I truly feel bad for a pastor who believes that if his church simply changes the style of its worship service, unbelievers are going to start coming on Sunday morning. For many, this has and continues to be a type of strategy to get non-Christians to church. While I am all for seeing unbelievers come to hear the gospel and just the thought of it excites me, I have never understood the logic behind efforts to attract those who are non-Christians to come to a church service.
I fear that the church is setting herself up for disappointment when this is the vision that is cast. Personally, I don’t know an unbeliever who is likely to attend a church service, with very occasional exceptions. These would be after a tragedy – when many claimed Christian faith after the events of 9/11/01 –- or on Mother’s Day, because it would “mean so much to Nana.” Unbelievers aren’t coming for any of the reasons churches think they might.
Why would an unbeliever come to church because there is free coffee? He can drive through the Starbucks line, pay $3.00, and be home within 15 minutes.
What about great branding and social media? I have some difficult news to break to you: unbelievers in your community probably aren’t following your church on social media.
The pastor is really funny? So is YouTube.
All these efforts and creative ideas are perfectly designed, unintentionally, to attract people who hop around from church to church, looking for the flavor of the month. The efforts, resources of time and money, and overall planning of the church’s outreach is often well-suited to reach the disgruntled or bored Christian next door, which is not the mission of the church of Jesus Christ. If we are going to faithfully reach the lost in our communities through the local church, we need to start by reminding ourselves the basic truth that church people go to churches, and unbelievers generally do not. Taking that into account, where I serve, we really want unbelievers to come. So we have an entire strategy built around reaching our own members. If people love their church, they will want their non-Christian friends to join them.
People come to church on the arm of a trusted friend because of a relationship and an invitation. Rather than trying to attract unbelievers with elements and efforts they will never even know exist, we try to reach our own members by creating a church they actually want to be part of themselves. I’m not going to invite a non-Christian friend I’ve been investing in for months or years to a church service I secretly wish I didn’t have to attend.
“Isn’t the Great Commission reason enough?” one might ask. Actually, the Great Commission is the very reason why I would not bring a friend to a church service that lacks gospel-centered preaching, devalues excellence, has a mediocre children’s ministry, bad coffee, and unfriendly people. My friend is going to give church one shot, and I’m going to do everything in my power to ensure the overall experience is positive, praying the Holy Spirit convicts and the conversations we’ve had will deepen because he’s come to church with me.
At my church, our strategy to reach our own people consists of two elements that are not spoken or advertised, but rather practiced and valued. We call it the “double promise.”
Promise 1: No disclaimer on the drive to church.
I don’t want our church members to have to give a string of “Oh, by the way,” disclaimers on their way to church with a friend. Maybe you’ve heard, or given, some of these:
Oh by the way, the pastor is very political, but he means well.
Oh by the way, I know you are introverted, but they ask new people to stand up and be recognized.
Oh by the way, there is this lady who sings, and she is awful, but her husband is the guy in charge of the music.
By valuing excellence and being intentional in how we do church, we eliminate the need to give disclaimers, and also uphold the second part of the double-promise.
Promise 2: No apologies on the drive home.
In the same way, we never want church members to feel the need to apologize because of something unnecessarily offensive that happened during the service.
“I’m so sorry, he has never made a joke about gay people.”
“I’m so sorry, the children’s ministry security has never been this lax.”
“I’m so sorry, our pastor has never shown so little compassion on that issue.”
When you bring someone to church, it is a big deal. The invitation was not random. The person’s agreement to come was not random. Most likely, there have been months of conversations and time spent together to earn your friend’s trust and invite him or her. And when he or she comes, you are entrusting your church with that person. The double promise is not showy or attractional; it is a culture created to ensure church members that we aren’t going to ruin all the missional effort they have put into relationships.
The church where I serve as lead pastor is made up of people who are passionate about getting unbelievers to come to our Sunday gatherings. We do not believe it is the end goal, but we absolutely and unapologetically push our church members to bring their friends to church, and we value it when they come. If we stopped making this a priority, our church members would wonder if we had lost our way. By the Lord’s kindness to us, we have seen tremendous results from the efforts to bring unbelievers to church and allow them to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The double promise is essential for us, because if an unbeliever is going to join us on a Sunday morning, it isn’t because he or she heard our band is awesome or the pastor is relatable. It is because a friend who loves the church and cannot wait for the opportunity to bring others invited that person. This is the true way in which we leverage a Sunday service for the unbeliever.
“I’m just not very good at this whole ‘vision’ thing,” a discouraged pastor shared with me over lunch at Chick-fil-A. “How do I ‘cast’ vision?”
