Growing A Church Is Bad For Your Soul

There are many things that we know are bad for us. Candy eats away at our teeth. Bacon clogs our heart (allegedly). Texting while driving takes lives. Smoking gives us cancer and/or lung disease. Isolation brings depression or at least deep loneliness. Anger breads bitterness which births cynicism, hard heartedness, and just plain old meanness. Some things in life should be avoided because no matter how they taste or feel they are just bad for us.

There are many spiritual practices and positions that are similarly bad for us. The avoidance of corporate worship, a rejection of accountability, the judging of others behavior and intentions, the willingness to live disobediently are all things that Christians know are bad for us and should be corrected immediately if we want to have healthy spiritual lives and relationships. Some things just don’t mix and anytime we have more of our own self, our own freedoms, our own flaws mixed with the work that God is trying to do in us we will find self inflicted wounds and perhaps fatal tendencies in our formation. The good things that God gives us often come into conflict with the bad feelings, choices, and habits that we are desperate to maintain our freedom over and that is bad for the Christian soul.

Pastors are no exception to this truth. In fact, we may even be in more danger as we are fatigued by the weight and worry of a church culture that is less and less interested in being a Christian community and much more fascinated in being a Christian club or take out service. We are all in need of salvation and not just from our sins, but from our sinfulness, our selfishness, our self reliance, and our searching for a God that we can make in our own image. Pastors that follow the pattern of cultural trends will discover sooner or later that they are neck deep in the soup that brings sickness to our souls.

It is no secret that the church is in trouble in America. Much of the responsibility could be credited to the misunderstanding and mistakes made by pastors in leading the church and forming disciples. Those two are not the same thing, but that should be aligned or at the very least headed in the same direction. Too often they are not. While there are many reasons that the church is the way it is, it seems that the American church has done a particularly good job of messing up what God began birthing as a beautiful creation. Instead of making disciples and building beautiful community we have been busy enlarging, expanding, and exponentially obsessing on getting bigger, more powerful, financially stable/secure, and way too often chasing relevance as if it was a core value for the New Testament church. Leadership training is more common in churches than spiritual formation. It is easier to convince someone to be a better leader than it is to suggest to them that they should go deeper into discipleship. So pastors pick the more popular and profitable route or message.

This. Must. Change.

Church growth is not only not good. It is bad. Please read that again so that it sinks in on every level. The effects of professional ministers offering professional goods and services in the pursuit of making the gospel popular at all costs has made the church weak, confused, and sick. The prognosis is not only negative, but it is terminal unless we are delivered from our empty philosophy and mistaken identity.

The key to moving away from a church growth mindset and practices is not a change in strategy, but spirit. It does not require a new method, but a new master. To achieve freedom from the weight of promising big things we need a vision from producing small circles of disciples and quality leaders. If pastors are to be saved from the ministry of the American ideal it will necessitate an act of God that is greater than the activity of being professional competent or charismatically capable.

Pastors be warned what I am suggesting is not easy and will not work like an overnight charm. You can not blink your eyes and be transformed from your old habits of multiplying, maximizing, merging, mastering, and making up success stories to alleviate denominational loss and augment the need to be personally glorified or respected. It will be a process. It will be a slow, painful, lonely process, but along the way you will be affirmed in your spirit and you might find pilgrims that are on the same journey you are on.

Many churches will not like what you are saying/doing. It goes agains the grain of there investment over the last 40 years. You may not be voted out, but they may vote to personally leave or they may stay and offer the most apathetic involvement you or they can imagine. Don’t give up and don’t lose heart. Keep at the task of forming disciples and creating a community of faith, hope, and love. Preach the gospel rather than pragmatic principles and let the Holy Spirit show them the “how to’s” of living the Christian life.

God expects you to walk in the righteous way rather than the relevant way. No matter what a book or a Bishop says to you as a pastor the primary leading of a pastor is in the way that Jesus is headed. Anywhere he goes or anything he says is relevant. The world then fits into his agenda. Jesus may have gone to the people and shared in the culture, but it is a mistake to say or think that he acclimated to the Roman way or even the way of popular Judaism. The only relevancy test that we have as pastors and as congregants is based in forsaking this world and following him.

Denominations aren’t likely to lead this change, but they might follow. They also might not. You may not get support from anyone in your tribe that would think what you preach or propose makes sense. Your work might produce the kind of results that gets conference leaders to visit you with questions and concerns. Don’t panic. If pastoral work is to be fruitful it will not be from the hormones of fool proof ideas for breaking the 200 barrier. It will be the product of a long obedience in the direction of God’s leading you to form disciples and call those disciples into ministry.

