Is there really much difference between “going to church” and “being the church”?

Posted on July 11, 2014 in Theology by

go to churchThat’s a question I’ve given a lot of thought to lately and the conclusion is that there is considerable difference. First let’s describe what “going to church” looks like and then talk about what it means to “be the church.”

Going to church is little more than checking a box on a to-do list and believing that you have done your duty. A person who sees church as something you go to is missing the fact that every Christian IS the church.

The typical church where people see going to church as the primary objective is often characterized in a number of ways.

First, the church has an inward focus. This is true because the members are focused on going to church and church is what happens inside the walls of the church building. So the primary focus becomes what church members do inside the church building on Sunday. The lack of external focus inevitably leads to stagnation, starvation, and death. Thom Rainer recently wrote that the most common factor in declining churches is “an inward focus.”

But, and this is number two, the inward focus leads to a lack of evangelistic emphasis. Rather than centering on The Great Commission (which should be a primary focus of every church) the inwardly focused church resists any lack to engage culture, serve the community, or take part in evangelism. Again Rainer says that factors contributing to the death of a church are that the church “refused to look like the community” and “had no community-focused ministries.”

Here’s the bottom line: a church where “going to church” is the emphasis will develop an inward focus that loses its vision for reaching their community. The result? Death.

These churches often neglect discipleship, hands-on missions, serving their community, mentorship, and utilizing the tools of the culture that reach people with the Gospel.

With that pattern in place the inevitable result is death by age. The church will gradually become older. As people die the church will become smaller. Wanting to “reach younger people” the church will attempt to “change” or even hire someone to help them reach younger generations. But because of the inward focus and emphasis this task is nearly impossible. The attempts to change will be met with fear, that fear will cause the leaders to back down, and once again “going to church” will become the primary focus.

This is a slow and agonizing death as the people of the church become confused about why the church is shrinking and dying. They love their church and can’t understand why others, especially younger generations, don’t want to attend. But they also fail to see that as culture changes so do the methods of reaching those younger generations. While the message of the Gospel remains firm and unchanging, the methods must change or the church will die.

With a clear picture of the “going to church” model, we need to discuss what the “being the church” model looks like.

There’s a reason why church plants have become the most effective way to reach the lost with the Gospel message. For starters, church plants don’t have any of the baggage of existing churches. Many of the men coming out of seminary would rather go start a church from scratch than to try and assimilate into an existing church. The reasons are clear.

Existing churches have cliques and pockets of power that control certain aspects of church life. If you offend or get on the bad side of one of those pockets of power, you’re time is limited. Existing churches tend to value traditionalism over people. These churches do things not because they are effective and working, but because they’ve always done it this way. They don’t want to change, even if that means reaching fewer people (or none). Existing churches adhere to many false beliefs regarding church polity, leadership, ministry, and even theology. Few men want to go in and attempt to turn the Titanic when they can start something fresh.

Church plants have become a prevalent force in reaching people with the Gospel with a “be the church” model. This model communicates regularly that “what we do on Sunday is not church. What we do Monday through Saturday is how we are going to be the church.” Everything from discipleship to the church budget reflects the belief that doing life in the community is essential to the life of the church. With this in mind the “be the church” model seeks to provide opportunities for church members to serve the community, share the Gospel in public, do foreign and domestic missions, and do discipleship.

Writing at The Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax highlights a church that is having incredible success reaching the younger generation. The article shares some of the reasons this church is so successful and one is, you guessed it, an outward focus. Thom Rainer says that outwardly focused churches that are reaching younger generations are “intentional about scheduling ministries, events, and activities for reaching the community.”

Having looked at a brief description of what a “be the church” model looks like, allow me to highlight several distinguishable characteristics of a “be the church” church.

  1. The church is obsessed with fulfilling The Great Commission and The Great Commandment. To this end the church will constantly seek ways to love God, love people, and make disciples. This will reveal itself in every aspect of the church, from services, groups, budgets, and discipleship; this church will focus on reaching people in everything it does.
  2. Missions is not something this church will simply give money to, it will be something this church does. Once again this church is doing. This time it is taking The Great Commission personally and seeking to fulfill it by going; going across town, across the state, across the country, or across the world this church will consciously seek to reach people, all people.
  3. Discipleship will play an integral role in the life of this church. This church will not be content with believing that Sunday School or worship services count as discipleship. This church knows that discipleship happens outside the walls of the church where people do life together. This church prioritize a Gospel centered discipleship that emphasizes the need for people first be disciple and then to disciple others.
  4. Community Groups will be a primary tool for this church. In seeking to utilize cultural trends that are effectively reaching people with the Gospel, this church will develop a robust small group/community group ministry. These groups, designed to create a friendly environment for unchurched people, have been shown to be one of the most effective ways of growing a church, teaching, and serving the community.
  5. Social media and technology are friends. This church believes that social media is an essential tool for connecting with lost people in the community. Technology is not feared or resisted but embraced as a part of a ministry philosophy that emphasizes doing whatever it takes to reach people with the Gospel.
  6. People will matter more than anything else. The “be the church” model prioritizes people. Paving the parking lot is not more important than reaching people. Building a new worship center doesn’t trump lost souls. In this model it’s the people that matter most. This church recognizes the need for organization and order, but it will never sacrifice people for the sake of clean carpets.

There they are. Two models of church that are complete opposites. One has a future of certain death while the other has every opportunity to grow by reaching the lost. Every church has the option of which model it will choose. It can either refuse to change, refuse to utilize methods and tools that are helpful, and ultimately die. Or, it can stand firm in the biblical doctrines of Scripture and the Gospel message while adopting a model of church that will aid in its growth.

It comes down to what matters most. Will the church focus on reaching the lost with the Gospel message or building larger buildings and shrines to the past? The outcome of that decision will determine the fate of every church.

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