No Church Revitalization without Mission

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The Church, having turned the Gospel into a moral performance, a judgemental system of do's and do-nots, must come to grips with the fact that the culture has moved on.

None of us who are Christian are Christians independently. All believers are indebted to numerous others who somehow, and by some means, brought Jesus to us. Even Scripture, though God-breathed, is man-written under Divine inspiration. All the creeds, doctrines, and confessions of the Church, which help us navigate the truth and avoid errors, are products of human effort even if God is at work through those efforts. All the hymns and worship songs we sing are people-produced, and all the liturgies, rites, prayers, sacraments and endeavors of the Church are peopled. Every one of us who believes, believes because others used their gifts and talents to tell us about Jesus: priests, pastors, parents, Sunday school teachers, musicians, poets, grandparents, friends, strangers, artists, chaplains, writers, filmmakers—the list is endless. And we are inspired and sustained by the continual activity of the saints, fed from the Word, who help us time and again to see Jesus.

But seeing Jesus is not just talk about him, or lessor subtractions of him like social justice or loving our neighbors. "Jesus" is not a name to be co-opted for whatever we happen to think is right for human flourishing. Jesus is a particular Name, a part of a Trinue Name caught up in and inseparable from the history, work, and reality of the Triune God. "Jesus is Lord"—perhaps the earliest confession of the Church--is not merely a statement of Jesus' kingly title, but a confession that Jesus is God Himself, fully God of fully God and one in being with the Father, through whom all things are made[1]. That understanding of who Jesus is gives the necessary context for what Jesus does: He takes away the sins of the world, your sins, and mine[2]. To behold Jesus in faith is to trust in his full and inseparable Triune divinity while embracing the reality of his humanity.

We call this reality of God taking on flesh, incarnation, and it is so much more than an explanation of how God became a baby in Bethlehem and died for our sins. The Incarnation not only provides a depth of understanding for who God is (for the fullness of God is understood most accurately in Jesus[3]) but also for understanding how we are to love our neighbor and preach Good News.[4]

Today, churches are shrinking as the culture becomes more and more secularized. Of course, the need for Jesus has not changed but the cultural promotion of Him has. The Church long ago sold itself to the culture, happy to control the levers of power and enforce Judeo-Christian ethics on society without Jesus as Lord. And now, the Church, having turned the Gospel into a moral performance, a judgemental system of do's and do-nots, must come to grips with the fact that the culture has moved on. It has rejected the legalism of the Church for a quasi-transcendent, spiritually-curious, ethic of love and tolerance. But the love and tolerance of the culture cannot love or tolerate Jesus as Lord. His exclusive claims as the Way, Truth, and Life and his free gift of salvation by pure grace robs the culture of its authority and power to narrate meaning. The Church, in response to this cultural bias, and afraid of losing numbers, has supported a strategy of therapeutic deism. Therapeutic deism is the notion that what people want and need is a spirituality that helps them face the problems of their lives. It is therapeutic in that the end goal is wellness and health (however that is defined), and it is deistic in that it makes "God" the champion and source of wellness. In other words, therapeutic deism is when the Church appropriates self-help by running it through a biblical filter (where Jesus as Lord and the forgiveness of sins is filtered out) and what remains is a spiritualized philosophy of how to live a fulfilling and successful life.

It is in this context that churches are trying to revitalize--a strange word that reflects the self-understanding of the Church at this moment, a Western Church that understands itself as dying, losing relevance and power, and finding its salvation, its antidote to irrelevance, in the discovery of some new way or method to bring life. That life is rarely Jesus as Lord. Revitalization is not just about growth; it is a desire to see more people come to Christ even if, suspiciously, it equates the numbers of attendees with the success of the mission. And in some senses, it is easy to get numbers if a church really wants them. The more a church caters to consumerism, therapeutic deism, and the more a pastor preaches sermons with "steps" or "how-tos"—advice that if followed brings about some victory or success in some life struggle, the more likely the congregation will find itself on the fuller end of the spectrum. And as long as the Church is full—or at least fuller—we are OK. We all love full churches, and we can make the mistake of thinking a full church is a saved church.

