Friday, May 18, 2012

Religious Games

I came across these verses the other day and they hit me like a punch to the gut, paraphrased in The Message;

Isaiah 1:13 13-17"Quit your worship charades. I can't stand your trivial religious games: Monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings— meetings, meetings, meetings—I can't stand one more! Meetings for this, meetings for that. I hate them! You've worn me out! I'm sick of your religion, religion, religion, while you go right on sinning. When you put on your next prayer-performance, I'll be looking the other way. No matter how long or loud or often you pray, I'll not be listening. And do you know why? Because you've been tearing people to pieces, and your hands are bloody. Go home and wash up. Clean up your act. Sweep your lives clean of your evildoings so I don't have to look at them any longer. Say no to wrong. Learn to do good. Work for justice. Help the down-and-out. Stand up for the homeless. Go to bat for the defenseless. 
Amos 5:21-24"I can't stand your religious meetings. I'm fed up with your conferences and conventions. I want nothing to do with your religion projects, your pretentious slogans and goals. I'm sick of your fund-raising schemes, your public relations and image making. I've had all I can take of your noisy ego-music. When was the last time you sang to me? Do you know what I want? I want justice—oceans of it. I want fairness—rivers of it. That's what I want. That's all I want.

Through this modern translation of the Old testament passage, Isaiah's message could easily have been to the church today. When we take a look at where the church in general is today, many would agree that there is one issue that has thrown most of the church off track and Isaiah and Amos both proclaim it; that is a move away from an external focus to an inward focus.  

You can look back on the development of the church In North America the last century and understand how the church drifted away from an outward missions focus to more of a self serving model. Of every dollar given to a U.S. Protestant church, the average amount going to overseas missions is 2 cents.  In 1920 the church gave 10% of the total offering to missions, compared to only 2% today. 

With the settling of new territories and development of cities and new frontiers in the US, the church in 1920's was in an outreach mode. Ralph Winters used the term sodality, the evangelistic arm of the church, going outside of the church to make new converts. The inreach arm of the church he termed "modality".  Modality is like the lake with streams and tributaries running into it, sodality is the river streaming away from the lake. Early in the deveopment of our country the church was focused on sodality, evangelism, missions and reaching the lost.

But after WW II, the US had adopted a Christian culture and a good percentage of the population considered themselves Christians. The clergy was most concerned with attracting believers to attend their church.  So churches started in growth areas and marketed themselves to this hugh mass of potential members. As the church began to take on more and more of the characteristics of the culture, it became more and more competitive and turned more and more inward.  To attract the potential members, churches needed to "do church" better than their competitor down the street. This meant having dynamic preachers, a good music program with a big choir and solid soloists, lots of programs, safe and exciting children and youth ministries and of course comfortable and nice facilities. One had to keep up with the church around the corner.  Schools and seminaries focused on producing the type of pastors and ministry leaders that would produce "successful, growing" churches. Conferences on church growth and church excellence sprang up all over.

In the rush to attract 'believers', the church lost it's mission, "to go and make disciples".  They certainly wanted to disciple believers, but reaching the lost, bringing them to Christ and then discipling these new believers was not the main focus.  As a matter of fact, to do that took so much time and effort that it was not 'profitable' for the church to spend its time on the lost.  Time was better spent on reaching believers who already possessed a church background who would understand tithing and be plugged into the ministry of operating any one of the many programs that were designed to minister to believers and their families. 

There were some who realized the need to reach out, to send missionaries who became frustrated with the church's reluctance.  These men and women of the faith started para-church ministries and mission organizations to fill in the gap. Even these are frowned upon by many pastors as taking away resources from churches.  The question is, are we guilty of playing "religious games"?  If you could give a grade to the churches today on how well they made new disciples, what would it be?

The good news is that as the "Christian culture" in the U. S. shrinks along with the number of people who claim to be Christians, there is a greater realization from clergy and church leaders of the need to focus on reaching the non-believers.  It's still a battle to convince pastors to change.  But thankfully there is a movement back to the Sodality mode for churches led by Verge, Catalyst, Exponential and educational forums like Perspectives.  After all isn't that God's mandate to us, "to go and make disciples"?

1 comment:

Norm said...

Great thoughts, John. Our attractional model has lead to more member swapping than missional growth.

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