There are four major churches where we live, each a different ‘brand’ from the other. They compete avidly for members, mostly young people. They compete at several different levels, doctrinally, ‘worship’, events, programmes, charismatic leaders and even the type of teaching. This last bit, the message, is often at the heart of success.
One in particular is relatively new and we know the ‘pastor’ and his wife well. They have a good heart, do a lot in the community and have been set on establishing a church for some time. Their model is Bethel, one of the leading US mega churches run by Bill Johnson.
We have been enticed to go there a few times; ‘we’re growing so fast, but it’s mostly young people and we don’t have enough mature Christians around to cope, why don’t you join us?’ While we appreciate the sentiment, it’s not quite where we sense our calling from the Lord.
Perhaps more importantly though, is it right?
Is it right, for example, to claim rapid growth when all of the growth – 100%, is transfer growth, especially when the main group is young people who at best are transient and go where the crowd is? Can we claim the Lord’s anointing when this is the case? The next phase of growth is already on the table – a building, because the one we’re renting has already been outgrown. Then we need a youth pastor…..and on it goes down a familiar road.
Meanwhile, the other churches presumably are upset, because they are losing members. We know for a fact this is the case, everyone is going to this ‘new’ church. If numbers are down, then offerings are down and so an examination will soon need to take place to decide what we can do to stem the outflow. An overseas visiting speaker perhaps? A review of ‘worship’ or some of our programmes, and perhaps even a sermon urging members to invite their friends along.
It is immensely sad. Yesterday, I was with my son and together we spoke to 2 young mums who go to the ‘newbrand church’ and they explained why they liked it. Yet church is not a brand, you’re not supposed to tire of it or the pastor. Church should not be the next Gucci handbag or nightclub that will pass out of favour shortly. In a year or so, there will be another newbrand, and the cycle will repeat. As growth and numbers become the absolute priority to keep the machine going, the Gospel becomes secondary to the individual. Programmes tailored down to the singular are created and worst of all, sin is not discussed or ignored lest people are offended and leave.
Critically though, the very structure of the modern Western church is built such that local mission is virtually non-existent. So little time is spent mixing with non-believers, as instead every waking moment is taken up with ‘church’ programmes and activities. We have prioritised growth, even if it’s a lie, ahead of all else including Jesus’ great command.
In our discussions with many of the churches about training to make disciples, few are genuinely interested. They cannot see the relevance of Jesus’ call to grow His Kingdom, past the notion of whether or not such activity is going to grow theirs. Meanwhile the world looks at us and asks questions we ignore.
It’s time we sat back, took the blinkers off and looked hard at whether what we call church is actually what Jesus envisaged. That would be the hardest thing the church has ever done.
We must be wary for if what we have is not what God wants, then he will change it. His change is often painful.