Monday, June 22, 2009

The Worldliness of the Church

One of the more important books on the condition of the church written in recent years is Dancing with the Devil: The Mega-church Movement Flirts With Modernity, by Os Guinness.

In his book, Guinness observes that a church does not have to be of the mega-variety, or even necessarily be a large church, to begin to take on the traits that all too often characterize megachurches. While Guinness points out the great positive potential for the cause of the gospel that is inherent in the mega-church movement, the focus of his book is to highlight the dangers that are also inherent within the movement. From Guinness' observations, one comes to realize that any church experiencing pressures to expand, or that even has the desire to grow, runs the danger of adopting the bad with the good of the church-growth/mega-church movement.

Modernity Defined

The basic dangers of the mega-church or church growth movement stem from "modernity." Guinness writes that "modernity can be understood as the character and system of the world produced by the forces of development and modernization, especially capitalism, industrialized technology, and telecommunications." It is interesting that he refers to these not as the tools of the modern world, but as the character and system of the world that are produced by the forces of modernization.

In this sense, modernity is similar to the concept of "technique" forwarded by French writer Jacques Ellul in his book The Presence of the Kingdom. Ellul defines "technique" as "the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency in every field of human activity." Ellul makes a distinction between "technique" and "technology," although technology is an example of technique. Technique is really a mind-set of an age that is wholly preoccupied with means and efficiency. We have gone beyond the point where the end justifies the means, Ellul argues; in a technical society the means justify themselves, and usually do so by proving themselves to be "effective and efficient."

The tools of modernization are not bad in and of themselves. What is bad is the way modernity and the capabilities of the tools of modernization affect our attitudes, priorities, and values. For example, the insights provided by modern psychology, sociology, and the techniques provided by theories of organizational management, coupled with the use of the powerful tools of communication which modernity has provided, should make the church's presentation of the gospel more far-reaching and effective. This would be a positive aspect of modernity in the church. However, Guinness argues that these very tools which should be used for the glory of God tend to make modern evangelical Christians able to function effectively and efficiently as a religious community without God.

Guinness writes that a "way modernity poses problems for the church-growth movement [is] through its direct damage to faith." He writes, "More and more of what was formerly left to God . . . is now classified, calculated, and controlled by the systematic application of reason and technique. What counts in the rationalized world is efficiency, predictability, quantification, productivity, the substitution of technology for the human, and control over uncertainty."

Guinness quotes a social scientist who sums it up: "What characterizes modernity is just this idea that men need not submit to any power -- higher or lower -- other than their own," to which Guinness comments, "Whether said with defiance by the few or left unsaid but practiced by the many, religion that is irrelevant in practice becomes practically irrelevant. There is no need for God, even in his church."

One Guinness comment that is telling (and there are many in his book) is the quote he attributes to a Japanese business man, talking with a visiting Australian, who said, "Whenever I meet a Buddhist leader, I meet a holy man; whenever I meet a Christian leader, I meet a manager." It reminded me of another quote, this one attributed to a Chinese pastor. He had been sent by a group of Chinese congregations to America to study how churches in the United States conduct ministry. Upon his return to China, his colleagues asked him about his impression of the American church. "It's amazing," he said, "how much they can accomplish without the Holy Spirit."

One other Guinness quote which represents his insight on the dangers of modernity:
Are there not similar dangers when a numbers-hungry church mimics the high-control calculus of modern commercial enterprises? "Totally planned, professionally orchestrated, single-purpose environments" may be as "effective" for evangelism in
mega-churches as they are for selling in mega-malls. But when everything is controlled, from first impressions in the parking lot to the wardrobe colors and stage movements of the platform party, who controls the church and who controls the controllers? Something of the mysterious and lovable but unwashed reality of the real-life bride of Christ is lost. Something of the impossible-to-predict, category-shattering sovereignty and grace of God is walled off.
Guinness sums up the problem of the church's slide into modernity as essentially this: if the church leans heavily upon the tools and techniques of the modern age -- e.g., insights from the disciplines of sociology, psychology, and organizational management -- there is no need to rely upon God. It brings to mind the picture of Christ in Rev. 3:7 standing at the door, outside the church, knocking, with the church ignoring Him because it's too busy with its programs and activities to go to the door and let Him in.

Even a small-sized congregation can unconsciously be imbued with the mindset of "modernity", and the deification of the worldly values of "effectiveness and efficiency". There is nothing wrong with being effective and efficient. But when these objectives become of premier importance, the focus of a church has shifted away from Christ, and onto the organization and structure of the church itself.

One thing that seems to happen to organizations is that no matter how honorable or meritorious the reasons for which the organization came into being, it isn't long before the organization starts taking on a life unto itself. Local churches fall into the same pitfalls as other organizations, be they community service organizations, political action organizations, or labor organizations. It isn't long before all of the resources, the programs, and the energy expended by the organization become dedicated to one objective: keeping the organization alive and functioning. It is evident that once a social group becomes highly organized, formalized, and incorporated, the survival and welfare of the organization's structure becomes all-important, and the primary objective of the organization's activities.

