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Assaulting the GatesAiming All God's People at the Mission Field
By Paul D. Borden
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2009 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Valid Role for Dinosaurs
Anyone alert to what is happening to the church of Jesus Christ in the continents most touched by the Protestant Reformation recognizes that it, the church, is losing the battle with the Evil One for the souls of people. Accompanying that loss is the ability to influence communities and nations for the kingdom of God. We have all heard the statistics about congregations on a plateau, in decline, or dying. Almost all denominations and associations of congregations recognize they are losing both dollars and influence, since the essence of all denominations, the congregations, are passing away. The overall picture is not bright. This situation is so different from what God is doing in the church south of the equator and in Asia. When one compares the former Christian world with the new emerging one, the decline of the former is staggering.
This is not to say there are not bright spots in the U.S., as is true in other industrial nations. There are many effective large congregations reflecting various philosophies of ministries, reaching multiple generations, using a myriad of strategies to make many more disciples for Jesus Christ. The planting of new congregations by risk-taking heroes of faith who are not only thinking outside the box but also looking way beyond any boxes is awesome to see. New paradigms and their reflected strategies for reaching lost people are being implemented in the conduct of missions both at home and overseas. When one sits with those involved in these arenas, one sees there is hope that God may yet again move in a mighty way.
There is one other strong ray of hope: what is happening within some denominations and congregational associations, not at the national level with rare exceptions, but at the local level. Groups of congregations, whether in regions, states, districts, conferences, associations, or the like, are beginning to act in intentional ways to transform older, dying congregations and start many new, vibrant ones. For example, our region, now called Growing Healthy Churches (formerly the American Baptist Churches of the West), has seen God do a miracle in the past decade. Not only has our God enabled us to see over half of our older congregations turn around and produce an abundance of new growth, God has allowed us to now plant more than seventy new congregations. The crucial statistic for us is baptisms (new disciples). Over a decade ago there were only eight hundred or fewer baptisms a year. Now there are more than four thousand baptisms every twelve months.
It is encouraging to see other groups of congregations take major risks in order to introduce change. As a result God is producing pastors, lay leaders, and congregations who are working effectively in making new disciples for Jesus Christ. This is happening in mainline circles, denominations that are not mainline, and associations of congregations that have often been known more for their independence and theological dogma than for evangelism and outreach. The Hit the Bullseye Network (HTBinc.org) now exists to provide a place for peer learning and resources for those leading these new, exciting changes.
However, when you put all of these great things together with all the success that God is producing through effective leaders and congregations, we are still losing ground nationally. While the younger generations are more and more spiritual in their approach to life, they are not finding meaning and fulfillment in Jesus Christ because the church overall is so weak, irrelevant, and devoid of life.
In the history of the church of Jesus Christ no nation has possessed the resources to produce strong congregations like the United States of America. There has never been such a plethora of written and now digital media designed to help congregations succeed, Christians grow and minister with effectiveness, and disciples mature and reproduce. The making of books not only knows no end in the U.S., but the creating of seminars and training events seems almost infinite. No nation in the two thousand-plus years of church history has had more people and dollars available to see the Great Commission successfully implemented. Yet not only is the church of Jesus Christ in this country in free fall as measured in market share; the entire nation is becoming increasingly pagan. The church of Jesus Christ in America has become a paper giant.
Obviously, there are many reasons for the current problems faced by the church. Theologians, historians, and sociologists with far more intelligence and expertise than this writer will be able to dissect the fall of the church. I also recognize that God may not yet be done with the church in our nation and we may still see another great revival. If our God allows the current trend to continue, however, the church will grow even more impotent and cease to influence our nation to pursue Godliness and holiness. I would like to share with you my perspective on why the current situation is a bleak one, despite pockets of spiritual vigor.
From its birth the church, which was designed to penetrate and change the culture, has been susceptible to being kidnapped by the culture. The Apostle Paul warned the Corinthian Christians to not capitulate to the philosophies and teachings of their culture. The early church was constantly struggling against being taken captive by those who wanted it to depart from the essence of the gospel. The Lord of the church appeared to the Apostle John and dictated seven letters to seven separate congregations, warning them that their candles would be snuffed out if they gave in to their respective local cultural issues. The church of Jesus Christ in the United States has not been immune to the siren calls of its culture.
