December 14, 2017

A “Radical” Example

By Chaplain Mike

At his blog, and also at Resurgence, Justin Buzzard posted the following, called, “The Top 10 Reasons Why People Should Not Join Our Church Plant.” This was a talk he gave at an informational meeting for a new church he is starting in San Jose, California.

I think it is a good example of evangelicals who are taking the “radical” approach of challenging church members that we have been discussing in recent days.

I’ll let you read through his Top Ten list, and then I will give nine reasons why I disagree with this approach and think it fails in almost every respect to represent a Biblical, Jesus-shaped approach to life in the community of faith.

Top Ten Reasons Not to Join a Church Plant

1. If you’re looking for the next cool thing in town (We want to grow by conversion growth, not church-goer transfer growth).

2. If you’re a Christian and you don’t like your current church (You will find reasons to not like this church).

3. If you have a bad track record at churches of being unteachable and causing problems (You won’t change here, you’ll repeat the pattern).

4. If you’re a consumer wanting to “go to church” 1x a week for a nice show (We are not a Sunday show, we are a community of disciples on a mission).

5. If you want religion (This church will be built on the radical gospel of grace).

6. If you have an agenda (We have our vision, our mission, and our values–your private agenda does not supercede them).

7. If you’re a wolf (We will sniff you out).

8. If you think this will be a nice little church that stays the same size, where everybody knows your name and you have my cell number on speed dial and we have a picnic lunch together every week (By God’s grace, we want to grow).

9. If you think this will be easy and smooth (This will be hard and difficult; this will be a fight, a battle, and a challenging mission).

10. If you want to hold onto your comfortable life (You must lose your life).

In the post, he also shared a quote from Ernest Shackleton, from the advertisement he used when recruiting men for his expedition to Antarctica in 1914: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honor and recognition in case of success.”

After the break, my nine reasons why I have problems with the message this approach communicates.

ONE: This approach is guilty of over-correcting in response to a genuine problem of “consumer” Christianity and “church-hopping.” It is a legitimate goal to want to grow mainly by conversion growth and not by transfer growth. But there are Christians who leave churches for legitimate reasons, or who have been broken by the church, or whose gifts or situations in life may be leading them to join a new church plant. You might just be the one who can welcome them and give them grace. Rather than make a blanket statement to discourage Christians from other churches from participating, why not take a more balanced, pastoral approach? Yes, encourage people to stay at their current congregations and learn to work through whatever issues they might have there. Suggest that they should think and pray carefully before changing churches. Advise them that our new church plant will build relationships with the other congregations and pastors in the area, that we will be in communication about the movements of members between churches, and that we will remain committed to keeping the whole Church in the region healthy and unified for the sake of Christ and the Gospel.

TWO: This approach is designed to “screen out” sinners so that the church will only be composed of “serious disciples.” It’s almost funny to me—when I originally read this my first thought was, “This guy is trying to keep sinners out of the church!” As if that were possible! Oh, maybe Mr. Buzzard is not excluding all sinners, just those that are barriers to his agenda. Apparently no difficult people need apply. No selfish folks. No immature believers who might be considered “consumers.” No one who might have strong opinions and has trouble keeping them to himself. No one who is weak, hurting, or unable to contribute. No one who is lazy or unwilling to sacrifice. No one who is running away from past problems. No one who might have emotional difficulties and demand more than his share of attention. He just eliminated almost every church person I’ve ever known, including myself! He doesn’t want a church, which by definition is a community of sinners trusting in Christ alone, stumbling along together by God’s grace on their way to the new creation. He wants a mission team of winners who have it together, not a community of marginal people who require time and attention.

THREE: This approach reduces the complex NT vision of the church to a single part of its life—mission (“we are a community of disciples on a mission” is not an adequate definition of a church). I’ve made the point in other posts that many of these Christian endeavors that call themselves “churches” are engaged in false advertising. They are missions. They have a narrow focus. They are about reaching people and “growing the church.” They are enterprises that exist to capture ever increasing market share. Worship? Spiritual formation? Pastoral care? The church as a flock of sheep that needs tending, feeding, protecting? The church as a family that needs nurturing and personal attention? The church as a hospital for sinners broken by their own failures and by the crushing load of living in a fallen world? The church as a temple where we contemplate the glory of God and learn to pray? The church as an oasis of rest and refreshment in a dry and barren world? The poverty of the ecclesiological and pastoral vision of many in today’s church is simply stunning.

FOUR: This approach says the church will be built on the “radical gospel of grace” but every point the list communicates is condemning and not redemptive. It is not contrary to grace to lovingly warn people on occasion. But this entire “screening” message, this laying down of “ground rules” in these ten points reminds me of the Pharisaical practice of “fencing the Torah.” Buzzard’s Top Ten list communicates, “Our first priority is to protect the church plant, so in order to do that, if you’re a sinner of a certain kind and you come to our church, you are out of luck. Because if we have to waste our time dealing with you, then the mission will suffer, and that we won’t tolerate.” They say they’re all about “radical grace,” but they can’t be bothered trying to help certain people. Their “gospel” doesn’t extend to consumers, troublemakers, unteachable folks, religionists, people who have strong opinions, or people who prefer comfort. News break—that is not grace! Grace welcomes sinners, all kinds of sinners, and provides a redemptive community through which Christ can minister to them. Grace does not put a bouncer at the door to admit only those who qualify, who won’t tramp dirt on the carpet.

