I am convinced that too many evangelical churches in the United States are overly fixated on bigness, excitement, and individualistic improvement, and that we don’t often realize it because we can often achieve a kind of success focusing on those things that give the impression we are on the right track.
I wrote a book this year called The Gospel-Driven Church which examines some of the ways church leaders gauge the relative fruitfulness of their ministries. In the book, I look back to the work of 18th-century American pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards, whose own ministry was rewarded with a tremendous outpouring of blessing in the forms of growing attendance and spiritual excitement. Edwards was one of a few leading voices in the first Great Awakening, and he enjoyed the kind of success in his day many pastors dream of in ours.
But Edwards was very cautious about what he considered success. He wondered privately and wrote publicly about the kinds of things ministry leaders would be inclined to consider evidences of a “true move of the Spirit of God”—things like many professions of faith, growing church attendance, and even emotional experiences in worship—and in the end, Edwards concludes that these are at best “neutral signs.”
Yet evangelicals today continue to focus on them, sometimes to the detriment of real spiritual growth and fruitfulness. For instance, when we fixate on “decisions,” sometimes we put undue pressure through playing on people’s emotions or we are tempted to employ unbiblical methods to see increase in raised hands, repeated prayers, or aisles walked. People coming to know Christ is always a good thing, of course, but a “decision” is just a first step on a journey to follow Jesus, and many churches fixating on decisions end up neglecting the whole “making disciples” thing to which Jesus calls us. Indeed, sometimes we declare those who make a decision a Christian without seeing any real fruit in their lives or signs of genuine repentance.
It’s very possible American churches need a radical reevaluation of their priorities. While we’ve been emphasizing initial decisions, numeric growth, and “worship experiences,” we’ve likely been missing out on communicating what God ultimately values—which isn’t success so much as faithfulness. So how would we communicate the values of faithfulness to our congregations and to a watching world? A few ways:
1) You measure what you value.
If you only value “decisions,” you will stop short of full obedience to Christ’s Great Commission mandate to “make disciples” and “teach them everything” he’s commanded us. Likewise, if we only value increased numbers in our services and programs, we’ll simply count heads and not worry about what’s going on inside of them. By only measuring the easiest things, we communicate that our priorities are off-center from Christ’s.
But what if we were to shift our measurements to even deeper evaluations than simply counting hands and heads? What if we, for instance, measured the percentage of those making decisions and being baptized who are still actively participating in the church a year, two years, three years later? Wouldn’t this tell us more about our spiritual health? Wouldn’t this communicate that we cherish something deeper than merely “getting big?”
What if instead of simply counting how many people attend weekend services, we also counted to see how many who attend weekend services also participate in community groups or other “next level” experiences indicating pursuit of spiritual growth? Wouldn’t this communicate that we prioritize spiritual growth along with (or more than?) numeric growth?
2) You celebrate what you value.
Churches that care mostly about numbers or emotional experiences are always talking up numbers and emotional experiences. We can see it in their social media feeds that trumpet a weekly “catch,” and we can see and hear it from the weekend stage where feelings are rehearsed more than commitments.
In many church staff meetings or other leadership gatherings, more time is given to the upward trajectory of growth charts than to pastoral or relational milestones. We give the gold stars to those who increase attendance, not to those who persevere in faithfulness in the face of maintained growth or even decline. Why? Because our priorities reflect more the business world than the spiritual world.
What if we honored the least among us? What if we celebrated another week of God’s faithfulness to us, rather than our own accomplishments? What if in team meetings and from other church channels, we rehearsed the greatness of those among us who quietly, humbly plod along in faithful trust of Jesus, even if it means spending time with people who cannot offer us anything, even if it doesn’t have an immediate “return on investment?”
3) You repeat what you value.
The problem with tuning our hearts to numbers is that we will never reach our destination. A church fixated on attendance will never be content with whatever it has. How many is enough? The answer is “more.” Thus, the numbers-prioritized church is always dissatisfied with its current attendance and relentlessly scrutinizing any fluctuation in those numbers, putting itself in an endless cycle of number-crunching and repetition of superficial markers the Bible never says is our responsibility.
What would it say to our church and to the world if we fixated on the gospel of Jesus Christ? What if we really and truly trusted that the gospel message itself is power for transformation, that it really does change people, that it really can bear the weight of both winning the lost and maturing the found?
If we believed that the power was not in us but in God, we’d put the gospel message on repeat and retire our endless appeals for “more.”