Friday, April 26, 2013

Ten Redemptive Steps for Inward-Looking Churches

SCRIPTURE: Matthew 28:16-20
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: April 26th, 2013

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:16-20)

Earlier this week, I reflected upon Thom Rainer's thought-provoking list of warning signs about Churches that are becoming more inward looking and less outward reaching. The problem is rather widespread, that Christian communities tend to care more about their inner concerns. After all, they claim that the secular climate is less friendly to the gospel now. In some countries, there are harsh punishment for anyone trying to speak about Christianity to certain non-Christians. When secular governments clamp down on religious groups, they are essentially telling them to mind their own religions. As long as people keep their religions to themselves, it is ok. The moment they start talking about their religious beliefs outside of the confines of their churches, their synagogues, their mosques, their temples, etc, the "religious harmony" card gets flashed out.  Authorities will police this diligently. In Canada, any mention of the Bible, or certain Christian words in public schools will automatically raise suspicions and ready criticisms, regardless of whether the purpose is for a good cause.

This is sad. There is something sadder still. When Churches prefer to use such obstacles as convenient excuses to focus inwards. When this happens, the Church fails to become Church.

A) Ten Warning Signs of Inward-Looking Churches

Thom Rainer's article, "The 10 Warning Signs of an Inwardly Obsessed Church" warns us that we must constantly be vigilant about ourselves putting more focus on inner matters, and forgetting about outreach. It is basically a question of "What is Church?" Briefly put, they are:

  1. Worship Wars: where Churches continue their quarrel about whether to adopt traditional or contemporary worship. This can even split churches.
  2. Prolonged Minutia Meetings: At meetings, people seem to be more interested in mundane details, such as colour of carpet, type of paint for the walls, or arguing over what kind of coffee to buy!
  3. Facility Focus: applicable to churches with extensive property or assets, this can pretty much suck in resources to the point that individuals do not have any more time or energy for other things, let alone do outreach.
  4. Program Driven : When the focus is on programming, there is a corresponding concentration of pastoral resources and administrative overheads.
  5. Inwardly Focused Budget : look at the budget each year. Check how much are spent on inward looking programs. In some churches, church camps take up a bulk of the money.
  6. Inordinate Demands for Pastoral Care: This is a familiar refrain. People just require chronic attention and care. In some churches, unless the senior pastor visits them every week, it is assumed that the Church does not care for them.
  7. Attitudes of Entitlement:  This attitude is prevalent among richer communities. Strangely, the more people have, the more they expect. The more they expect, they more they are less easily satisfied. This cycle of entitlement is the beginning of a spiral of unending demands.
  8. Greater Concern about Change than the Gospel: Of all the items, I think this is the most damning of them all. It raises the question of whether people have been changed at all by the gospel in the first place! 
  9. Anger and Hostility: Inner squabbles poison communities. They often masquerade as inner anger and covert hostility. Given an opportunity, the end result can be devastating.
  10. Evangelistic Apathy: This flows out of the lack of transformation. If people are not touched, how can they touch others?
There is no order or ranking of them. They are simply listed as is. Probably, that is because different churches will have different issues at stake. It is still possible that at different times, each of them can very well be a #1 issue!

B) Ten Redemptive Steps

"Worship Wars" is a common phrase used to describe the two camps: Traditional vs Contemporary. This is still happening in many churches. That is why I think it is important for us to be open about it, and to call a spade a spade. Call the war a war. Then ask whether it is a necessary war in the first place. If we are guilty of constantly squabbling over whether to do a more "traditional" kind of worship with hymns, instead of "contemporary" choruses and modern songs, we are essentially more concerned about human preferences rather than what is the purpose of singing in the first place. I think the worship wars is another point of contention among people of different generations. After all, it is another way in which different music styles and preferences appeal to different age groups.

Redeeming "Worship Wars": Focus on the theme of the worship. Choose songs that reflect a healthy variety across the different music eras. It is not the music that is the point. It is how the music, the tempo, and the overall worship mood POINT to the Creator God.

"Prolonged Minutia Meetings" is basically about majoring on the minors, putting undue weight on mundane matters, to the detriment of what is more important to the gospel. Sometimes, people call meetings simply because they feel safety in numbers.

Redeeming "Prolonged Minutia Meetings": Keep meetings in their proper perspective. One of the key ways is to set time limits right from the start. Consider the importance of each topic right from the start, assign time limits, keep watch on the time spent on debating the topic, and be prayerful throughout.

"Facility focus" is about churches that also put more emphasis on self-preservation instead of open giving.

Redeeming "Facility Focus": Maintaining the facilities of the Church is still a part of good stewardship. We cannot do away with that. What is important is to remember that keeping the facilities intact is not the purpose of the Church. The purpose is to shine as the light to the neighbourhood, and to let the Church be community  to all, and not just Church for some. This many even mean risking theft, sabotage, and all kinds of abuse when Church starts to be open to inviting strangers into the facility. The key thing in preserving the facility is to ask: What or who are we preserving the building for? How is the building being used for the gospel?

"Program Driven" is something many churches are dependent upon in order to draw in the people, to give people something to look forward to. I am a little ambivalent when it comes to this. We need programs. We also need focus that the programs is trying to get us toward. The key is to remember what the programs are leading us toward, and not let programs become an end in itself.