FIVE: This approach exalts strength and despises weakness. A song came to my mind and made me chuckle when I read this list. It was the old song, “Stout Hearted Men”—

You who have dreams, if you act they will come true.
To turn your dreams to a fact, it’s up to you.
If you have the soul and the spirit,
Never fear it, you’ll see it through,
Hearts can inspire other hearts with their fire,
For the strong obey when a strong man shows them the way.

Give me some men who are stout-hearted men,
Who will fight, for the right they adore,
Start me with ten who are stout-hearted men,
And I’ll soon give you ten thousand more.
Shoulder to shoulder and bolder and bolder,
They grow as they go to the fore.
Then there’s nothing in the world can halt or mar a plan,
When stout-hearted men can stick together man to man.

• Sigmund Romberg, Frank Mandel, Laurence Schwab, Oscar Hammerstein II

“For the strong obey when a strong man shows them the way.” That’s what this ten-point list is communicating. Strong calling the strong to obey. The weak need not apply. If you are not up to the challenge, stay home. Never mind that Jesus came to bring his blessings to the poor in spirit, the meek, and the mournful. Never mind that he called the weary and overburdened to a place of rest and promised them a yoke that is easy and light. Never mind Paul’s poignant words about his devotion to the way of the cross and his ministry in “weakness, fear, and much trembling.” Never mind that you never hear this manly, clarion call to “adventure” in the New Testament. It’s pure Americanism, straight out of Teddy Roosevelt. It’s motivation-speak, pep rally hype to muster the troops and get them fired up with the adrenalin rush of competition and battle. It’s a theology of glory, not the cross. It’s triumphalism, not discipleship. Jesus called people to die and find their lives in him. He didn’t call them to “take the hill” for God.

SIX: This approach does not encourage the priesthood of all believers and invite participation in life of the church other than to submit to an “agenda” that is already established. I understand that it is wise business strategy to have a clear plan, to work the plan, and to stick to the plan. Bosses are responsible for the implementation of the plan. Underlings are responsible to fit into a role and carry out the plan. Wages are paid accordingly. Is this really how we think the church should work? Of course, leaders are called upon to lead, but that does not mean “my way or the highway.” Yet that is what Buzzard’s list communicates to me. We have the plan. You fit in and follow. Or find another church. If you have any agenda of your own, check it at the door. You can contribute as a cog in our machine. We’ll pull all the switches.

SEVEN: This approach suggests that church is about growth, and that other legitimate aspects of church life may well be sacrificed in order to achieve growth. Through this preemptive strike, Mr. Buzzard is laying the groundwork for handling complaints about the lack of pastoral care that will inevitably become common because leaders are so involved in the mission that they don’t have time to visit people in the hospital. He is preparing people for the day when congregation members can no longer talk to him personally. One day they will have to go through layers of administrative bureaucracy and probably still won’t be able to get an appointment because he won’t be the one who deals with the hoi polloi any longer. He’s innoculating them with a view to the day they will be stricken with longing for when they felt like a church family, when they knew the others around them, when they didn’t feel like someone who bought a ticket for a show in the city auditorium. He’s preparing them with the first of many pronouncements that complaints won’t be tolerated about the direction of the church and the decisions of her leaders, because, after all, we have a mission, we are dedicated to that mission, God is blessing that mission by causing us to grow, and therefore we all need to just put our big pants on and get with the program.

EIGHT: This approach is all about mission and methods and says nothing about the church’s message. The folks planting this church, in my opinion, are giving people the wrong idea of what they should be offended about. They are giving them every reason to be offended about how the church will operate, and no reason for being offended about what the church stands for—the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If Mr. Buzzard really wants to give people good reason to avoid this church plant, it should be because they are going to preach Jesus, Jesus, and nothing but Jesus. They are not going to focus on “practical” ideas for life or “relevant” topics that people might be interested in. They are going to pursue theological depth with respect for historical Christian traditions and teachings. It might even get boring for the kids (and adults) once in awhile. Oh my. This church is going to offend human pride by telling people there is nothing anyone can do to earn God’s forgiveness or be counted part of his family—that’s what they should be saying. They should be up front about their plan to welcome people into the community who are sinners, with all kinds of problems, who will be difficult to get along with and hard to love. If you join this church, Buzzard should tell people, you should expect to get your feelings hurt on occasion because we are all selfish and we are going to fail you. We will have to live by forgiveness or we won’t make it. A person might feel uncomfortable in this congregation because we are going to allow folks to express doubts. We are going to make room for lament and accept people who are angry with God. He should say, “We are going to be real here—we are going to deal with real life, a real God, and a real message of Good News for sinners, and some of you may not be able to take that.”

NINE: This approach stands in complete contrast to Jesus’ gracious invitation:

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Matt. 11:28-20, NLT)

Comments

  1. This has been educational for me for sure…..as a lifelong R.C. with tastes in reading all over the board, I had never before heard the phrase “church plants”. I had a vision in this Eastertide of legions of lilies taking over a sanctuary.

    And all this time I thought that the “rules” for a Christian congregation was loving Christ???

  2. Mike, what a blessing to read your article. Sometimes I have wondered if everyone has embraced this DIY Churchianity that has become a plague in the body of Christ in America. Obviously you’ve rejected it. It’s good to see another like minded pilgrim in the wilderness. Blessings.