Most of us have misspent precious time on WebMD. We’ve developed a peculiar malaise and launched our own investigative examination (with unquestioned personal expertise) to secure a speedy and satisfying diagnosis.
Although we were troubled by our original symptoms, we soon become suspicious that we’ve contracted a far more exotic condition. After a few hours, that tickled throat is now proof-positive of a chronic, excruciating death-sentence just around the corner. We close our computer, draw a deep breath, and pray that a real doctor has better news.
Symptoms are funny things. To some, they are in themselves the problem. Heroic efforts are braved in order to mask the evidence of a deeper and more malignant issue. To others, symptoms are snubbed. With clenched teeth and firm resolve, we soldier on, feigning as if nothing is out of the ordinary.
Still to others, symptoms become a source of paralysis. With fear and dread we cocoon, hoping for a miraculous delivery while we dawdle in our emotional fetal position attempting to conjure happier thoughts.
All three responses are inadequate. Symptoms are never the problem, should never be ignored, and cannot be wished away by a pseudo-counternarrative. Symptoms are God’s way of getting our attention.
Consider the case of the church in North America.
Symptoms of disease are everywhere. Church closures. Dismal baptism numbers. Disqualified pastors. Negative cultural influence. Infighting. Dysfunction. Scandal. Failure. The symptoms are all pointing to a deep problem somewhere, but the question is: Where?
Before we round up the usual left-wing suspects to pin sole culpability, an internal evaluation is in order. A Kingdom-centric worldview understands that the pervasive darkness of our day can’t be corrected with hyper-focus on the darkness. The commissioned carriers of light bear the full burden (read Jesus in Matthew 6:23). Therefore, the pervading darkness emanating from sacred sources can only be explained by an exchange of gods, an idolatry of ecclesiology, a form worshipped (2 Tim. 3:5) that comes with none of the light or authority of King Jesus.
A Christ-less kingdom dressed in sacred clothes.
So, if a church, even a growing church, can become an idol, how can we see the signs and repent? What should I look for in our church’s culture? What should I look for in my leadership?
Here are five signs that we are heading in the wrong direction.
1. Syncretistic Positioning of our church as God’s Kingdom
When a local church sees herself as the goal, instead as the means to the goal, she finds herself in a perilous place. By seeing our church as the prime good, sacrifices will be demanded, but they will be made by others exclusively for the purpose of corporate increase instead of missional engagement.
The Mark 8:35 call for ‘losing ourselves’ is routinely reduced to an evangelistic text on ‘how to get into the Kingdom,’ without thought given as to ‘how Kingdom people live.’ In fact, all of Jesus’ Kingdom teachings are applied individually with no effort given to corporate application, because, synchronism spells Kingdom, “c-h-u-r-c-h.”
And in this dark exchange, we have reduced ourselves to a profane object of sacrifice instead of being the sacrifice itself.
As sacrifices, we appeal to our constituents to vacate their natural places of community and credibility in order to satisfy the insular, artificial, and self-focused appetites of our insatiable organizations. Attractional quickly becomes extractional. Dissemination becomes consolidation. And giving becomes taking.
2. Big Asks Reserved for Brand Advancement
The second sign is a natural corollary to the first. If any singular church is considered to be the sum scope of God’s Kingdom activity, then the most ‘spiritual’ thing we can do is to try to advance and leverage the sacred brand.
With this, we buy into the myth that God’s work in the world is measured by the degree to which the brand is spreading, which is calibrated exclusively by the metrics of church growth: buildings, budgets, and backsides.
Big financial asks are not uncommon, but always directed toward increasing our brand’s footprint. To garner the support those suspicious of self-serving motives, a small percentage directed to outside altruistic causes is built into the campaign as an incentivizer. The big asks of the Kingdom (Matt. 13:44-46) are rarely applied corporately, and never beyond the control of our brand. We become the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price, with impressive conviction, we ask—and we ask big.
3. Labyrinthine Leadership Pipelines with no External Outflow
When brand expansion becomes paramount, a steady supply of worker bees and production managers are required. The whole enterprise can become circumlocutious in its self-propagation.
Rather than discovering, developing, and then deploying agile leaders who could be sent as evangelists, pastors, or missionaries in future church planting teams, we spend our time programming them to run the complex machinery of the Sunday spectacular.
The keenest of future leaders have limited their imagination to a best outcome of their development being church employment. By hoarding and restricting leaders rather than building simple, scalable, and sustainable systems that release them to God’s work in the world, we betray our allegiance by discipling our sheep toward churchmanship instead of the Kingdom of God.
4. Neighboring Congregations Regarded as Competitors, not Collaborators
If the mission is about our brand, then it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that competing churches are the adversary. And so we compete. The cherished prize is cornering the largest market-share of the evangelically predisposed. A steady supply of ready-made pre-tithing bench warmers with a few laborers sprinkled in. It’s a dog-eat-dog contest with plenty of casualties left in the wake.
But to effectively compete in this winner-takes-all battle, we must ignore God’s instruction on unity and collaboration (John 17). With hardened hearts we confuse our allies for enemies, while our true adversary gains more ground. But what if we considered other churches as Kingdom collaborators? What if we co-labored with them for the common good of the people in our city? How would we behave if we truly believed that our common enemy was the dominion of darkness?
5. Worshipper’s Experience Usurps Worshippee’s Assignment
A final symptom of ecclesiastical idolatry is the myopic focus on the Sunday service as the most important aspect of the church’s health. We want people to love our brand, so we craft and control everything for an ultimate user experience. The worshipper’s experience becomes the gold standard for how well the church is doing. If our clientele is pleased, so are we. If their impressions are not favorable, then some pragmatic changes are in order.
Our audience of One becomes muddled in our efforts to compete. In contrast, the biblical framework presupposes that the gathering of believers is a means of equipping them for the work of ministry—most of which they will do outside of both Sundays and the sacred space (Ephesians 4:11).
Symptoms abound which point to a deep spiritual malaise. But symptoms are never the problem. They should never be ignored. And they cannot be wished away by a pseudo-counternarrative. They are truth tellers.
Maybe, like Israel long ago, the pain is God’s way of uncovering an empty idol.
Jeff Christopherson is an author and Chief Missiologist and Vice President of the Send Network. He also serves as Co-Executive Director of the Send Institute, a partnership of the Billy Graham Centerat Wheaton College and the North American Mission Board.
****The ideas in this article serve as the basis for a forthcoming book by Jeff Christopherson, to be published by B&H Academic in 2020.