It’s a question that I asked of my own church a few weeks ago during a sermon. It’s a question that the Church needs to ask over and over and over again. What is it that we are building? Are we building programs and activities, events and experiences? Are we building huge buildings with state of the art technology, smoke machines, light shows, and enough power in the sound system to blow the doors off the place?
Or are we building disciples, followers of Christ?
I don’t think that the two are mutually exclusive. In other words, I don’t think that programs, activities, events, experiences, and modern technology are bad. But…..they can easily distract us from the true “building” on which we need to focus: the people.
It’s been about a year and a half since the congregation that I am a part of and help to lead walked away from a building and a denomination with whom we could no longer live peaceably. Since that time, I have seen growth in myself and the other pastors, the leadership, and the congregation. I have been encouraged that we seem to be on the right path. We have seen God at work and it has been a joy to watch and experience.
I’ve always thought it difficult to define success when it came to spirituality and church. All too often, the business principles of success bleed into the church and we wrongly define success from a corporate standpoint rather than seeking out ways to measure spiritual growth. Businesses measure success by income and growth and too often, we can fall into that same trap within the church, especially when we are trying to pay for things like buildings and sound systems, broken HVAC systems and deteriorating nursery equipment.
If you are at all exposed to information and media from within the Christian subculture, then you have most likely read about the ongoing saga of Mark Driscoll out at Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Driscoll has been no stranger to controversy, but in recent months he seems to have created an even greater firestorm for himself. Information has come out over how he has treated some within his congregation who oppose his leadership, how he has self-promoted his books to advance sales by buying books himself and distributing them (which is apparently not very uncommon within the secular world), and various other things. If you want to know more about him and some of what he has been up to, you can do a search and I am sure you will come up with sufficient reading material.
Right now, Mars Hill Church is in turmoil because of all of this publicity. Right now, I wonder how much they are really able to focus on the mission of the church as they do damage control. Right now, there are hurt people who may be read to walk away from the church forever (or may have already done so). Right now, an empire that has been built around a man and a personality are beginning to crumble and there is panic in the kingdom.
This isn’t the first time that a church leader has fallen from the pedestal shelf on which they’ve been placed. Jimmy Swaggart. Jim Bakker. Ted Haggard. The names are different and so are the situations, to some degree, but what is the same is that God’s Church, his bride, continues to look more like the bride of Hosea than the radiant virgin that one might hope and expect to find on their wedding day.
Don’t get me wrong, we’ve all fallen from grace, that’s why we need a Savior, but grace is extended to us again when we show repentance. The reason that I constantly am drawn to stories like Mark Driscoll’s as well as some of these others is because it could easily be me. I could easily be the one to build an empire to myself based upon my personality and gifts rather than building the Kingdom of God. If I’m not careful, I can jump on that slippery slope and go sliding down to the bottom just like Chutes and Ladders. If we’re all honest, we can probably all say the same thing.
It’s a wake-up call for me and I hope that it becomes a wake-up call to the Church. When will we wake up and realize that the church isn’t supposed to become an empire that we build around a person or a personality, around a team, a music group, or anything that is shallow and fading, but it needs to be founded on the central tenet of who Christ is and who he has called us to be as his hands and feet. If the church fails to be the hands and feet of Christ, there is still hope for the world because God is sovereign, but would we rather he work through us or in spite of us? When we build the Church on foundations other than Christ, they will crumble and fall, there will be pain and regret, there will be damage and loss.
Empires are built with strong leaders, or even dictators, but we aren’t supposed to be building an empire, we’re supposed to be helping to build and populate a Kingdom. The moment that I lose sight of that is the moment that someone had better slap me upside the head and remind me that it’s not about me, it’s about God and his kingdom come, his will be done. We’d better wake up to that fact and start building on a more sure foundation than charismatic leaders and their gifting.
The moment that things start feeling like they’re being built around me is the moment that my pride will do its best to convince me that that’s exactly what’s supposed to happen. At that point, I need to run far and fast and figure out how to change the plans because that foundation will not stand strong. Nobody said it would be easy, but the Kingdom benefits for the long haul will be so worth it in the end.