Julie and Bob Clark were stunned to receive a letter from their church in July asking them to "participate in the life of the church"—or worship elsewhere. "They basically called us freeloaders," says Julie. "We were freeloaders," says Bob.
In a trend that may signal rough times for wallflower Christians, bellwether mega-church Faith Community of Winston-Salem has asked "non-participating members" to stop attending. "No more Mr. Nice Church," says the executive pastor, newly hired from Cingular Wireless. "Bigger is not always better. Providing free services indefinitely to complacent Christians is not our mission."
"Freeloading" Christians were straining the church's nursery and facility resources, and harming the church's ability to reach the lost, says the pastor. "When your bottom line is saving souls, you get impatient with people who interfere with that goal."
Faith Community sent polite but firm letters to families who attend church services and "freebie events," but never volunteer, never tithe, and do not belong to a small group or other ministry. The church estimates that, of its 8,000 regular attendees, only half have volunteered in the past 3 years, and a third have never given to the church.
"Before now, we made people feel comfortable and welcome, and tried to coax them to give a little something in return," says a staff member. "That's changed. We're done being the community nanny."
Surprisingly, the move to dis-invite people has drawn a positive response from men in the community who like the idea of an in-your-face church. "I thought, A church that doesn't allow wussies—that rocks," says Bob Clark, who admires the church more since they told him to get lost.The journal in which this article originated was on online one: larknews.com. It is fictional news, folks; this church does not exist.
But what if it did? Suppose there was a community of believers that cared more about deepening your relationship with God than they did about increasing their attendance on Sunday morning! That stings a bit, doesn’t it? It stings me. Because, if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that there have been many times in my life—in my ministerial life—that I have cared more about filling this room than about deepening your relationship with Jesus. I admit it. There is a certain level of pride that comes from preaching at a large church. At many points in my life, I have been addicted to success. And success, in my mind, equaled more people. Success equaled an auditorium filled to capacity.
Our world has become enamored by the question of success. The business world is fascinated by this question. And they quantify success in terms of dollars. The more money a company makes, the more successful a company is. The academic world has recently become interested in success also. Why? Because “success” comes from higher test scores and higher retention rates and higher graduation rates. In many cases, the church has adopted a similar philosophy. We have longed to be able to measure success. But, how do you measure the success of a church? There is a text in the Gospel of Mark that speaks to our insatiable desire to measure success. And to be honest, I think it flies in the face of our most popular methods.
Read the Word of God from Mark 3:7–12 CEB.
This passage and others like it have always puzzled me. The first part of this text records a minister’s dream! Jesus went throughout the countryside preaching. The crowds grew and swelled. The number of people grew to such an extent that Jesus was afraid He might be crushed!
Imagine being part of something like that! Imagine the church filled to capacity. People sitting in the aisles and standing in the back. Doors opened to allow more people to be a part of what is taking place inside. I have often read this text and thought to myself, “Now this would be a great time for Jesus to tell everyone why He came to earth.” The people were there. They were attentive. Hanging on His every word and every action. This would have been a great time for Jesus to lay it on the line:
Ever since the fall of creation, you have been without hope.But instead of doing that—and this is what has always puzzled me about this text—Jesus seems to run away from the crowds. He told the disciples, “Get a boat ready. We’ve got to get out of here.” Instead, He told the demons, “Be quiet. Someone might hear you.”
But I’ve come here to take care of all of that.
And all I ask is that you believe in Me!
Scholars have a name for what Jesus did here. They call it the Messianic Secret. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus consistently keeps His identity a secret. He doesn’t tell anyone who He is, and He doesn’t allow others to tell anyone who He is either. Have you ever wondered why Jesus is so intent on keeping His identity secret? Actually, I don’t think Jesus ever meant to keep His identity secret. Lamar Williamson, a commentator, writes about this issue:
Jesus seeks neither to conceal nor deny that he is Christ and Son of God, but rather to correct and complete all inadequate understandings of those terms.You see, Jesus did not want those people to hear “Son of God” in the context of great crowds and swelling popularity. He didn’t want all of those people to think that is what the Son of God is all about! He didn’t want them to confuse His mission with exciting parades and large groups of people. But that is not the only reason He ran from the crowds. Listen to what Jesus did next:
Read Mark 3:13–19 CEB.