If I were requested to find just one word that would describe our culture, the word would be consumerism. The economic teachings of capitalism, which have done so much to produce such a strong nation, have at the same time contributed to the decline of the church. The result is a church filled with people who are proud to be identified with Jesus Christ, yet who in their behaviors are far more concerned with having their needs and those of their families met than reaching those who are spiritually lost and separated from God. The amazing transformation in the congregations of our region has led to the production of numerous books, seminars (yes, we have contributed to the media glut), and trainings with denominations. Time after time I and many others have taught that the turnaround in the congregations of our region only happened as we began to focus more on others than on ourselves. Every time I teach this truth, I hear, "But what about us? What about our needs? What are you doing to help the Christians?" I have come to learn that we American Christians will reflexively make sure our needs are met, because after all, at our very core we are all consumers.
Consumerism in our congregations knows no generational differences. The only age differences are what the respective generations demand congregations to be and do in order to fulfill their consumer requirements. Often, older Christians are more concerned about their music and the issues of congregational structure that allow them to keep control of all that is happening. The baby boomers also want to maintain the forms of worship, the buildings, and the ministries they created in order to feel comfortable in their settings. The emerging generations want their expectations for size, groups, and media to be met in order for them to be happy. In most congregations, regardless of size, age, or backgrounds, it is all about "me" and my needs.
As I now work with a wide variety of denominations, I get to see how each has its own consumer demons that plague and thwart any ability to be missional. Usually it is a matter of insisting that certain ministries, once effective but now no longer so, continue in order to meet Christian consumer expectations. In some denominations it is using the church of Jesus Christ to run school systems that are rarely used to lead students to become disciples of Jesus Chrst. In other denominations it is maintaining institutions (schools, hospitals, nursing homes) that do good things, yet are killing the congregations who try to keep them going. This is particularly galling (at least to me) when often the children and adults being served could be cared for just as well in other ways, but Christian consumers can save money by having their denomination pay for it at the expense of mission. All denominations support ecclesiastical structures that continue to satisfy our denominational pride, yet put congregations under such financial bondage that they cannot engage in mission, even if they want to do so. Again, almost all denominations do this with camps that subsidize the attendance of children, most of whose parents could afford to pay more. At the heart of all of these endeavors is often a consumer demand that uses the church for that which the church was not intended to be used. We have created denominational moneychangers who service consumer Christians at the expense of mission. The extreme left- and right-wing teachings of Christianity are less devastating to the church of Jesus Christ than the middle-of-the-road beliefs coming from the God of mammon.
This consumer mindset has created another phenomenon that has it roots in the fuzziness of modern theology, while playing into the hands of the consumer Christ-followers. That phenomenon is the pacification of the church. I understand that this peaceful and pastoral mindset has come about in part as a reaction to rampant theological, sociological, and emotional fundamentalism that all denominations have had to face. Often the church of Jesus Christ was known more for what it was against, who it refused to tolerate, and how much it fought. Obviously such sectarianism is wrong. The reaction was also accompanied by modern theological thought that created fuzzy lines over those areas of orthodoxy that were becoming politically incorrect despite the teachings of Jesus Christ and the writers of Scripture. In fact, one way to create peace was to remove all dogmatism so there would be harmony.
These issues, coupled with those teachings of Jesus in relation to peace and harmony along with the command for unity, particularly in his body, have contributed to the view of the church as a place where strife and friction are absent. In one major sense that is true; God does not call us to fight with one another but rather to love one another as Christ loved the church. However, in congregations, denominations, and associations of congregations peace has been elevated in God's hierarchy of virtues. The church as an institution designed to meet consumer needs will not tolerate dissent, even if that dissent is to point out that the church has lost its way in relation to mission. Denominations all across the nation are losing people, dollars, and influence because they insist on peace at any price. Passive-aggressive behaviors (which include the creation of study groups, committees, and task forces as tools to avoid dealing headon with substantive issues) have replaced confrontation. If we debate, we debate about structure—not theological essentials, not sinful behaviors, and definitely not heresy covered in politically correct language that redefines righteous standards and sinful actions.
