This is going to be a fairly snide post for a blog called “Thinking Peacefully.” But I’m convinced that being peaceful must mean being unafraid of confrontation.
I’ll never forget hearing it. I couldn’t believe my ears—and yet I couldn’t figure out why I should be surprised.
I was a volunteer small-group leader at a large church (yes, a mega-church). This was before I’d gone off to school to learn how to read scripture (which was why I only felt like what I was hearing was wrong and didn’t know why it was wrong). Our church was trying to find some ways to reach out to the community so we could continue growing (how big do churches need to be?). We had just finished a $4 million building project and needed to fill the thing up. So, all of us small-group leaders were meeting to plan a day of small-group outreach.
As we talked, we decided to take each small-group to a different part of town and “canvas the town” with flyers, invitations, etc.[i] As each neighborhood was mentioned, different small-group leaders would volunteer to canvas that neighborhood. I was waiting for one I recognized when I heard him say it.
A newer neighborhood had been mentioned—one with big houses and 3-4 car garages. I was waiting for someone to say it but still shocked when it happened. “Yeah, we probably ought to send a couple of small-groups there. The people in that neighborhood are going to be the kind of people who can give more to our building campaign.” I think the guy was an elder in our church.
I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t a leader in the group and had no credibility with the people there. And, even if I’d had some, at the time I wouldn’t have known what to say. I remember looking around the room to see if anyone else caught it and if they were reacting like I was. A few faces showed some signs of discomfort. But most of the people in the room just nodded as if that statement made tons of sense—as if there was no tension between valuing people for the money they might give us and the gospel. I left that meeting feeling sick. It felt wrong. I felt wrong for even being there.
That was years ago. Nearly 20, actually. I wish that I could say that things had changed. But I’m afraid they haven’t. I think, in a lot of ways, that attitude has gotten more pervasive, more prevalent.
As I was in Bible College, I remember getting what I perceived to be a mixed message from the ministry world. On the one hand I was learning scripture, scripture, and more scripture. I was learning how to exegete scripture—how to dig through context and discover its heart. I was learning to read Greek and Hebrew. I used to love reading the gospels in Greek and imagined I could hear the voice of their subject. I was learning theology—studying the thoughts and writings of men and women who’d gone before. I was growing in my understanding of the subject of Christian thought and writing: Jesus Christ.
And, of course, the Jesus of the gospels was something else, you know. He was always so counter-cultural, so different from the values of the world. He didn’t seem terribly impressed by the rich and powerful. In fact, he often seemed happy to challenge them to the point that they hated him. He didn’t act like he needed them especially. He seemed to attract the poor and the meek, the sick and the needy, the addict and the beggar. He was open to everyone, but seemed to realize that the rich, the politically powerful, and the temple cult were liable to reject him. And, as much as he wanted them to follow him (away from their wealth, power, and prestige) he had to live with that.
So, I was learning all that. But, on another level, I was being taught a “practical” side of ministry. This message came across in a few of my classes, but mostly came from outside my college experience. It came from popular ministers in their books and on their conference tours. They were all telling us to “find your niche,” or to “specialize.” Everyone was being told that the secret to “growing a church” or “being successful” is to find young professional families. Growing a church was as simple as starting with five or so strong families in a new area that is getting ready to explode in growth. Be dynamic, offer quality worship experience, strive for professionalism and excellence in your Sunday “event” (it’s not called worship anymore—that’s too old fashioned) and, voila! You’ll have a “successful” ministry before you know it.
We call it “church growth” or “the church growth movement.” And, whether we want to admit it or not, it’s a problem. A big one. Here’s one reason.
Church growth assumes a worldly approach to the value of people. My take on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Ethics is that ethics itself is a sinful approach to determining what is right and wrong. It happens because people have decided to be the source of that knowledge themselves, rather than leave the knowledge of such things to God and simply continue to live as “his image.” When we look inward for the answers to right and wrong, we become ethically solipsist. Our means of measuring right, wrong, value, purpose, and meaning become self-centered. We begin to see the people around us as things to be used to get the thing we’ve been cut off from because of sin: life.
According to Bonhoeffer this means we’re no longer seeing people the way God sees them. We’re seeing them for what they can give to us rather than as images of God whom he loves. All sin is founded in the notion that I must make God and those around me in my own image, get what I want from them, and put them away (or throw them away) when I am done. It is, inherently, a breakdown of godly relationship. It is the destruction of God’s good creation, and the attempt to re-center it around myself.
Now, just imagine a world of people living like that. Wait…oh…never mind.
Most of us can look at that and say, “Yeah, I get it.” That makes sense. In fact, I think I agree. But the truth is that worldview is more pervasive than we realize. We’ve grown up being told that the way Bonhoeffer describes sin is just the way the world works and we must accept it. When in Rome, you do as the Romans. When on the world, you do as the worldly. Christianity is fine, but reality suggests that we must do as the world does if we are to be successful business-people, entrepreneurs, etc. The Church growth movement is precisely a baptism of this worldly notion about “success.”
Success is “growth.” It’s “accumulation.” It’s “excellence.” It’s “size.” It’s “sparkly” and “new.” Success is attractive.
Success is expensive.
It costs something. It requires money, time, and investment. It requires strategy and selectiveness. It requires marketing and study. Making things sparkly and new and big and excellent requires money.