But we should not. "Revitalization" captures the reality that the Church no longer owns the cultural zeitgeist and can no longer rely on its reputation, or its programming, or past loyalties, to sustain itself. But "revitalization" also falsely gives the impression that the antidote to irrelevance is somehow caught up in some creative effort or method, and that the significant problem facing the Church is decline and wrong methodology[5]. But that is a non-sequitur because the history of the Church has taught us methodology has changed in time, place and culture, and decline is never really a threat to the Church. We know this because Christ promises that the Church is already victorious and that hell itself cannot undermine it.[6] The danger is never is to the Church. The threat is always and ever to the lost who must continually face a false-church, a church sold-out on cultural appropriation instead of prophetic revelation.[7]

The threat to individual congregations is that they would act out of fear because of this decline, ignoring their assured victory, and sell their birthright for the pottage of therapeutic deism. That's a very real threat because the first thing that all parishioners and pastors are willing to give up is evangelism. Because evangelism is the most uncomfortable, risky and least successful of all the Church's endeavors, the Church simply doesn't do it, or spuriously claims to do it by either practicing a form of consumerism masked as evangelism (it's not) or by supporting foreign missions without ever risking the mission in the very place God has planted them.

Because we conflate attendance numbers with missional success, and because (gloriously) God's Spirit works despite our consumerism, we assume that consumeristic methods of church are justifiable because of their (apparent) practical results. But this is to confuse categories. For consumerism may indeed produce saved souls because God works through the Word even if it is hidden and veiled behind self-help and practical advice. But that doesn't mean what we are actually doing is mission. And I am not in any way implying the Church must do liturgy and get rid of contemporary worship—which for some reason always seems to be the way these types of critiques are heard. "Consumerism" need not be the same as "contemporary" because if such were the case, then the ESV and NIV Bible translations would be purely consumeristic endeavors because, after all, we already have the King James in English. "Contemporary" may mean "contextualized" or even "incarnated" as long as it does not lose focus on Jesus as Lord and can appropriate his work to those willing to hear.

But the problem is not just a misunderstanding of category. The problem is also a misunderstanding of Incarnation. In the Incarnation, God shows us who he is by focusing all our attention on His Son, the Nazarine Jew, Jesus. In this Man is a New Adam, a Savior, a Prince of Peace, Christ the Lord. When Jesus ascends into heaven after his resurrection to prepare places for us in his Kingdom, he sends the Church out into the world in his stead. This sending-out is a mimicry of God's previous sending of His Son to earth. And the Son goes to the earth to suffer and die. Christ says he must suffer. He must suffer not because he is a sadist, but because he must enter into the profound experiences and limitations of human life and struggles, where sin has left its mark. He must suffer not just because he wants to make some objective point about being like us, but because he is God really with us, Immanuel. And those who go out on his mission, entering into the broken lives of dream-vanquished vagabonds and losers (literally those who have suffered loss) learn to suffer too because you cannot incarnate yourself into the lives of others without in some way losing your own pride and desires. That embrace to the sufferer requires intimacy and vulnerability; for all embraces come at the cost of privacy.

The Trinity, as far as we can understand it, lives in an eternal intimacy of shared existence. That intimacy is the source of all our intimacy, even though human intimacy is marred by sin. Sexual intercourse, which the Bible says makes two one, and deep friendships, which the Bible says joins souls, are derivatives of this Trinue affection and trust[8]. In the Incarnation, Jesus comes to us bringing this Triune intimacy with him. He does this not only by defeating sin, death, and hell, which separate us from God, so that union with God is possible, but also by giving us his own body that our bodies might rise to life in him. Our life is already, through our baptism, caught up in his so that we share in the Divine life through Christ already.

