I find myself in a strange predicament. I am the pastor of an online church that was started out of the recognition to bring people together who were not involved in a physical brick and mortar church. As a part of our efforts, we recognized that many Christians were leaving their churches, some for good reason, some for unbiblical reasons, and we also realized that many individuals for whatever reason had made a commitment to Christ while at the same time, not plugging into a church. There was a third mission concept that was to also be an honest point of conversation for those who were seeking or searching for spiritual truth. Now this is going to be a rather long article, but I challenge individuals to read it, think about it, pray about it and then process it as opposed to doing what many will likely do, that is respond negatively without actually thinking about the premise I present.
Recently, actually over the last two years I have also had two specific areas that I have spent a great deal of study on, one is the incarnation of Christ and the responsibility of his followers to incarnate to those on our planet, which I won’t discuss here, but the second area I do intend to discuss is the concept of transfer growth and the growth of the mega church movement, specific to America. That area of discussion will be controversial because there will be individuals and churches that are challenged that what they have done has in fact hurt this religious organization we call Christianity more than it has helped it, and in fact, in many cases, it may very well have sinned. Now at this point, I realize two things, one; people may quit reading, and two; there may be an assumption that I am saying this applies to all mega churches and that all people who have transferred are wrong, or bad. Neither of these assumptions is true. There are wonderful, in fact excellent mega churches and there are many appropriate reasons to transfer from one church to another, even sometimes a mega church. Of course on these things I am speaking of what I call brick and mortar churches.
I need to give clarification related to The Virtual Pew, it is our intent as a ministry, from day one to discover and recommend real brick and mortar churches for those a part of The Virtual Pew experience. It has even been a blessing to see the brick and mortar church I pastor benefit from people discovering this ministry through the internet, using it, and then starting to attend or visit Mosaic in Wichita. It is our hope for those a part of The Virtual Pew, for those that can, and are able, to plug those individuals into a brick and mortar church.
Before going into my diatribe there are three books and sources I use for support and have based the basis of my opinions. While they aren’t the only three, they are three very good ones. I would encourage any person, or pastor of any church wanting to truly examine the concept presented here to read these books. They are well sourced in their research and reasoning. They are, William Chadwick’s, Stealing Sheep, The Problem With Transfer Growth in America, George Barna’s, Revolution, and thirdly and most importantly, The Holy Bible.
First point of contention, something I have had to learn in life, just because you do something, or do it because it is the way you have seen it done before, is what you believe to be the way it has always been, or the way your church does it, doesn’t make it Biblical or God’s way. We have to understand this when looking at this subject. For the follower of Jesus, the Bible has to be the ultimate authority; any other authority is flawed and not dependable. I don’t care how many books have been written on church growth, and who wrote those books, what I do care about, is what does the Bible say, and what is the evidence related to how the church has ‘reportedly’ grown over the last years.
Of course many individuals, even those in churches, won’t see it this way no matter what the research or Bible says, to those, I think there are more important underlying problems in relation to your faith. Please understand, I am not saying don’t disagree with me; just support your disagreement with the Bible. If you can’t do it, then I question where your reasoning comes from. I will say that on this point of debate, I have had many disagree with me; I have yet to see Biblical support and reasoning to support their views. Those are the types of things that give me concern. I simply refuse to carry on a logical debate with illogical reasoning or opinions not supported with evidence and proof. I am asking you to read this with an open mind, and as scripture says, to ask the Holy Spirit to give you ears to hear what the Spirit would say to the church.
As stated, I have done a lot of study on this, don’t take my word for it, check out the three sources I mention, (I only mention 3 to make it easy to get started as two of those are well sourced.) It is also acceptable to present other research, either agreeing with, or disagreeing with the premise I make. I am trying to present my argument with facts, and clear Biblical texts and concepts, I even purchased one of the books I use as a source here when someone presented their argument to sway and change my own belief on this subject from where it was to where it is now. That’s right, my position on this argument was challenged by someone and I took their challenge seriously. I changed my mind and my original position on this issue was wrong.
I ask you to use reason as well. Why? Quite simply, I believe the way most churches encourage growth to be one of the great sins of the church, specific to America but not limited there. If Jesus mission and purpose was to seek and save the lost, the church may have lost the primary focus and intent of the very mission Jesus called us to. The truth is, while many things matter in life, nothing is as important as the need to present The Good News with a Lost and Dying World, especially if Jesus and the writers of the New Testament (and I believe Old Testament) has as a point of purpose, the desire to show us how to reach the world around us with the love of Christ. While discipleship concepts (how to grow in our faith and be more like Jesus) certainly occur in scripture, we must remember what that growth involves, it involves and requires us better being able to reach others with the message of Christ, not sitting on our bums acting like we know more, and are better than the very people Jesus died for.
