I recently met with a colleague who was sharing with me the focus of their church. With enthusiasm he said, “We’re not like most churches. We’re going after the people no one else is going after by creating a church that the unchurched love to attend.” The strategy he espoused wasn’t particularly novel. It reminded me of a time years ago when a buddy of mine invited me to attend a meeting of “World Wide Dream Builders”. After 5 minutes I asked, “Is this going to be an Amway thing?” “No” he said, “It’s totally different. It’s Amway 2.0.” In talking with this pastor it felt like that conversation. I was hearing how it was unlike most churches, but it sounded like Willow Creek rebooted. In that sense it didn’t really seem to be unusual at all. Aside from this I know of a number of churches in the area that are employing the same strategy since it’s documented in a popular book that bears the same subtitle. In fact, as the discussion unfolded, he pointed me to that very book as the source of their philosophy. I have not had the time to make my way through the entire book and so my thoughts here are in no way those of a reviewer. Rather it was the premise alone that has bounced around in my head like a hyperactive 8th grader jacked up on NoDoz and Red Bull.
Initially I was intrigued by the idea of creating churches unchurched people would love to attend. After all the church should have a burden to reconnoiter its surroundings with the intent of embedding the message of Jesus and His Bible. In fact, I would go so far as to say every church should be unapologetic when it comes to leveraging whatever tools, tendencies or familiarities necessary to connect Jesus’s Message to the surrounding Culture. And yet as I continued to work over the implications of “creating churches the unchurched love to attend” my initial warmth chilled to a Fargo January dressed in brass boxers.
Now, to be fair, I believe we should seek to utilize culturally familiar ideas in order to bridge biblical concepts to the unchurched. For example, in the church I’m a part of we occasionally use secular music, video clips, props, humor and other socially familiar forms to help communicate the biblical message. We do this so that the unchurched can better understand whatever section of the Bible or theological topic we are going through, but in a way that is culturally relatable. In this sense our focus is, “creating a biblically centered church the unchurched can understand.” There is no guarantee they will like or agree with what is preached since we strive to preach whatever the text is saying regardless of its potential receptivity, but we call it “a win” if they understand what is being proclaimed.
If, however, the ideology of “creating a church the unchurched love to attend” is the top tier purpose of our strategy, the net effect may be a model that considers the interests of hopeful attenders above the instructions of the Founding Initiator. For it appears that inextricably laced within the premise is the idea that success is measured directly by how much people – who don’t like church – begin to love church.
So to grapple with this for a moment let’s strip it down to a more general concept. Generally speaking, how do we usually get people who don’t love something to love it? One method is to give them more of the thing that is loved (Example: My step-mom kept giving me eggplant until I learned to enjoy it.). The other method is to remove what people don’t love and replace it with something they do. The difference between the two is night and day; the former teaches people to love the thing that you love, while the latter loves people at the cost of the very thing you want them to love. Now plug this back into our church philosophy premise. When it comes to a church creating an environment “unchurched people love to attend,” the first casualty will be anything that they say is an impediment to them loving to attend. Therefore, at the root of this ideology is the need to remove themes, messages or expectations the unchurched may not love and in their place incorporate themes, messages or expectations they enjoy. It’s the ultimate case of the unchurched tail wagging the church dog.
For now, it appears that the model is successful since there are a handful of good themes the unchurched enjoy. Many people who may be cold to church are nonetheless warm to self-improvement regarding marriage, family, communication, conflict resolution, sex, money and occupation. As a result, such themes can be marketed and deployed by churches year after year because they are inoffensively therapeutic. But what are we to do if the day comes where the Bible’s message on good themes is frowned upon by the unchurched? Does the goal remain figuring out how to create churches they love? And how far are we to go in accommodating unchurched expectations? Some practitioners will answer, “We would draw a line if we needed to start denying what the Bible says.” Really? I would like to bank on that, but in all candor it seems that a soft form of denial has already been underway long before it was imposed. It began the day a church willfully embraced selective censorship for the sake of unchurched appetites. If a church proactively adopts an omission mandate when it is merely concerned that the unchurched may be turned off, what will it do when it is altogether guaranteed?
My deeper concern however isn’t that this model may be pacing itself into a biblical showdown. Nor is it that it may mistake the concept of becoming numerically successful with the mandate to be biblically faithful. The real kernel of my apprehension is that it may foster an attitude by which it’s assumed by all parties, “If people like church they love Jesus.” In reality however, there may be a substantial disconnect between who Jesus is and what makes a church loveable to the unchurched. For example, many of the themes churches are using to help the unchurched love attending church are not anchored directly in the core message or subsequent messages of Jesus.
The “7 Themes ‘A Seeker-Focused Church’ Knows The Unchurched Love To Hear” are typically:
- Conflict Resolution
Many churches that are focused on leveraging Sunday as primarily an outreach venue will see these seven as the wheelhouse. Yet the content of those seven themes is not often rooted in what Jesus actually said in relationship to them. It’s more often 35 minutes of soft psychology (where a specialist, therapist or author is referenced more than Jesus), a moving story, a homework assignment for personal improvement (create a date night, have sex twice a week, try giving 1% and see what happens, etc) and perhaps three loosely invoked verses so as to maintain the title “sermon.” It is just enough of the Good Book to feel like church, but not so much that the unchurched would feel too confronted by the Bad News that gives them a need for the Good News. From this, one could, in all reality, love church because it’s “relevant” for their life, but then resist Jesus when they realize what He really says and seeks.
Think about the simplest form of the Good News in the four Gospels. Jesus’ “Big Idea” of relevant life change was like swallowing a horse pill with an Arizona case of cottonmouth.
“23 If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” Luke 9:23-26 (ESV)
That is the unequivocal Gospel of Jesus in less than 100 words. And from that the question becomes, “Is this the message the unchurched hear when they attend churches they love?” It should be, because that is the only message that saves. And notice it’s not just, “Jesus died for you.” Letting people know that Jesus died for them is only half the Gospel. The message of first importance is, “Jesus died for sinful you. And to follow Him means you are dying to yourself and embracing who He is and everything He says.” In other words, to love Jesus means to love the truth that:
- Jesus is God who came, died and rose.
- Jesus is the only way to heaven and apart from Him there is only the separation of hell.
- Jesus invites us to die to ourselves by repenting of our sin and self-focus.
- Jesus warns us of a life that will bring more challenge than ease.
- Jesus calls us to love Him by obeying everything He has said regardless if it is personally helpful or hurtful. (Note: Jesus did speak to all 7 Themes above, but His message on those does not promote well in a land where the great idols is “personal happiness.”)
- Jesus expects that everything He said we will protect, promote and pursue.
If people only love the loveable words of Jesus, they don’t actually love Jesus.
If pastors only preach the loveable words of Jesus, they may never know if people have been given the opportunity to love (or reject) everything Jesus loves.
If leaders seek to love unchurched people only by creating churches they love to attend, we may be failing to love them fully by failing to cultivate a church that above all else – Jesus loves to attend.