As an elder in a medium-sized congregation in California, I was always amazed, and not a little bit disturbed, at how much time, effort, and energy during board meetings were dedicated to keeping the external structures and programs of the church propped up: e.g., how to eliminate the deficit in the operating budget; whether to buy new computer equipment; the recruitment of people to serve on church committees; what should come first -- resurfacing the parking lot, or painting the church? Such concerns may indeed be legitimate items for a church's governing body to address, but when they become the principal items of business at monthly elder board meetings, the church is unconsciously falling into the trap of putting the continuation and the prospering of the organization into a place of preeminence.

Once again, the organization imbued with technique, as Ellul uses the term, or modernity, as Guinness uses the term, assumes that the ends justify the means, or what is more common, that the twin values of "effectiveness" and "efficiency" are accepted as being of primary importance. In such a case, the use of means which are effective and efficient are really ends in themselves; that is, the means used are ends in themselves because they promote effectiveness and efficiency.

(As an aside, in John 12:1-8, Judas questioned the use of expensive ointment by Mary when she anointed Jesus, saying it could have been better used if it had been sold and the money given to the poor. In this instance, Judas was the voice of "effectiveness and efficiency.")

Ellul made the indictment of our society that success is only equated with that which is measurable. Modernity, or technique, as applied to the church, has resulted in an assumption that the "successful" or "maturing" church is a growing church, that is, one growing in numbers of members or of people in attendance. In relation to church organizations, success is most often measured in terms of numbers of people in attendance on Sunday, the flow of new members into the congregation, the size of the offering, the square footage of the sanctuary, and so forth.

Some years ago, the church I was associated with was going through the process of a pastor search. The congregation had been without a full-time, permanent pastor for nearly two years. During this period, the elder board reported to the congregation that in spite of not having a senior pastor, the church was still being "blessed by God," that we were still a "healthy" congregation. The evidence given of this health and blessing was that during this time attendance had not dropped off, and giving had actually increased a bit. Unwittingly, the board was defining church success in terms of the size of the offering and the number of people in attendance, that is, in terms of things that are measurable.

Things which can be measured and quantified, as is the case throughout all of contemporary society, are much too often the accepted standards of success within churches. Much that has been printed and presented on the subject of church growth over the years has focused on just this: growth -- packing more people in.

Have the church-growth experts who put a value on large and growing numbers ever considered that perhaps the people who show up in droves to the so-called mega-churches may be showing up for the wrong reasons? For example, part of the formula for having a "successful" (i.e., growing) church is to frame worship services around contemporary music as a means of appealing to young single people and young families. Should the draw of a church be the entertainment value of its services? Should the main appeal of a church be the quality or characteristic of its music?

Rather than being concerned about the size of the church, shouldn't we be more concerned about its depth? How does one measure faithfulness, or righteousness? Unlike attendance figures, membership rosters, and levels of giving -- all of which are objective, measurable standards -- things such as righteousness, faithfulness, hope and love are subjective. And although these latter characteristics may be closer to God's heart in terms of what constitutes a mature church, they cannot be quantified for purposes of publication in a church's annual report. Hence, these qualities get lost in the effort to show success in terms of numbers -- the same terms by which the world measures success.

Equating numbers-growth with the health and success of a church has resulted in the emergence in recent years of "the church consultant." These are professionals hired to assist church boards and professional staff in such matters as strategic planning, budgeting, promotion, interpersonal dynamics, motivation, team building, development of a corporate culture, the training of volunteers, and so forth. The emergence of the church consultant is another product of modernity and technique: As the church has adopted the secular world's objective standards of measuring success, professionals skilled in the ways and means of the secular business world are retained to help achieve positive results in terms of measurable objectives, e.g., increasing membership, and increased giving. The danger of this becomes the unspoken attitude: why depend upon the Holy Spirit when a church can depend on a church consultant to put a church on the path of "success"?

Reliance upon a church's structure -- the financial giving of the members, its programs, its professional staff, its ability to keep up with trends in the general society -- are all evidence of the worldliness of the church, and of a lack of reliance upon the Holy Spirit of God and the Headship of Christ. What would happen if local churches lost their buildings, or the denominations folded, or adult Sunday schools ceased to meet, or the financial support of "First Christian Church, Incorporated" collapsed? It is most likely that we'd all be put in a position where we had to become dependent upon the indwelling presence of Christ to teach us what the church is all about, what it was intended to be, outside of the confines of a bureaucratic structure.

Back to Basics

What is the church all about? Better yet, what is Christ's desire for His church? While churches, mimicking society, unconsciously put high value upon measurable criteria, are these things really important to Christ, who is the Head of the Church? In considering these questions, we should be reminded of Paul's prayer for the Ephesian church, found in chapter 1, verses 15-19, and in chapter 3, verses 14-19 of that epistle.

