As I have had the opportunity to speak to groups of pastors over these past few years, I have identified five different traps I believe churches often fall into—traps that prevent our churches from realizing their full potential to change the world for Christ.
Most churches will find they have slid into one or two of these traps to one degree or another. Some will have avoided them all. Either way, just being aware of a trap helps keep one from falling prey to it in the first place.
Below are the five traps to consider. Do one or more characterize you or your church?
1) We have valued belief above behavior. So many of our churches have hung their hats on right belief. Don’t get me wrong. Right belief is important, but without right behavior it is little more than hypocrisy (James 2:18-19). I would argue it’s not what we believe that counts most to God, but rather what we do with those beliefs.
Loving our enemies, living with integrity, caring for the sick, feeding the hungry and being generous with our possessions don’t ever seem to divide or make enemies. Sometimes we believe so passionately that we are right that we end up being dead right, ultimately chasing away the very people in our sphere of influence that Christ wants us to reach.
2) We have replaced exhortation with explanation. Far too many sermons bat around theological ideas. They quote a few verses, tell a few stories, throw in a line from C.S. Lewis but never challenge the congregation to change anything in their lives. The job of the church is not merely to explain the truth but to use the truth to bring about life change. Some pastors seem afraid to confront or offend their congregations by challenging them with the considerable demands the Lord makes upon those who choose to follow Him.
3) We have turned inward instead of outward.When our churches become attractive social clubs, our church programs end up focusing too much on our needs and too little on the needs of those outside the church. Consequently, we become what some call “holy huddles.”
Every element of our church programs, from the strobe lights and smoke machines to the buildings and discipleship training programs, should be evaluated with one simple criteria: Will these things we’re focusing on and using our resources for enhance our ability and motivation to complete the mission given to us by Jesus or not?
4) We have allowed apathy to replace outrage. World Vision’s founder, Bob Pierce, was known for his famous prayer: “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” Have we so domesticated God in the 21st century that we have forgotten the wrath of God toward sin and evil? Where is our sense of grief and moral anger over the fact that according to the U.S. 2011 Census Bureau and the Urban Institute, one in five American children lives below the poverty line? We no longer feel the heat of outrage against things that anger God.
5) We have prioritized the institution over the revolution. This trap is perhaps just the summary of the first four. When we invest all our energies and resources into building and sustaining an institution, it is deceptively easy to lose sight of the specific reason the institution exists in the first place.
As I read back through my descriptions of these five traps, I have to acknowledge that I did not mince any words. Please realize that my passion comes out of a conviction that Christ commissioned His church to literally storm the gates of hell in a life-or-death struggle for the hearts and souls of men and women. There is just so much at stake when churches lose their vision and passion for the great mission of Christ in our world. The church is God’s plan to change the world and win it for Christ. That’s why it is so very important that we as leaders of the church get it right.
Adapted from Unfinished: Believing Is Only the Beginning (Thomas Nelson, April 2013) by Richard Stearns, president of World Vision U.S.
Rich Stearns is president of World Vision and author of the award-winning The Hole in Our Gospel and the upcoming Unfinished: Believing Is Only the Beginning.