The U.S. comprises around 5% of the world’s population but consumes roughly 33% of its goods and services. To accommodate our consumer culture, pastors have devised 3 types of events to provide a more convenient, engaging church experience:
- Church as an Event – Once the weekend’s services are over, most members do little evangelism between Sundays (besides possibly inviting a friend to hear a sermon from the “professional” evangelist next weekend)
- Compassion as an Event – Once Christmas is over, most churches do only a couple small outreach events (until the next holiday season)
- Salvation as an Event – Once someone accepts Christ, churches offer limited discipleship and expect little life change
Yes, pastors have relented in the face of the harsh reality that “consumer Christians” are unwilling to accept and execute 3 core principles of our faith:
- the Biblical Definition of “Church” – i.e. it’s the believers, not a building; it’s people, not a place, charged with being the “church” personified all week long
- the Great Commission – i.e. hesitant to either “Go” or “Make Disciples”
- the Costs of Discipleship – i.e. like the rich young ruler, reluctant to leave everything behind if that’s what Jesus asks of them (Luke 9 and Luke 14)
Danger of Treating Salvation as an Event
Eternal life has never been sold as such a simple, non-committal transaction. Pastors give the invitation – some every Sunday. They ask new believers to repeat the sinner’s prayer and raise their hands if they prayed that prayer silently. Then pastors encourage them to get involved in the church – small groups, volunteering, giving, and membership. However, few churches follow up by offering intensive, personalized discipleship. Rather than the radical conversion the disciples experienced, willing to give it all up for Christ, most churches hand-hold new believers hoping they’ll plug in to a few church activities. Expectations are high for church engagement but low for life transformation.
The sinner’s prayer is an initiation into personal ministry. It’s a call to bold, active evangelism. By instead extending a passive invitation to get involved in church events and soft pedaling the Great Commission, churches turn the sinner’s prayer into an initiation pledge. Repeating the words look like rights of passage into a “club”, where the commitment is to the church family and not to set the world on fire for Christ. Rather than encouraging new converts to share their excitement with non-believers, leaders indoctrinate and assimilate them into the church body. Rather than quickly discipling them and sending them out into the mission field, we tell them to Invite their friends, get them Involved in internal ministries, and Invest their income in the church. After reciting the pledge, the new believer’s degree of life change, evangelism and discipleship are not monitored by church leaders, yet attendance, giving and volunteering are tracked meticulously.
Of course, we’re saved by what Jesus did for us alone, not in any way by what we do. However, what we do (or don’t do) is evidence of our salvation (James 2:14-18)…
Evidence of Salvation
I had dinner with George Barna a couple years ago and he spoke of a study he conducted of those who answered altar calls at Billy Graham crusades. He found that few were walking with the Lord, living transformed lives, just 3 years later. Likewise, I wonder how sincere our professions of faith are in church if our lives are still consumed with work, family, and even church. We may cuss less and act much nicer – clinging to the adage, “Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words”. However, I wonder whether the Lord is pleased with Christians who only actually talk about Him with their immediate family and church friends. Did we ever fully recognize the true value of God’s grace and the consequences of sin if we aren’t stepping out of our comfort zones regularly to lead people toward Jesus? I even wonder whether many in congregations who’ve said the “initiation pledge” and never miss a Sunday (yet don’t respond to the dire plight of the destitute and those destined for eternal damnation) are the goats Jesus says never fed, clothed, or gave Him a drink.
Are our lives truly transformed if we haven’t undergone a radical change in…
- Eyesight – Is our worldview consistent with the Lord’s? Does our perspective mirror His? In other words, have we adopted an eternal mindset, praying for God’s will to be done here on earth but realizing (and acting like) this is not our home? Those looking forward to heaven will seek to build up treasures there and not expend their treasures on consumption here.
- Empathy – Do we sit idly by in the presence of poverty and injustice? Two days after Martin Luther King Jr. day, I think about his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, in which he contended that pastors were offering implicit approval of racial injustice by their inaction. What percentage of Christians and churches today are actively involved in campaigns to protect the rights and dignity of others – such as human trafficking and various forms of discrimination? Consumer Christians may write checks and speak out on social media about those issues, but are generally too busy to get their hands dirty – unless personally affected by them.
- Engagement – Are we active in sharing our faith with non-believers? Are we Private, Pensive, Passive, or Powerful Christians? If we do speak up, has our churches simply instructed us to “tell our stories”, knowing they haven’t adequately equipped us to do much more – like answer difficult theological questions. Also, have we considered #WhereWouldJesusBe (#WWJB) right now, realizing we should still keep reaching out even after the holidays because people are just as lost and hopeless in January, February, etc.?
The rise of the “Nones” (claiming no religion) and “Dones” (done with church) coincides with Christianity’s diminished EYESIGHT, EMPATHY and ENGAGEMENT. In other words, the Church in America is declining in Growth, Impact, Influence and Perception because today’s consumer brand of Christianity has turned CHURCH, COMPASSION and even SALVATION into an event – and society isn’t buying it.
Life Change from Discipleship
When discipleship is optional, so is life change. Because discipleship is now optional, the Great Commission is considered optional as well. Even today’s “lite” version of discipleship, Small Groups, is optional. Yet what Jesus did with each of the 12 apostles and what Paul did with Timothy, was more intensive and personal than Small Group meetings. But if you ask pastors about their discipleship program at their church, the vast majority will cite Small Groups as their primary delivery vehicle. One-on-one and triad discipleship are far more effective yet far too great of a commitment to ask of most Christians today. It’s hard enough to get the average churchgoer into a weekly Small Group events that run only a couple semesters per year. Only a fraction participate.
Yes, we’re saved by God’s grace alone. No works are required, but many are expected. How could we change so little when we’ve gained so much? Grace is not an excuse to live in the status quo. In fact, it’s grace that should send us running into the mission field. How could love not overflow out of us when so much love has been poured in? How can we not share the gospel with those facing such painful and eternal separation from the Lord? Do we really “get it” if we consider having Kingdom Eyesight, Empathy and Engagement optional?
It takes a profound experience with Christ to break a “consumer” mentality. Coming to faith presumably involves just that sort of experience but the parable of the sower warns us that new believers run the risk of slipping back into their old ways unless the seeds are planted on fertile soil. Salvation comes for most at an early stage in the discipleship process. Those new plants require careful cultivation, and Small Group “events” simply won’t suffice. If new believers were viewed by church leaders more like “employees” (i.e. to train and mobilize) than “customers” (i.e. to appease and retain), then pastors would be more intent on providing intensive training (i.e. discipleship) to equip them to pursue the real “customer” (i.e. non-believers). In other words, discipleship provides Christians with the Eyesight, Empathy and Engagement necessary to change the world around them for Christ.
It’s Your Turn…
Demonstrate your Eyesight, Empathy and Engagement by participating in our new initiative – #MeetAnEternalNeed. #MeetAnEternalNeed encourages Christians and churchgoers everywhere to follow Jesus’ model by performing intentional (not random) acts of kindness for a friend, neighbor, coworker or complete stranger and watch it open the door to sharing the Gospel. Then…
- Post pics and tell your stories on Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #MeetAnEternalNeed (and #WWJB, #WhereWouldJesusBe) to inspire others
- Challenge 3 friends on Facebook or Twitter to “pay it forward”