Childish Church

This is a rant, so take it with a grain of whatever.  I met with a young pastor and asked him how his ministry was going.  He replied, “We have eight new members and our attendance is up from 35 to over 50 a week.”  I said, “That’s not what I asked.  I asked how your ministry is going.”  He simply stared back at me with a blank, slighty dazed look on his face.  After a moment, he said, “It’s good.  We’re growing.”  I shook my head.  “No,” I said, “I mean, how is the whole “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world-thing” going?”  “Great,” he said, “we have eight new members and our worship attendance is up.”

OMG – what is our church producing in lieu of leadership these days?  And we have NO ONE to blame but the last generation of dupes who forgot what a church is and assimilated the low values of American culture — making some of them bishops, some General Secretaries, and most of them pastors of big, consumeristic congregations.  Now we fixate on size (yes, mostly male pastors — go figure…) and have no language to describe effective ministry besides numbers.  This makes sense in a Sesame Street society.

See, from late infancy into early childhood, we teach babies to count.  It is simple, it is linear, and it is very appropriate to the mental capacity of toddlers.  We teach counting because it is the limit of the cognitive function at that phase of life.  In early childhood, we teach simple math.  We have to wait until the cognitive capacity shifts from the concrete (counting, adding, subtracting) to the abstract (measuring, estimating, evaluating, strategizing).  But we finally get there — shifting the focus from quantitative analysis to qualitative analysis (simplistic thinking to complex thinking).  Except in the church…

The longer we can keep the focus on the lower mental functions, we won’t have to learn anything or change anything.  Keeping it stupid allows more people to play.  Creating dashboards (oooh, pretty lights and dials!!!) allows us to stay stuck in infancy.  And this has become our standard!  We have lowered the bar so low that all we need to do to be considered successful is get 5% more butts in the pews on Sunday morning.  More people for us to do an inadequate and irresponsible job of discipling.  Jesus wept.

Any pastor who defines their ministry or effectiveness in terms of size is stuck, and we can’t be too hard on him (not generally her).  We have been enamored of big and shiny in our church for over a generation.  Now, Wesley wouldn’t care to be a part of such a church, but we pretend that number-humping is traditional and historic (and it is if you limit your history to the 20th century and your geography to the United States).  But folks, all we are doing is trading in the potential to transform the world for a Sesame Street knock-off church.  We reduce the gospel to a pabulum of A-B-Cs and we teach our “leaders” to count to more.  And guess what happens?

We get the church we’ve got.  Numbers games are for losers.  Play long enough and the numbers go down, because there is nothing of value or substance to hold onto.  Yes, I know, if you follow my logic, this is the likely scenario:  we take Jesus seriously, we focus on discipleship, we expect people to actually shape their lives by their faith, we hold one another accountable, and our most effective churches will be measured in the dozens rather than the thousands.  The institution collapses and the church emerges.

But what if there is another scenario?  What if we actually behaved as a connectional church and motivated the thousands who want radical discipleship to be fully equipped, empowered, and enabled to live from their spiritual gifts to produce the fruit of the Spirit in the world?  What might happen?  What might it look like?

I spend a lot of time talking with those disaffected by the modern church.  They never complain that the church expects too much — only that they hunger for more and cannot find it in the mainline (or independent/evangelical) churches.  The time has come for those who lead to grow up — put away the childish things.  Stop counting and start evaluating.  Stop tracking and start strategizing.  Stop worrying about more and start thinking about better.  If I hear another pastor say, “the size of my church is the measure of my ministry” I will scream.  It only proves to me that they don’t know what they’re really supposed to do.

30 replies

  1. I just revised a workbook on planning discipleship (Charting a Course: A Workbook on Christian Discipleship) for GBOD that will be out in August. It will help local churches of all sizes initiate intentional leadership development and intentional disciple formation. With this workbook churches can analyze just where they are in the discipleship formation process and plan a path they see God calling them to follow.

    • Have you sent a copy to Dan and others for them to review for us. Presumably that would help with sales. My hope is it has some planned in openness as too many workbooks turn into cookie-cutters. I look forward to hearing more.

      • I’ve suggested that GBOD send a review copy to Dan. I think it’s pretty open and not a cookie cutter type. We’ve really worked to try to make it such!

  2. Pingback: Childish Church
  3. The last paragraph says it all to me as I look at the UM Church I attend and try to serve within. To me it is all about expectations—there are virtually no expectations beginning with joining in membership, attendance, taking part in church life, learning and study, serving through activities in the church and community, etc. As they say “nada, nothing, zero, zip…” We won’t even talk about it! Expectations? That sounds so judgmental—“We are a welcoming church”.

  4. Not all of us are on board with the Count. Some of us eat cookies. Some of us are grouchy and live in the trash. Some of us are big with too many yellow feathers. Some of us just say “yep yep yep” and “nope nope nope.” Some of us just snuffle along in no particular hurry. And some of us like to take apart the faces of our roommates, especially their noses. And we haven’t even covered King Friday XIII and crew. It takes a village, bro.

  5. Dan, I may be misreading something you are trying to say here. Are you equating stupid with spiritually immature?

    • Not talking about spirituality here, John. I’m talking about confusing one thing of lesser value for something of greater value. Were I to ask you to talk about your ability to love deeply and you told me you had six wives (not all at once) as proof of your prowess, I still wouldn’t know anything of the quality or value of your love. The answer to “how effectively and well do we make disciples?” is not a number; it is an explanation. Confusing the two is simply stupid.

  6. The mistake referenced is not in the numbers, but the construct that implies numbers will be an adequate response. Thank you for your careful pairing of visual and language arts in your postings.

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