman. Happily married, he and his wife were described as the “life force of the entire family” (“Rich Man Poor Man” by April Witt in Washington Post Magazine, January 30, 2005, p. 25). When news of Jack’s big win hit the local press, he vowed to donate millions to his family’s favorite churches and pledged to start a charitable foundation to help needy West Virginians. He even bought a house for the clerk who sold him the ticket. Overnight, Whitaker became more popular than anyone else in the state.

His good fortune began to collapse within weeks—even if the money didn’t run out. Jack began to stay out late and visit area strip clubs. He stupidly flashed his money and groped women at a nearby casino. It wasn’t long before these escapades made their way into police reports and the local news.

Even worse, Jack’s granddaughter Brandi died from a drug overdose just two years after the jackpot win. She had been Jack’s pride and joy, and he doted on her with thousands of dollars in cash on a near-daily basis. Her spending habits quickly spiraled out of control—clothing, a new car, junk food, drugs and shady companions.

The Powerball jackpot did something odd to Whittaker. Instead of the responsible man who had built a business and a family, he reverted to the poor hillbilly who grew up drinking, carousing and fighting. His sudden wealth produced destruction and death. Jack put tens of millions in the bank, but his granddaughter died in squalor. More than one person connected to Jack said, “That lottery ruined our lives.”

There’s a dark side to such a record windfall. It’s not that money destroyed Jack Whittaker’s life. It’s that Jack Whittaker was unable to handle his good fortune. Call it naivete. Or foolishness. Or a heart of poverty despite external riches. Simply put, Jack Whittaker was unprepared for his winnings.

There’s a similar dark side to grace. As the lottery revealed Jack Whitaker’s inability to manage great wealth, so too has grace unearthed deep dysfunction in Churches of Christ.

Let me be clear on what I am and am not saying. Grace is a good thing. Period. Stop. How can it not be good? More than good, grace is a wonderful gift. Our generous God wants nothing more than to provide us with overabundant mercy and love. It’s the jackpot of jackpots. We just have to scratch and play. Grace is amazing!

Managing one’s good fortune, however, is no easy task. With great wealth comes enormous responsibility. To live well after winning the lottery requires you to live like never before, work like never before, and take personal responsibility for your actions like never before. If you strike gold yet live with a mindset of poverty, you will quickly fall down to a level that matches your state of mind.

That brings me to the predicament of Churches of Christ. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Churches of Christ widely viewed themselves as the one true church. Not only did they view the Christian world through their own narrow lens, they also saw themselves through the most rose-colored of glasses. They believed themselves to be the fastest growing church in America, the church with the right plan for the times. They took the can-do mentality of the American frontier to the zenith of productive proselytizing. While other denominations were experimenting with new techniques to reach new demographics, Churches of Christ were proclaiming their pattern as the one and only way.

Then in the 1980s and 1990s, many of these churches discovered grace. It did not happen suddenly, and not every church joined this discovery. Change came gradually, but Christians and churches slowly awoke from their impoverishing legalism. Freedom came bit by bit.

It was like releasing trapped miners from an underground cavern. The sunlight and fresh air were startling at first. But the reality of grace began to sink in. It eventually felt like winning the lottery.

To deal responsibly with the riches of grace, however, requires you to live like never before, work like never before, and take personal responsibility for your actions like never before. But in Churches of Christ, our decades of legalism left us unprepared for the jackpot of grace. We changed from productive Christians, driven unhealthily by guilt and fear, into unproductive Christians, resting on our laurels and going into early retirement.

We have often been reckless with grace. If we were the only ones whose lives were ruined, that would be bad enough. But our children and grandchildren have ultimately paid the price. Despite having “heavenly riches in the bank,” we wasted our wealth irresponsibly, leading our heirs to believe grace was cheap and church work unnecessary.

With grace comes the obligation to work. Paul made this clear in the Ephesian epistle. In the first three chapters, Paul detailed God’s incredible grace, the jackpot all Christians did nothing to deserve. But then Paul moved from grace to work with this sentence, “I beg you to live in a way that is worthy of the people God has chosen to be his own” (Eph 4:1, CEV).

