I believe a movement has been underway for some time in the church in the US that is now beginning to surface more visibly. Scandal after scandal has been rocking the church; from sexual abuse scandals to financial scandals to character scandals. It is telling that perhaps the most visible, Bill Hybels, of Willow Creek Church, has played such a vital role in the “seeker sensitive” megachurch model. In the early days, it seemed their original vision was spot on in pursuing the kind of church we see reflected in Acts 2. But somewhere along the way it seems that vision got clouded over by other ambitions, ego, and lack of leadership accountability (which is a similar pattern unfolding in many other recent cases).
While I am not ready by any means to condemn every megachurch as unbiblical (there are many great churches that are large in size), I and many others across the US, have felt uneasy for years that we have a serious flaw in our approach or even idea of “church.”
We have become a country of consumers looking for the latest, greatest, newest, most hip, most popular church that can satisfy our wants and needs; instead of asking “how can we serve each other?” We look for leaders with the most charisma instead of character; to a few gifted people, instead of a community of people. We look for preachers who are excellent communicators with sound-bite statements that make us feel good; instead of messengers sensitive to the Holy Spirit, who are faithful in sharing what God has to say to us from His Word in season. We also look to one or maybe two “pastors” only to hear from God for us; instead of coming together where everyone has something to contribute as the Spirit leads (1 Corinthians 14:26-39).
We put our faith in “celebrity” pastors or dynamic leaders; rather than focusing on the presence of the King of Kings in our midst working through ALL his people. We limit God to an hour or at most two, once a week, to operate on our schedule, according to our agenda, leaving no real time to allow him to work or move in our midst as his people. Worship easily becomes a show on a stage designed to entertain us by a few talented people.
We need to also see that more people are not always a sign of “success.” Yes, God loves every person on the planet and desires none to perish. We need to “go” and share the Gospel with as many people as possible using every possible mean to do so. But we need to do more than lead people to Christ or hold church services. We are called to make disciples. True disciple making cannot happen once a week in a big group context. Jesus preached to the crowds, but he was not enamored by the crowds. In fact, his teaching often purposely became “harder” the larger the crowd, resulting in people walking away (See John 6), so that only the truly committed remained. We need to stop watering the truth down in an effort to be “sensitive” and make people comfortable. Jesus is not going to ask us how big our churches were; but whether we made real disciples. This is truly all that matters in the end (Matthew 28:18-20). Everything else is just “hay” and straw” that will be burned up and amount to nothing in eternity (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
Francis Chan is one of the leaders on the forefront of this movement away from spectator churches and celebrity leaders, having lived in that world himself for many years. He recently wrote a book called Letters to the Church that I highly recommend all believers, leaders and churches wrestle with and work through how that could be applied to our various context’s. I know I have wrestled with these same thoughts and ideas for over a decade. At the very least, we need to see that our approach to “church” is flawed and often very unbiblical and sets up or enables ambitious and talented leaders to be elevated in an unhealthy way that leads to scandals and shattered faith.
One of the best exercises I ever did was after six years of being a pastor, sitting down to write a little book for the mission organization I lead, called, The Basic Things You Need to Know About the Church where I simply went to the bible to see what it said about what the church is and what it is do to; instead of everything we have become accustomed to. If we simply focused on what Scripture says, and stripped away everything else that has come to define “church”, I believe it would look a lot different from what we have accepted or defined as “church.”
We also have to stop looking to leaders in a way that our faith depends on them. We need to be intentional about our own walk with Christ and living that out in the context of community, which does not happen just by “going to church” on Sunday’s and depending on a few leaders to “feed us.” If our faith is in people, we will always be disappointed and left with a faith that is shattered. We will also become disillusioned and disappointed perhaps even with God himself, instead of realizing it’s sin in people that results in scandals. We need to place our loyalty in Christ and Christ alone; not our leaders unconditionally or uncritically. No leader should demand unconditional loyalty or suppress those with concerns from the freedom to share without fear of losing favor or being labeled as “problem people.”
The church is no place for a “good ole boy’s” network to thrive. The church is a place for all people, of all backgrounds, to come together as a diverse people, around the person of Jesus Christ, the only one worthy of our unconditional loyalty and obedience. The age of celebrity churches and leaders needs to end if we ever hope to truly be a healthy people and credible witness again to a world that is watching with deserved skepticism.