Faith

The Death of the Program Church

Some folks get concerned that the church is dying. I think that’s a little egotistical to think that we humans could kill the church. We can hurt the church. We can maim the church. We can cry wolf so much that we become impotent. But not you, nor I, nor the Pope, nor the Southern Baptist Convention, nor Fred Phelps, nor any judicatory, nor any mega-church pastor can kill the church. God maintains control of the church. It’s God life that fuels the church, not ours.

I do believe the church is going through a metamorphosis, meaning that it is going through a death of sorts. The church as a whole is not dying. But the church we’ve all known is passing away. And a new church is about to emerge out of it.

I’ve often talked about the Field of Dreams method of evangelism that the mainline church has used for the last fifty years. When trying to attract new members to a church, all you needed to know was “If you build it, they will come.” This meant that when it came to evangelism, we just got lazy. Our evangelism muscles have atrophied and when we don’t see as many people — especially young people — walking through our doors, we feel helpless to make any change.

There’s been a significant changing of the tide in how the culture around us views the church. We once had a designated seat next to all the staples of the local community: Mayor, Neighborhood Association President, and Pastor… The question when you met your neighbor was “Which church do you go to?” because church membership was a foregone conclusion. And now we would be bold even to ask “Do you go to church at all?”

I know a lot of folks that get frustrated by this new reality, which is to be expected. If you haven’t exercised for twenty years, put on 50 pounds and then someone asks you to run a mile, odds are you’ll be frustrated too. Or if you’ve had a butler to cook all your meals and a maid to clean the house for fifty years, and then all of a sudden you can’t afford them anymore and are asked to do all that work yourself again, odds are you’ll be frustrated too.

What I mean to say is that we enjoyed a certain luxury as the mainline church for the last fifty or so years. When you lose a luxury it is not injustice. It is not persecution. You can shuffle your feet and say “Woe is me” if you want to. But a luxury is not a “right.” And the only way to fulfill our mission as a church is to pull up our sleeves, get ready to get our hands dirty, get ready to go through the aches and soreness from exercising muscles we haven’t used in a long time, and get to work.

And I think if we choose to do that, we will discover a new life and vitality to our faith that will seem very unfamiliar and completely invigorating. We will be like Plato’s cave dwellers stepping out into the light that was casting the shadows – the only thing they had seen their entire lives. “So this is what it’s really like” we’ll say.

I believe that the church we know, that is passing away, is the program church. We have designed our church structure around programs: membership, outreach, education, worship (and then that pesky evangelism committee dangling off the side that doesn’t really seem to do much other than update the ad in the Yellow Pages). Schedule an event, invite people to come, host the event — this is the life of a church. Or this was the life of the church.

I believe the church that will emerge from this time of difficult transition is the relational church. Jesus’ expression of the greatest commandment was to love the Lord our God with all we have, and love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

The growing challenge in our media-saturated culture is how do we compete with the estimated 3,000 advertisements an average American sees on a daily basis? Option A is to join the race. Put our ads of our own. Sell ourselves just as fervently, just as cleverly, as Wal-Mart and Nike and Coke and Old Spice and Geico and so on and so on and so on, ad nauseum. This is a tall task. And in investing so much of our resources and mental creativity, we run the very real risk of becoming like these companies in order to remain viable.

By why become a part of the noise when the gospel offers such a radical alternative? Option B is to be the church. Option B is to be something so radically different from everything else that is offered, that we cannot help but standout as something very strange, true, but also something authentic and unique. Option B is slow. Option B is hard work. Option B is loving God not just with our wallets, not just with our Sunday mornings, not just by squeezing him into my schedule between my workout and my 8am staff meeting. Option B is loving God with our whole selves. It’s loving other people until it hurts. I think I’m not the only one who senses a boundary in loving people. You can love them up to a point, and if you pass that point, it is socially unacceptable. Or at least weird. Option B is breaking down that barrier and loving them when they don’t deserve it. Loving them when it is not socially acceptable. Loving them to such an extent that most rational people would tell you you’re doing too much, you’ve gone too far. Option B is costly, and it is not safe.

But Option B, the only true option for the faithful church going forward, will establish a depth in relationships that will be something new even to the church right now, not to mention anybody who might witness how we do things. We will have people that know us better than our family members. We will have people that we can be completely vulnerable and honest with, instead of people that we are cordial with every Sunday. And because of this, we will know God more intimately, we will know God more deeply, and we will only want to know God more.

In the end, the question is not: will the church make it? God is in charge of the church. So long as God is alive and Christ has not returned, there will be a church. The real question is, what kind of church will thrive in the coming century. God is not going to abandon God’s people. The question is, what type of people is God going to use the most in the coming decades? The question is, are we ready to be that people?

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