If we expect to baptize and teach, then we’ve got to make some moves toward going.
Have you ever done something really insane? Have you ever done something so different that someone you knew and loved was forced to ask you, “what were you thinking?” (I remember being asked the question several times during the ordination process by folks who weren’t sure why I’d plow through that, but that’s a whole different post.) When it’s using the slip’n’slide meant for kids, and you’re an adult, it’s one thing. But what happens if it’s something more serious, something ideological, fundamental, theological?
After sharing why I’m a Christian, why I’m a pastor, and why I’m a Methodist, I come to the fourth and final installment in this series, The Journey So Far: why I’m a church planter. It’s a response to the question, “can you have too many churches?” And it follows this kind of conversation.
Me: “I want to plan a church.”
Local church (size is unimportant) pastor: “But there are, like, ten churches [wherever].”
Me: “How many people live in the area?”
Local church pastor: [Really big number].
Me: “How many people are in those churches each week?”
Local church pastor: (Long pause that amounts to [Really big number minus much smaller number].)
In Matthew 28, Jesus lays out his final instructions for the disciples who remain after he’s been crucified on the cross and then raised from the dead by God:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
It’s the very core of why I’m called to plant a church. Jesus basically broke down “the mission” into three, ‘easy’ steps: 1) Go and make disciples of all nations, 2) baptize them in the name of the Trinity, and 3) teach them what he’d taught them. So, if our local churches aren’t reaching the average person, if the communities we live in are responding less and less frequently to the established churches in the area, then why aren’t we recognizing that something has to give? Is it because the established church has grown too comfortable, and assume people will come to them? Is it because we’ve lost sight of the going, and assumed that the people who don’t know Jesus, who haven’t met him, will do the coming to us?
If we expect to baptize and teach, then we’ve got to make some moves toward going. It’s not that the preaching in churches is bad or that we don’t have great programs, but we can’t get people to just show up and try it out. And we settle for spending more money on cute mailers and taking out adds on Facebook, and intermittently-read newspapers, etc. We’ve got to recognize that not everyone is comfortable in worshipping the way that the average, localized, traditional church does it, and that those reasons don’t have to make sense to us, but they’re real. That people won’t come to our churches because:
-They’ve been burned by a church in the past.
-They’re related to someone who has been burned by a church in the past.
-They’ve never seen a real Christian, and what they’ve read in the paper doesn’t sound like anything they want a part of.
-They’ve never seen the church, or a relationship with Jesus, change anything, so why would they give up the one day a week they can sleep in, or get their housework done, or spend time with their kids, to sit and sing songs they don’t know and read a book that may or not be made up?
-They don’t believe that there’s a god, or that if there is one that he even cares about them.
-They don’t think the church really cares about them.
-They don’t have an expectation that God either cares or has a better plan for them, for a variety of reasons including that they weren’t raised in church or they were taught that God doesn’t even exist.
Now, obviously, there are established churches that break through, that strike the blend of compassion and truth that impacts a community and draws people in. But the statistics, and the movement of people toward atheism and out of church in the United States, show that our churches aren’t getting any more full and we’re not thinking far enough out of the box.
[Sidebar: There’s a great scene from The Big Bang Theory where Wolowitz’s space toilet is sending everything backwards. Sheldon simply wants to switch the location/movement of the toilet’s handle, and Leonard responds with a quip about Sheldon ‘climbing out of the box but clinging onto the box for dear life.’ Too often, that’s how we think ‘differently’; we just re-order the same parts or only change the superficial.]
But then there are the outliers. There are the churches launched in movie theaters and strip malls, the ones that aim to show people how they’re impacting their communities’ hurting spots, like hunger, or homelessness, or education, or [fill in the blank]. There are the churches that are using the social media, the integrated relationships, the times that no church would ever hold a service, who are daring to meet people where they are in bars, in book groups, in schools. There are the churches that are daring to strip back their messages til they are preaching the gospel and reminding people that they don’t have to come clean, they just have to come, and that Jesus will meet them where they are.
You can read the work of experts like Andy Stanley in Deep & Wide or Nelson Searcy in Launch: Starting a New Church from Scratch. You can see the ways that these patterns defy our standardized church patterns of spending, of the use of our time, of our explanations of theology, of the ways we view people who haven’t met Jesus yet, and of our understanding of how we’re supposed to interact, the church and the world. You can see that we’re not here to conserve, but to empower the coming kingdom (H. Richard Niebuhr, nearly a hundred years later), that it’s not about maintaining the status quo but building a new level of expectation.
Planting churches is grassroots. It’s gospel. It’s what I believe Jesus would do.