First to dispel some thought as to people thinking I may be negative towards mega churches. I will specifically mention three that I think have done an excellent job, two of those I have visited and one of those which is local. I will also mention a specific organization and some of the excellent teaching coming out of that organization. I know there will be some of the more conservative cliental who will blast me for supporting two of these churches as it seems to be easy to blast other churches. I have a saying that when it comes to being critical of churches, pastors and so forth, we better be careful. I have said for several years now, you can say anything about me and I won’t react nearly as harshly as if you say something critical about my wife. Say something about me, I’ll deal with it, say something about my wife, it is all I can do to keep from busting you in the nose. On this point, remember, the church is the bride of Christ which he loves passionately. We are to love her, care for her and be passionate about her, even when as the whore in Hosea; she goes against the things true marriage and relationship are for. That does not mean we don’t correct her, challenge her, and desire for her to be the very things she is intended to be, this is especially so in regards to the church.
Before saying something about the mega churches I like, let me give a point of clarity. Many say the church isn’t a building, a location but a people. While there is total truth in that, we must also understand The Bible gives clear indication that the church is also a local body of believers. One of the organizations I love, one I believe has done a great job at planting churches is World Impact. I have heard Fred Stoesz state something like, the church, whether the small home church, the upstart growing inner city church, or the large mega church is still the church and complete in the things God desires for them to be, having the potential to be all God wants them to be. I agree with this, but I also believe it is critical the body comes together to be the body of Christ, loving and growing together, and reaching out to their own, starting with their own Jerusalem, family and neighborhood, then to Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, but it starts at home.
Now on the above paragraph, I have unfortunately learned much of what I know from the mistakes I have made, even the sins I have committed. It wasn’t enjoyable, fun or positive, outside of the need and realization that I needed to change my ways and have the guts to admit where I was wrong, and go and do the right things from there. Unfortunately, while God has forgiven me for my mistakes in this area, while I have forgiven myself, I know others were hurt so deeply that it has been difficult for them to forgive me. I think if we are honest, many of us will find ourselves in the same scenario.
Now the agencies and churches I think have done a good job. The first is a Para church organization I have already mentioned, World Impact. They are doing an excellent job at helping start and develop churches with a model concept unique to each of the churches I am going to mention.
There is also a sister church of Mosaic in the Wichita area, that I can speak highly of, it is Hope Community Church in Andover Kansas. They have a tremendous ministry to the Biker community and have done some incredible ministry. Their ministry from their very roots was to minister to those often neglected by the church.
These next two will be churches some will be critical of; they are similar in some ways but different in others. But I have a tremendous amount of respect for Willow Creek in Chicago, led by pastor Bill Hybels, and Saddleback in California. These churches understand and have worked at maintaining small groups in their church, but have grown to unbelievable numbers with an unbelievable impact. Rick Warren in his book The Purpose Driven Life has used more scripture to support and encourage in his book of any book outside of the Bible I have ever seen. Bill Hybels recognized and offered a form of a public apology and request for forgiveness for not being clearer on certain aspects related to the church and the mission of Christ.
There is a unique attribute that despite the criticism of at least 2 of these churches disturbs me. Despite the criticism, despite the numbers that attend these churches, the overwhelming majority of growth for these two churches is from people who have made first time decisions to follow Jesus Christ as their Leader and Forgiver, their Lord and Savior. The reality of what constitutes salvation is as solid as the most conservative of groups, yet, the majority of criticism seems to be based on jealousy or laziness to grow ones own church.
Let me be clear with a brief statement; every church should equip their people to grow in their faith, to ultimately reach as many people as possible with the message of Jesus. In other words, we are to be about growing the church. For many, they will start new home groups, as they should as the home church is a fully functional, acceptable church we see in scripture. It means the small country church, should be growing, the inner city urban church should be growing, the church in the suburbs needs to grow, why? The mission Jesus called us to is to reach those who don’t know him. I challenge, the ability to reach those who don’t know Jesus, is the one thing we can’t do in Heaven as it is too late. It is the one thing that holds the most importance to our walk with Christ; it is the very purpose of which Jesus came to this planet. While other countries have issue with too much emphasis on self, Jesus made it clear, love our Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, mind and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves, of all of the commandments there are none greater than these two, and when we have kept these two, we have kept them all. If we have family that will not experience the joy, the life that Jesus has for them and don’t share that love with them, and try to reach them in a loving caring way, I have to question where ones priorities are.
