My husband and I recently left the church where we have attended for 23 years. I don't want to get into all the reasons why except to say that my family and I were abused by the pastor...a pastor whom we really liked. So we've been looking for a church ever since. I don't want to be picky and I hate the concept of "shopping" for a church but there are some things that are non-negotiable.
* It needs to be in close range from our home (for time's sake and because of the cost of gas).
* It must follow our core beliefs (see "What I Believe" in the column on the right side).
* It must allow us freedom to worship with our whole heart, mind, and body. I don't want to sit stiffly at attention and call that worship. Or sing verses 1 & 3 of hymn #405. There is no freedom of worship in that. Not that hymn #405 isn't worshipful but I'm looking for a church where I can sing from the heart with my hands lifted up or my knees on the floor, my mouth wide open in shouts of praise or closed in awesome silence.
* We want to be able to serve with our God given gifts or talents.
* We want the mission of the church to be reaching out to the unsaved and to provide a "safe pasture" for the sheep of God's flock. A pastor who relies on God and not himself (and I realize that's a daily challenge) and who loves and desires to care for the sheep and not to brow beat them. A pastor who feels called to their church and to ministering to the members of the church. Not focused on making it a big corporate, megachurch so that he can consider himself successful. It's too easy to forget that you have a small group of people whom you are responsible for and who depend on you. A quest for bigger, better, more money, more numbers in attendance, more programs, a bigger building, etc can really get in the way. It takes an exceptional man to be able to stand strong against those kind of lures and not fall into the enemy's traps of pride, arrogance, control, self sufficiency, self righteousness and other sins.
This book is about Calvary Church in Charlotte, NC. It's a megachurch but the pastor, Glenn Wagner, has a good handle on what we are looking for...a "safe pasture".
"As I continue to observe the American church, I have become ever more convinced that there is a huge difference between:
* growing big and growing up
* increasing numbers and increasing maturity
* getting people into the kingdom and getting the kingdom into people
"The corporate minsdet and model can indeed help us to create churches with congregations numbering the thousands - but we all know that's not nearly enough. Something is obviously amiss on the American ecclesiastical scene. We may have more and larger churches than ever before, but our size and numbers clearly haven't improved the health of our culture."
In his introduction he tells us so many churches are trying to follow corporate models and when there are problems, we'd rather tweak the model than scrap the system and go back to God. He likens it to trying to make a dead horse get up and run.
"Consider a few things we've done when it comes to the horse called 'doing church'.
* A better horse whip - Belittle the congregation; whip the people with guilt-filled words: Give more! Pray more! Do more! Serve more!
* Change riders - We need a new pastor and different church leaders: elders who will elder or deacons who will deacon, trustees we can trust
* Threaten the horse with termination - Warn the congregation that if things don't change, the property will be sold to the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon.
* Form a committee - Twist the arms of both long-term and new members to embark on a three-year study of the dead horse.
* Visit other dead horses - Give the above committee funds to visit other struggling stables to see how its owners ride dead horses.
* Start a marketing campaign - Change the people' perception through a slogan that declares: 'This horse is not dead'.
* Hire a 'horse consultant' - Discover the latest methods of riding a dead horse.
* Band together - Get all the other dead horses in your community to band together to increase speed and power by harnessing the energy of multiple dead horses."
Ephesians 4: 11-14
And truly He gave some to be apostles, and some to be prophets, and some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ. And this until we all come into the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a full-grown man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; so that we no longer may be infants, tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine, in the dishonesty of men, in cunning craftiness, to the wiles of deceit.
Wagner states, in Chapter 1, "I believe the megachurch model cannot help but build competition, pride and arrogance. Such pride grows both internally (within the church) and externally (toward other churches). It can show up internally between various ministries vying for volunteers and limited budgetary dollars. Even the media often describe a church by stating it's attendance or membership figures, often implying that the validity of what a ministry says or does comes in direct proportion to its size or rate of growth.
"While those who have adopted the megachurch model have intended none of this, it almost can't help but take place. ...I believed the 'megachurch' as defined by the church-growth movement to be a harmful concept, too often filled with ego, pride and programs. While it was launched with good intentions and pure hearts, the model's inherent flaws made me consider it just another dead horse trying to be ridden."
But, Wagner takes the job as pastor of megachurch, Calvary Church. Throughout the book he tries to explain how his church is different and I'm not so sure that's possible. But he makes some good points.
"Remember the parable Jesus told about two houses that had been built on differing foundations? One builder chose sand, the other rock. From the outside, both houses looked sound. Both builders used quality materials. They both employed reputable contractors, excellent carpenters, choice wood, and so forth. Both wanted to build the best homes possible. The difference in their respective facilities could be traced to their dissimilar foundations. When a fierce storm hit both structures, only the house built on rock withstood the howling winds and driving rains. The other fell flat.
"Jesus used this parable to emphasize the necessity of continuing obedience to Christ, so the foundation he described differs...The spiritual foundation that Jesus is talking about, however, needs to be constantly built. Obedience adds to its strength, disobedience erodes it away. A healthy spiritual foundation needs regular, consistent attention, not only to maintain its structural integrity but also to increase its strength."
