Church Planting Lesson #31: Things that change when a church begins to love itself more than Jesus (Pt. 1)

My hope is that this will be received for what it is, a bit of self-reflection, and not a condemnation on any one church.  Unfortunately, I know all too well how easy it is for someone to reject Jesus Christ as Supreme and worship something else.  Doing this intentionally like a cultist is just as easy as doing it unintentionally as a Christian.  And though it might be tempting (and somewhat lazy) to believe that all idols we might replace him with are only “bad ones”, let us consider some of those idols that rob Jesus of worship that we so often deem “good.”   There are many good things that can lead us away from Jesus.   The Jews have the guide to Jesus, Catholics have the vicar of Jesus, and the protestants, it seems, have the bride of Jesus.  There is nothing wrong with loving the Church, until there is something wrong with loving your church. In an individual church, the shift to loving itself more than Jesus alone is slow and, yet, painfully obvious to everyone not in that church.

A courageous few dare say anything because to do so, it seems, would be like questioning the Holy Spirit Himself or rejecting any fruit He may have chosen to produce through unhealthy means.  So, I hope and pray that pastors will never ignore the imminent danger of these shifts toward sin and always possess the humility and strength to repent from them.  In no particular order, are the first five (of 10) shifts that, in my opinion, signal that a church has come to love itself more than Jesus…

1.  The image shift:  The church goes from proclaiming the gospel to procuring some people.   The pastor begins to react to the applause, or the boos, and change what the church does and how they do it.  It begins with the language, evidencing itself out in weaker sermons or more jokes than verses.  Sometimes it results in trying to shock the world rather than be shocked by God. Sometimes it results in changing the gospel entirely.   This is just the beginning and, at some point, the church body follows its tongue.   Usually, this means the sacredness of the church gathering as a family is replaced by a well executed performance or event.   And as more non-believers are persuaded to check out the coolest “thing” in town, the church finds itself  having to remind the believers (especially those in their church) what they are actually doing–because everyone can’t stop talking about their church…oh, and sometimes Jesus too.  So, they write blogs, adopt slogans, build websites, and buy big signs with Jesus name on it to assure everyone that they are in fact still in love with the groom and not just enamored with their own wedding dress.  Of course, these efforts to save their image only prove that no one else is really convinced any more and, without doubt, they are no longer sure themselves.

2.  The numbers shift:  The church goes from caring to counting.  The numbers shift, obviously, has to do with numbers.  At exactly what age or size of church this shift occurs is uncertain, but that it has occurred is obvious to everyone.  Most, if not all, communication about the church becomes less concerned the health of the body, of shepherding the sheep God brings, more about the size of the body and collecting the sheep God hasn’t.  This type of shift is easily recognized when all that is praised, celebrated, or promoted are numbers about attendance, giving, classes offered, baptisms, sites planted, churches launched, podcast downloads, twitter followers, Facebook fans, etc.  The quantity, not the quality of such information, makes it difficult not to read such “praises” as little more than a juvenile measuring contest between young boys with something to prove.  It is not that numbers have no meaning, they can be helpful.  But the numbers shift in a church makes them out to mean everything and thus changes all kinds of decision-making.

3.  The  technology shift:  The church goes from friends to fans.  The technology shift is new for our generation.  This shift is not to condemn the use of technology in the church.  That would mean rejecting everything from pews to guitars.  This shift does examine how technology begins to change the face of a church.  Everyone knows that technology has both a positive and a negative impact on relationships, whether it comes through email, ipods, or TV.   It has been said that our Social Media world has allowed us all to be “alone together.”  In other words, Facebook, Twitter, and any number of similar programs allows us to stay connected with more people than ever, yet, they do it in superficial ways that lead to more isolation and not more genuine community.  And even though a church might say they employ these technologies in an effort to build community, a ubiquitous number of blogs, podcasts, and vodcasts coming from the church make it possible for their people to never gather at all.   But a church must “assemble” and, when a church that has experienced this shift does, one quickly sees how dependent on technology they actually are.  In other words, in order for the church to functionally “assemble” at all, they need ___________ (and answers are not people or Bible).   A completed shift here means the very life of the church depends upon a band,  a video, a projector, a website, or a social network in order to function as the family of God.  It goes without saying that there is more than one problem with that.

4. The money shift:  The church goes from coming to the altar to passing the plate.   There is much that can be said about money.  There are different signs that may signal the money shift, though I admit, some of these can be employed for good reasons too (but not many).  A few of these can include:  1) moving from giving at the altar to passing a plate  2) pastors who refuse to change or do something solely because of how it might affect “giving” 3) employing the phrase “giving campaign” more than once 4) Doing a yearly sermon series on money 5)  Hearing the pastor promote “double honor” 6) Soliciting “donors” for the church outside of the body 7) Finding and offering 25 different methods to give money to the church (paypal, check, account withdrawl, visa, etc.) It seems that as a church grows, discussions about money become more regular probably because the need is greater.   And when the need becomes too great, or when things become too overextended, churches in the money shift begin to wrongly believe that more money is the answer (If there is an issue with giving that is not necessarily in the economy, but in the hearts of the people, then perhaps this is the result of an “image” shift whereby the people don’t view the church as the a family they are responsible for).   It is not that churches should never talk about money, Jesus spoke about money a lot.  In truth, money is one of the most powerful idols worshiped–by both pagans and pastors.

5.  The mission shift:  The church goes from being on God’s mission to being the mission. The final shift I will write on today is the mission shift.  This is a bit more subtle and, perhaps, not as easily recognizable.  The mission of the church hasn’t changed since Jesus came and eventually ascended to heaven.   The commission to go, to make disciples,and to baptize is difficult to misunderstand, though many churches have tried.   For some time, the church has foolishly borrowed from the secular world in creating vision and mission statements to add to what Jesus already said so plainly.  Most churches, therefore, have a pithy guiding statement of some kind, intended as a tool to help their decision-making.  Some of these statements are biblical and sound like something Jesus said in proclaiming the mission of God .  Others are incredibly pagan and sound like something Starbucks might come up with.  Churches that begin with a self-glorifying mission statement are doomed from the beginning.  But equally dangerous is a church that begin by rightly believing that God’s mission has a church and then SHIFT to wrongly believing that the mission IS their church.  This is first signaled by a continual readjustment of their mission philosophically–they begin to seem themselves as THE church in a particular place.  This is followed by a change in mission geographically–they begin to view their visible church as THE invisible church.   Finally, the mission shifts methodologically–the church with the only truth begins to function like a business with THE best product.   Though the essence of the mission of God was once thought timeless, it now is changed quarterly.  This view of an ever-changing mission demands constant change of its image, leadership, forms, and functions.  The most obvious sign of this shift is not that the only constant is change, but that the new changes will usually contradict previously positions or philosophies once held with equally passionate conviction.  Luckily, this apparent contradiction is usually resolved by the church employing the “gospel work” trump card to describe every controversial method, decision, or change.

Tomorrow’s Blog read about the final five…

The marketing shift:  The church goes from name to brand.

The identification shift:  The church goes from mission to movement.

The influence shift:  The church goes from local to global

The catholic shift:  The church goes from one among many to only among any.

The pastor shift:  The church goes from having a pastor to a celebrity.

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Author: Sam Ford

Sam Ford is a preacher, planter, and pastor from the Pacific Northwest. He is currently pastoring Restoration Road Church in Snohomish, WA.

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