Hence, the church growth movement’s emphasis on “finding your niche,” and especially its emphasis on “young families.” Why do they tell you as a minister to focus on young professional families? Simply because they represent the biggest return on investment. They have money, they tend to stay in one place, and they have kids who will grow up and do the same thing. We are told to seek young professional families because the church growth movement believes that they are a “strategic connection.” They believe that the culture’s model of success can easily apply to the church founded by Jesus Christ (the most counter-cultural guy in the history of history). But they’re wrong.
James tells us “My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:1-4)
James goes on to say, “Isn’t it the rich who are suing you and taking advantage of you? Why are you dishonoring people based on wealth?”
According to Bonhoeffer the answer would be, “Because we want something from them.”
See, James understands that when you look at the wealthy person and value them and treat the poor person like someone less than you it is because you are a “judge” with “evil motives.” You’re playing favorites, and it isn’t because you desire to serve the person you’re serving. It’s because you see value in the person you are serving (in James’ case the wealthy, in ours the young professional family) and you see no personal value in the person you’re ignoring (the poor). And, in that case, you do both a disservice. When we play favorites with the rich and the poor, we’ve favored one over the other for selfish reasons. And if we truly follow Jesus we are never to do that.
But, see, now we don’t call it favoritism. We call it “being strategic.” We call it “market share.” We call it “demographics.” But all of these are euphemisms for favoritism, judgmentalism, greed, envy, and sinful selfish ambition. They are a baptism of the world’s values and a corruption of the gospel of Christ.
According to James, when you show the wealthy honor and the poor dishonor, you are judging both based on what they can give you. This is antithetical to the message of Jesus.
Well…when we pick a niche and prefer them, what are we saying to the single? The widow? The disabled? The elderly? The orphan? The abused kid? The prisoner? What are we telling the burnout? The homeless? The AIDS patient? The unemployed? The divorced? What are we telling the homosexual?
When we prefer a niche, what are we telling Jesus who said, “When you show kindness to the least of these, you have done it for me?”
I’ll tell you what we are telling them. “Our church isn’t for you. Oh, you can come, but you’re not important. Sit here by our feet while we serve someone really important.” Terms like “strategic connection” and the other terms I’ve used imply that the person we are referring to represents some value to me that makes this person’s relationship to me more valuable than someone else’s. They are worldly terms; sinful terms.
Now, you may be thinking: Jason, you certainly can’t run a business that way. You can’t build skillion-dollar church campuses that way. You can’t be successful that way. You’re being naïve. This is the way the world works. We must accept it.
Well, you know, you know, you may be right. Perhaps it is naïve to think we can treat everyone with dignity and love people with less as much as we love those with more. Perhaps Paul was naïve when he chided Peter for leaving the Greek Christians to sit with the Jewish ones when they arrived. Perhaps all Peter needed to say was, “You know, that sounds nice in a perfect world, Paul, but that’s not the world we live in. I have to acknowledge the way things are. I have to keep the powerful happy. It’s all about survival and success.”
My response: the good news is that James isn’t telling us how to be successful in our businesses. He isn’t even telling us how to build a successful mega-church or how to ensure fiscal strength as a church. James isn’t telling us how to be successful according to the world’s standards. James is telling us how to be the church.
This means that a church that doesn’t value the poor, the handicapped, the single, the elderly—churches aiming for young families with solid jobs coming from the right neighborhoods aren’t just churches who are missing some minor point. It means that those churches aren’t churches at all. They’re double-minded, calling themselves the church but not truly believing in what their founder taught.
It means that if we’re going to be Christians, we have to have a very different idea about what success is. It means we have to value what Jesus tells us more than growth, campuses, and excellence.
Jesus’ disciples didn’t think that a Messiah could be “successful” by going to the cross. The cross represented failure to them. Kings, Caesars, temples, wealth, nations, and Pharisees seemed big, important, shiny, and successful. “If we’re going to change the world, surely we’ll have to play their game, right Jesus?”
But Jesus seemed to preach that the cross was the way to really change things. And, so, everything he did was the cross. He embraced its failure, scorning its shame.
I wonder. What if we embraced the failure of the cross? Does that sound crazy? What if we gave up on excellence and success? What if we strove to look broken and defeated? Does that sound stupid? Foolish?
In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul said that the cross is a “stumbling block” and “foolishness” to those who are perishing. He meant that the world looks at the way of the cross and says it’s stupid. It’s insane. It’s failure. It’s lunacy. It’s suicide. It will never work. It will never get you ahead. It isn’t attractive. It isn’t successful.
Paul also said that, for those of us who are being saved, the cross is “the power of God.” The cross is God’s wisdom, though it looks like foolishness to us. This “foolishness” of God’s is actually real wisdom. This failure of God’s is actually true success. This suicide of God’s is actually real life.
For that reason, let’s shun the ways of this world. Let’s think differently about the people we minister to. Let’s value all of God’s people, equally. Let’s trust him enough not to second-guess him. Let’s not value our buildings and our campuses more than the people we build them for.
Let’s follow Jesus and not be judges.
[i] This is what we used to do before church marketing strategies like bill-boards and commercials. Imagine, actually inviting people instead of advertising to them!