The Bible uses metaphor all through out; one of the amazing concepts of metaphor is in relation to family. There is ‘The Bride of Christ,’ ‘The Family of God,’ ‘Children,’ ‘Babes,’ ‘Brothers and Sisters,’ ‘like a child,’ ‘little children,’ and the list goes on. The concept of family is clear, and evident, by intent. Yet I question, has our society, has our generation so perverted this concept that we easily accept non traditional and non biblical positions because it is what we have become accustomed to and have learned to accept. I am not talking about following cultural traditions, heck if you know me, have seen me you know I am not into that. I have long hair, body piercing, tattoos, and more. Those are cultural things, but there are clear guidelines and concepts that are consistent from Genesis to Revelation, on those points, I believe, the intent hasn’t changed, how we follow or don’t follow them has changed.
I appreciate the teachings of the late Francis Schaeffer. Among those concepts the approach of logic and reason is critically important. I think that is true of others like C.S. Lewis, but also old time preachers like Charles Haddon Spurgeon and even, J. Vernon McGee. In looking at their teachings you can’t help but notice their deep appreciation and admiration of God’s power, the sacrifice to follow the ultimate truth of Scripture, but also the reasoning involved in looking at the world around them. God is complete, and true, not just an idea. The Bible is a guide, researched, ridiculed, but in all situations, held true and proven. I realize a great deal of debate could take place here, that is not the intent and I will monitor the discussions that take place to prevent the rabbit trails as much as possible. But we have to use the brains God gave us, think about the scenarios presented and come to the conclusions with the help of the Holy Spirit, and the supports of The Holy Bible, as to what is and is not truth.
I could do a book on this subject, maybe someday I will, but for now, I want to keep it as simple as possible to encourage thought and discussion. Here is the first question though as presented in the book ‘Stealing Sheep by William Chadwick.’ Where in the Bible are we told to grow the church by transfer growth? In fact, can we find a single incident of transfer growth taking place or being encouraged in the Bible?
One of the things that often comes up is Paul, but a reminder about Paul and others. Paul and others in Scripture where in many ways church plant pastors, pastors evangelists, and missionaries who had as a purpose the need to go to other locations to either start up other churches, or to assist churches that existed. Now if this is what one wants to do, that is help start other churches, to assist developing and new churches, great. Maintain the association with a home base, like Paul, makes sure you follow the Biblical model in this process. World Impact has some great teaching on this concept. I believe an even better model is the model used in missions, for the inner city church, I especially like the foreign mission model better than the traditional home mission model.
In the New Testament, you don’t see an example per say of one person leaving from one church to another because of dissatisfaction. What you do see, even in difficult times, is the need to stay put and work at bringing about needed changes. You see this with the woman at the well, legion, in Paul’s writings to various individuals including Philemon, Titus and Timothy and other places. You also see the church challenged in the book of Revelations. Those admonitions from John are clear, bring about change, don’t run away.
Another thing that often comes up is people stating the Bible talks about the Universal Church, the church as a whole and not per say local individual churches. I have to question, for people taking this position, have you ever studied the history of the church, or ever read the book of Acts where we hear specifically about the home church? It is clear, that while there are instructions given to the larger church as a whole, there is also specific instruction to local churches and those churches met in the homes of people. It is here we see the concepts many long for and are presented with especially well in home churches and small groups. You see a process where people develop real relationships that resemble real family. You see real commitment; real covenant and a real love. It is here every need can be met from finance, to support. The larger Church can provide larger needs, needs like Health Care, home foreclosure, and more.
We have clear evidence that while we see the larger Universal Church, we also see the local community church. Some may bring up an argument I have heard, “Well but I am just going to a church in the same city, I’m not really leaving the church.” On this point, it isn’t about a proximity thing as much as it is a commitment and relationship thing; it is about this concept presented all through scripture called community. The population base is one of those things that are not consistent with the population aspects in Scripture. There may be more people that live in the small state of Kansas then lived in the whole Middle East during Jesus time. The commitment to the body, that enables the body to do the work of the body, including displaying real love, real community with each other is critical if we are to be effective in the ministry of reaching others, or for that matter, helping each other grow in our faith to where we can put those concepts into practice. When the Church shows no better community than the world offers, then why would we expect them to follow what we have to offer? Through the struggles that often occur is where true growth takes place. We know those concepts to be true, but unfortunately, many in the church runs from that responsibility, and the local church, even many mega churches, encourage some to run from one place to another without ever going through the process needed for growth.
