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review of Carlson & Lueken's “Renovation of the Church”

Tuesday, October 25, 2016 17:06
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(Before It's News)

Carlson and Lueken's Renovation of the Church: What Happens when a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation is a terrific book on the tensions (or even, the contradictions) between a “seeker-sensitive” approach to church and a robust understanding of the Great Commission (Mt 28:19-20). In a word, they (CL) share their journey from a successful seeker-sensitive church to a church that emphasizes discipleship. (If you're interested, here's a blogcast of an interview with them.)

CL lay out their church's history and its early eminence in seeker-sensitive circles. They had been lauded by Willow Creek (WC)—the leader in the movement—as an example par excellence. (CL are grace-soaked and careful to praise and avoid criticism of WC, focusing on what they learned from WC; the ability of that method to reach those who have been burned; and so on [25-27].)

Their journey began with a.) concerns about “feeding the monster” every week in putting on the Sunday “show” (27-28); b.) bone-chilling fear through an epiphany that they could (more or less) do what they were doing without God (24); and c.) two authors who provoked them to think differently (Lyle Schaller and Dallas Willard). Once on the new path, they partnered with Willard, immersing themselves in his teaching on the preeminence of discipleship. 

The problem: the way they “did church” communicated a “gospel” in which “accepting Jesus was required but apprenticeship to him was optional. It didn’t matter what our mission statement said about turning nonchurched people into fully devoted followers of Christ. Discipleship was a department of the church, but not a central tenet of the gospel we proclaimed. So while we had ministries geared toward discipleship, the heart of the church was to attract more people and help them make decisions for Christ. Once they did, we hoped they would assimilate into the life of the church.” (56-57)

Unfortunately, attraction and hopeful assimilation were not sufficient for the tasks and opportunities at hand. Then CL ask this rough question: “If someone attended our church for three months, would he or she say discipleship is one of our central concerns?” (58) Their answer was “no”, bringing them into turmoil as one called to fulfill the Great Commission.What is the answer for your church?

The broader problem: “We have trained Christians to be demanding consumers, not disciples.” (85) How can any of us plant so many seeds of consumerism and expect the fruits of discipleship? “Attracting people to church based on their consumer demands is in direct and irredeemable conflict with inviting people, in Jesus’ words, to lose their lives in order to find them.” (35)  If Americans are champion consumers, why shouldn't we expect churches to be tempted to respond to this angle (72)? 
Beyond that, “We weren’t really an alternative community with countercultural values. We were a composite of suburban America, consumerism, and Jesus. We blended right in.” (142) It’s difficult to imagine how this approach will be sufficient in a post-Christian culture.

Along the same lines, Willard contributed the foreword and does what Willard does— asking penetrating questions and pointing persistently to the vital importance of discipleship within the ministry of Jesus and a faithful replication of his ministry and God's plan within our lives. “How do we present the radical message of Christ in a church that has catered to the religious demands of the nominally committed?” (9) How do we actually do Mt 28:19-20's Great Commission? “We must intend” to do it and then “lead out people into that intention”. In sum, “our central message—our 'gospel'—must be one that has a natural tendency to produce disciples of Jesus, not just avid consumers of religious goods and services. Disciples are self-starters in kingdom living…And then we organize our 'meetings' of whatever kind, around that intention and that message.” (10-11)

CL also note one of the ironies I’ve seen on the ground. For all of the critiques leveled at Joel Osteen in particular—or health/wealth gospel folks in general—the large seeker-sensitive churches at leastflirt with a health/wealth gospel of another sort: “We live in a church culture where external success is self-justifying. If more people are coming to our church, this is obviously a sign of success, and God must be pleased.” (67) While one is not required to compromise the Gospel and the Great Commision to have a large church, it’s certainly a danger.

And it represents a temptation for leaders as well. CL express concerns about the connection between consumerism and an improper ambition in pastors (79). But George Barna’s research seems to indicate that pastors don’t intend to feed the monster of consumerism. Only 1% of senior pastors and discipleship pastors thought “today’s churches are doing very well at discipling new and young believers.” More optimistically, 8% thought they were doing “very well” and 56% thought they were doing “somewhat well.”