Redeeming "Program Driven": Rather than to throw away programs altogether, why not line up each program with the mission and vision of the organization. How much is it serving the needs of the inside community? How much is it serving the needs of the outside community? How is the balance?

"Inwardly Focused Budget" is a tell-tale sign of what is more important to a Church. What if the majority of the Church budget goes into its own programs? Worse, if members feel comfortable about spending more than 80% on their own programs and self-preservation, that will be a clear sign of an inward looking Church.

Redeeming "Inwardly Focused Budget": Take a step of faith. Cut back on inward budgeting and expand the giving. Be stingy when it comes for spending on self. Be generous, even lavish when spending on the needs of the community around us, in missions, in outreach, and in helping the poor.

"Inordinate Demands for Pastoral Care" is something that often bogs down the time and energy of leaders in any organization. When this happens, the Church no longer looks like a city whose light is set on the hill for all to see. It resembles the ambulance light inside the organization, constantly flashing at each member's house. Working 24x7, the Church's constant cry for care amid personal pain makes us wonder about the theology of care in the Church. After all, a healthy Church is one that exercises all the gifts, and not dependent on a handful of people only.

Redeeming "Inordinate Demands for Pastoral Care": People are tougher than what we think. Given the right push and motivation, they can be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. Instead of constantly clamoring for attention, I think it is important to learn to be dependent on God, and to ask God to show us how to be people who give care instead of waiting for care to come to us.

"Attitudes of Entitlement" is something ingrained by the culture around us. Many of us grow up thinking that the world owes us a living. I think it stems from people still in an immature stage of faith. A growing child of God will learn that his dependence is on God more and more, and on the world less and less.

Redeeming "Attitudes of Entitlement": The key thing is not to cast a blanket stare at people wanting their needs met, or requests fulfilled. It is to sieve away the unnecessary from the essential, and the prioritize the meeting of needs according to the latter instead of the former. We are all entitled to some essentials. In fact, when a Church gathers, there are some non-negotiables, such as acknowledging God in prayer and thanksgiving, worshiping God when we come together in God's Name, and loving one another.

"Greater Concern about Change than the Gospel" is a little more tricky. I think what Rainer is referring to is the resistance to change that is the problem. In my experience, many people are willing to change, as long as it happens far away, or to some other people and not themselves. The trouble is, the gospel changes lives. Any change must reflect that gospel work in us.

Redeeming "Greater Concern about Change than the Gospel": Do not change for the sake of changing. Change according to how the gospel first changes us. This calls for a realistic and honest snapshot of where we are currently. This demands a clear vision of where we need to go. In between, we are all to serve one another, and let changes reflect that desire to serve God, our community, and one another better. 

"Anger and Hostility" is a real problem in many churches. I have heard people complain about the place of power and politics even in Christian organizations. Sometimes, people call it leadership struggles or takeovers. It all boils down to relationships that have broken down, and the Church subsequently moves towards a painful split. Forgiveness and graciousness rank supreme.

Redeeming "Anger and Hostility": Think unity. Think togetherness. Think about where one's anger and hostility is helping the Church. Sometimes, we tend to think that truth and principles upheld are more important than relationships. Wrong. While the former is important, do not forget that Christ came to die for people, not principles. It is better to be wronged for doing right, than the be right by wronging others, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

"Evangelistic Apathy" is described by Rainer about a lack of evangelistic fervor by many of the members. When it comes to only the pastor or certain leaders sharing the faith, it makes one wonder about the health of the whole Church. One can do evangelism and then be self-gratified that one's responsibility is done. Wrong. When it comes to sharing the gospel, it is a growing fervour, not a one-off endeavour.

Redeeming "Evangelistic Apathy": Evangelism begins at home. It begins with a clear sense of gratitude of God's grace for our own lives. There is both inreach as well as outreach. However, first, there needs to be a divine reach from God to us. Are we touched by the Holy Spirit? Is Christ real in our hearts? How much do we comprehend the love of God? If we do not get this first foundation in place, any evangelistic effort will be build on the sinking sands of apathy and cold spiritual state.

C) In Closing

Each time we are about to complain, think about
our Redeemer and how we have first been redeemed.
Remember that when Christ calls us to go forth into the world, as in Matthew 28, we go forth as redeemed people. All the disciples have ran away from Jesus in the hour of need. Peter even denied Christ three times. Despite the flaws, Jesus gives the most important mission to these flawed men. Jesus not only trusts them to be faithful, he promises to be with them. The same mandate applies to us today. If we are in Churches that are fixated on inner concerns almost all of the time, the key is not to just abandon them or to accuse them harshly. Leaders of churches are also people who have served sacrificially in many ways. Remember to look at them and one another nor with eyes of judgment or sarcasm, but with eyes of redemption and love. After all, we are redeemed people in the first place. If we are constantly discouraged by ministry work, or have lost our sense of mission, maybe the problem is not the Church, or the inadequate programs or people we have. The problem is much simpler. We have forgotten about the power of the gospel, the passion of Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

THOUGHT: "We are too much haunted by ourselves, projecting the central shadow of self on everything around us. And then comes the Gospel to rescue us from this selfishness. Redemption is this, to forget self in God." (Frederick W. Robertson)


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