Thoughts on Ed Stetzer’s “3 Things Churches Love That Kill Outreach”

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Ooutreach by outstretched handOver at Outreach Magazine online, Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, notes three things churches do or believe that inhibit their ability to do outreach. Obviously, outreach is one of the major tasks for the Church, so knowing how NOT to do it is a big deal. As they say in the biz, “Read the whole thing.”

For the purposes of discussion, here are the three Stetzer items:

1. Too many churches love past culture more than their current context.
2. Too many churches love their comfort more than their mission.
3. Too many churches love their traditions more than their children.

Let me begin by laying some groundwork for my thoughts.

For the past 35 years or so, the Church in America has been on a tear to reconstruct itself. In that time, we have seen major initiatives within most churches and denominations to adopt seeker-sensitive practices, to move toward church growth models, and to become more culturally relevant.

Considering the state of the Church in America today, one must be forced to admit that almost all those initiatives have failed miserably to produce more or better disciples. I’m not sure we can find any Christian leader who thinks the Church, as a whole in America, is better off, by nearly any measure, than it was before this experimentation began. Biblical knowledge, conformity to Christian doctrine, evangelism, retaining our youth, community—those initiatives mentioned above failed to produce desired outcomes in any of those areas.

I want to focus on one aspect of those initiatives especially, since it pertains to the core of Stetzer’s comments: the Church meeting as outreach tool.

When you have dominant seeker-sensitive churches confessing that their model failed entirely to make disciples, have we put too much confidence in our switch from “church for believers” to “church for unbelievers”?

I think that outcomes show us the answer is yes. Not only did turning our church meetings into a nursery for non-Christians NOT gain us the outcomes we desired for them, but we sacrificed our ability to make deeper, stronger disciples of the people we already have who already believe.

“Church meeting as outreach tool” backfired. We moved away from sending Christians out of the church to make disciples out in the world before we bring them into the church, and it cost us dearly.

What we do in our meetings must be for the edification of those who already believe. Changing that to cater to nonbelievers has been a stunningly bad decision that must be reversed if the Church is to start rebuilding itself.

My concern with the Stetzer piece is that it’s trapped in the amber of the 1980s, promoting a ministry philosophy that over 35 years has proved largely incapable of creating disciples, which is the primary mission of the Church.

Moving on…

Stetzer’s points #1 and #3 above are essentially the same, just tweaked for different age emphases. I’ll address them together.

Stetzer writes:

“It’s remarkable, and I’ve said it many times: If the 1950s came back, many churches are ready. (Or the 1600s, or the boomer ’80s, depending on your denomination, I guess.)

“There is nothing wrong with the fifties, except we don’t live there anymore. We must love those who live here, now, not yearn for the way things used to be. The cultural sensibilities of the fifties are long past in most of the United States. The values and norms of our current context are drastically different and continue to change.”

Let me counter with this Scripture:

“To what then shall I compare the men of this generation, and what are they like? They are like children who sit in the market place and call to one another, and they say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.'”
–Luke 7:31-32

The modern American Church has tried desperately in the last 35 years to show itself culturally relevant and hip. Pastors drop references to The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad in their sermons. Churches have small groups based on cultural affinities such as video gaming or hip hop music. In fact, whatever is cool in culture is what drives our youth ministry. If society talks about a cultural issue, we talk about it too. Heck, like a dog, we wallow in it and then say to society, “Look how up we are on the stuff you like!”

Again, what has this gotten us when it comes to making disciples? Nothing.

Stetzer’s main beef is with tradition. I think that’s an old argument left over from 35 years ago. It’s not the point.

Going back to that Luke passage, the Church is missing that point when it focuses on being counter-tradition. What it should be is counterculture.

More than ever, I believe the fix for what ails the American Church is not culture but counterculture. I strongly believe that many people today are desperate to get away from contemporary culture and back to a slower, more personal, more meaningful place that does not shift daily at the whims of style leaders and their thought leader cohorts. That word authenticity keeps rearing its head.

In fact, I have come to wonder if the solution for the Church is to instead examine culture and then head 180 degrees in the other direction.

That mentality may also ask that we examine tradition and see if it is, in fact, already 180 degrees. If so, then rather than throwing it out because we are counter-tradition, we instead consider embracing it when it’s counterculture.