Wagner talks about what the church is. He gives a list of what it's NOT suppose to be. For example the "Church of Heavenly Fun And Sancitified Pleasure - Keep me and my kids occupied so they don't get into trouble. If you can't fill my nights and weekends with fun and excitement, then I'll have to take my business/membership elsewhere." He says the church is all about God and not all about US. "All too many times these days, church begins with man or woman and ends with man or woman; God ends up as little more than window dressing."
What the church is...God's church! "We must grasp that the church is first and foremost for the Lord." It was dreamed of by God thousands of years before it came into existence on that Day of Pentecost. It was a mystery to everyone, including heavenly beings, until God revealed it to the Apostles. The mystery is that two groups of people who hated each other...Jews and Gentiles (everyone who is not a Jew)...would come together and form the church. It was planned by God's wisdom, it is a living organism put together by God. It is led by spiritual leaders who should be called by God, it should be committed to doing God's will and bringing glory to God and we are to be submitted to God and to one another and reveal God's love and grace to those around us. "The mystery is that God inaugurated a new covenant, a unity of all peoples formed together ino a single entity, the third race, which is the church." Wagner says the church is God's idea and cannot be run like a human organization. "God calls us to lay down our individual preferences, not simply for the desires of the majority, but for the will of God."
"He calls us to...
* forgive one another
* love one another
* serve one another
* support one another
* encourage one another
* pray for one another
* be of the same mind with one another
* accept one another
* bear with one another
* greet one another
* admonish one another
"None of this can be done by our power or wisdom, and it certainly cannot be accomplished by employing worldly strategies...Through His church - and only through the church - God reveals His manifold wisdom and unsearchable riches of Christ."
Why doesn't a corporate mindset work? Wagner believes it's because "corporations were designed to produce commodity in the most efficient and competitive way possible". But when we attend church we aren't attending a corporation with production schedules, budgets, squeezing out more profit, etc. A church is a family and we have value in a family just because of who we are and not because of our productivity. We focus on human beings and their relationship with God. Corporations have one goal in mind...make money, lots of it, sell more to make more profit, save money, save more of money so we have more profit and get lots of money. It's a cycle around money. Churches must cycle around God and bringing human beings into a closer walk with God. Once saved, new converts need to realize that sanctification begins and over our entire lifetime we are disciples learning more and more about God and our lives should be reflecting these transformations. We should eventually see some spiritual fruit in our lives. What is spiritual fruit? Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Self Control, Gentleness, Goodness, Faithfulness (Galatians 5). We can't ask a church, "What is your product? What are you seeking to produce?" Sometimes it comes down to replying "More money and more attendance in order to make more money." How sad that we get so out of balance and begin to think in terms of numbers and production and streamlining and strategizing and calling in fundraising consultants, and return on investments, etc.
The church is about God and how we can get closer to Him and bring Him glory and obey His voice and worship Him. The byproduct of this intense focus on God is our lives begin to be changed and we begin to develop the fruit of the Spirit and people around us see this and are attracted to God because of the changes in our own lives. We don't have to psyche people up to witness, start new programs, spend dollars on big ticket concerts, etc. If our churches are providing a safe pasture for us and leading us to spend time with God, then the rest will happen naturally.
Wagner uses the analogy of Chicken Soup For The... to describe many churches who are, frankly, shallow. They offer good feelings in order to reach the most number of people. They don't want to turn anybody off by being too radical. I've often wondered how large, "successful" churches do it. Because if you really think about it, human beings are a fickle lot and we like to feel good about ourselves. If you ever get confronted about a sin in your life, you are more likely to run in the opposite direction rather than tackle it and get rid of sin. We have all kinds of mental gymnastics in order to defend our sin. We can justify it in 90 different ways. We'd rather sin and feel good about ourselves. So if churches have such huge attendance, maybe they aren't confronting people about sin. Maybe they aren't going very deep with the things of God. Maybe they are keeping it shallow and safe. The Bible says we need to mature and learn to eat solid food and not the milk given to baby Christians. Feel good theology or cheerleading the church, etc. can, at it's worst, leave a lot of people feeling good as they go down the path to hell. Or, at it's best, leave people weak, immature Christians who fall in every little storm that comes along. What kind of love is that? Love sometimes has to be strong and challenge you to do your best.
Wagner differentiates between "felt needs" and "real needs". The unsaved really need salvation and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit that comes with salvation. But, they think they just need a better marriage, an easier life, for their kids to behave, etc. Their "felt needs" are surface needs. Jesus was concerned about people's "felt needs" such as feeding the 5,ooo when they felt hungry. But he didn't stop there. God is what we all really need. He is the answer for every question. Learning how to depend and trust Him is the basis for fulfilling any other need. Developing gimmicks, programs, revivals, mission statements, etc doesn't do diddly squat (my terminology) because what we need is God and His work in our lives through the Holy Spirit so that we develop the fruit of the Spirit. And this focus and sanctifying work is done over a lifetime not just one time or a few times in your life. You have to keep going back to your foundation (God) and get with Him regularly, over and over.
Now, I've just touched the first 3 chapters of this book and I will have to leave it up to you to finish reading it for yourself. Being that a church is made up of human beings and we are inherently easy to get off track, I have to wonder if I will ever find that "safe pasture" church. I know that no church is sin free or perfect because it's made up of us fallible humans. But I'll keep looking. Remember, God is in the balance. Strive to stay with Him there.