I am entering a period of deep reflection on what it means to be a pastor and what it means to be the church. I am asking questions that I have considered for years but now approach with a deeper sense of urgency and attention. I find myself wondering over and over again: what are we doing here in the North American church and does any of it matter?
My questions are leading me again into self-reflection and searching on topics such as holiness, discipleship, our amazing capacity for self-deception, North American evangelicalism, and superficial, consumer Christianity. I am re-reading many resources, and one I returned to this morning was Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken’s Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation. Here is an excerpt from the foreword to that book by Dallas Willard. I believe it is worth pondering his words for some time.
How do we present the radical message of Christ in a church that has catered to the religious demands of the nominally committed? In other words, if we have gathered people into congregations by appeasing their appetites and desires, how can we help them deal with the fact that their problems in life and character – even “in church” – are primarily caused by living to get what they want? How can the cross and self-denial become the central fact in a prosperous, consumer culture? How can discipleship to Jesus – in a sense recognizable in the Bible, with the spiritual transformation it brings – be the mode of operation in a thriving North American congregation?
The dynamics of outward success in a church are rooted in the motivational forces of the pastors and the leaders. They have to change before anything else does. The pastors must themselves become disciples (in the New Testament sense), genuinely becoming in their concrete existence, their life and relationships, what we see repeatedly in well-known biblical passages. It is personal ambition that drives the machinery of “success” in the church context, which is what comes out in the many dimensions of character failure that are now all too familiar. Often church members are caught up in their desire to be associated with a “successful” church. Among the treasures expressed in this book is, “Christian leaders are more ready to be candid about sexual lust than ambition.” But lust fulfilled is only one dimension of the deeper drive to have my way. The deeper root of consumerism in the church context is sensuality.
When that root has been cut in the individual life, then genuine ambition for God, and pride in the cross, can flourish (Galatians 6:14). The power of God can flow through transformed character into a world desperate for it. Success is redefined by the spread of kingdom presence throughout the community. Church growth is not just more Christians but bigger Christians, flush with Christ’s character.
The authors came to grips with major issues for practice – for what we actually must do if we intend to make the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 into the mission statement of our group. First, we must intend to do that, and must lead our people into that intention. And our central message – our “gospel” – must be one that has a natural tendency to produce disciples of Jesus, not just avid consumers of religious goods and services. Disciples are self-starters in kingdom living, on the road with Jesus day in and day out. The gospel of life now in the present kingdom of the heavens (Matthew 4:17) will produce disciples. And then we organize our “meetings,” of whatever kind, around that intention and that message. We set the meetings up in a way that intelligently develops disciples and fosters their progressive transformation into Christ-likeness from the inside. Careful attention to the Spirit. the Bible and how experience actually moves individuals and groups will enable us to do this. It has been done repeatedly in Christian history, and can be done now. Outwardly, in fact, our operation may not look much different than it does now. But its content, its goal and its outcome will most assuredly bring the people involved into a path of contemporary holiness that looks at Matthew 5-7, 1 Corinthians 13 and Colossians 3:1-17, and says: “Of course. That’s us.” Grace with training in fellowship will bring us there.