Did Jesus mean it to come to this?
How much does modern western christianity come from Jesus, and how much comes from somewhere else?
A few weeks back I introduced the theme of Did Jesus mean it to come to this?, in which I want to examine the modern western church, and muse on how much it may, or may not, have departed from the teachings and pattern of life left to us by Jesus.
In this post, the mission of the church vs maintaining the organisation.
I once heard the saying “The church is the only organisation that exists to serve its non-members.”
It’s not true, of course. Many other organisations exists to serve others – Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières, for example. But it does express an aspiration.
So how well does the modern western church live up to this aspiration?
Jesus and serving others
Jesus gave his followers many teachings, and his own example, on serving.
The “Great Commandments” and the “Great Commission”
“Love your neighbour as yourself.” (Luke 10:27)
“go and make disciples of all nations, baptising 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.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
A contrast with the world
Jesus couldn’t have made it clearer than this ….
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Serving others changes everything
Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats (Matthew 25:31-46) makes it very clear that getting out of our comfort zones and serving those in real need makes a real difference to what God thinks of us.
Like master, like follower
When Jesus performed the servant task of washing his followers’ feet, he said this was an example we should follow. “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:15-17)
For, he said, “I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:27)
“Between the idea and the reality”
So how much are modern western churches and christians fulfilling these strong commands? There are several ways we might measure this.
Many years ago I made an assessment in the church I attended of the total time invested by all its members. It was a very approximate estimate, but as an engineer I was trained to make estimates, so I had a go.
My estimate was that about three quarters of the time was spent on activities (mainly church services) that were primarily for the benefit of members, only twenty five percent on activities that benefitted others.
And this was a church that opened its facilities to community groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step groups, and support groups for other people facing life issues most of us don’t. Daily it served inexpensive lunches for those who attended these groups (and anyone else who cared to come) and offered friendship, mentoring and counselling. And it had other active community service programs.
I’ve found several sites which summarise the main budget items for US churches (for example, this one), and it seems that typically the breakdown is about a half on staff salaries, a quarter on building (loan repayments, utilities, etc), about 10% on church programs and less than 10% on mission beyond the church. (I know, this doesn’t add up to 100%, there must be other small items not included.)
One Australian church I know spends 7% on mission outside the church, with salaries, property and administration taking about 80% of annual budget, and I would think this is probably close to typical.
You don’t have to agree with every point in both of these to see the validity of their overall message:
|Attitude to the future and to change||Anxious||Embracing|
|Decisions, ministry and mission||Mostly by staff||Involves as many “lay” people as possible|
|Mission strategy||Church-based||Serving and witnessing in the outside community|
Each of us can judge how much our church fits either category, but I can’t help feeling that most churches I know, especially older and more established ones, are mostly maintenance churches with a little mission.
Another giveaway, I think, is the emphasis on “church planting”. Church planting has all sorts of problems – none more than that it tends to impose the ethos of the planting church into a new environment, regardless of whether it is appropriate to the external culture or not. It also requires a lot of maintenance right from the beginning.
Far more missional (and risky!) is to plant a mission, not a church. I know of a church in Sydney that plans to expand by beginning some home based groups and a social welfare ministry in the new areas, and then wait to get a better understanding of the local culture before they try to plant a church.
Contemporary church planting seems to be too much governed by denominations or sending churches wanting to maintain control over the mission. The Unbounded Church concept has many advantages here, but finds it difficult to gain acceptance in more traditional denominations. This too seems to indicate that preserving the status quo is considered more important than genuine mission.
Missiologist Mike Frost sums up:
“The church you plant should become so embedded in your community, so committed to the common good and to bringing the values of Jesus’ kingdom into every nook and cranny of society, so excited to tell others about King Jesus and the world he is creating and the future hope we find in him, and so opposed to every kind of evil in humanity, that none of your neighbors will need to come to a meeting to see it. It will be visible right under their noses every day.”
Whichever way we look at it, it seems clear to me that many, perhaps most, modern wester churches devote much more attention to maintenance than they do to mission. I don’t know what the correct balance should be, but I can’t believe this is fulfilling Jesus’ commands to us.
How can we move forward?
We need a new paradigm and we need a new mindset. To make progress, I think we’ll have to:
- value following Jesus more than building numbers;
- set aside our evangelical idea that making converts is our only important task, and accept Jesus’ teaching that our task is to cooperate with him in bringing in his kingdom of shalom, justice, forgiveness, reconciliation, restoration and new life;
- stop trying to control everything and allow the Holy Spirit more freedom;
- learn Jesus’ emphasis on serving rather than imposing;
- love non-believers, especially the hurting and needy, like Jesus did, rather than condemning them as “sinners”; and
- encourage the whole body of believers to be active in using their Spirit-given gifts as the Spirit leads, rather than controlling church attenders and keeping them passive.
I suggest reading one of the gospels then taking a look around at the church, and ask: Did Jesus mean it to come to this?