Have you noticed how the last 15 years have seen a dramatic change in the public’s mind about the value of churches? Some would say churches take up the best property in the city, don’t pay taxes, take money from unassuming members, and constantly judge (or worse, discriminate) others based on their race, sexual identity, or economic status. Have you heard that before?
If not, consider these statistics:
- The number of churchless people in America would make the 8th most populous country in the world
- There are 156 million people in the U.S. who are churchless compared to 159 million who are churched.
- 70% of Millennials do not believe the local church is relevant to their lives
Here are three significant reasons why we are seeing more people walk away from church:
- They find relatively significant relationships and community outside of church
- They perceive their time and investment can make a bigger difference somewhere else
- They have experienced real life change outside of the structure of a local church
In other words, they are finding fulfillment in the most important, deep human longings outside the church; so, to them, the local church is not valuable or relevant.
But, listen carefully. We do not have a church problem.
We have a mission problem.
My deep conviction is the attitude and mindset we encounter in our culture today towards church presents an opportunity for missional clarity, personal, spiritual alignment with Christ and His mission, and for unity on a scale we have never seen; it is not time for cultural critique.
Let’s begin with Jesus’ self-identified mission from Luke 4:18-19:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”
Jesus begins his ministry with this statement. It is about mission. And the mission is shalom. His aim is to restore that which was lost in the Fall—to make things the way they are supposed to be. He brings individual transformation through justification and the redemption of persons, and he brings societal transformation through justice and the redemption of all things.
The Kingdom was the central teaching of Jesus’ ministry. He even taught His disciples to begin their prayers asking for the Kingdom to come to earth: “Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”
Throughout history, we see churches and movements majoring on one type of transformation—individual or societal. Or perhaps both are important, but one is more important. Sometimes we emphasize doing kingdom work as justice and caring for the poor to the neglect of telling people about the King, or the opposite happens. We tell people about the King, but we fail to show them His Kingdom (See Eric Swanson and Sam Williams primer on City Transformation, To Transform a City).
Jesus’ mission should be our starting place when we think about church and our role in city transformation.
If we follow along in the Gospels, we see that Jesus carried out his mission with the fullness of both proclamation (sharing) and demonstration (showing). He was the King who came to reveal and demonstrate His Kingdom. The Kingdom of God, where all that is wrong is made right, had come to earth through the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Next, Jesus commissioned all of His followers to continue His mission (Matt. 28:19-20; John 17: 21-23; Acts 1:8).
Now the mission has a community—a church.
After the Gospels, the New Testament writers give us several ways to understand this commissioned community. From metaphors such as the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:27), the Bride of Christ (Rev. 19:7-8), the family of God (1 Tim. 5:1), the house or Temple of God (Eph. 2:19-22), to descriptions as a community (Acts 2:42-47) and a mission (see above) that grows (Acts 6:7; 9:31; 11:34; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20), God makes it clear why this community exist: to carry on Jesus’ mission.
If you are in Christ, you belong to His Bride, His Body, and you are part of the only organization strategically located in all sectors of society—public, private, and social. He has called and equipped each of us to work in a specific channel of culture—arts, business, education, government, health care, media, non-profits. And it is important to note here that “Church” is not a channel of culture; it is located in every channel.
So, if you’re a businessperson, a medical professional, a journalist, an educator, a creative, a civil servant, working in non-profit, or a volunteer, student or parent, you bring Christ’s mission and His Church into your specific time and place. In other words, you are primed to advance His mission. Can you think of any greater reason to do your work with competence and excellence?
Finally, the most weighty for last. The last point is poignant, timely, and important for us today as we live in an increasingly divided culture. It comes from Jesus’ last words, which He prayed before dying on the cross on behalf of anyone who would hear and believe His disciples’ message (us).
Jesus does not give us specific ways for how the Church should pursue shalom and continue His mission, but He does command us to do one thing particularly well: unity. In John 17:23, He prays, “Let them be one, so that the world may know that you sent me and that you love them even as you loved me.”
He prays for unity (let them be one) for the purpose of mission (so that the world may know). Missional ecumenism. Unity in mission. There may be 250 (or more) local communities called churches in Evansville, but there is one Church from God’s perspective: one group of people who have common union with Christ and who live out a common mission: Christ’s mission.
We are united in Christ with a shared mission. Are you participating? Or are you watching? Or perhaps, are you more inclined to be a referee?
So, what is the Church and her role in city transformation?
The Church is a commissioned community, a group of people in union with Christ and therefore one another who carries on God’s mission to redeem and restore ALL things.
City transformation can happen when the Church in Evansville cares for the orphans, widows, immigrant, prisoners, sick, disabled, poor, and aged physically, spiritually, socially, emotionally, and economically. In many ways, this is happening. But we have a lot more work to do. In order to make that happen, the whole Church must bring the whole Gospel to bear on the whole person and the whole city.
My prayer is that we begin tackling these issues together so that we can be more effective, and so that our city sees the Church as a group of invaluable, irreplaceable people who love them and love this city.
In order to see our city transformed, we may need to change our perspective on some things. Here are some questions to consider:
- Are we more concerned about caring for our churches than our community?
- Has our understanding of Jesus’ mission missed God’s bigger story of shalom by understanding faith in Jesus as the end of the story rather than the entrance point?
- Is the Gospel is limited to conversion in our practice?
- Are our churches pursuing a project or dream that cannot be accomplished as a single congregation?
- Do you typically think of your church as the church in Evansville?
- If you are a pastor, do you think of your pastoral responsibility for the community as well as the church that pays you?
- Do we agree or disagree with the idea that the Church is not a channel of culture but manifests in all channels?
- Would you be willing to talk with someone from your church staff about this?
- Would you be willing to connect me with them so that I can learn from them, encourage them, and share what I learn with other churches and leaders in the city?