Stetzer derides being stuck in the 1950s, but I think it’s not just the elderly who are nostalgic. Young people are growing sick of modern culture too. They’re looking for counterculture, but what they’re finding instead in our churches is cultural concession. The world piped, and the American Church danced. For the last 35 years or so, that has benefited no one.

As for Stetzer’s #2…

While I agree that the mission of the Church must, in many ways, conflict with comfort, cultural concession is tiring. I may be speaking solely for myself, but when I come to church on Sunday, the last thing I want is trendiness and the very cultural crap I’m forced to wade through daily. When the Church looks just like the world, no option for a “set-apart place” exists.

Yet people are desperately searching for such a place. In a world governed by clocks, where are they to find the comfort of timelessness? In a world filled with 15-minutes of fame, where can they find the comfort of lasting meaning? They are NOT finding those essentials in a church that operates like a cultural haven, yet that kind of comfort is a necessary balm. We desperately need that kind of comfort if we’re to be refreshed to go out into the world and be countercultural.

Do you want effective outreach in your church? Here’s what I suggest:

1. Make the church for the Church. The seeker-sensitive model failed. Bring back the model that intends for Sundays to be the time when maturing believers are fed meat, not milk. Make it a safe place to practice spiritual gifts and to do the mature things a mature Church fellowship should do without fear that some unbelieving visitor will be weirded out or offended.

2. Remember that outreach means to reach out. The mission field exists beyond the four walls of the church building. Equip people to evangelize out there. Lead the lost to Christ out there, then bring them into the church.

3. Be countercultural. Instead of doing whatever the world is doing, ask if the opposite is the better, more lasting way and closer to the heart of God. You may be surprised how many people are looking to escape culture rather than to embrace it.

We’ve had 35 or more of failed outreach ideas. Time to stop doing what doesn’t work and get back to what people really need.

Why the Christian Must Model Slow

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I used to live in a little cabin in the woods. Just me. I would walk there after quitting time, cook my meal for one, hand clean and dry my dishes, and settle in for the evening.

That simple housework amid solitude proved to be some of the holiest times I’ve experienced in my life. To this day, I can think of few mountaintop experiences with God that matched the simple joy of making food and cleaning up afterward in His presence. It was slow work, never hurried. While it asked for concentration on the task, I never felt overwhlemed. I did, however, feel holiness in the moment.

Something in those basic, careful actions in a quiet cabin in the woods centered me on God. He was there. Always. I could feel Him connecting with me in my doing.

I don’t believe most people today ever experience that kind of focused yet unhurried connection with God in their work. It’s one reason why so many people see their jobs as soul-inhibiting. Paycheck, yes. Personal meaning, no.

Much has been written concerning the recent New York Times piece on the frenetic atmosphere at Amazon. Frankly, I think many people will wonder at the singling out of Amazon, given how blender-like corporate life has become for everyone.

People in a blenderWhat’s the most commonly used phrase in job postings today? I’ll cast my lot for fast-paced environment. It’s ubiquitous, a badge of corporate honor. Businesses stopped pushing the blender’s Stir button and progressed with boasting to Liquify.

What’s being “liquified” is people.

Let’s get real here: Fast-paced environment most likely expresses itself as a needlessly disorganized workplace that is understaffed and poorly managed at all levels due to horrendous forecasting and unrealistic expectations. Companies use that phrase with pride when they should instead be soberly calling it failure and correcting it.

Yes, I went there.

I’m not alone, though, as the NYT Amazon article and this one, “Work Hard, Live Well,” show us. Our harried work lives are getting noticed as a negative. Finally.

Beyond our jobs, the general pace of life is killing us as well. Too much incoming data to process. Too many commitments. Too much striving to stay on top. Too much structure to maintain. Too much need to control. Too much.

We can’t live in a perpetual state of being overwhelmed and still maintain our mental and physical health. It’s time to stop lying to ourselves about what we can and cannot do.

We were not created by God to be little flesh-bundles of process optimization. Being counts as much, or more, than doing.

The blur that is our daily existence leaves no room for God. This lie that we can cram an entire day’s spirituality into a 15-minute quiet time is just that: a lie. And it always has been, despite whatever some nationally recognized pastor, spiritual leader, Christian author, or life coach says.