Though we might see the wisdom in speaking before large groups of people, Jesus tells the demons to be quiet. He urges the disciples to get a boat ready to escape the crowds and then He climbs a mountain and calls only 12 people to come with Him. Through these 12 people, Jesus will build His church. For the next two to three years, Jesus spent a lot of time with these 12 people. They ate together, they walked together, they preached side by side. They surely had many one-on-one conversations that we have no record of. We might define success in terms of huge numbers, of swelling crowds and excitement. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus sought success so differently? He could have used His time to speak to thousands of people at once. Instead, he focused on 12 people, building those intimate relationships and sending those 12 out to influence 12 more and 12 more after that.
Over the last decade or so, there has been a buzz around the term small groups. Glenwood has had small groups, or Connection Groups, for many years now. I know some people get tired of hearing about Connection Groups. But, let me tell you why I believe we can’t get tired of Connection Groups. I am firmly convinced that you will never really deepen your relationship with God in the church building. That’s hard for a preacher to say! One hour of worship once a week in that kind of setting will not do it. I want to be frank with you: If your relationship with God begins and ends in that room, you have a real problem. And Jesus knew this! That’s why He did not try to create disciples by preaching to the masses. Sure, He preached to large crowds. But those large and energetic crowds were largely ignorant of what Jesus was all about. They came to be healed. They came to experience the adrenaline that comes with crowds. When Jesus started talking about death, the crowds disappeared! And Jesus knew they would! That is why He built His church around only 12 people.
Authentic community and discipleship occurs not in large crowds, but in groups small enough to challenge and encourage. I recently read a story told by Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. At times, Willow Creek has been the largest Christian congregation in the world, with over 20,000 members. But the genius of that congregation is not its huge, dynamic worship service. The vast majority of those 20,000+ members are active in small group communities. In fact, they do not really consider you a member of that church unless you are also a member of a small group. The church is really hundreds of small groups that come together to worship on Sunday morning.
Hybels told a story of something that happened to him recently following one of their Sunday morning services. He said he finished preaching one morning, and a young couple approached him with a baby in their arms, their baby, not one week old. The father asked him to pray for their new child. He gladly obliged their request. But as he went to take the baby in his arms, he pulled back the blanket to see the baby’s face. The infant was horribly disfigured. He said, “Where there should have been a face, there was just a deep hole.” Seeing his shock, the father continued, “The doctors only give our baby one to two weeks to live. We just want you to pray that in that time, our child will experience love.” Hybels prayed the prayer, and watched the couple walk away. And he noticed that as they departed, they were immediately joined by four to five other couples. Those families embraced them. They surrounded them and prayed as well. Hybels later learned that those families had been a small group together for the previous three years. They knew about the problems early on. They prayed together long before that baby was born. And they were there for support after the baby passed away. Reflecting upon that moment, Bill Hybels said, “I wonder where that couple would have been without their small group community.”
Before I was here at Glenwood, I preached at Broadway Church of Christ in Lubbock. There was a time, back in the 50s, 60s and 70s when Broadway was the largest Church of Christ in the world. They had over 3,000 people every Sunday morning. I’m sure those were exciting times. But, let me ask you a question. Is a 3,000-member congregation more successful than an 800 member one? Should our goal, at Glenwood, center on one day becoming the largest church in the world? No matter how tempting it may be to set a goal like that, I don’t think that is a goal Jesus would have set. I want you to know that I pray daily that God will make you crave spiritual community. And I always follow that prayer up with another one. I pray that we will be a church that helps people find that authentic spiritual community. Because that is where disciples of Jesus Christ are made.