Many of us are convinced that the way we do church needs to change. Better said, we are convinced that the idea of what it means to be the Church, or even a church member, is in need of an overhaul. I’m not talking about the superficial, surface level changes that we often focus on. The change we are in need of is not one centered on worship style, the name you put on your sign, or even the addition of a new and more engaging program. What we need is a change that brings us back to the original mission and focus of the Church. We need a change that reconnects us, not with the first pattern of the Church, but the original heartbeat of the Church. What we need is to reconnect with Jesus’ call to be disciples who make disciples (Matthew 4:19, 28:18-20).
A quick definition: During the course of this article, I will use the terms legacy church and prevailing church interchangeably. I use these terms to describe the church model which is currently predominant in North America. The legacy or prevailing church leans primarily into an attractional model, in which we invite people to come and see what happens on Sundays, or at an organized, programmatic event. What the prevailing church has not done well or frequently is call and equip its members to go and be.
Many are convinced of this. Some have even tried to begin moving the needle of culture within their respective local churches. And while a few have found a measure of success, many have run into the proverbial brick wall. We have discovered, yet again, that most church members don’t like change. In spite of our best efforts to cast a compelling vision, at times in spite of hours spent in prayer, we receive pushback. Often the intensity of the pushback we receive, not to mention the sources of that pushback, can be surprising. I have heard this story more times than I can count.
So, what do we do when we believe that we are being called into living out a better vision for the Church, yet as we look to the future, the road ahead appears to be filled with obstacles? Some resign themselves to continuing the current pattern. Some decide to move on, leaving behind the trappings of traditional church models, and instead choose to begin something new; this often leads to the establishment of house churches and other missional expressions. To be clear, I fully support the house church movement, I simply believe it’s not the only way forward. Still others, decide to double down, to lead through the murk of staying engaged with the prevailing church, because of the promise that something much better lies ahead if we can, through the grace of God, lead his people to embrace his mission once again. I want to give you five reasons I believe, in spite of the difficulty, this is a journey worth saying, yes, to.
- First, we must recognize that our churches are full of church members, but not necessarily disciples of Jesus. This should not come as a surprise, as in many cases we have been setting the wrong bar for years. As we have discovered this to be the case, we owe it to the people in established churches to share with them where we believe we have fallen short in both our messaging and our practice. We must call people to truly follow Jesus.
Now, I know that someone will likely push back on some of what I have just said. Ten years ago I would have. If that’s you, let me tell you why several years ago, a shift took place in the way I think about these things. I was reading through Mark’s gospel when I came to chapter ten and was once again challenged by the story of the interaction Jesus had with a very moral, pious, and wealthy young man. I won’t recap the entire story here, but I will tell you what challenged me then, and still challenges me today. At the end of the conversation, Jesus sent the man away. “But he was a good man, and wealthy…” I want to say. Don’t we want people just like that in our churches? Yes, we do. And Jesus wanted this man to follow him, he simply wasn’t willing to water down his message to get him to do so. He didn’t minimize the cost of discipleship in order to win a new follower – even a wealthy and pious one.
If the target is discipleship and not church membership, that means we may have some difficult conversations ahead. But…if we are convinced of this, especially as church leaders, preachers and teachers, we owe our people our best effort to shift the dialogue.
2. I remember where I was the first time I heard someone talk about the need to find a “Person of Peace” in order to advance the gospel message. Honestly, at that point, I had a limited concept of what this meant. In his online Zume training, Curtis Sergeant, defines a person of peace as, “someone who is open to hearing the good news of Jesus and is excited to draw others into a conversation about him.” Over the last few years, I have become convinced that finding these persons of peace is both strategic and wise.
Think a moment about the way we have just defined what it means to be a person of peace. Ok, now let me ask you a question? Doesn’t this sound like many of the people who attend church services from week to week. They are open to hearing the good news about Jesus. They are even willing to drive to our buildings to hear that news. They likely harbor some feelings of excitement as they consider engaging in conversations about Jesus. But they have never done so. And many, when asked, admit they wouldn’t know where to begin. Our churches are full of persons of peace. Now is the time to invest and equip this army of potential disciple makers. As Jesus said in Luke 10:2, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”
3. The Legacy church has an abundance of resources to contribute to the mission of Jesus. This is true both financially, and as it pertains to people who have gifts and talents that can be used to build the Kingdom of God. To illustrate this, I’ll tell you a short story about the church I’m blessed to serve. We aren’t a particularly large church, currently a little over 600 in membership. But every time a disaster strikes, whether it be the tsunami that ravaged India nearly twenty years ago, or the hurricanes that have battered the Gulf coast in the recent decade, our church has raised significant funds to assist in the recovery efforts. We are the single sponsor of an organization that works to plant and mature churches in Latin America. We give generously to local benevolent causes through our group of community partners.
I don’t say any of this to boast, in fact, I know many other churches could say the same. And that makes my point quite well. Many legacy churches are blessed with the resources to give generously to support the mission of Jesus through good works, church planting, and other initiatives. The prevailing church is made up of people who truly care! I believe most of these churches can likely do even more than they are currently doing, channeling both financial and talent resources in ways that specifically support disciple making locally and abroad.
4. God cares about the people who are members of the prevailing church. This is true because God cares about all people, but also because he cares specifically about those who belong to him. Many people have come to know God through the efforts of legacy church engagements. Those same people have also been offered a culture which has led them to become primarily consumers of the programs churches offer. This steady diet of church programming is a poor substitute for the real mission of Jesus, and as I have already mentioned, has struggled to create real disciples.
Through the avenue of relational discipleship, we can begin to show and share something better. I don’t think all the programs have to go, but we have to recognize that programs are not enough. Yes, the legacy church has at times missed the mark, but the people in these churches are deeply loved by God. Jesus came first to the lost sheep of Israel. He longed to gather Jerusalem to him, as a mother hen shelters her chicks under her wings. We should have the same heart for God’s people in our day and age, even if at times, we find ourselves discouraged with the current state of the Church.
5. To share this last reason, I want to tell you a little about my personal journey as a minister. Three to four times during my twenty years of service I have found myself so discouraged with ministry and with the church that my first impulse was to walk away. Not to walk away from God, but walk away from church as I knew it. Each time, through a season of prayer, God has renewed my passion and commitment to the Church. And each time, his message to me has been clear. These are the people I have called you to love and to serve. I don’t mean one specific local church; I mean the legacy church.
Some of us, who have come to see the present struggle for what it is, are going to be called, specifically by God, to work faithfully to see the current church culture transformed. The key word is “faithful.” Faithfulness to God’s call will not look the same for all of us. Some may be called to launch a new thing, perhaps a home church or a missional community. If that is you, be faithful. Others will be called, like I have, to serve the prevailing church, and to work diligently to establish a disciple making culture within the churches we currently serve. The current culture was established over a period of decades. We should not be surprised if it takes years of faithful work to establish a new one. Whatever God is calling you to, do it with joy and faithfulness. Blessings, Paul