Monthly Archives: March 2014

Thinning the Church Herd

800px-Cattle_herdA megachurch pastor was once asked if he thought too many people were coming to the church for the wrong reasons. He said as long as people come, he would not change a thing. Such an approach to organizational structure and culture is fine . . . if you are managing the U.S. Postal Service. The question to the pastor came up in response to the observation that this particular megachurch was perhaps getting too entertainment oriented in worship and other facets of church life. Granted, the contemporary church model often gets wrongly accused of a showy and shallow focus in worship and spiritual growth. Not all big churches with growing numbers become mere venues for entertaining the masses.

Still, I have some misgivings about the as-long-as-people-come-we-won’t-change-a-thing approach to church. Don’t get me wrong, I am not one of THOSE people who think all change is good because it leads to improvement. (If I exchanged my wife for a newer model, my life would not improve after I got out of the hospital.) But I find it fascinating that while we tend to believe growing numbers of people attending church is a good thing, Christ often felt wary of growing crowds of “followers.” Why? Read John 6 where it describes how the crowds were starting to follow Jesus after he performed some astounding miracles. Jesus had healed the sick, fed the five thousand with a couple pieces of bread and fish, and walked on water. Many in the crowd focused on Jesus’ miracles and his ability to take care of their physical needs. Jesus confronted the crowd about their motives for following him. He tested them with an uncomfortable teaching about himself. Near the end of the chapter, Jesus teaches the crowd that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life. He was speaking metaphorically, but the crowds were grossed out and offended because they thought he spoke literally. Most of the crowd stopped following Jesus and he was left with a few committed followers.

I believe Jesus was thinning the heard, culling people who were showing up for the wrong reasons. Granted, it was easier for Jesus to thin the crowd because he knew their hearts. A pastor who leads a church can’t always discern the motives of people in the congregation. Some people go to church for the business networking opportunities. Some go because their family members attend. Some go to belong to a community of people and make friends. Some go because they believe it is part of the American way of life. Some go to place their children in wholesome activities. Some go for an emotional experience. Some go because they have a significant need in their life. Of course, not all of these reasons are bad.

Even if a large number of people go to church for the wrong reasons, there will be a precious group who attend to get closer to Christ and discover what he has to offer, which is not always what we think we need. Nevertheless, too many people coming for the wrong reasons can derail those who come for the right reasons. Leaders can unwittingly begin to cater to the desires of the masses, even if those desires are not the right direction for the people of the church. I believe this is one reason why Jesus felt it necessary to thin the crowd. Rapidly growing churches do well to periodically examine why folks in their congregation are coming to the church. As for the mechanics of thinning the crowd, I am not sure how church leaders could do it in a healthy way. (Hey, I know what would thin the congregation—compulsory service in the nursery.) All I know is that Jesus had to say some uncomfortable things to whittle down the crowd. The first step for church leaders is to recognize the need, and they must also have the will to act.

Twitter Martyrs

Lewes Bonfire, Martyrs Crosses/Andrew Dunn

Lewes Bonfire, Martyrs Crosses/Andrew Dunn

Recently, during a weekly Bible study, some friends and I got sidetracked with a discussion about martyrdom. We are not usually so lugubrious in our explorations of faith and life (Unless discussing the prospects of the Oakland Raiders). Anyhow, later on I realized that we had focused on how we would or should endure the gruesome realities of physical persecution and death for our belief in Christ and the teachings of the Bible. Certainly there are places in the modern world where Christians still pay the ultimate price for their faith. But here in America, physical persecution and death for the faith is rare. That doesn’t mean Christians do not suffer a form of persecution and martyrdom in civilized America. The secular culture in America and other places around the world has simply become more sophisticated in their stoning of the saints. Christians and the tenets of the faith are attacked in many ways that do not involve physical violence. Here are some examples of how the civilized world stones Christians and the faith (metaphorically):

Stoning by tweets. Stoning by blogs. Stoning by blog comments. Stoning by political correctness enforcers. Stoning by opinion editorials in newspapers. Stoning by the news media. Stoning by books. Stoning by teachers and professors. Stoning by marketing messages. Stoning by political rhetoric. Stoning by the movie industry. Stoning by television programs. Stoning by the courts. Stoning by corporate PR on social issues. Stoning by the IRS. Stoning by science. And so on.

I do not know if these current forms of religious persecution portend a decline into future physical violence against people of faith. But all believers would do well to remain informed as to what transpires in the world around us. It’s easier to prepare when we know the stones are headed our way and what they look like. Sometimes it is necessary that we respond to persecution, other times we should let God deal with the situation. But we can’t make a decision as to the correct course of action if we are not even aware of the persecution. I know fellow Christians who valiantly try to maintain a positive attitude by burying their heads in the sand. Hey, it’s OK to speak up now and then. Even Jesus didn’t remain silent when some of his accusers attacked him verbally.