Unfortunately, Barna also finds a staggering chasm in the perceptions of the discipleship efforts offered by the local church. In contrast to pastors, 92% of church members surveyed thought their church “definitely” or “probably” does a good job! And 38% preferred to “disciple on their own”—as if that’s a viable option. All of this points to incoherence about discipleship in the pew—and vast room for improvement on vision and strategy from leadership.

Our churches should be a place where you can encounter God and worship Him; learn how to disciple with Jesus; walk with the Spirit; and live in robust Christian community. Growing a big church on a lousy foundation is not consistent with the Great Commission and will not succeed in the Heavenly economy. Our church leaders should be fulfilling Ephesians 4:11-12 and II Timothy 3:16-17, preaching and—more important—casting vision and establishing plans to make disciples and disciple-makers.

As CL looked to make these dramatic changes, things got dicey: “We had to decide how to manage the tension between the message of self-denying discipleship and the reality of a congregation full of highly trained consumers…confronting consumerism, prioritizing spiritual formation…broke an unwritten contract we had with our congregation…we provide people with programs and weekly services that satisfy their religious needs and preferences, and they continue to attend and support the church with their time and money…We discovered that people weren’t necessarily coming to church to be formed in the image of Christ…More sobering is the extent to which we had oriented the church around the concerns of those  who were minimally interested in being apprentices of Jesus. We should be aiming for transformation and disciples who live out their faith with a contagious attraction. Instead, too often, we end up with moderation and nice people who are only able to invite others to church to hear a professional speak and perpetuate the cycle.” (117-118)

CL offer a few warnings and try to get their readers to avoid certain excuses for moving forward. First, it may not “feel right”—at least initially. Spiritual growth requires a lack of comfortableness, which can be especially unsettling if one has not walked this path previously. “It is spiritually formative to be dissatisfied and unable to resolve that dissatisfaction…When we don’t get what we want, we are more acutely aware of eternity. We are more apt to remember God. We learn what it really means to trust him.” (117)

Second, CL note a possible way to resolve this tension that itself falls short of the goal and the opportunity: “…we may not be experiencing transformation, at least we are frustrated by our complacency. We are satisfied with our spiritual dissatisfaction.” (120)

Third, Willard talks about fear of works-based salvation getting in the way: “People quickly become worried about this…But most of us would not have to worry about perfection for a few months at least…many people in evangelical circles are more stirred up over perfectionism than they are about people continuing in sin.” (GO, 63) Or as CL note: “Our passivity in our spiritual growth is a hangover from the Reformation. We are afraid of turning grace into works. So instead, we turn grace into divine magic.” (121)

Two other small things. First, if you’re in a setting where church leaders have little or no vision (or little or no plan) for making this happen, you can still be effective at making disciples and disciple-makers in your spheres of influence. “Hungry individuals and small groups scattered throughout the congregation can pursue this…and subversively infiltrate the culture of the church. Over time, hopefully, the infection spreads…” (49) They also borrow a “beachhead” metaphor from Dallas Willard (GO, xiii) to illustrate the idea of making a small difference that can powerfully multiply from its origin.   

Second, CL share their model of co-pastorship (91-94). They don’t recommend it for everyone and won’t commit to doing it again if they ever split. But it’s a novel approach that should probably get more consideration. They point to “shattering the celebrity syndrome” as a fruit of their partnership model. This has worked for me and Kurt too; neither of us can take credit for DC—as we try to extend the glory to God.

In closing, having been teaching recently on the first half of Ephesians, let me make a few connections. In Ephesians 2:14-3:13, Paul writes about the mystery and wonder of Jewish/Gentile unity and the amazing work done by Christ in establishing the Church. Sure, Jesus died to save us, individually for our sins. Sure, Jesus died for all people, so that the light was shared more forcefully and effectively with the Gentiles. But as Paul argues, the formation of the Church is a crazy miracle that was meant to be shown to the world and the principalities (3:10). 

As John Stott puts it, if God put the Church at the center of things, how dare we put it on the periphery. A believer shouldn’t ignore the Church and the local church is commissioned to greatness not mediocrity, mission creep, or a great show on Sundays. If the Church is meant to be a nation, a family, and a temple (Eph 2:19-22)—add I Cor 12's body if you want—we are to be built up into maturity, so that we can experience the fullness of God and extend that to those around us.

The stakes—and the opportunities are too great—to whiff on this question. Follow the approach of Jesus: focus on the 12, make disciples who can make disciples who can make disciples.

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