The Perfect Church

frustrated1.jpgNo such thing.

I am more convinced than ever.  Despite the claims of this place (which seem to be grossly exaggerated), I am more sure than ever that there’s no perfect church.

While I’m at it, let me go a step further—because I doubt that many will dispute that there are no perfect churches.  I’ve actually become fairly sure that most churches that are “successful” (whatever that means) aren’t even really sure why they’re successful and, conversely, most churches that aren’t successful can’t really be sure why they’re not.

Obviously, there are some sure-fire “church killers.” If you stop focusing on Scripture and the biblical gospel, your church is gonna die.  Maybe not soon.  But it eventually will.  The biggest church in America is going to die.  Even huge churches that stop focusing on Scripture and the biblical gospel are not immune.  Whole denominations are not immune.

I was part of a conversation at lunch today that focused mainly on how to “do church” well.  What does “success” mean?  Is there one thing that is biblical success, or do different churches have different and valid meanings of “success”?  What do “numbers” mean?  How do you measure what’s really going on when you have lots of people at your church or have few people at your church? (Hint: You can’t.) What is “church”?  Do programs work?  Always?  Never?  Sometimes?  What about these churches that have a charismatic (not that kind) speaker and a rockin’ band and they get thousands of people?  Is that necessarily good or bad?  Are huge churches doing something right or something wrong?  Are small churches doing something wrong or something right?  Is it possible to know?

Every week there is a new article or program or book that promises huge results and has promising people promising huge results from it.  Just this morning there was another oneThis one was all the rage not long ago.  There’s also this one and this one and this one and everything from this guy. They all have good ideas.  They all make valid points.  And none of them will necessarily do much to help your church. That’s the truth that is never spoken. Sometimes you’re faithful and you get sawn in two anyway (Heb. 11:37).

Here’s what I’m (close to) convinced of: No one understands our culture perfectly.  Therefore no one understands the subculture/demographic they’re trying to reach perfectly.  And no one understands what reaches that subculture/demographic perfectly.  And no one implements perfectly what reaches the subculture/demographic they’re trying to reach.  And no one has a perfect grasp on what “reach” means.

So… where is this rant going?

Here’s what I think: I think church leaders need not be so frustrated.  I think we need to think carefully about what we want to do.  We need to come up with an imperfectly conceived, imperfectly thought-out, imperfectly implemented plan and then pray, submit ourselves to God, and see what the Holy Spirit does with it.

I deeply appreciate the humility of people like Matt Chandler, whose church has grown to 6,000+ in six years and he admits that he doesn’t know why.  He’s actually surprised.  And he admits that there are both a lot of committed followers of Christ as well as a lot of uncommitted “Christians” at his church.  And he doesn’t like it (the latter, that is).  I suspect that he’ll never try to write a book on how to “do ministry” because he and his staff don’t know what happened.  Matt started preaching, he hired his friends, and the church blew up.  He accepts conference speaking invitations with a certain amount of disdain because he knows he’s doing nothing differently than a thousand other pastors whose churches aren’t going as well. But no one asks pastors of churches of 200 people to speak at conferences—even if they are doing exactly what Chandler is doing.

On the other hand, I think it’s hilarious that so many pastors with big churches think they know why their church is big.  I don’t think they do.  I really don’t.  Not fully. There are too many factors involved – some known and some unknown.

So, am I saying that “how to do church” books are worthless?  Of course not.  Am I saying that Ed Stetzer isn’t a genius. Of course not.  Am I saying that the numerical “success” of megachurches is always hollow?  Of course not.  Am I saying that the smallness of small churches is always virtuous? Of course not.  I’m saying that “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (3:8).

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6 thoughts on “The Perfect Church”

  1. Amen and amen. I grow tired of all the sociology studies, cultural analysis, and theologizing about “the church” and how it supposed to be relevant, deep, beyond, total, reshaped, reimagined, balanced, purpose-driven, not “dated,” fruitful, racially reconciled, communal, justice oriented, and allllll about doctrine doctrine doctrine!

    Here’s the deal. People are messy and pastoral ministry is very messy. I can’t see any way around it, and that imperfection is precisely the stuff of redemption. The sifting process goes on and on and the Spirit seems to guide us into truth just fine–when we aren’t out right resisting him of course.

    Thanks for the word.

  2. On “Deep Church”, I’d agree that his “third way” may not be helpful for everyone, but his analysis of “things emerging” was very helpful to clarify some of my thinking out of a paralysis of not knowing whether I had to call everyone with the label “emerging” a heretic or everyone with the label “traditional” as out-of-touch.

    (P.S. I’d like more of your thoughts on the book, if you get to it).

