On June 19th, 1966 Thomas Merton (writer, poet, anti-war/civil-rights activist, monk) wrote in his journal: “The most desperate illusion and the most common one is just to fling oneself into the mass that is in movement and be carried along with it: to be part of the stream of traffic going nowhere but with a great sense of phony purpose. It is against this that I revolt.”
I doubt that Merton was thinking of the church when he wrote this but his words made me think of the church. By church I don’t mean our local congregations or the people who attend them. I’m thinking more of the trends that confront pastors, the mass movements and streams we’re encouraged to step into. Consider if you will the last ten years. First we began hearing about Postmodernism and our need to redesign our churches to address this new cultural direction. (By the time the church discovered Postmodernism it was already beginning to die out as a trend, but that’s a whole other story.) “Postmodern” churches began to spring up. A Postmodern focus gave way to the Emerging Church, which was replaced as a focus by Missional churches. While all this was evolving we began to hear more and more about the House Church movement which is now being eclipsed by it’s newborn child, Simple Church.
I’m not against any of these “movements” per se. Each one is a legitimate expression of how one might choose to do church. What I am against, what I revolt against, is the message communicated by many (not all) within each of these movements that say, “Our model is the first century model. This is how church is supposed to be. Our way is the future of the church.” And then the kicker, “We can’t continue to do church the way we always have.”
Now if one is brave enough to ask, “Why not? Why can’t we continue to do church as we always have?” they will more than likely get, “Because church as we’ve always done it is not working.” Usually the “mass movement” will define “working” as a lack of church growth, or so few coming to know Christ, or little true discipleship taking place.
First of all, church “as we’ve always done it” is “working” all over the place. And…there are plenty of examples of churches “as we’ve always done it” that aren’t working. But the same could be said of Postmodern churches, Emerging churches, Missional churches. Are they all working? Is every Simple Church or house church working?
First of all one must seek a definition of “working” that is biblical, which, of course every proponent of every movement believes they have done. But second, one must consider this. Is it possible that the reason why some churches are in decline or are not growing has very little to do with the style they have embraced, or not embraced? Could it be that churches find it difficult to win people to Christ and make genuine disciples simply because it’s hard?
If you’ve pastored longer than three months you’ve discovered that it’s hard. It’s hard to win converts, make followers of Jesus, and grow a church. It’s hard regardless of the stream you step into or the movement you follow. It’s hard. And if it’s been hard for very long, you begin to think, “This is hard. This isn’t working. What am I doing wrong? What is working?” And as soon as you begin to think this way, some mass movement will sound pretty good.
Maybe the answer isn’t the latest hot-trend in how to do church. Maybe the answer is…it’s hard!