The Glass House
Part 1: Improper Motives
A Ridiculous State of Denial
A church I was pastoring had a handful of folks and a huge, old,
building that needed hundreds of thousands of dollars of
repairs. The senior pastor would not hear talk of selling the
building, so we struggled and struggled. We begged. The
congregation existed mainly to service the facility. Saving the
building was our primary motive for church growth. This is
common across all denominations including the Catholic church:
withering congregations clinging to real estate. It is a sad and
twisted distortion of the purpose of Godís church; a church that
began and thrived in peopleís homes, a church that moved and
grew and re-shaped itself to the needs of the community in which
it was located.
The church was never intended to be a fixed institution. The biblical model of the early church was fluidity. Like Mercury in a thermometer, the church expanded, contracted and adapted to the environment in which it existed. It wasnít stubbornly fixed, dug in on a street corner. It didnít exist merely to uphold tradition or feed the pastorís vanity. It wasnít an institution. It was an organism. It was transparent. Adaptive. Fluid, expanding to fill spaces, shrinking to get around obstacles, and moving about to be where it was most effective. It was an organic, living work. A refuge for the believer and a beacon of light to a dying world.
The healthy church is like a tree planted by the river (Psalm 1). Its roots in the community are long and deep. It knows the people, the places, the things they do, the times they do them. When those roots dry, the organism dies; becomes brittle and bears no fruit. A church without roots in its own community is an obscenity. It is in a ridiculous state of denial about its very nature. It is an affront to the cross.
The healthy church, on the other hand, is involved, its doors open to its neighbors. And not just for weddings and funerals, but for dances, social occasions, after-school programs. In cooperation with neighborhood groups, police departments, the city council. The healthy church has key people in the legal system and medical system on speed dial. The healthy church has a minister on call, I mean answering the phone, twenty-four hours a day. Has a list of emergency services and can connect its neighbors to immediate help. The healthy church takes action.
Most of our churches today wouldnít buy their neighbors a pizza. Their doors are locked, windows shuttered, lights out most days of the week. Except for Sunday worship, bible study, and a few half-hearted rehearsals, the church stands empty, neighbors passing by not even curious about what might be going on inside there.
Many of our churches are simply dying off, pastors admonishing their dwindling membership to pray. Pray that God would send them in, Send them in, Lord, send them in. Send in the people we routinely ignore and walk past; whose driveways we block with our cars and whose needs we leave unaddressed. Send in the helpless we refuse to protect. The hungry we refuse to feed. The lowly we refuse to comfort. Send them in. This is how utterly backward we are. This is why our churches do not grow.
Evaluating your motives for church growth requires a rare kind of humility and selflessness many of our pastors, having failed the character test, simply do not possess. Many of our pastors have become vain and self-absorbed, and would rather keep riding their shrinking base of struggling faithful than to evaluate, in any spiritually meaningful way, the effectiveness and purpose of their ministry or question their motives for desiring church growth.
It is the rare pastor Iíve met who can coherently define their ministryís purpose for existing and identify specific, key goals for the ministry within the community in which it is located. Most pastors can define some canned, rehearsed, generic sense of what their church is about, but when pressed to tailor that definition to the specific community, the specific, literal corner their church is located upon, most pastors choke. They simply donít know the immediate community in which their church is located. These pastors drive to church, do their thing, and drive out, having never even met the people who live, literally, right next door.
So, all the fund raising, all the pamphlet printing, all the pressuring of the faithfulówhatís that all about? Most pastors will tell you itís about church growth. Many will dance around the head of a pin talking about the goals Jesus set forth for His church, Peter and Paul and the second chapter of Acts.
At the end of the day, if these men were truthful, theyíd admit that, in most cases, church growth is simply about money. About increasing the base number of tithes-paying members. About their own paychecks. About the struggle to keep the lights on.
It should be worth noting
that Jesus Himself had no lights to keep on.
He had no building fund. No Annual Day. Had no Pastorís Appreciation. Jesus, therefore, had no motive whatsoever for church growth beyond the pure motivation of seeking and saving the lostówork many of our churches relegate to an afterthought. Peter, Paul, Timothyóthese men certainly went about the business of church growth, but not because they themselves needed to be paid or wanted larger congregations or bigger temples. These believers met wherever they metóin each othersí homes, in secret, fearing persecution. These people faced, at minimum, ostracization from their families and core belief system. At worst, they faced death. But they did the work of the church anyway.
Few, if any if us, face imprisonment, disowning or death. Our tradition has become one of struggle to keep the rent paid. To keep the lights on. Clinging to our church just because itís our church, just because weíve always gone there and our mama always went there, is inconsistent with the biblical model. Pastors should be brave enough, be spiritual enough, to say that. Keeping the doors open just to keep the doors open does not honor God in any way. A barren, dry tree that produces only leaves and no figs (the appearance of being a fig tree without actually bearing any figs) should be cut down. Thatís not my opinion, but is the biblical, personal example of Jesus Christ.
Dead and dying churches merely take up space. They prevent effective works from being launched because new church plants will often avoid areas where established churches already exist. So, your ministry of dead weight and dust prevents an effective work from being planted there.
Vision-less pastors usually know, in their hearts, that theyíve either run out of ideas or never had any to begin with. If your pastor cannot articulate the next horizon, the future of your ministry, then he is marching in place. Best case: he needs time to go off and have his own wilderness experience, to re-charge and re-connect with God and find his thunder again. Worst-case scenario: he needs to be shown the door. Churches should be led by men and women of faith. Faith inspires vision. Vision inspires courage. Courage inspires action. Action inspires victory. The church that is simply marching in place, simply marking time, should be closed down, its doors locked forever.
Even as you struggle to achieve church growth, I challenge and implore you to consider your motives for doing so. Consider your value, worth to and impact upon the community. And be honest with yourself: it is possible your ministry has achieved its purpose and God is trying to move you on to higher ground with another ministry which may also be struggling. Itís also possible God is trying to move you out of the way since you are stubbornly refusing to grow, to change, to evolve or to meet any of the communityís needs. Itís also possible your pastor has no real vision, and he is just wandering in circles and God is tired of that.
Bottom line: if your church is not growing, there is a reason for it. I challenge you, first and foremost, to seek God for that reason, and to know for a certainty that your church is in a right place with God. Because, if it isnít, this is all just a waste of your time.
What follows are some common reasons your church is not growing.
Christopher J. Priest
15 June 2008