As a church planter getting ready to celebrate my church’s 10-year anniversary, I must have been associated with “vision casting” in this pastor’s mind. But as I took a breath and prepared to impart all of my apparent wisdom, I froze. “What is our vision?” I thought immediately. “Do we even have one?”
I fumbled over my words as my mind went back to a weekend “boot camp” for aspiring church planters. Those of us in attendance spent the large majority of our time there talking about vision. We had to craft a vision for our future churches that would correspond with our “mission statement” by writing clever and catchy sentiments with purple markers on the large tear-off sheets hanging on the wall. I’d had a hard time coming up with something then, and here now at Chick-fil-A, sitting across from a pastor who sought me out to discuss this very topic, I had nothing.
People in our city speak of the “vision” of our church often, and I claim to be the unofficial guardian of that vision as the lead pastor. Yet there I was, unable to cast vision about casting vision – I couldn’t articulate the vision of our church when asked directly. So I circled back to the reason I knew I wanted to start a church in the first place.
When I was a twenty-something trying to become an actual church planter, all I knew was that I had a passion for a place and for people. I wasn’t sure how one went about starting a church, but I knew my hometown of Tallahassee needed more gospel-preaching churches and I wanted to reach my friends for Christ. I wasn’t sure if that counted as a vision, and I had no idea how to make that into a catchy statement, but I had a mission, I knew that for sure.
I remember holding that purple marker in my hand with the “Church Planting Catalyst” looking over my shoulder as he asked, “so what’s your vision? Do you have a mission statement?” I glanced at the words being written to my right and left and started to wonder if I was cut out for this. These guys had each written statements I would need a hired creative wordsmith to craft. I was just standing there with a purple marker, trying to come up with something that would sound okay and not be lame.
. . .
Coming back to the table at Chick-fil-A, I finally formed my thoughts and knew how to encourage this pastor. “What is the Bible’s job description for us as the Church?” I asked. He immediately answered as I’d hoped, and pointed to the Great Commission. (That could’ve been awkward.) I realized at that moment that I actually was cut out to coach someone on vision, and that every Christian is equally qualified to do the same thing. We remind and point people back to the vision Jesus gave his Church. “Don’t worry about vision,” I said. “Your church doesn’t need to be preoccupied with vision, but serious about the Bible.”
Years ago, with that purple marker in my hand, I wound up with the least cool statement on the big white sheet of paper: “I want to reach Tallahassee and all my friends for Jesus through the local church, and I hope anyone who will ever call our church their home will want to do the same.” The instructor thought I was being sarcastic with such a non-vision-statement vision statement, but I just looked at him and said, “this is what I’m trying to do, man.” Since then, we’ve summarized this as being “for the gospel, for the city.” But the goal hasn’t changed.
The visions of all local churches should sound pretty similar if we are going to be faithful to the mission mandate given to us by our Lord. I am all for creative expressions, ideas, approaches, and manifestations of the mission, but that should spring from a gospel-centrality in our congregations (led by the pastor) more than a super hip marketing campaign (led by a creative team). Branding is great, but the vision should be simple. And the vision-caster is Jesus Himself in the Scriptures.
In my opinion, actually, the aspects of application to get hung up on are ones of strategy, not vision. The vision is laid out already, but how you’re going to carry it out is the conversation you should be having. Every biblical local church has the same message, but working out the calling to make disciples in your specific environment might include:
regular reminders of who you are as a church and also who you are not.
saying no to certain things so the church can be available to live out the Great Commission in your community and beyond.
identifying how you can utilize your assets, human resources, exposure, platforms, etc. to reach your given audience, city, congregation.
equipping your church members to carry out the Great Commission in their personal lives, not only relying on the church as an entity to reach the city.
Pastor, you can rest knowing that the creative vision for your church is laid out. Our job is to lead churches, by the Lord’s help, who are faithful to what Jesus has called us to do for His glory, kingdom, and Church.
“So I can be a vision guy simply by keeping the church focused on the Great Commission,” the pastor said to me at Chick-fil-A. The light bulb went off for my pastor friend. He already had all he needed for vision since Jesus had provided it in the Scriptures. My friend merely needed the courage and resolve to keep his church focused on reaching people and making disciples.
“I made Your name known to them and will make it known, so the love You have loved Me with may be in them and I may be in them.” -John 17:26, HCSB
A popular practice in the social media universe is to pit one’s study of theology (and the resulting doctrinal convictions) against loving one’s neighbor. I recently read a Tweet posted by an influential pastor, stating, “If your theology gets in the way of you loving your neighbor, you need a new theology.” Sure, that’s a very ‘tweetable’ quote – one that I’m certain many gushed over – but … what?
Are we talking about the theology of Muslim terrorists or of Evangelical Christians?
