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. Dan,
    I agree with you completely, but what do we say about leadership in the churches that have membership decline instead of growth and even worse discipleship and yet like priestly pedophiles we keep moving them around inflicting them on new congregations hoping that ‘this time it will be different’?

    • Well as a pastor who has been in those communities and churches- you can lead them to water but you cant make them drink. we have to face it that there are too many churches in some areas and churches in areas of decline in general. do we only measure growth in terms of numbers and dollars? we have been in denial for years about the change in culture and refused to change. How many of us would still want to use a typewriter for instance instead of a computer? change is slow and there is still a larger population in the church who cant or wont allow the changes necessary to be relevant today. Big changes need to take place all the way around. blaming the pastors is not the answer.

  2. Thanks for being willing to open the dialogue. Were you able to get to the point with the young pastor where he was able to tell you how the spiritual walk/journey of the members (new and former) was? Discipleship…. that is key!

    I liked this paragraph– I see it as something we need to not only consider, but to start living by!

    “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?”


  3. Love it!! Finally someone says the truth. I asked a male pastor how things were going for his friend who was new in ministry and all I got was, “He has increased worship attendance.” Unreal. What is up with that, “bigger is better thing” with males? How right you are here and the even sadder revelation is that we are held responsible for this with our DS and if the attendance is not up every year or at least the same from the last yrea ( if it is a good number) then we are NOT doing our job and are at risk to be called “ineffective.” How did we get this way?

    It is interesting to listen to conversations at conference or some other event and all you hear is – we built a larger building (larger is better), we have more people and more money THEREFORE we are doing ministry better. UGH!!

  4. Just trying to be clear here. When you give your advice:

    “Quit chewing over the homosexuality issue; it is a no-win arguement. Get back to basics and reclaim Methodism’s message of God’s amazing grace upon grace along with its method of looking after one another in love.”

    have you said that the current discriminatory language in the Discipline needs to be taken out so we can look after one another with other than a suspicious eye that everything is coded language about it? For instance the concern of a significant number of delegates that it is some speculated “homosexual agenda” that is behind General Conference’s addition of words about to the preface of our Social Principles, “We stand united in declaring our faith that God’s grace is available to all—that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

    I’m wondering about the practical effect of “not chewing over”. Is a gay pastor a non-issue or the issue? Is silence status quo?

    Thanks for the testimony about assurance. A part of community for me is keeping assurance remembered and alive when I falter and receiving the same from me when it falters. Assurance is not for just for individual salvation but includes engagement with a wobbly old world.

  5. I started reading John Wesley’s comments about his frustration with his personal faith journey pre-Aldersgate and realized I could have written them–even after a lifetime of being a “good Methodist church member”. Yes, there is definitely “more”. And Wesley’s discovery of that “more” led to Methodism. Pretty ironic.

    In “The Scripture Way of Salvation”, Kenneth Collins wrote Wesley had learned that “justifying faith is ‘faith in Christ–Christ, and God through Christ, are the proper object of it’…Wesley attributed the sucess of the revival, at least in part, to this new focus: ‘From 1738 to this time [1746]–speaking continually of Jesus Christ; laying Him only for the foundation of the whole building, making Him all in all, the first and the last; preaching only on this plan, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand; repent ye, and beleive the gospel’–the word of God ran as fire mong the stubble'”

    “the word of God ran as fire mong the stubble'”: Seems like Paul said something similar about Jesus being the foundation and the early church also was wildly successful.

    One more quote from Collins, which personally makes sense to me and better describes what the church should be doing as opposed to that undefinable word “discipleship”: “…men and women must ,after all, be prepared, at least in some sense (the overcoming of ignorance and fear), to receive the richest appropriations of grace.”

    A person who intersected my life in a timely manner helped me deal with my fears and I have, on my own, been dealing with my ignorance by much reading from a wide assortment of authors. My current read is “Let’s Start with Jesus: A New Way of Doing Theology” by Dennis Kinslaw. A dear friend who is Baptist laughed and basically went “Duh” when she found out what I was reading. I also have N.T. Wright’s “Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He was, What He Did and Why He Matters” loaded on my Kindle. William Willimon’s “Why Jesus” will probably join them.

    I have only very recently experienced my own “assurance”. I now, finally, understand the second verse of “Amazing Grace” and the third verse of “Blessed Assurance”. My guess is there are more members of the UMC that do not understand those verses than do. They also need help in overcoming their fear and ignorance.

    My advice: Quit chewing over the homosexuality issue; it is a no-win arguement. Get back to basics and reclaim Methodism’s message of God’s amazing grace upon grace along with its method of looking after one another in love.

    Get Jesus out of the church and into people’s lives! But if my local congregation is an indicator, there are probably not enough people within the UMC to exemplify such a life and the few that could are not in any signifcant leadership positions.

  6. It is important to realize what we are teaching. I heard a very interesting comment form one of our youth when we were discussing saving faith at Youth Group. To paraphrase slightly, he said, “Of course every one gets into heaven. We invite atheists to take Holy Communion. How could a loving God be less inclusive than we sinful people?” What else can we expect when our bishops are more focused on inclusion than holiness?

    • I think that is more a teaching momnet between the invtation of free grace and salvation…. shame on you if you fail to take hold of it.

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