As an ex-radio talk show host, I have some experience in asking provocative questions. I learned from experience what stirs people up and what doesn’t especially when it comes to asking questions. It’s actually a bit of an acquired skill – being able to be provocative whenever I want.
Which brings me to this question: Are we sacrificing the presence of God at church and doing it in the name of the Lord?
Lately I have focused on freedom quite a bit. I think it’s an important subject and warrants some discussion. I recall an incident where someone expressed concern on behalf of people who were uncomfortable with others who are more free in their expression of worship. It seems that some were concerned that people who were more free would alienate those who were not as free, causing some to eventually leave the church. Despite the objections, I decided, making choices like that only serves to dilute down some of our experiences with God. Rather than diluting our experiences with God, shouldn’t leadership lead by example and bring a culture of spirituality into the corporate environment? After all, behind that first objection was just fear. Fear that people would make life difficult. Fear that people would complain. Fear that people would leave. Even Jesus was faced with this situation.
In Luke 18 we see Jesus having his encouter with the rich, young ruler:
A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good–except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’ “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said. When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (NIV)
Did you notice that Jesus did not chase after the young ruler and decry that he would make some changes to make things more acceptable so he wouldn’t leave? He simply told him the truth in love and let him leave. The ruler wasn’t prepared to pay the price to serve God and Jesus knew it. Yet churches do the opposite at times hoping for an outcome Jesus rejected; a less-than sold-out life for Christ. That is why I will never be an advocate of so called “seeker sensitive” churches because they compromise the bold truth of the Gospel to make it more acceptable by self-defined standards.
Let me be the first to say that church has lost its edge. Gone is the real edgy things that defined it centuries ago as describe in Acts. As Graham Cooke once put it, “We’re supposed to start better than they finished.” Nor was Jesus a stranger to controversy. He had several encounters with others who must of thought of him as extreme and as a radical. But the difference between Jesus and how churches handle conflict today is immeasurable.
Applying all these ideas in the context of freedom within church is no doubt a conundrum for pastors. The idea of freedom in church is indeed problematic for leaders if it isn’t a value – mostly because pastors hold to a false premise that their success, presumed to be limited by too much freedom, is measured by the size of their membership rather than in the degree of which God is moving in their churches. It may not be the pastor’s fault. After all, in the world we live in, bigger is better. I am sure that most pastors would vehemently deny a personal compromise takes place in their church, and that may be true for some, but I am also sure that many unknowingly walk the tightrope in between growth and God. How else do you explain what we have in our country today. On one hand, pastors are forced to operate in a functional paradigm which only breeds cultures that they helped create. These cultures born of the functional church ascribe success to the pastor based on the size of their congregation. There is always something that goes on in the mind of believers that if the church is small, it must not be good. It’s just human behavior to think that way. If you ever attend a conference where pastors and church leaders gather, watch how often the question, “How big is your church” comes up. On the other hand, if pastors allow freedom loving souls like us to decide what worship should be like, they fear (fear of man is the operative word here) that less-free people will leave – especially visitors. Consequently, people who want to express themselves with more freedom usually get frustrated and leave because the spirit man inside them is chained up in a box.
In their book, Permission Granted, authors Graham Cooke and Gary Goodell, call this more of a coffin than a box:
“Today people (in church) are excluded because they “don’t fit in.” In addition, people have to subjugate their own dreams in order to serve the vision of the house. A box has been created that captures people instead of captivating them. We create rules of behavior to keep people in the confines of what we determine is decent and in order. The problem is that our sense of order comes out of a functional paradigm that is cemented in the need for leaders to possess, acquire and control. This is eros love –love with a hook, love that uses people but does not fulfill them. The box becomes the coffin of their dreams and aspirations.”
So back our Question Du Jour. Do pastors (or all church leaders) with the power to decide, really want to stand before God one day and say that they shielded their flocks from God presence? If church leaders are trying to keep people from leaving at all cost, even when it’s a manifestation of God’s presence that they object to, aren’t we putting ourselves between them and God even when God may have had every intention of offending their religiosity? This is why it is a perilous position that some leaders may be taking because if they are, it is the ultimate seeker sensitivity because we unwittingly put ourselves between their flock and God as if we know what is best for them more than God does. That is why we must first seek the Kingdom of God, seeking only after his presence 100% with total abandon, because the moment that we take our eye off the prize of his presence by even the slightest compromise, we have sacrificed it all to have a part of church on our soul’s terms instead of the spirit, and no church led by soul will ever fully receive the full measure of its inheritance being led by soul in full or part.