Why? Because God is to be found in EVERY moment. In something as basic as cooking dinner for one. Or in handwashing the dishes.

Julie, a friend and essayist in the vein of Annie Dillard, rebooted her Lone Prairie site and elected to hand code the HTML and CSS. Most would say that’s the hard way.

But some would contend it’s the way God connects with us in our work. It’s slow. It may even be tedious. Yet I think that pulling back from the most optimized, GTD-approved way is how we can reconnect with the holiness of our professions. It’s how we can slow down enough to find not only ourselves but God.

If we Christians are not the people who stay off the dance floor when the world says mambo or who cannot laugh in the face of demanded mourning, who will?

Christians are supposed to be the most countercultural of all people, yet more often than not, we American Christians, through a grace-less misunderstanding of responsibility, instead lead the parade toward dis-ease.

Slowing down enough to find God in more than just the “holy moments” but in ALL of the day will cost us. It must.

If lost people are going to find God, we Christians must be the examples of how to connect with Him. If we’re racing around like headless chickens, we will have no time for perception and observation, either of the natural world which God created or of the spiritual one, where He is found. Neither will we have time to process the crucial connections between the two, where wisdom dwells. We will instead become blind guides. There won’t be any counterculture left, only concession to the deaf and dumb spirits of the age.

“I’ll rest when I’m dead” is no statement of integrity but of stupidity. Christian, find ways to slow down or risk losing everything that truly matters.

Once off the highway and on the backroads, we’ll find God on the curves, near that spot with the stunning vista. Take time to stand there and breathe. That’s where redemption abides.

Christians: The Despised of the World

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“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man!”
—Luke 6:22

A boot to the neckEvery day, news stories proliferate of Christian believers being killed, raped, tortured, and persecuted by the people of the world. While there are isolated incidents of the same occurring to people of other beliefs, Christians bear by far the brunt of this hate.

Christians in the United States are disliked primarily because we have strong opinions about cultural issues. But in most other countries, Christians are hated for Jesus’ sake, because they are light amid darkness. People love darkness and hate the light, because it exposes their wickedness. The light doesn’t have to do anything but be the light. By its very nature, it reveals darkness for what it is.

If anyone needs proof of the veracity of the Christian faith, the blood of the martyrs speaks volumes. One can’t look at the number of people who have died with the name of Jesus on their lips and blithely dismiss that faith as fanaticism or wishful thinking. Honest people can’t look at those numbers and wave them off. They have to ask the question: Why are Christians worldwide so despised for their faith?

Christians built the world’s hospitals, schools, and orphanages. Go to the worst places in the world and Christians are toiling there anonymously to make those places something othen than hellholes.

Christians gave the world much of its stunning art and architecture, music and literature. If it’s inspiring and noble, chances are, whatever it might be, it has the touch of the Christian message in it.

In most places around the globe, Christians go quietly about their business, ambassadors of Jesus in a world otherwise filled with sickness and strife.

Yet somehow, the reaction of the people of the world to the above is to hate Christians, often to the point of wishing them dead. And sometimes, the wishing turns real.

If you are not a Christian, ask yourself how it can be that one group of people can inspire such opposition. Don’t shrink away, but ask why. Ask yourself what it is about a couple in Pakistan that is so wrong that a mob would drag them out of their home and set them on fire. Or that Christians would be beheaded for no reason other than believing that Jesus is Lord.

God sent Himself through Jesus to die for our failures, hidden depravity, and rebellion against all that is good and right so that we would not have to die because of them. Instead, He offers us grace and a place in His Kingdom that never ends. We can’t earn that place. He gives it as a free gift when we place our faith in Jesus. Because of this, we can love God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and love our neighbors as ourselves. Subsequently, no matter where we go, we are ambassadors for that Kingdom, reconciling people to God, who desires that all come to Him and find rest for their souls.

This message and its realization in the lives of Christians get us hated and killed the world over.

If you are not a Christian, ask yourself what sense that makes, that people would be burned alive or beheaded for such a message. Why does this trouble so many to the point of hatred and violence against Christians?

Does it makes sense to you? Think hard. Ask yourself the tough questions. Go there.

Because this hatred of Christians isn’t going to get better, only worse. If you are not a Christian, you’ll watch this happen. Maybe it will be enough to show you the truth of the Christian message amid the lies of the world.

My prayer is that it will.