I’m going to jump in the deep water here.

I’m going to swim against the riptide.

Let's jump in the deep water

Why am I dumb enough to jump into deep water and swim against riptides?

Because Jesus never said anything about a lot of the stuff we think is important in a church. A lot of “practical ecclesiology” is stuff we’ve adopted from the culture or fabricated in response to the culture.

Because a lot of what I’ve absorbed from Christian media, books and journals, and even the bleeding edge of the Church Growth movement aren’t rooted in Jesus’ word to his people.

Why risk it?

Because we need to do our best to listen closely Jesus. And sometimes the stuff we think we know, or the values we’ve unwittingly absorbed hinder that.

What Jesus said (and the rest of scripture, of course) needs careful attention. Everything else needs to be held loosely.

So, here goes! 

1. Healthy churches grow

Everyone’s all in favor of church health.

Church growth is good, too.

They’re sort of a fad we like to talk about, write about and stew over. (True enough, the Church Growth movement has been around now for about 60 years, so that’s probably not a fad. And there’s some good stuff there. But I’m wondering if it will stand the test of time)

There is one problem with the church health fixation.

Count up with the number of words Jesus spoke about it and you come up with zero. Then, factor in the number of words Paul and the other epistolary writers employed. The total is still zero.

You will find plenty of teaching about things that result in health and growth, but they are ends in themselves, not means to another goal:

  • Seeking the kingdom
  • Steadfast devotion to prayer
  • Church discipline
  • Costly, sacrificial and self-denying discipleship
  • Loving the saints
  • Giving generously
  • Denying the flesh
  • Walking in the Spirit for sanctification and rejecting Law for the same
  • Relying on grace
  • Devotion to the scriptures

To name a few.

Here’s the problem with our focus on church health and church growth: They are downstream from mature spiritual living. We can’t get at them directly. If we try, we end up making them the goal and not what they are – results of something more important.

We end up becoming utilitarians. We become practical. We zero in on “what works”. We pay lip service to the true goal (living as mature disciples who produce other mature disciples), but we demote it to one result among many that flow from pursuit of church growth and church health.

In other words, we get the thing inverted. Turned upside down. Pulled inside out.

Jesus spoke about living as fully devoted followers. We focus on bigger numbers and imagine that somehow fully devoted followers will just sort of emerge. And we forget Who builds the church and who doesn’t (Him, not us).

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not suggesting that small churches are somehow better than big churches. They’ve both got their challenges and there are plenty of little churches that are big church wannabes, suffering from the same fixations and misdirection.

2. Churches must have outreach programs

Don’t lose me on this one.

I don’t mean that churches and church people aren’t responsible for evangelism. But that’s different than outreach.

By “outreach” I mean two things:

  1. Programs and events designed to draw people within range of the heavy artillery.
  2. Group activities and service projects – typically walk-off stuff – that mobilize the whole church or a large segment of it to do something good in the community. Serving a meal at a homeless shelter. Distributing boxes at a food pantry. Passing out water at a Fourth of July parade.

Disciplemaking (of which evangelism is a constituent component) is Jesus’ commission to the Church. It is how the Church joins in God’s mission to bless the nations as he promised Abram.

Evangelism is the privilege of every believer. Not all of us will be effective; some of us will “do the work of an evangelist” and others will lead people to Christ in droves.

Evangelism is both a message and a lifestyle. It’s not a method and it’s not a church program. It is a way of living as a fully devoted follower of Christ that displays the presence of Christ while believers go about their daily lives. When the time is proper that witness is accompanied by words.

And it is all done without the church organizing, supporting or pushing it.

Right now Jesus is doing the work in China and the Muslim world. You’ve read reports that China will soon have the largest Christian population in the world – all without the benefit of legal churches! Hundreds of thousands of Muslims are coming to Christ in the House of Islam, many without the benefit of any church at all!

Yes, organized congregational outreach can be effective. It can also be uplifting for the participants. But if it becomes “cover” for people to excuse themselves from living out the faith and bearing witness then it is a problem.

Jesus and the disciples were all about preaching the gospel of the kingdom. Paul and his mission colleagues were all about taking the gospel into new areas.

But I don’t see much in the way of evidence that they slid responsibility for living the life from their own shoulders onto the congregation at large.

Nope, not a word about churches needing outreach programs.

3. Church discipline is optional


50% of Jesus’ teaching about the church focused on church discipline. He mentioned church twice (in the Four Gospels), and one of those instances was about dealing with unresolved sin in the congregation![1]

How’s that for a church growth strategy?

15  “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16  But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17  If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)

This is tough, I’ll grant you that.

Sometimes we don’t have people in our corner to back us on this. We know that the object of discipline will likely go and inflict himself on another hapless congregation (Oh, blessed subtraction!). If this is a small church the fallout may be extremely painful.

It seems like Jesus is more interested in congregations that keep short accounts with one another, walk in transparent love, and deal frankly with sin.

Nope, not a word about wiggle-room in the matter of discipline.

4. Churches need to engage and transform culture

I don’t find much in the New Testament about this.

Not from Jesus anyway.

His thing was to live within the culture – with all of its faults – but live for the kingdom. He was about engaging sinners and transforming lives.

The “salt and light” and “candle under the basket” metaphors aren’t about how we transform culture. They’re about drawing moths out of the darkness, into the light. They’re about living in ways that create an appetite for more (that’s the salt – I don’t see the “preservative” aspect in this teaching).

Like church growth and health, the transformation of culture is downstream. Mature spiritual Christians living their faith on a daily basis result in the changed lives of others. That eventually produces a critical mass that transforms the culture without political initiative, the practice of law or serious engagement with the arts.[2]

Culture isn’t transformed when we set out to transform it. Trying to focus on transforming culture forces us to fight a rearguard action with inferior weapons.

Nope, not a word about engaging, transforming or reviling the culture.


Where have I missed the boat? What’s your pushback?

Please post your comments below and not at the LinkedIn group that brought you here so that others can follow your thoughts.

Image credit: noep / 123RF Stock Photo

  1. Of course, there are numerous uses of the word in the Letters to the Seven Churches. And guess what? There’s a lot of emphasis on discipline and exhortation to clean things up!  â†©
  2. Check out Rodney Stark’s book, “The Rise of Christianity”. Also consider what happened to American culture in the trail of the Second Great Awakening.  â†©