17 December 2009

Leadership Fridays: The Downstream Effects of "Church-Building"

This year, God's Christmas gift to the leadership team at Summitview was clarity. We are clear that our approach to ministry has emphasized the wrong things and we need to repent.

So two weeks ago I wrote about how we began to see a clear distinction between making disciples (which Jesus commanded us to do - Matt. 28:19-20) and building the church (which Jesus said he would do Matt. 16:18). Last week I discussed why it is easy to wrongly prefer church building over disciple making.

But what happens when leaders focus on building a church and not making disciples? Are there bad effects? How would we know that this was the focus? My own experience over the last 10 years has revealed some of the downstream effects of a focus on church building.

1) It's all "Top Gun" and no "We Were Soldiers"
An emphasis on building church structure leads to the celebration of the best structure-builders. The crowd-drawing, high-impact leaders become the center of attention. These top gun pilots are seen as the spiritual ones. Obviously, their visible impact verifies the presence of God in their lives... right? Eventually, church leaders aspire to become like the top guns (and not, coincidentally, Jesus). The people willing to quietly commit to making a few disciples of Jesus are unheralded in the "Top Gun" environment but the Great Commission looks a lot more like Hal Moore than it does Maverick.

2) The perpetual search for a silver bullet
If we build the church, then somewhere there must be a plan - a secret that will make it all come together. Our prayers are focused on asking God to reveal the silver bullet. We attend conferences to hear the national top guns explain the latest architectural plan. Our worship services, classes and marketing are planned with this in mind: "What can we do to get more people to come, stay and get plugged in?" I shudder at the hours, energy and focus of my life that have been consumed in the search for a silver bullet.

3) No deep Gospel work
In a church that is being "built" by men, the structure (great teaching, great music, many new attendees, new buildings, etc) is the focus of the conversation. Conspicuously absent in the man-built church are deep transparent relationships. Few are the conversations that help bring the glories of the Gospel to bear on the needs of people. Mom's don't talk about their anger and how it is connected to their insecurity. Men don't really talk about their consistent struggles with lust or laziness. Very few people are helping each other see the root of these problems. Folks may know the Gospel but they don't believe it and that lack of belief leaves them idolatrous, insecure and unsatisfied.

4) New systems of righteousness
As disciples we must "obey the Gospel" (2 Thes. 1:8). Among disciples of Jesus, the Gospel is ever-present in the conversations and the culture. When disciple-making takes a back seat to church building, the Gospel takes a back seat as well. It doesn't take long for the whole culture to then slip into a system of works righteousness.

Motivations are no longer downstream from the Gospel and flowing from a love for Christ. They are upstream from building the church. This kind of thinking prevails:
  • We have good families because it attracts the lost.
  • We pursue excellence in our programs because excellent programs bring and keep people.
  • We serve in the church because, for the church to grow, it needs volunteers.
  • We do big evangelistic events (and that's the only "evangelism" going on in our lives) because big events bring people, build the church... you get the idea.
Actions like these that are motivated by results and not by a love for Christ (John 14:15) are anti-Gospel and simply a form of religion.

5) Burn out
It takes a ton of work to build the church (maybe only God can do it). If our ministry 1) comes from the broken cisterns (Jer. 2: 13) of our own effort 2) to build something we were not supposed to build, we will burn out becoming disillusioned and bitter.

The only way Jesus can call us to take up our cross (Matt. 16:24) and give us a easy yoke and a light burden (Matt. 11:29-30) is if our cross-bearing is life-giving and not life-taking. Jesus said his food was to do his Father's will (John 4:34). When we are motivated by love to make disciples, we will enjoy the same food. Though we may be tired, we will not burn out.

6) No neighborhood involvement
The church building approach allows us to compartmentalize our lives. The God-stuff gets done by building the church and neighbors don't fit into the God compartment. In all fairness, church builders (of whom I have been the chief) do intersect neighborhood and God compartments from time to time... when they invite their neighbors to big church events.

7) Spectators
Marshall and Payne say it best in "The Trellis and the Vine"
"This is how we are used to thinking about the involvement of church members in congregational life - in terms of jobs and roles: usher, Bible study leader, Sunday school teacher, treasurer, elder, musician, song leader, money counter, and so on. The implication of this way of thinking for the congregation is clear: if all the jobs and roles are taken, then there's really nothing for me to do in this church. I'm reduced to being a passenger. I'll just wait until I'm asked to 'do something'. The implication for the pastoral staff is similar: getting people involved and active means finding a job for them to do. In fact the church growth gurus say that giving someone a job to do within the first six months of their joining your church is vital for them to feel like they belong."
Additional Resources
A message (.mp3) to our leaders regarding the practical effects of this change in paradigm
"The Trellis and The Vine" - by Colin Marshall and Tony Payne
"How NOT To Be a Missional Church" - a blog series by Jonathan Dodson at theResurgence
"Fight Clubs: Gospel-Centered Discipleship" - by Jonathan Dodson
"How Jesus Made Disciples" - a series of blog posts at theResurgence

Finally, I hate to do this to you but, in all its hyperbole, this video has something to say:


  1. Thanks Mitch. A lot to think about here.

  2. Thanks! I'm looking forward to a season of dialogue. I see it as good controversy!