In this process of pacification we have lost the idea that the church of Jesus Christ is to be militant against sin, the forces of evil, and unrighteous systems; we have forgotten that the church is called to convert those who use such systems to create injustice, war, and the great inequities of civilization. We have lost the idea of being soldiers of the cross, an army marching for the salvation of people, and lifeboat captains rescuing the perishing. Consumer Christians wanting to avoid the extremes of the Christian right and left desire a wonderful place to worship each Sunday that meets the needs of "myself and my family" without upsetting the "temporary Camelot" they call their congregations. Also, in most plateaued or dying churches the "silent majority" would rather allow the spiritual terrorist church bosses to keep the congregation from mission than raise issues that might upset the church's illusory peace.
I realize that a multitude of Christians might never read this book because they cannot get past the title, Assaulting the Gates. Such a term is too militant, as was Hit the Bullseye and Direct Hit. However, it is not important that such people read this book, since they are convinced that peace is a higher value in God's church than mission. Rather this book is for those who are frustrated with dying congregations, those who believe that Jesus has called us to mission and are willing to act. If you are one of these people, this book will both offer you hope and show you how to act on that hope. Jesus Christ is alive and well and is acting against the forces of evil. He is able and more than willing to bless those who will act in order to produce pockets of spiritual resurgence in the lives of congregations, denominations, and associations of congregations.
Even as a highly inept handyman I know that hammers are great for pounding nails and horrible for turning screws. The right tool makes all the difference. The same is true for the various roles God calls us to fulfill. Pastors are called to "lead" sheep on a mission to attack the forces of evil. God calls upon sheep to attack roaring lions and expects them with his help to win far more often than they lose. Caregivers are those people God has called and gifted to employ mercy, compassion, tenderness, and other attributes to help those who are hurting and desperately need the help caregivers can provide. Let me employ a current metaphor. Pastors are like hospital administrators who raise funds, lead boards, fight with zoning authorities, deal with negative public relations issues, fight with insurance carriers and pharmaceutical companies, and cast vision for large medical facilities that serve communities well. Caregivers are like the doctors, nurses, orderlies, and other staff who attend to and care for patients. Both administrators and doctors and their support people care for the health of individuals and the communities they serve. Both roles produce service for the common good, yet wise corporate hospital boards are careful not to mix the two.
The church of Jesus Christ is declining in our and similar nations because, unlike hospitals, we have confused the role of pastor and caregiver. Denominations, seminaries, and congregations (we are all guilty) have allowed the caregivers to fulfill the role of pastor in most congregations. These caregivers are now also in positions of leadership in most denominations. In this process we have marginalized the pastors (those who lead because of their gifts or because God has called them to exercise such behavior). I continue to find that, in most denominational and associational groups I work with, the pastors of large congregations are at best left out of key positions, and at worst are treated as pariahs. Many see the larger congregations as unspiritual, even though they often produce more numerical and spiritual growth than the small congregations that constantly run off new people. We lift up the stories of how a faithful caregiver has helped one person because of an unending commitment of time and energy as the epitome of faithful service, while running down those who have created effective systems to reach many people with help during the same amount of time. The constant message seems to be that the smaller the congregation, the more spiritual the pastor must be.
One major result of such thinking is that those outside the body see the church as run by wimps. While this is true in one sense, it is not true in another. As one who has on several occasions been ministered to well by caregivers, I know that people with such gifts are courageous people. To hang in there long-term with hurting people takes a courage that only people with these gifts possess. Focusing always on the value of one at the expense of the many, however, ignores the role the Lord of the church had in mind for the body. Jesus had the ability to focus on both individuals and larger groups and calls the church to do the same. This means that the position of pastor must be for those who are willing to lead. As part of their leading, these pastors need to establish systems where caregivers can exercise their gifts and talents in ways that benefit the most people in need of their care.
Excerpted from Assaulting the Gates by Paul D. Borden Copyright © 2009 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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