Here is a sad reality in today’s world, a person’s word, a person’s commitment, contract and so forth means so little because people as a whole, don’t value those concepts. In a world where we celebrate songs that emphasize how it is “all about me” or to “each his own”, or even, “it’s about time I got some for my own.” You have to wonder where is the attitude of Jesus of serving and loving others, even in tough times, especially those who are supposed to be our brothers or sisters, who we have a commitment to who are babes in Christ, and well, maybe from here you get my point. In a world where Christians have shown for example their commitment to marriage (our divorce rate is higher than non Christians) is lacking, is it any wonder our relation to each other, where a covenant commitment is made is also lacking. In a world where many are more committed to a fast food restaurant than are committed to the body of Christ is there any wonder the research shows so many people no longer attend a brick and mortar church? If we want to know the problem with the church and how we are not growing universally, many of us need to listen to and hear the words from the prophet Michael Jackson, all we have to do is look at ‘The man (or woman) in the mirror.’ When it comes to honoring commitment, to respecting a covenant or contract, I am so glad that God doesn’t just quit on us like we often times quit on his bride.
With transfer growth comes a lack of commitment, and more importantly and even more dangerously, an unwillingness to be obedient and accountable to leadership and others that we have previously made a commitment to. Now without mentioning names, let me share of experiences as an example. I have seen and experienced people that supposedly were a part of the church I pastor. Of those people, I can specifically think of 4 who transferred out in an appropriate way. They let me know about it in advance, they let the body know specifically what was going on, and those individuals maintained relationship with many in the church. There was one family that relocated due to health issues and getting older and wanting to be closer to family to deal with issues. This family lived some miles from the church. The other family followed the same concepts and was searching. This family with the dynamics of being the former pastor felt it important to move on. Now because I believe both followed a Biblical model, I think I can honestly say, it is as if they never left us, they are still a part of our family. I still keep in touch with these individuals and they have been supportive of what we are doing. The others who left the church, 5 of them (adults plus their children) just quit. I did out reach no response, more outreach, and no response. I challenge, the other churches that received these people into fellowship, without contact with us to work things out, to make sure God was in the process, that the needs of those we call brothers and sisters, including the church was met and being taken care of was just as much at fault. I can almost here people saying here, “Am I responsible for other churches?” It is kind of like the question asked Jesus, “Am I my brothers keeper?” The response would be the same, “you betcha!”
Mosaic had some people visit our church recently from another church. One of the pastors of that church has provided some help and counsel to me over the last year. The couple from that church made mention to me of possibly starting to come to Mosaic on a regular basis. As a small church, growth is important. In talking to them I realized it would be good for them to meet with their pastor, share their heart, and share their concerns. I think they owed that to their former church, as do all members and participants in church, and I think the church, out of respect of the call God has on her, also had the responsibility to do what was best for that family. That whole thing is still in progress, but I will say this, whether the family decides to associate with Mosaic or not is not nearly as important as the institution and bride of Christ be allowed to do her job. If they come to Mosaic, great, we followed a Biblical concept. If they decide to stay at their former church, great, they have resolved issues and people who know them and love them can continue to be a part of their lives. In either result the people are built up and we have made the effort to do what God expects.
There was an old concept that at one time I didn’t like, that was the transfer of membership by letter of recommendation from a person’s old church. I think the more I think of this, the more I like that process, not because of anything other than it helps the local church, make sure that other local churches are following through with their responsibilities, and it helps make sure that what is best for the person is taking place. It also helps give clarity and the best understanding of the needs of the person coming into the church, or leaving the church, all concepts that any family member would follow through on with their children as they go to college, move on in life in marriage and so forth. Yet it continues, as if we just turn them loose and then wonder why the status is no different in their lives than the lives of those outside the church.
Unfortunately, people make excuses to not honor commitments; there is lack of vision or the unwillingness to persevere. An example from personal experience is people who left church due to needing more for their children (I have actually heard this several times at two different churches, from numerous people, and even other churches). These people often make commitments to be a part of the body, to be involved in ministry, to take on leadership, and more, yet if they would have stayed around, many churches, including ours would be larger with vibrant youth and children’s ministries much larger than now, and at Mosaic us having 2 services and ready to plant another church. While we are working towards that, and about ready to go to our second service now, it hasn’t happened yet in part because some couldn’t persevere, honor their word, and stick it out 6 more months.