The Incarnation focuses us on Jesus our Lord and shows the Church how it must live so that we are trustworthy witnesses. The Church must go as Christ went. It must continue the mission he started and sustains. Things like social justice support that mission and provide for our neighbors. But non-religious charities, well-meaning and kind-hearted people, government organizations and movie stars also love their neighbors. The Church's specific mission that goes with these things is to incarnate Jesus-make him visible—to people around us so that loving neghbors is seen in the most loving act of all.[9]

If this is true it means the Church's call is not primarily to help ease the struggles of life (that's what friends and family and therapists do, among others) or to offer pathways to success (that is what hard work and wisdom are for), or to make the world a better place (that is what God will do perfectly in the eschaton) but to give people Jesus-Jesus as Lord. Jesus as Savior. Now, to be sure, our witness is more credible if we go meeting needs and loving others[10]. But we must always be on guard to not mistake the mission for other good things, because it is too often the mission, the proclamation of the Gospel, that is the first thing to go.

So if churches want to revitalize—in the best sense of that word—they have to do the one thing they aren't often willing to do—tell others about Jesus. We overcomplicate this simple telling so that it becomes too overwhelming to try, and we are too afraid of rejection because the Church reinforces our need for emotional wellness via sermons that offer us self-help masked as God-power. And because evangelism is a statistically failing enterprise (even with Jesus himself, many heard and believed, but many more did not[11]), and we do not like to fail, we avoid its unpleasantness. Finally, because we have been taught to push for a "decision", we see evangelism not as discipleship (slowly, lovingly and repeatedly bringing someone to Christ again and again—and experience the King James Bible accurately calls, "long-suffering"), but as a moment of transformation; we confuse evangelism with conversion.

But Churches that can give up the idol of attendance and pepper into their culture a need for mission, for evangelism, and for incarnating Christ put themselves not at the mercy of method, but the grace of God. But a warning: if the motivation of any congregation is to "grow" instead of to "give people Jesus" (let God do the growing) such a congregation is always in danger from the temptation to trade Jesus for therapeutic deism.

Instead, let us encourage one another to bring Jesus into our communities. To tell the old, old Story. To witness what we have seen and heard. To point people to Christ. After all, that is how all of us were saved. Someone went to us and told us about Christ. And that is how we are sustained (we keep hearing). Let's not fall into the trap of attracting people to church because we can provide for the majority of their felt needs. Let's go to our communities and show them the most beautiful person with the most beautiful Name, our Lord, Jesus. And then it will be said of us something startling: we will be beautiful like him. For those who bring Christ incarnate him. As the Word says, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news."[12]

[1] Philippians 2:10-11

[2] John 1:29

[3] Colossians 1:19, 2:9

[4] God's law teaches us the rubrics of how to love our neighbor; it says things like "Do not steal" and "bear one another's burdens." In so doing the law the teaches us what loving our neighbor looks like. But law, if left on its own, can descend into legalism, pride, and injustice. The law is always read through Christ the only one who fully kept it. So incarnation not only teaches us about Gospel but also about the law.

[5] This decline is really the fear of death. "Revitalization" hopes to capture the closure of local congregations that no longer find themselves sustainable. But closure is usually conflated with death so that a false assumption is made: that congregational closure signals the triumph of evil over good, the winning of the culture over the Church. But this is never the case. Congregational closure is sometimes unavoidable, a simple pattern of indigenous life-cycling. But as we also will see, closure is also the attempt, positively put, of congregations to be "relevant" at the expense of Gospel proclamation. When a congregation stops proclaiming Jesus as Lord, it no longer remains the Church, even if, it grows in attendance. And while proclaiming Jesus as Lord is not a guarantee against closure, it remains a faithful mark of the Church. Per methodology, not all methods are equal to be sure, but method is less important than substance, even if, they are entangled.

[6] Matthew 16:17-19

[7] "Prophetic" here does not mean anything like fortune-telling or future-forecasting. Prophetic as in, what the Prophets of the Old Testament did in calling our their culture's attempt to create human flourishing apart from a proper relationship with God.

[8] For marriage oneness see, Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:5. For friendship soul-knitting see, I Samuel 18:1

[9] The cross-John 15:13

[10] James 2:14-26

[11] Matthew 23:27, 7:13-14

[12] Isaiah 52:7, Romans 10:15