An interesting discussion question to put to any group of Christians is if they had one petition, one request to make of God through prayer on behalf of their church, what would it be? Some might pray for a more loving spirit among the people, and that would be good; others would pray for unity; still others might pray for increased membership, or the finances to hire more staff; still others might pray for those within the congregation who are suffering from various distresses, be they physical, emotional, or material.

Paul's prayer for the Ephesians reveals a different emphasis. Taking the opportunity in his letter to articulate his heart's desire for these Christians he mentions the following:

-- That God would reveal to them what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saint, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward those who believe;

-- That they might be empowered by the Holy Spirit to be enabled to know the love that God has for them;

-- That would know (the Amplified Bible translates it "...know through experience, rather than through a knowledge which comes without experience...") what is the height, and depth, and length, and breadth of the love of God for them; that they would know this love of God with a knowledge that surpasses comprehension;

-- That they would be filled to the all the fullness of God.

Put simply, Paul prays for a greater awareness among the Ephesian believers of the presence of God in their midst; that they would come to know -- through experience, not just through study and head-knowledge -- the reality of the life of Christ within them, as the motive power of their lives; the end result being that they actually experience in their hearts the richness of the love of God for them, resulting in their being filled to the fullest with God.

This end, or desire, is what the church is all about, or should be about. The church is the place where Christ not only resides, but is where a group of people, together, corporately, in common, experience the reality of Christ's presence, His love, His life, and become the means of His outworking in the world, not in a metaphorical sense, but in reality. If a church is not a place where this reality is being experienced, both individually among members and corporately as a body, then that church is not fulfilling its purpose -- it is not a success, regardless of growth in numbers, giving, or the size of its campus.

In Ephesians 4:11-13, Paul states that God appoints within the church apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, and the rest, to build up the saints, to equip them for the work of service. This passage also pertains to fulfilling the purpose of the church as a mystical/physical entity in the world wherein God is experienced and enjoyed.

Considering Ephesians 4:11-13, what is the work of service for which we as individual members of the church are to be equipped? It is this: to assist others to come to know the fullness of God, this reality of His presence within the heart, the comprehending of the love of God for us with a knowledge that goes beyond comprehension. This is what the various officers of the church are suppose to be equipping the individual saints for -- it relates back to the fulfillment of Paul's heart's desire for the church, expressed in his prayers in chapters one and three.

Many tend to see "work of service" as simply good deeds, works, "ministries," or religious activities. This view is a kind of a reductionism, a watering-down, an anemic understanding of the concept of the "work of service." Of course, "equipping of the saints" assumes that the officers of the church -- the pastor, the teachers, the evangelists -- actually know something of the reality of Christ in their own lives, in order to be called to equip saints with the ability to know and then train others to achieve that knowledge or reality.

The Measurement of Success

Again, the techniques of communication and the theories of organizational management provided to us by modernization are not necessarily evil or wrong; they are simply tools to help us complete a given task. Since Christians have opted to organize themselves in highly structured, centrally-focused organizations with buildings and staff and programs, i.e., since Christians have opted to organize themselves into an institution much like any other institution in society, certain things have become necessary, such as budgets and committees and annual business meetings. Hence, there is always a danger that the organizational aspects of the church will become of primary importance, and that the measures of success within the church will be those measures that are readily accepted in so-called secular organizations.

If it is the purpose of the church to be the embodiment of the presence of Christ, the place where people come to know, in the details of their daily experience, the reality of Christ living His life through them and for them, both individually and corporately, then how does a church measure its success in living up to this purpose? Can it be measured in the same way as the quarterly attendance or finances? In light of this type of purpose, the perpetuation of a structure, a bureaucracy, even a physical structure such as a church building, pale in significance, almost to the point of not being a concern at all.

What is the measure of a successful church? We should not be impressed when people, in speaking of our churches, say, "See how large that church is; see how many activities that church has for young people," and so forth. When people speak of our churches they would say, "Yes, that is where God is; God dwells there. That church is a collection of people who reflect the character and presence of God." This should be our measure of success, irrespective of the size of our membership rosters, the size of our annual budgets, the size of our pastoral staffs, the size of our sanctuaries, or the type of music we have on Sunday mornings.

Is the church recognized as a place where people will meet and fall in love with Jesus Christ? Is it a place which not only proclaims the riches we have in Christ, but a place where an increasing number of people are experiencing those riches? This should be our measure of success.


  1. "...What would happen if local churches lost their buildings, or the denominations folded, or adult Sunday schools ceased to meet..."

    I wrote this piece probably around 1999 -- ten years ago. From what we've seen in the churches we've attended over the past ten years, adult Sunday schools are already a thing of the past.

  2. "It's amazing," he said, "how much they can accomplish without the Holy Spirit." That's the essence of the problem. Of course, that problem has always existed. Therefore I think the onus is on the dissatisfied to look harder (and differently). It's gotta be around here someplace.

  3. Or, we can "settle." I prefer to keep looking.