Yesterday I read a brief, introductory article on the most common reason for churches that are in decline. That reason is an inward focus. A church that is focused only on itself and those who are already members is well on the way to its own death. In his article, Thom Ranier, who is well-versed in the area of church growth and decline, notes these symptoms that indicate an inward focus:
- There are very few attempts to minister to those in the community.
- Church business meetings become arguments over preferences and desires.
- Numbers of members in the congregation are openly critical of the pastor, other church staff, and lay leaders in the church.
- Any change necessary to become a Great Commission church is met with anger and resistance.
- The past becomes the hero.
- Culture is seen as the enemy instead of an opportunity for believers to become salt and light.
- Pastors and other leaders in the church become discouraged and withdraw from effective leadership.
- If the churches are a part of a denomination or similar affiliation, meetings of those denominations mirror the churches in lost focus and divisiveness.
It is extremely easy for the church to become pre-occupied with itself. It is easy for it to become focused on the benefit for members. It is easy for the church to create a new, false, identity for itself as a cultural club, where members come to receive spiritual goods at the hands of their leaders. For many of us, church has become a place of societal expectation and spiritual back-patting.
Sometimes it feels like the Church universal falls short of embodying the radically transforming grace of Jesus Christ that leads us to a whole new way of being. Instead, it can (often unintentionally, I think) enable the maintenance of the status quo, while cloaking it in religious and spiritual language. I know these are harsh words. They hit me harshly. I know that so often my life is dominated by a sense that I am not allowing God to transform me into someone who can look beyond myself and my comfort. I struggle between the desire to feel safe, comfortable, secure, and keeping things just as they are and the knowledge that Christ calls me beyond those things, to whole-heartedly embrace God’s mission to move beyond myself to love God and others.
Certainly part of knowing Christ is receiving this comfort and assurance that we are dearly loved children of God. That is the pure and simple truth. But that doesn’t mean that we get to rest on our laurels and receive, receive, receive. As members of God’s family, we are charged with a gift and a responsibility: a responsibility to look outwards, outside of ourselves and our community of faith to communicate the good news of Jesus Christ to the whole world.
This past Sunday, the reading from Acts tells us the story of Christ’s ascension. Jesus’ last words to his disciples before he ascended were these:
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8, CEB)
His last command to his disciples is to be his witnesses throughout the world; to testify in word and deed to the saving work of Christ everywhere. The whole book of Acts depicts the way the Holy Spirit orients the disciples outwards, to live out the mission that Christ gave to them.
And yet, even after Jesus ascends, the disciples just stare up at the sky, dwelling on what has already passed. Surely they thought in their minds, “Why can’t Jesus still be here? Why can’t we just keep things the way that they were? Why did Jesus have to go and mess things up?”
Skip forward briefly: Jesus has ascended. The disciples are all together with one another, sitting inside a house. The Holy Spirit comes upon them, and immediately compels them to start speaking in many languages. They must have also moved from their location inside the house to go outside, because everyone then heard them speaking. The Holy Spirit was already compelling them outwards, both physically and spiritually to consider those who are outside of their inner circle.
Our bishop, Sandra Steiner Ball, has reminded us that the church exists for the sake of those who are not yet here. The church exists for the sake of the whole world, not just for “members.”
God’s saving and transforming grace is for all people. When we experience that grace and allow it to work in our lives, we open ourselves up to something amazing. We open ourselves up to being a part of God’s story of salvation which is continuing to play out, even now. A church that focuses solely on itself and its members misses out on the movement of the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit, that is always moving out and beyond where we are. And like all things that are deprived of breath, it will shrivel and die.
Augustine’s definition of sin is that of curvatus in se. He describes sin as a state of being: one where we are so curved in upon ourselves that we can only see ourselves. Christ liberates us from this state of being as his grace moves us into a posture where we can begin to look up and see God. I think his description of sin is one that not only applies to the individual, but to the community of faith. Are we living as a Pentecost Church, or as a church crippled by curvatus? May the grace of Christ move us from a posture that makes us see ourselves first to a posture that allows us to look up to God, and to look out to the world, for the sake of Jesus Christ.
I will be following up this post with two related posts: one on cultivating discipleship/spiritual formation within the church and another one on what it might mean to be an externally focused church.