As a Christian, you have won the lottery. Your ship has come in. You’re rich beyond your wildest dreams. So live your life worthy of a jackpot-winner.

I know a guy who preaches for a church. His church has shrunk down to less than a 100—well below their high-water mark of several hundred. They’re a grace-centered bunch of Christians, very welcoming and non-judgmental. They love each other. There’s a big problem, though. He would like them to take on a few projects to reach out and grow. They, however, are content just the way they are. Decent Sunday morning services are all they aim for. The years of legalism left them wounded. Now, they want to bask in the glow of God’s grace. And nothing more. With that mindset, they will close the doors in a few years.

We need to learn how to combine grace with work. Yes, enjoy the goodness of grace. God is generous! We have won the greatest jackpot ever! But we have work to do. We must be moral people. We have a battle to fight and people to reach.

If Churches of Christ are to have a future, we must accept grace with the responsible approach of mature Christians who have work to do. We must turn from the dark side of grace and embrace the work of God’s glorious future here and now in the present.

The Power of Naming

Photo credit:  Photo by Camille Orgel on Unsplash

You cannot change what you will not name.

I do not know the origins of this quote, but I have full confidence in its truthfulness. The dysfunction of our individual lives and of our entire society becomes increasingly worse when we fail to acknowledge the pain that lies beneath the brokenness.

No one is exempt from struggle, hardship and pain. There’s no dishonor in having to deal with anger, grief and shame. But when you fail to properly name the forces that cause your inner pain, you wind up being controlled by them, held under their spell, and unable to influence your own future.

The power of naming isn’t only about escaping sin. Speaking the truth also involves naming the realities we live in so that we can honestly engage our world and our mission.

My mother worked for 30 years as the children’s minister of a large church in middle Tennessee. Here’s the interesting part. She was never called a minister. She could serve as the children’s minister as long as no one called her a minister. Children’s coordinator. Director of children’s ministry. Various titles, but never minister.

Do words matter? Is there power in naming something? And what happens when you fail to name the reality in which you live?

I preach for a church I love in Fresno, California. This church had a long, dark period where not everyone was willing to speak the truth about its ragamuffin nature: A string of fired ministers. Sexual impropriety among prominent leaders. Tragic deaths. The narrative of brokenness seemed obvious enough to me, but naming it as such wasn’t entirely popular with everyone.

Does the truth need to be spoken? Are you in the right when you name past wrongs? Does the pain of the past always need to brought out into the light?

Sometimes the pain of one’s existence becomes so great that you find it difficult to speak the truth. In “Death of a Salesman,” Biff bemoans the sad fact that “we never told the truth for ten minutes in this house.” What power is there in naming things as they really are?

Eve Ensler may not be a faith hero, but her campaign against violence to women has changed thousands of lives around the world. “I believe in the power and mystery of naming things,” she once said. Her campaign to speak the truth was deeply personal. Her father had violated her as a child in ways that no child should have to endure. Despite her deep pain—or perhaps because it was so deep—she had long been unable to tell the truth to her own mother. Then one day, she finally opened up:

“When I was finally able to sit with my mother and name the specific sexual and physical violence my father had perpetrated on me as a child, it was an impossible moment. It was the naming, the saying of what had actually happened in her presence that lifted my twenty-year depression. By remaining silent, I had muted my experience, denied it, pushed it down. This had flattened my entire life. I believe it was this moment of naming that allowed both my mother and I to eventually face our deepest demons and deceptions and become free.” (from an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, March 20, 2006)

I believe that one of the greatest problems in Churches of Christ today is our inability to tell the truth. We don’t want to name the sins of our past. Nor do are we willing to accurately name the realities in which we live. This failure to stop bearing false witness against God and against ourselves will continue to drive us into extinction.

In spite of this bleak picture, I believe in the power of naming. If enough brave congregations would start telling the truth about their decline, openly admit the sins of their past, and start properly naming things instead of playing word games, then I believe in God’s power to bring resurrection.

Your church can have a future. But that future starts with accurately naming the past. You must begin to tell the truth about who you are.