Of course, if your theology causes you to hate someone it should change. But do any of the major evangelical tribes of America really teach non-love towards one’s neighbor? Certainly the idols of nationalism and politics can lead to this, but as for an evangelical theology, I say “no.” So what provokes such claims pinning theology against love?
I believe there are a few things happening here.
Lack of Theological Clarity
If these criticisms were coming from outside the Church, we might simply attribute them to a lack of knowledge about what the Bible actually teaches. Could that also be the case with criticisms coming from within the Church? Perhaps. It seems that often the ones making such claims lack theological confidence, or, at the very least, the courage to speak their convictions (except for how disgruntled they are with Church people). When people are unsure of their theology, they tend to be defensive against those who have convictional and doctrinal clarity. This insecurity leads to ‘hey, let’s just love and not be divisive,’ just like Jesus … apparently.
One popular pastor recently wrote, “No one on the planet had better theology than Jesus, and yet we do not see Him drawing theological lines in the sand and excluding people who do not believe just like Him—in fact, we find Him often sitting with people who were nothing like Him at all.”
Besides being a misrepresentation of Jesus, that is a false dichotomy for the ages. A quick read of the Gospel of Luke could lead one to rename it “Jesus vs. The Pharisees.” Jesus drew strongly defined lines in the sand as an overflow of His theology. When it came to those who claimed to be devoted to the God of Israel, Jesus did not tolerate false teaching or anything that would lead others astray. He was very protective over His sheep. That same theology also led to unmistakable compassion. He is the one who declared that the “healthy don’t need a doctor, but the sick do” (Luke 5:31). Those ‘in need of a doctor’ were unbelievers trapped in sin – the people to whom Jesus often demonstrated the most patience and compassion. He shared meals and pointed them to something greater, Himself.
Jesus was a drawer of lines in the sand because He loved the Father and loved people – and these were never in contradiction.
Embarrassment of the Scriptures
A second reason why people within the Church may pit theology against love is that they believe the Gospel, but are a little embarrassed about what the Bible says (especially concerning homosexuality or gender). In the name of mission, they try to avoid highly sensitive topics, even where Scripture is clear on a decisive stance. Take the controversial issue of homosexuality off the table, for example, and nobody feels the need to tweet “if your theology causes you to be unloving, you need a new theology.” Certainly not every sermon needs to be about hot topics, but the concern here isn’t timing. The concern is the growing number of pastors who are unwilling to tell the truth about what the Bible says.
For example, the pastor who made the aforementioned claim about Jesus and theology also advises other pastors not to use the phrase “the Bible says” when preaching, and won’t touch the topics of homosexuality or gender, unless to say how badly the Church handles the matters. In the name of a pragmatic approach to ministry, the new method of operation seems to paint theology as divisive (and acceptance as the remedy), rather than exposing sin and false teaching as the problem, and pointing to faith in Christ and repentance as the remedy.
Reversal of the Commandments
A great area of confusion leading people to forsake the Bible’s teachings in the name of “love” is a reordering of the greatest commandments. We are taught that God is love (1 John 4:8), but we don’t know how to reconcile that with absolute claims that may offend or inconvenience people. So we abandon the greatest commandment (to love God), in favor of the second (to love people). We see this addressed by Jesus directly in the book of Matthew. When Jesus had drawn lines and “silenced the Sadducees,” the Pharisees had a theological question of their own:
“When the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. And one of them, an expert in the law, asked a question to test Him: ‘Teacher, which command in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands.’” -Matthew 22:34-40, HCSB
Jesus answered the question, wasn’t vague, and ranked the commandments in order. He did not give a 1a and 1b, or declare a tie, but awarded a gold and silver medal, first and second place. The greatest commandment is that we love God. Striving to love God out of the love He first has for us will result in a genuine and biblical love for our family, friends, co-workers, classmates, and all people – which Jesus said is the second greatest commandment.
It is impossible to love God while ignoring, being ashamed of, or being indifferent towards His commandments. When I believe I am loving my neighbor by allowing a wedge to come between myself and the Bible, I am failing to love God. Or, I may be loving a very different god altogether. Is there a real need for some Christians to repent concerning their treatment of homosexuals and transgendered people? Absolutely. But that repentance must not be coupled with a denial of biblical teaching – and that is where we must be clear. Thankfully, the Gospel is for the homosexual and the homophobic, and God’s commands regarding our behavior come out of His love for us.
It should be our theology (our love for God, belief in Christ Jesus, faith in His gospel, and adherence to His Word) that produces missional love of neighbor. That love often requires drawing lines in the sand. Let’s not be deterred by the world’s lines of definition around “love.” Let’s not walk down roads disguised as love and unity that are actually paved with fear of the secular world that thinks we are fools. Let’s love the world enough to be very theological, because there is only One who can make the foolish wise.