I recently read an article that’s been circulating around some of the circles that I follow, and I thought I’d take a few brief minutes to throw in my two cents (though reading this might not me worth that much…)
With no further ado, the article.
Now, for my thoughts on the thing…
This conversation is one that I’ve had several times in the past few years…the question of whether the Church has been called to be faithful or to be successful…to which the answer must be a resounding YES! We are called to be faithful to Christ first and foremost, but we also oughtn’t hide the Gospel under a bushel (No!)(Matthew 5:15). Some questions that might be helpful to ask are: “What constitutes a successful Church?” “Does the ‘faithful’ church always find itself numerically in decline?” “What is Church growth?” and “Who is responsible for that growth?”
Let me tip my hand a little: I agree with the general idea of Rev. Suttle’s point. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, on to
The unit for measuring success or faithfulness.
Success is, in Suttle’s words, measured in numerical growth. I think we can safely assume he means in terms of attendance, giving, maybe even something along the lines of satisfaction…This “success” metric is straight out of the business world. Each church is trying to be the McDonalds, “Over 1 Million Served!” or now, “Billions and Billions served.” In this place, Suttle is, more or less, right on. If our model for success is a Messiah who found Himself all but alone, crucified, betrayed, and abandoned by His own, then what should we really be aiming for in the Church? If, however, we look to the exponential numerical growth of the Church in the book of Acts, this argument isn’t quite as impressive. What Suttle is writing against here is the Church Growth Movement, a movement in Evangelicalism that started up in the 1960s, and is responsible for some of the larger evangelical churches in the country. One of the major tenets of Church Growth is quantifiable growth. We have to see that the Kingdom of God is growing in order to claim success. More on this later…
Sentimentality and Pragmatism: A One-Two Punch
Suttle describes Sentimentality as not only appealing to emotions primarily, but as putting a damper on the whole counsel of God. “Only give us the good news!” might be a good way to paraphrase. This is part of a larger worldview shift in the past few centuries from a Theocentric (even Christocentric!) worldview to a anthropocentric one. What this means is as follows: in the good old days, God was at the center of everything. Our responsibility was to find out how we fit into God’s world, God’s plans, God’s salvation…nowadays, the center of the universe is “i.” That’s right, the iPhone and all the rest of Apple’s products are indicative of a Worldview gone amuck. If “I’m” at the center of my universe, then it’s up to me to figure out how God fits into my world, my story, my plans…so, tell me what I want to hear (see 2 Timothy 4:3)…
Pragmatism is simply that which works. If it works, do it. Simple, right? I’ll take the easy way out on this one and not offer too much commentary–just a quote. “Church consultant and leadership guru Don Cousins say[s] that you can grow a church without God if you have good preaching, great music, killer children’s ministry, and an engaging youth minister.” Really? Well, you might get more butts in the pews, but are there really more people in the Church? It’s not my place to judge the heart, but the confession of some of these folks is that they have come to…let’s say, win a car. Sounds like John 6:25-59 to me.
Picking up the Pieces…
So what’s left to say? Well, a lot actually. God grants growth when and where He pleases. We cannot get in the way of OR enhance God’s Church-growing powers. He’s God. We’re not. I agree and am saddened by the culture that has crept into the Church of “consumerism” that deals with the things of God as if they were a product to be marketed to a world that must be wooed away from our competitors. We are at odds with the world. To acquiesce to the world’s desire to feel good, to be a part of something successful (to be a Walmart, not a K-Mart) is to miss the point of Christianity. It’s like we’re tying to build some sort of Tower of Babel that will impress God.
I think the imperative thread that runs through this article is that of trust in God. God is the One who has given the Church His Word. God is the One who has sent Jesus Christ to die and rise again. God is the One who has promised to visit His own in Sacrament. These are the markers of the “successful” church. Anything else is unimportant.
I think the missing component is a nuanced commentary on Suttle’s “doing vs. being” paradigm. I preached a sermon series on vicarage called, “Be the Church.” The tagline was that “God created us to be human ‘beings,’ not human ‘doings.'” The idea was that we are called, not to “do church” or “do Christianity” but to “be the Church” to “be Christians.” It’s an identity issue, not merely an activity one (there, that sounded best.) So, of course, I was happy to see that Suttle obviously heard my sermon series…but even as we are called to be about being (it’s an identity issue), beings DO things! So, take worship, for instance. The pragmatic sentimental evangelical is going to do everything possible to draw people in with hopes that they can “win the consumer’s business” on Sunday mornings. The opposite side of the coin should NOT be to conduct service in such a half-hearted way that the words are mindlessly regurgitated, the hymns are mumbled through, and everyone sleeps during the sermon…(note I didn’t say that a person couldn’t attain faith through either of these horrible examples)…Instead, I’d like to suggest that, in light of who we are–in light of the fact that we trust that God is the One doing all of the calling, gathering, enlightening, and sanctifying in the One True Faith, we joyfully and gladly respond by returning thanks. This is never free from our sinful desires to be bigger and better, but it’s faith that informs and directs us to fall on our knees in confession, and to gladly hear the Word of God.
There, I said more than I planned to. Feel free to comment.