Daddy, will you push me?
As a father of seven I hear this question about a thousand times a year. Our swing set sits faithfully outside waiting for someone to hop on. Back and forth. Back and forth. Then back to rest while it waits for me to say yes again and give someone another push.
Back and forth. Back and forth.
Riding the swing is a great way to spend some time during the summer. But it’s a lousy way to spend our time in the church.
I attended a church conference recently. It was the first time in a long time. The speaker, Tim Suttle, presented the main points of his book: Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church-Growth Culture.
I agreed with most of what was presented. Not all, but most. Despite some areas of disagreement I greatly appreciated the heart of what he was talking about. The questions he raised are things that all of us need to think about. I was greatly encouraged that he was asking a lot of the same questions I’m asking.
Even if we don’t come to all of the same answers I am glad that we’re participating in the same conversation. Unlike so much of what is prominently discussed in our culture, this stuff is important.
A lot of what happens in our culture and in the local church is reactionary. We see something we don’t like, something that needs to change, and we swing.
New fads arise and we start swinging again.
Back and forth. Back and forth.
Church leaders and church attenders are a fickle bunch. We see something that seems to be successful and want to hop on board. Then, when the next big thing comes along we hop off so we can join that movement.
I think it’s time we stop for just a minute and asks ourselves a question: What are we doing?
Swinging back and forth may be amusing for a child but it is inappropriate for the church. It is a mark of immaturity. The Bible teaches us to grow up and stop being tossed back and forth by every wind and wave of doctrine (Eph 4:14).
We aren’t supposed to be reactionary. God’s plan doesn’t change with the winds of the culture. The church ought to be a steady refuge in the midst of a tumultuous and uncertain world.
One of my favorite parts of the conference was Suttle’s contrast between the attitude of the builders of the tower of Babel and John the Baptist. The mission statement in Babel was clear: Come, let us make a name for ourselves (Gen 11:4). The mission of John the Baptist was also clear: He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30).
So, which mission statement are we closer to?
We may immediately claim to have the mission of John the Baptist. But what do our activities reveal? Does our walk agree with our talk?
A swing may exist purely for our enjoyment but the church does not. If we allow God’s church to simply be the church we might find that a lot of people lose interest and want to get off the ride.
Are we okay with that?
So much effort, time, and money is spent on activities designed to entertain, amuse, and delight the flesh. I see local churches advertise their safe and fun programs all the time. As a father, I understand the appeal. As a pastor, I wonder what are we doing?
Jesus made it clear what it means to follow Him.
And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” (Mark 8:34)
Deny yourself. Pick up your cross. Follow Jesus.
Not much of an appeal. Kind of lacks excitement, don’t you think? Nothing about that call sounds safe or fun.
So how do we get here from there? How did we shift from self-denial to self-gratification? How is it that we promise people they can follow Jesus in a safe and fun way when Jesus called His followers to come and die?
What are we doing?
The desire to make a name for ourselves demands that we have wide appeal. The desire to make a name for ourselves requires swinging with the cultural demands.
But the church isn’t a swing. We have an eternal and unchanging purpose. If we delight ourselves in the glory of God then we can enjoy resting in Him even if the ride itself gets pretty uncomfortable at times.
Edify the saints. Evangelize the world. Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God. Make disciples of all nations. Teach them to obey all that God has commanded. Do all things to the glory of God.
We need to stop swinging. The church needs to be the church. The church needs to focus on faithfulness and obedience instead of worldly success. The church exists to glorify God, not to entertain us.
In order to do this we need to understand the church. This understanding won’t come from reading the “experts” and the “gurus.” It won’t come from studying the fastest growing congregations or the most successful according to our metrics. We might learn something from these but we can’t separate ourselves from the source material.
God tells us what He wants us to do. We must study His Word.
When I was preparing to write my first book on the church I didn’t want to write based on my experiences, preferences, or opinions. Maybe if I had done that I would’ve sold more books. But then I’d just be pushing the church and profiting off the swing.
I can’t do that.
Instead, I prepared by reading God’s Word more than ever. I already had a seminary degree. I already had an understanding of what the gurus say. But what does God say?
Do you know? You may have an idea but do you know? A knowledge based on your own careful study of God’s Word?
I read forty chapters a day, every day, for 300 days. Genesis to Revelation. Cover to cover. Ten times in ten months. I did this so I could try to understand God’s plan before telling others what to do.
While I want people to read my book, I’d rather you did what I did on your own. You most likely already have a Bible so it won’t cost you anything other than your time. You may need to stop watching Netflix and YouTube for a season. You may need to stop reading Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, too.
But then you’d be equipped to know if what the gurus are saying makes any sense biblically or if they are just pushing us on another swing that makes sense culturally but will inevitably lead to us swinging backward again in the future.
If the church would grow up, as we’re commanded to do (see Eph 4:11-16), then we’ll stop swinging back and forth. We’ll start resting in God’s perfect will. I bet that if you’ll invest the time in understanding the church as revealed in Scripture, not the church we see on every corner, that you’ll start to ask the same question I am: What are we doing?
At the end of the process of reading God’s Word ten times in ten months I didn’t value the same things I did at the beginning. A lot of stuff just didn’t matter to me anymore. I didn’t read in my Bible about many of the things that are so common in almost every bestseller about the church or on the lips of so many church-goers.
I didn’t read about coffee bars, relevant media, exciting children’s programming, quality music, or branding. I certainly didn’t read about how the church ought to learn from the business world and copy what works there.
Suttle said something during the conference that sums up the foolishness of swinging back and forth: None of what the church does makes any sense unless Jesus is risen from the dead.
He’s absolutely right about that.
Most of the swinging is an effort to “make sense” and “be relevant.” As we mature in Christ we should start to appreciate the reality that much of what God tells us to do doesn’t make any sense. That is, unless Jesus is alive.
It makes sense that we can fill up church calendars with stuff that is entertaining, safe, and fun. But how does this glorify God? Where does the Bible teach us to do this?
If this is God’s best then why didn’t Jesus or the Apostles do ministry this way?
When people respond to the genuine call of Jesus and actually begin to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow their Lord and Savior it is glorious. It’s beyond our ability to manufacture. It doesn’t make any sense.
But it’s true. Because Jesus really is risen from the dead. And He is going to return.
When He comes back will He find us swinging or will He find us faithful?