    “Total Church” has been incredibly helpful to me in terms of helping me press forward in church ministry. I know that wasn’t the intent of your post, but neither is “Total Church” an attempt at “huge success” from my reading. I suppose we’d have to play around with the meaning of the adjective (huge) and the noun (success) to see if we’re saying two different things or the same thing.

    In any case, I agree with some of what you’re saying re: the need to be faithful as best we can, but some of us (and I’ll simply speak for me after not qualifying the “some of us”) have gotten flat out burned by exceedingly less than perfect structures that greatly aided spiritual abuse. And these abuses came through theologically-grounded-gospel-centered-“elder”-led church-men.

    You pushed a button with me by referencing men’s books who have made a deep impact on my life and ecclesiology for pressing forward in – not a perfect way, but at least a way I can pursue with my family and Gospel community.

    Speaking of “pressing buttons”, feel free to delete this comment if you find it to be off track or reactionary. I think I know your intent in the post (read: I don’t think you’re trying to be mean or belittling). It was the un-nuanced-ness (which is not always necessary – and your nuance on Eddie Stetzer helped a little) that set me off.

  3. I reread your post and I think this is what got me all riled up: “They all have good ideas. They all make valid points. And none of them will necessarily do much to help your church.” Well, insofar as they help me (and my fellow church-men/women) interpret the Scriptures re: the nature of church and who we’re to be as a church, a book can go a long way. No book is a magic bullet, but “Total Church” for me is, perhaps a “sacred cow”, as it (and Chester’s other books/workbooks) have been pivotal in helping me (and my fellow church-men/women) go forward in knowing how we want/need (and I include want and need since I can’t always separate the two in my finite-ness) to be the church in light of Scripture (however imperfectly). But Chester is not the only one who informs me via Scripture, he’s just my “Matt Chandler”, I suppose. So, this comment is to say a.) I was overly-harsh initially, as I was not reacting to the intent of your post (so, I am sorry) and b.) to clarify what I intended to say.

  4. Hey Bryan,
    Just got to this post, so I may be a bit late. If anyone claims he knows why his church is growing (read:succeeding, I guess) he is essentially saying one of two things:

    1. We’ve tapped into a social phenomenon that can be quantified and reproduced.

    2. We can create revival.

    These seem to me to be the only two categories for claiming to understand church growth (correct me if I’m wrong.) From my perspective, the first would be undesireable, illegitimate growth, and the second is the theological innaccuracy of, say, Charles Finney and his ilk. The first prompts the likes of Donald MacGavran and the Church Growth Movement, and the second assumes God’s plan is contingent on our work.

    There is a lot of wisdom in the books and resources you’ve listed. And while they can help remove social or sinful obstacles and help direct healthy church practices, they are not formulas for growth.

    Good post bro.

  5. Thanks, Klye for the reply. And Bryan, I now see that you already qualified your post as “rant.” Missed that the first round.

    Now, I’ll continue cluttering your comments with my thought processes.

    If as Kyle says, that is the point of the post, I agree. I think it is good that you pointed out that Gospel “success” cannot be manufactured, as it is a work of God and not man.

    What I would say, though, is that even if Matt Chandler does not know why his church is “successful” (and is likely genuinely humble about it – I only say likely because I can only read his demeanor, not his heart), there are a good many key factors in place . Many of which are Spirit created I am sure and likely many that are MANufactured that we do not see. Because you’re right, no church is perfect.

    Village Church has a incomparable (is that the right spelling) visionary who blends the edge of Driscoll with the passion of Piper. I don’t think it’s manufactured. It seems very much like it comes out of who he is.

    People who are trying to MANufacture it (like a lot of people did and continue to do a la Driscoll – talking about their dark beer drinking habits and their smoking-hot-wife) don’t tend to be as “successful”, as it’s not who they are (and they, a la Driscoll, end up yelling at the saints who they don’t know very well and then get shocked when the saints get offended).

    Village Church has also been “successful” because it’s in the Bible belt even though (or rather especially because) he preaches against Bible belt-ish Christianity. Village Church has also been “successful” because they have opted (out of prayer) to use video venues (that’s a whole other story, as I’m not a fan of video venues, but I appreciate the care that Matt Chandler has attempted to take in going that route – even bringing up the fact that he doesn’t know ultimately where it will lead in the long run).

    They have also been successful (no quotation marks around this successful) by proclaiming truth and allowing the Spirit to move.

    I’m just saying that his humble response is truly that he doesn’t know, but I’m sure he could point to most (if not all) of the above factors.

    All that rambling, I ultimately agree with your post if it’s in the vein of what Kyle distilled. If so, good “rant”, even if you did step on my sacred cows in the process.

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