There are also people who leave because they got mad at something the pastor or someone else in the church said. Of course the application of the very clear Biblical instruction from Matthew 18 never takes place, instead gossip ensues, people leave and fellowship is broken and hearts broken, all with an attitude displayed by actions, that people just don’t seem to care. One has to ask, if a family don’t care about each other, if a brother doesn’t care about a sister, how much are they really committed to the directives by Christ? When following the Matthew 18 concept, reconciliation takes place, (which is a prevalent theme in church relations), and literally 90% of the time or more you find out that what you thought you heard is not what you heard or was intended at all. I am not exaggerating here; I have personally had more people make excuses as to why we can’t follow this concept than I have actually follow through with it. Are we teaching our gospel, or the Gospel of Jesus? Thank God we don’t use this concept in our families, oh, wait a second; we likely do which is why our divorce rate is so high and our families are often times falling a part. For Christians, we need ask ourselves as to whom we are to preach about morality when we practice things like this that tears apart the church, and shows the lack of love and compassion towards each other. There may be a reason we don’t want to accept when we look at things like the divorce rate among married Christians is higher than the divorce rate among married Atheists.
Here is my challenge to those involved in a church. Take seriously your commitment to the Bride of Christ, not just the Universal Church, but the local church which is admonished to carry out the mission of Christ to their unique ministries and locations. Realize that God’s church is complete from the small house church to the large mega church. We all have the mission to disciple each other so we can be effective in reaching those who don’t know Jesus. There is another challenge though, that is a challenge to other churches, which should be in this work together as opposed to individual isolated institutions.
Make sure that people, especially those coming from other churches, are doing what is necessary to follow Biblical directives of making things right with their former church. It is rather clear actually, if individuals are allowed to carry on bad practices of doing things that the Bible clearly don’t support, your church, my church, but more importantly, the Church of Christ will have problems and our witness will not be as effective. Encourage reconciliation. In this recommendation to other churches, make sure your primary if not only method of church growth that is promoted and practiced is based on new growth, in other words, reaching those not in church, and those who need the message of Christ. To be intentional about how you do this, you have to also be intentional about taking the responsibility to not grow your church in the wrong way. Make sure your advertising, your sermons, your mission, your programs all understand this and take the concept of new birth seriously. Make sure these issues are addressed and reconciliation, when need be, occurs prior to acceptance of membership. That is after all, something a loving family would do.
Thirdly, I ask both individuals who have transferred from one church to another, especially in the same town, and to churches which have allowed this practice to take place. Get on your knees or on your face before God in prayer and ask him if you can support your actions with the support of what is clearly provided in Scripture. Have we, any of us, done more to hurt the healing, the potential, the mission of the church than we have helped it? What is there we can do to make things right, not just for us, but the witness and the deserving respect that Jesus Bride deserves?
I lastly make this request for those at other churches when you clearly did wrong in the way the transfer took place. I wouldn’t ask, nor expect you to go back to your former church, but can you make the commitment to help the church you are in be the very bride of Christ he desires for her to be as opposed to presenting the image of the whore of Hosea? Can we represent a body that resembles family, of loving even in difficulty, being committed during hard times, and following through to provide the hope of the future and the eternal love of God?
As stated before I believe this is a serious sin of the church as many of us have redirected our efforts away from sharing the message of Jesus with those who need to hear that message. I also believe, we can all, including me, do better in this area. Barna’s research is not only scary it should be alarming to help us understand that while larger mega churches are growing in numbers, the smaller churches are dying, there should be no glory or joy in that. God forgive the ones of us who just moves on like this is no big deal. None of us can take satisfaction in that, not carrying about that reality. We have to be concerned that the actual number of people attending church is drastically declining, even among those following strict guidelines as to who is and is not a Christian from traditional and yes, even conservative standards. Some take satisfaction and joy with this; I can’t believe Jesus is one of them. In a world that needs community so much, it seems as if the church and those who call themselves Christian or followers of Jesus, may be on the forefront promoting isolation. I challenge that concept is never supported with Scripture, I wonder why those of us who are the Church, and in the church allow the practices to continue that encourage it.
Can we do better? You bet we can! Will we do better? I pray so because souls depend on it, and Christ deserves a totally unblemished bride.
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