In such cases, Pastors and church leaders are then unconsciously making decisions based on fear or from their soul and therefore cannot be moving and leading the church by their spirit. This behavior erodes the bond between leadership and the church body who expect their leaders to be led by God in all matters inside and outside the church. In an amusing twist, most pastors believe this adamantly, especially as it applies to the individual, but it seems to miss some of them completely in applying the same standards to all things corporate – particularly to our percision-timed meetings which rarely diviate from the schedule.
Church is what it is- and it got there by design. Leaders would never admit this, but it seems that some pastors want to grow their churches more than just about anything else. The question for pastors is then whether they want to grow their churches as a byproduct of the uncompromising sacrifice to the presence of God or do they want to just grow church for growth sake and then invite God to come in after the fact. If so, it will be the one of the biggest mistakes they will make in their call as pastors, because God is not looking for a place he can squeeze into. He is looking for a place to live where he can literally be the environment.
But in a world where congregational size is the primary success metric for pastors – used by both church-goers and denominations alike, it’s hard to blame pastors who are only products of the system they helped create. The pastor whose church is growing fast, will be noticed; and something must be going on there and that something might just be soul power. Afterall, many people are attracted to soul power, be that politics, entertainment, sporting events and so on, that all attract masses of people on the basis of soul power and the idol of feeling good about yourself. The church and the world tell us that having 4,000 followers is better than having 400. So growth, by almost any ethical means possible, becomes the primary focus of leader and all decisions are made through that filter. By default, we subconsciously sacrifice the presence of God for growth. Without ever saying a word, what we communicate is a deeper desire that looks to attract people more than it looks to attracts God and in so doing, the moment we compromise on one matter to avoid an outcome where people leave, we do so at the expense of God’s presence. You cannot be sold-out for the presence of God and make decisions based on what people think. The only opinion that matters is God’s. That’s why we need to repent for even the slightest compromises of his presence!
This is one of the big problems with church today. They are pastor mills, built to attract and gather up people but lack the influence of the other offices. Pastors would rather not release and send people away because that flies in the face of the functional paradigm; which seeks to create corporate programs and get as many people to come as possible whether they need to be there or not. That’s why you see so much inwardly focused church activity rather than externally focused church activity. By contrast, prophets and apostles want to send people out. They have less desire to gather and nurture than they do when it comes to training and sending. They only think about raising these people up and preparing them for war. Having church with only pastors is a little like a marriage with only one parent. There is an unnatural, missing balance to one extreme that God did not design. Consequently, kids from single parent households grow up without either a mom, or in most case, without a dad. Kids raised by only a mom become overly nurtured and protected while kids raised by only dad are more likely to lack emotionally connected relationships. This is what goes on in churches. The church is missing the balance of the other gifts in the body. We have become overly nurtured and because of it, not walking in our inheritance, not walking off maps like Abraham, not walking in power and maturity because, as Paul said, were still on mother’s milk. Many people with gifting of their own wait and wait never to be released because pastors do not do this naturally in the functional paradigm. Instead we have meetings and have them abundantly. We meet and meet and meet and when we are done, we meet some more which fits the functional paradigm. Pastors who have the best of intentions tell members they are planning this or that with people mind, but rarely ever deliver. It’s not because pastors are bad or lying, they just aren’t gifted for what their mind knows is right but that their heart feels is wrong.
So pastors continue to do what they do best – gather up people like sheep and nurture them, love them and care for them but they cannot release them nearly enough within the functional church. Graham Cooke says, it is impossible to do that if we treat people like sheep, collectively. “A good shepherd knows every sheep individually; that’s why he is able to go after the one who is lost,” writes Cooke. “Our goal is to facilitate the development of every believer in Christ. Corporate vision cannot be imposed from the top down. It has to grow from the ground up.
Church instead should be the most unlimited expression of the body of Christ for the glorification of God within a relational paradigm because God is relational. Therefore, everything we do must have a relational component to it. We invest time in people to usher them into a maturity in Christ for their benefit, not the benefit of the church. Are we glorifying God if we give him substandard worship, raise up people who are not ready for what the enemy throws at them, or water down messages to make it a little more acceptable to the modern day, rich young ruler? How does settling for anything less than excellence glorify God? The Lord deserves our very best. We should be prepared to bring the best we have to offer. Anything less is simply unacceptable.