The vision that God gives to us is not a body that grows bigger and bigger. It is a vision of a church that grows deeper in discipleship and broader in mission. That is a vision that is good for the soul because it leads us to measure our ministry in lives formed in Christ rather than parking spots or programs launched.  A church may very well grow to become a large body of believers, but it is not a healthy church if disciples are not being formed and sent. Any obsession that a pastor has over their work should focus on a passion for being faithful to the gospel and spilled out in Christian service to others.

Growing a church is bad for your soul or at least it can be. Any good doctor of the church would remember often that maybe growing the church isn’t the job of the pastor. That’s the job of the Spirit. Perhaps the reason that growing a church can be bad for the soul is because that is not what God intended us to do. It just might be that the the sooner we get away from thinking we are called to grow a church and get to the work of telling our people not to dream of such things, the easier it will be for us to get to the work God has called us to. That kind of work is forever good for the soul.


Think Thanks

Keep your eyes open to mercies. The man who forgets to be thankful has fallen asleep in life.  – R.L. Stephenson

I hope that your mind has turned the page towards a new month and a new opportunity to focus on work and life from a new perspective. Each month seems to have its own personality and buzzwords to help us focus. December is “the hope, joy, peace, and love of Christ.” January has “new beginnings.” February is “love and romance.” April is “baseball.” July is “freedom and national celebration.” September is “football” and of course October is “fall and harvest.” Then comes November, which calls us to be “thankful.” The whole month is an opportunity for us to think thanksgiving all month before we actually get our Thanksgiving on around the turkey, the dressing, and the pumpkin pie.

Perhaps you don’t really need the calendar to turn to November in order to be thankful. Instead, I hope that you have reflected so deeply that you realize your life and family has much to be thankful for. Among the items we can/should recall on our thanksgiving list are: our health, our freedom, our calling, our connection to others, our role as a minister in child and family healing, our hope for a better tomorrow, our belief in a God of grace and mercy. These are just a few of our commonalities as a people with much to be thankful. You will no doubt think of other examples, distinct to your life and personal situation, which make you thankful.

Choosing to reflect on and embrace the areas of our lives that we are thankful for can be helpful and healing. When we choose to confess our thanksgiving, we recognize that something has happened to us that we aren’t necessarily deserving of. While we can’t always explain why or how we have received such blessings in life, we recognize that our lives would be very different if we lived in hunger, had no purpose in our calling, and/or had nothing obvious to be hopeful about. It is hard to reason why we are blessed in certain ways and others are not, but life isn’t always easy to explain. Sometimes we are better off to accept things the way they are and consider ourselves blessed in a way that we could not guarantee on our own. This acceptance may keep us from wasting blessings and resources that make life comfortable and/or easy.

But what we should be really thankful for is not our stuff. It is our people – our relationships in life. Our real blessings in life can be measured by those who have sacrificed and invested greatly in us. From our parents to our school/work mentors to our pastors to even (surprisingly) political leaders, many people have made our life different – better – than we could have on our own. We didn’t necessarily ask for their help, but it was given and we are better for it. We can choose to recognize that fact or ignore it believing fate has brought us this far. We have many people to thank for making our life meaningful, beautiful, and hopeful.

Be aware that human nature usually resists being overly thankful and giving honor to those that have blessed us. It is typical for us to just assume they know we are thankful. When we choose not to be thankful or give recognition, we are not being accountable for life and its circumstances. We are trying to convince ourselves and others that we are self-made, solely responsible for our own success. What we are is self-righteous. The only medicine for a self-righteous soul is a dose of humility that helps us see how many people have provided for and invested in us along the way. Choosing to ignore that our lives are blessed – by God, by family, by friends – is an act of self-reliance that may be the biggest cover up story in our lives. By giving thanks we acknowledge the work and gifts of others that have made us who we are and helped us to get where we are.

Life is rich because of other people and how they have blessed you. Be thankful. Tell them. Pass on the blessings to others. Celebrate your true blessings in life. Give God the glory for it all.

Don’t wait your whole life to give thanks to God and others. Start a habit today, this month of being thankful for the people in your life.  See if you can go the entire month thanking everybody you remember that has blessed your life. Feel free to thank people that don’t easily come to mind for doing something spectacular of you. A good  “thanks” is never wasted. By acting intentionally thankful for all of November (not just on the 27th) you will likely create a habit that will continue naturally that can be a theme in every month of the year. You might just turn into the kind of person that thinks thanks continually. If you do, you will see the world in a brand new way and the world will catch a view of you that, perhaps, has never been seen before.

“Let the peace of Christ keep you in tune with each other, in step with each other. None of this going off and doing your own thing. And cultivate thankfulness. Let the Word of Christ—the Message—have the run of the house. Give it plenty of room in your lives. Instruct and direct one another using good common sense. And sing, sing your hearts out to God! Let every detail in your lives—words, actions, whatever—be done in the name of the Master, Jesus, thanking God the Father every step of the way.”- Colossians 3:15-17