"There are churches that make a difference, and there are churches (and ministries) that do not. To which do you belong?" These words have reverberated in my heart and mind ever since I heard them from E. V. Hill in the summer of 1988. And, I have sought to be part of ministries and churches that "make a difference." After 38 years in professional ministry as a senior pastor, executive pastor, discipleship pastor, evangelism pastor, youth pastor and small groups pastor, and 12 years as a church health consultant, I must say that I have yet to see the American church making any real, lasting, significant and kingdom-sized difference.
To be sure, there have been pockets of significance and individual churches who have made kingdom-sized differences, but out of the 360,000 or so North American churches, few have made these kind of differences. Yes, I will be cited as a killjoy and someone will whip out the "starfish illustration" (that saving even one starfish in a beach littered with them is important, at least to that one), but we have an American and Western culture going to hell, literally! And the church has mostly failed to engage, challenge, inform and change the value systems, thinking, presuppositions and lifestyle of most of secular culture. If we are not arguing with ourselves, we are attending conferences that don't translate into kingdom effectiveness at home, or we are attending prayer summits that make us feel good but produce little to no fruit.
Specifically, what are the problems? Why hasn't the church made a kingdom impact? Here are several causes I have seen. First, we have "compartmentalized Christians" in our churches. Christianity in many peoples' mindsets has been reduced to getting people "saved," that is, delivered from eternal punishment to eternal life with Christ. Consequently, salvation is seen as a portal to heaven with very little to do with earthly needs and realities, except maybe to escape them. In addition, many churchgoing people really do not have any idea of why they should or how to integrate their faith into everyday thinking and practice. No matter the multitude of Bible studies out there, the vast majority of Christians simply see little to no connection between their vocations or jobs and the Christian faith. The sad truth is most people get up on a Sunday to attend a church service or class not really expecting what they hear or discuss to vitally impact or change or challenge their Monday to Saturday lives. And, they would not know how to do so even if verbally challenged.
Second, churches have preached and taught a "narrowly focused" gospel message. Evangelicals have dipped their toe into social needs, but few have dived into the social morass of today's world. Sermons are either a popularized form of Christianity, Christian psychobabble, or, on the other extreme, a verse-by-verse carefully devised exposition or explanation of a Bible passage. The application of the truth is left mostly up to the minds and inventions of the hearer to figure out. And that is hardly ever done, and when it is, done badly. Visions and goals and mission statements are too narrowly conceived. Out-of-the-box thinking has not been encouraged and adopted.
Third, many Bible-based churches and ministries have a defensive, "against them" policy and rhetoric, with more emphasis on what we are against, rather than what we are for. So, Christians in the congregation know what not to do rather than what to do at work and play and in their schools and gatherings.
Fourth, many Christians are just plain lazy! Rigorous application and infusion of the faith to daily life and work is hard. New paradigms have to be formulated, tested, applied and used. Actual life-changing and life-challenging truth that their secular worlds have to face are not generally known or even available.
So, what to do? How can we tackle the kingdom-sized needs around us? First, we need to grow and migrate our theology to become kingdom-theology. "Salvation" needs to be seen as a whole-life faith-and-obedience to the resurrected Christ as Lord of heaven and earth--and our lives. Second, we need to develop kingdom-minded Christians in our churches. Instead of allowing people to make the same-old, same-old weekly trip to a compartmentalized faith experience, church must become the place where the focus is on how to help them make world-and-life Christian choices in their schools and jobs. We need Christian mathematicians teaching math teachers how to teach mathematics in a Christ-centered way. We need Christian counselors teaching people how to counsel others with the Word of God. We need Christian ecologists teaching farmers and gardeners Christ-centered ecological lifestyles and viewpoints. We need Christian political scientists teaching politicians and citizens how to think and act in Christ-centered ways in our political systems. In other words, churches need to become "equipping places" where Christians are equipped to live for Jesus Christ as Lord of their work, school and play.
And, we need to expect Christian men and women and students to actually follow through in making Christ Lord of their thoughts and lives, actions and desires, attitudes and frames of reference. Lack of expectation now fills our churches. Churchgoers are not accountable to anyone or anything in their daily and weekly lives. Small group accountability helps but does not often get to the root of peoples' lives. Lack of church discipline allows people to get away with Ephesus-like lovelessness, or Laodicean-like lukewarmness, or Sardis-like smugness and deadness.
Will we empty churches with this philosophy of ministry? I think not. I believe God's people want to live for Christ, but don't know how. They want to make a kingdom difference at work and school, but don't know how. They want to be accountable, God-centered citizens of the kingdom of God but don't know how. Let's show them how!