As I talk and get to know the different pastors and churches here in San Diego, I’m realizing that we do a great job reaching the churched and prepared audiences with the gospel. Despite the mass exodus to the promised land of more affordable housing in the last 18 months, plenty of these prepared people still remain. As such, we should be asking ourselves the following searching question: Are we truly reaching largely unprepared, unchurched, indigenous Southern Californians with the most freeing and loving good news ever offered? I fear that our starting point is a picture of church from a different place or era. I sense that we are still trying to cut and paste things that worked in the past.
If we are to faithfully fulfill God’s Great Commission, here are some shifts in our thinking that bring us to deeper focus in reaching our city and shepherding God’s flock under our care (Acts 20:28).
#1 - Moving from church as an event to church as a family.
One of the hidden benefits of the past few years of the pandemic is that many people are longing to experience church as a family. This is a good thing. Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus’s church appear as an event only but rather a united people, deeply committed to one another, who gather around the throne of God. As Paul said to the Ephesian church, “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:4-5). The Augsburg Confession states that “the Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught, and the Sacraments are rightly administered.” We know and believe this, yet often our language tells on us. Like a tattle-tail toddler telling on their siblings, so too does our language tell on us. Our people will often speak of church by saying things like, “I am going to church” with the focus on the event rather than the people of God. When asked about why they love their church, our people will often respond with comments about the worship music and the speakers. Our language subtly exposes the consumeristic and event-driven mindset from which many of us functionally operate. As those leading churches, we too can slip into this way of thinking.
#2 - Moving from Sunday performances to Sunday praise!
Sunday gatherings are not performative to people but rather praising to our Almighty God. In other words, the centerpiece of your Sundays is not you or your gifts/talents, or even your sincere passion and vision. Neither is the centerpiece them - those you serve or whom you serve alongside with their gifts, their needs, their wants and talents. Paul tells the Church at Corinth, “So, … whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” even worship (1 Corinth. 10:31). Is your preparation for Sundays doing the work of looking at Christ through his word and fixing your gaze at him? Do people walk away from church thinking more about the person and work of Jesus more than anything else from the gathering?
When you go to the best steak house in the world, you don’t walk away talking about the forks or knives. They aren’t the point. Utensils are important; but they were never intended to be the point! They are just instruments to enjoy and savor the reason you came: the steak. You are a fork at best, my friends. Jesus is the Substance that strengthens and sustains.
#3 - Moving from low-lying fruit to localized faithfulness.
So many church-growth strategists I listen and read say things about low-lying fruit. The term low-lying fruit isn’t evil in and of itself, but it smells of fast growth strategies that promote speed rather than steady faithfulness. The appeal to whatever it takes to get fast, full, and flowing is a lust that must be repented of and turned away from. Fast growth, full buildings, and flowing streams of money may not be what God has in store for you always (or ever). If you lack full buildings and operate from a low budget, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing something wrong. The underlying acceptance must be that we are fiercely committed to healthy growth which often involves slower intentionality, patience, rejection, and failure. In other words, we must learn to celebrate health in our churches over any other descriptive.
To be localized means to be aware of the people and place in which God has planted you. Be faithful to that flock under your care. This flock and field may or may not include low-lying fruit. After Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to ‘preach the word’ in 2 Timothy 4, the Apostle drops four words that continue to ring through my mind when interacting with my church: “…great patience, careful instruction.”
Please note: I’m not saying that slow is better than fast when it comes to growth. Nor am I saying that small churches are better than larger ones. The growth and size of your ministry is God’s doing; you are to feed His sheep under your care.
#4 From planting a church for evangelism to planting a church from evangelism. The temptation is to get a church running with a mindset that once it's established, you can evangelize people. This “If you build it, they will come” mentality doesn’t work in a place where most people aren’t regularly attending any religious service.
If you look at your life and ministry, how committed are you right now to real relationships with the lost? As our small groups grow and more attention to Sunday excellence grows, it’s harder and harder to keep priority on personal evangelism. Yet our people need us to not just preach but also to model reaching the lost.
#5 From the Lordship of Christ to the Lordship of Christ.
This isn’t a typo. There should not be a shift here at all! May we never move from talking about Jesus, the Lord, and His sovereign rule and reign over all of life. All of life is all for Christ. Jesus is Lord over sexuality, careers, relationships, money, pleasure, and leisure. In our culture, we often wimp out when it comes to speaking the truth about things like sexuality, authority, identity, holiness. We operate as if Jesus needs us to improve his yelp rating to 5 stars?! To be fair, we can and must admit the misuse of power and authority that often mar the church; however, we should never be ashamed to point people to the Lord with the pierced hands, our agape authority before whom every knee will bow!