I like people like me. Well, maybe “like” isn’t quite the right word. What I mean is, I’m comfortable with people like me. It’s understandable, I suppose. I have much in common with those who are like me. We have no problem finding things to talk about. We’ve had common experiences and share a common background. We may even share the same friends and acquaintances. We speak in the same way, and in many respects, we think in the same way. All of these commonalities work together to make me comfortable with people who are like me. There’s nothing right or wrong with that. It’s just the way I am. I think it’s the way we are.
Unfortunately, “the way we are” can sometimes cause us to act in ways which are, indeed, matters of right and wrong. When our natural sense of comfort with the familiar morphs into bigotry and hatred for those who are not like us, our comfort has become sin. When we allow our comfort to cage us in when we should be reaching out, we are stunted in our growth and unable to be and do that which Christ has commanded.
This is particularly pertinent in relation to the church. Much contemporary ministry philosophy is based upon this reality that people are more comfortable with those who are much like themselves.
This has resulted in at least two significant problems, both having to do with the gospel.
First, there’s the problem of proclamation. For the last thirty or forty years, the church has been chasing its own tail as it seeks to catch up to the culture and be “relevant”. The quote attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, “I must follow my people, for I am their leader”, is never more apt than when applied to the behavior of the church in its pursuit of the culture.
The idea seems to be that if we can be more like the culture, or like a specific subset of the culture, then they will be comfortable with us. If they are comfortable with us, then we’ll be able to convince them that not only are we just like them, but Jesus is just like them, too. And if they think Jesus is just like them, they might want to follow Him. Why they would want to follow someone who is just like them, however, remains a mystery.
As is usually the case, there is a kernel of truth in this. Jesus became like us in his incarnation, and that is a glorious and necessary truth, but what makes the gospel unique is the way in which He is not like us. I don’t need someone who is just like me. I’m sinful. I need someone holy. I’m human. I need someone divine. I cannot stand under the wrath of God. I need someone who has stood there in my place. I cannot raise myself from death to life. I need someone who can raise me up because He Himself has been raised.
The commonalities are important. But it is the differences that give us hope.
Another problem has to do with ecclesiology. From the very beginning, the guru’s of the Church Growth Movement have contended that to grow a church we need to focus upon a specific demographic, and seek to make our churches reflective of that particular group. The idea is that people will be more receptive to the gospel when it is presented to them in their own environment…within their own comfort zone. This has affected the way in which we “do church”. Church must be made to be a comfortable place and people are most comfortable around their own kind.
The result has been a church planting strategy which is focused upon specific groups…Baby-boomer churches, Baby-buster churches, Gen-X churches, and on and on and on. Depending upon your definition of church growth “success”, you will have little problem finding examples of it.
Some would ask, “Isn’t that a good thing?” And I would answer, “No. It is not.”
To ask the question, “Isn’t that a good thing?” is altogether different from asking, “Has God ever used these churches to draw people into His kingdom?” If one were to ask the latter, the answer would be an unequivocal, “Yes. I have no doubt that He has.” But that is not evidence of correct, and by “correct” I mean “biblical”, church planting or church growth strategy. It is evidence of the extreme graciousness of God in accomplishing His purposes even in the face of our foolishness. Moses was not only foolish, but positively disobedient, when he struck the rock. In spite of this, God graciously provided water for His people.
There is no doubt that individuals have come to know Christ through these ministries. Nonetheless, it must be said that this kind of ministry philosophy is not a good thing. More than that, it is a wrong thing in that it runs precisely counter to the biblical ideal of what the church is to be, and also counter to the biblical example of what the church is to accomplish before a watching world.
As one reads the New Testament, one is struck by the fact that whenever a problem of cultural or racial division arose within the church, the solution to the problem was not separation. The solution was to foster ever increasing union around the gospel and its implications.
The church of Christ is to be a witness to the power of the gospel to change lives and minds and hearts, as Peter’s was changed when he saw the sheet descend from heaven. The church is to be a witness to the power of the gospel to break down walls of division between races and ages and cultures. The church is to be an earthly representative, imperfect though it is, of the heavenly glory, in which men from every tongue and tribe and nation are gathered together, worshipping the One who sits on the throne, and the Lamb.
That is what the church is to be. But when we say that we are a church for this group or for that group, and that these group labels form the identity of our church, we are defeating one of the very purposes for which God has established His church.
I shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose. After all, if I’m honest about it, I know that the pragmatists among us are…well…my kind of people. The day will come, and quickly, I pray, when we will all be His kind of people.