The Present Future: Church Growth vs. Kingdom Growth (3)
Today I continue my series on Reggie McNeal’s The Present Future, specifically, the second new reality facing the church: the shift from church growth to kingdom growth. In light of this new reality, what is the tough question that the church must ask? According to Reggie McNeal, the church must ask: “how do we transform our community? (how do we hit the streets with the gospel?).”
Here are McNeal’s opening words:
“If they aren’t going to come to us, then we’ve got to go to them. This is the crux of the issue. Churches that understand the realities of the present future are shifting the target of ministry efforts from church activity to community transformation. This is turning the church inside out.” (p. 26)
McNeal then goes on to make an extended comparison between the Pharisees of Jesus’ day and the modern church of our day. For example, when the disciples went to the town of Sychar (John 4), they never noticed the Samaritan woman at the well. They walked right by her. Of course, her being a woman and a Samaritan had a lot to do with that! But when the disciples question Jesus, he responds with a great challenge: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Do you not say, “Four months more then the harvest?” I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest” (John 4:34-35). Why didn’t they see the world around them, including the Samaritan woman, as the harvest?
“The reason Jesus had trouble getting his disciples to see what he saw was simply this: they had grown up in church! They had been trained to be concerned with internal issues (keeping the law and so forth) rather than on keeping their eyes on the harvest. Not that the harvest was totally out of mind. It could just wait (four months or more) until the internal needs could be met…The disciples had grown up under the influence of Pharisaic Judaism. The Pharisees’ evangelism strategy sounds eerily familiar. Their approach to sharing God was, “Come and get it!” In addition, they had contorted God’s message to moralism: “You people ‘out there’ need to straighten up!” They Pharisees had developed a very insular culture. They did business as much as possible only with other Pharisees (lest they be contaminated by the unclean). When they traveled, they stayed with other Pharisees. They lived inside the Pharisee bubble (they had little Pharisee insignias on their burro bumper and listed only to Pharisee radio stations). Their message to people outside the bubble was: “Become like us (translated: believe like us, dress like us, vote like us, act like us, like what we like, don’t like what we don’t like). If you become like us (jumping through cultural hoops and adopt ours), we will consider you for club membership.” Does any of this sound familiar yet?” (p. 28)
McNeal goes on to show that Jesus was a threat to the Pharisees because he challenged their system. Jesus went to people. Jesus ate with sinners. Jesus didn’t insist that people get cleaned up first before they come to God, he invited them to come to God as they are. The kingdom of God was expanding outside the Pharisaic system, and they didn’t like it!
In case you are missing the comparison, McNeal believes that many churches today act like Pharisees. Even many churches that have an evangelism strategy are all about bringing people into their culture (friendship Sunday, door to door invitations to come to church, etc, etc). McNeal’s proposal is radically different. Here are a few things he says:
- “The call to take the gospel to the streets is more than the call to think up some new evangelism or outreach program. The church’s efforts at these generally fall way short because the approaches are devised by a bunch of church members trying to come up with ideas that will entice unchurched people to want to come to church.” (p. 31)
- “The church that wants to partner with god on his redemptive mission in the world has a very different target: the community.” (p. 32)
- “The consumer church sees resources plowed into community transformation as “diverted” from the church (read: institutional needs and programs for members).” But what we need are “more and more people, in the church and out, who have the call, the ability, and the finances to resource their own ministry passions in the community.” (p. 33)
The bottom line is that kingdom thinking does not think about one individual church. Kingdom thinking does not think about its own self and its own growth, but about God’s redemptive mission in the community. That means people on a kingdom mission will go out into the community to proclaim Jesus Christ to a people that will never walk through a church door no matter what is going on inside. “This is what it’s going to take to gain a hearing for the gospel in the streets of the twenty-first century – the smell of cleaning solution, dirty faces, obvious acts of servanthood.” What about the gospel, you ask? In the midst of this service you boldly proclaim: “I am a disciple of Jesus. I am serving him by serving you, because that’s what he came to do.” Go to the people, serve them, proclaim Christ.
Here is the key for the twenty-first century church: “we need to go where people are already hanging out and be prepared to have conversations with them about the great love of our lives. This will require our shifting our efforts from growing churches to transforming communities.”