Tuesday, September 04, 2012


Following the Lance Armstrong post, I received this question:

Wondering if there is a recent Evangelical Church/Church Growth comparison to be made with stubborn superstars and cheating (doping) the Gospel. Sort of like when Willow Creek admitted they were doing "it" wrong - people weren't growing. Did other churches renounce the church growth shortcuts? Or should we have all admitted we were "doping." Or should we idolize the old days in the church of faithful prayer, solid orthodox theology, rigorous biblical study in preaching, faithful pastoral care? Can the church now continue without looking for the next superstar pastor any more than the Tour can accept someone lesser than Armstrong as its superstar?
To me this speaks directly to how we define success. In sports, I know there are different opinions on the matter. Some see doping and the like no different than diet and weightlifting - things you can do to your body to develop a competitive edge. Others see a line where potential hazards outweigh potential benefits. Still others feel as though winning through better medicine removed their own physical contributions from the process.

It all comes down to success.

I got in some heat on Facebook recently for criticizing how some of he GOP Convention speakers were equating success with making money or running profitable businesses. I'm sure that those things do equal success for some people; I hope that's not true for everyone.

As a Christian, I define success by whether or not my actions make the Kingdom of God more evident in the world. What exactly does that mean? Well, it's tough to condense. There's four gospels that try to exemplify it, a whole bunch of letters that try to advise the practice of it, and a couple centuries of experimentation (not to mention the several thousand years of human-divine interaction that the gospels re-conceptualize in the first place). But let me give it a go:

The Kingdom of God is the world as God intends it, a redeemed creation. Our faith provides us with some useful maxims to try and work out in everyday living. They're mostly parables and thus defy explanation as an exact science, but the crux of it is simply unconditional love. I believe the goal of Christian life (and thus our measure for success) is to embody with our lives this Kingdom that is coming, but has not yet fully arrived.

Did I love my neighbor unconditionally today? Did I balance my time effectively, making room for service and celebration? Have I taken concrete actions to bridge injustice? Have I served as a means of peace and reconciliation? Things like that.

I try not to measure this in degrees - as in "could I have made the Kingdom even more evident than I did?" I hope to be and try my best, to put forth top effort (and perhaps even learn to improve in the future), but I don't worry about degrees. I am a frail and fault-filled human being whose only hope is to be open and available to the working of God in my life.

It's not tough to see the jump to worshiping congregations. A lot of Christian congregations and pastors have seen their profile rise considerably in recent years, through television and books and our general cultural love of all things big. Big money, big buildings, lots of people. There is a growing trend - soon congregations will either be huge (2,000+ attendees) or family sized (less than 30).

The first and most famous of these mega-churches is Willow Creek. They mastered the world of marketing and target audience and grew to be very large. They also did an internal survey that showed their people were not actually looking more like Christ through participation. They were bringing people in and getting them involved, but they weren't succeeding in ways they wanted to succeed - in gospel measures.

There's a lot of books about the Church and consumer culture. I've read a few. They talk about the different measure of success in different branches and forms of Christian expression. There's a lot of value there.

Ultimately, though, this is the minority. We are, as human beings, much more consumed by the culture around us than we are creators of culture. As the question pointed out, there's not a large stream of congregations shifting radically from their "church growth" strategies (which is insider language for increasing attendance and income). The methods of power and success dictated by our culture just don't jibe all that well with the gospel. The CEO model of leadership can create successful non-profit corporations, if success is defined the same way it is in corporate board rooms.

There's nothing wrong with that in many sense. There's a ton of great non-profit ministries out there working directly with people in need. I've got a lot of friends doing amazing things, efficiently and effectively - succeeding, no matter your definition.

I do think there is something different, though, when it comes to a worshiping community - and we are all part of a worshiping community, whether we know it or not. That community is one whose collective life is oriented around a specific set of principles.

For some it is freedom. For others it is business and financial success. Still others worship pleasure and personal happiness. For some it is patriotism. For Christians, it is (or should be) the Kingdom - we're living into an eternity that has already begun. It means we can't live with the same principles that guide everyone else.

I don't think that means other entities and institutions are useless. There's no reason that Christians should have to abandon the best of business, education, science, or politics. The problems arise when participation in such becomes defacto worship. When the means become the ends.

Too often Christians are loathe to reject alternative definitions of success because their much easier to achieve. Just like doping in sports (we got back around to it eventually - o ye of little faith) - it's a much faster, more predictable means to an end. In sports the end is secure, for the most part - winning is the measure of success. It's certainly the measure Lance Armstrong uses (he still introduces himself as someone who won the Tour de France seven times). Not every athlete puts winning as paramount - some just seek to get the most out of their performance, to give as much as they possibly can (see: about half the guys who run alongside Usain Bolt in the 100m finals).

Christian life and worship is not about winning - not about winning attendance battles or even winning souls. It's about being faithful. Success is about re-presenting the Kingdom with our lives and our relationships.

Some of my brothers and sisters still see politics as an avenue where that's possible; I admit I can't see it. Some of my brothers and sisters see the free-market as a place where the Kingdom can thrive; I admit I can't see it. I will support their faithful endeavors, though, as much as I can. I will also be vocal in reminding them that these are but means, not ends - that there is a different measure of success to which they are accountable.

Bradley Wiggins does seem less superhuman than Lance Armstrong, as I imagine my father does next to Rick Warren. I'm just not sure we can trust our instincts, when they've been so formed by a culture that defines success in ways so foreign to reality.


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