This is part of an ongoing series of articles that dives into the comparison of the church as a religious machine or a living organism. Here are the links to earlier articles in this series:
There are a few commonly accepted benchmarks of growth used to measure individual faith within the life of the modern Evangelical Church. The wording may change some depending on the movement or congregation, but common metrics include:
- Sunday morning worship attendance,
- Financial giving (preferably tithing but that’s another conversation coming later),
- Small group participation,
- and Volunteering on a ministry team within the church (more on this later as well).
These are clearly defined, measurable, and trackable behaviors that can be compiled together to produce a snapshot of engagement and growth within a given congregational context. As people engage these practices, in theory, it shows that they’ve taken tangible steps forward in their faith and are therefore growing. With a little work in excel or church management software a list of congregants checking all of these boxes can be produced. For most churches the individuals on such a list are upheld as mature believers that literally checking all the boxes of faith.
There’s only one small problem.
I’ve personally known individuals who check all the boxes but haven’t yet made a decision to follow Jesus.
Remember the person that I congratulated for raising their hand, only to be shot down? They’d be a great example of someone who checks the boxes but makes it very clear they are not a Jesus follower. In fact, it’s increasingly common that within the larger context of suburban middle to upper-middle class churches these are all simply religious practices of the culture of church participation. Having an active and growing relationship with Jesus is not a precursor to any of these measurable behaviors. For some, it really is as simple as the understanding that Sunday mornings are entertaining, giving is worth the tax benefits, small groups are great ways to make friends, and volunteering makes them feel good. In the greater perspective of Christianity, these benchmarks are actually pretty low hurdles to identifying spiritual growth. Even so, we seem content to use these behaviors as measurements of our effectiveness in growing believers within our congregations.
The modern Evangelical Church exists for the primary goal to reach the lost and giving people an opportunity to become a believer.
The common language of the church is that of being a believer. The goal of most gospel presentations is to prompt people to identify that they now believe in Jesus and have accepted His grace and forgiveness. Becoming a believer is presented as the turning point of faith. We often hear pastors share this as “crossing the line of faith” , saying that people go from death to life, from condemnation to forgiveness, from eternal hell to eternity in heaven in this very moment. The process of salvation is represented as a singular, one time, binary choice to accept Jesus and become a believer or to deny him and continue in your paganism. As John Ortberg observes for most gospel presentations, “we have called people to comply with the minimum entrance requirements for heaven instead of calling them to discipleship in Jesus”.
One of the challenges of the common gospel presentation I discussed in an earlier post is the fruit it produces and the theology it communicates. The complexity and depth of the process of salvation in scripture is so quickly lost in an oversimplified three-minute presentation leading to a spiritual ultimatum. Theologically, it communicates that a decision of belief is what’s required to satisfy God’s judgement. When people positively identify as believers their eternal forgiveness is confirmed and they are accepted into the Kingdom of God.
Everything is quick, tidy, and complete.
Except it’s not.
In scripture, Jesus is given two common titles that have different meanings – Lord and Savior. They represent two different functions of the character and nature of Jesus in regards to our relationship with him.
The Evangelical Movement leans heavily on Jesus as Savior in the way the gospel is represented. It highlights our sinfulness and our need to be saved. No doubt, we are broken and sinful and in need of a Savior and the story of Jesus resonates deeply into our individual and cultural stories of brokenness. Nearly everyone will admit to some level of their own moral corruption, even by their own defined standards. Even more, the idea of encountering God’s wrath for our sinfulness in the proposed experience of hell is a terrifying motivator.
Accepting Jesus is often equal parts embracing forgiveness and hell avoidance – for many, its mostly hell avoidance.
Understanding the need for a Savior and accepting Jesus in that role in our lives is not a difficult decision for most. This is especially true when this acceptance is largely presented as a single decision in real time that has eternal consequences. If averting the risk of hell is that simple, why would anyone not accept it even if they were skeptical of its merits?
On the other hand, accepting the Lordship of Jesus is a much greater challenge.
Human nature has a significant aversion to submission. Americans, even more so. We all want the forgiveness of Jesus, but not the ascribed leadership that comes with it. Allowing Jesus authority and ongoing voice as Lord in our lives doesn’t come naturally. It’s a recurring daily and moment-by-moment decision to intentionally put our own desires and motives aside. It’s a process of self-sacrifice and submission that is rarely presented accurately during a gospel presentation that prompts a response. While people are quick to raise a hand to avoid hell, they’re much less likely to respond rapidly to a call to submission for the rest of their life.
Interestingly, one of the most commonly quoted scriptures during the typical gospel call is:
“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.”
Romans 10:9-10, NLT
It’s simple – believe it in your heart and say it with your mouth and you’re saved. But wait – what are you to profess with your mouth? Not “Jesus is Savior”. No, it’s a declaration of the Lordship of Jesus in your life. It’s right there in plain sight.
How is it that when we present this verse over and over again as the simple and straightforward agreement of salvation, we overlook one of the key components?
When we present this verse we present an incomplete understanding of the Gospel if we don’t help people understand the implications of Lordship. It’s like this verse is presented as a hidden biblical contractual agreement that God has offered – simply believe and say it out loud and He’s bound by His own writing to save you. It’s like we found the loophole in a legal document – a spiritual “Got ya!” that forces God to uphold His end of the deal when we jump through the hoops.
There is no clear line of faith in scripture.
It’s a man made concept. We point to passages like the Romans one above as such because we want assurance and confirmation of our salvation. We want to know without a doubt that we’re saved and going to heaven. Often even more-so, we want to be able to clearly and easily identify others who are “in” and who are not. In doing so, we’ve boiled our faith down to be something that Jesus never intended and the Bible never communicated. In creating this simplified system we’ve usurped the very role of Jesus as Lord, instead creating our own process to determine someone’s judgement to heaven or hell. It reeks of the stereotypical arrogance of the human heart and the pride of religion.
In our efforts to bring spiritual assurance to ourselves and the masses, we’ve missed the whole point of salvation and therefore the process of discipleship that then follows.
The Church has churned out multiple generations of a massive harvest of believers who have only accepted half of Jesus.
They believe in Him, they accept His forgiveness, but they’ve not yet submitted to His Lordship. It would be foolish and extremely hypocritical of me to try to give some simple judgement of these individuals regarding their true faith and eternity. Doing so would just create yet another human driven system of qualifications for eternal judgement in an attempt to understand what only God can fully evaluate. I’m not writing to say all those believers are not true Christians, nor am I writing to say that they’re all fully secure in their salvation. I’m am saying we’ve inaccurately led people to follow Jesus in a way that bypasses the biblical understanding of being a Jesus follower. Instead of helping people understand that following Jesus is a lifetime of discipleship following both Lord and Savior, we’ve short circuited the process and made the very idea of Christianity as a proxy for hell avoidance.
In moments of honesty and candor, I’ve had some interesting conversations with large Evangelical Church leaders. I’ve heard a few of them say the same thing, nearly verbatim from one another – “We are an evangelistic church to reach lost people. They can go somewhere else to get discipled, but at least they’re not going to hell.” Each time it was spoken in defense of their own church’s aggressive numerical growth; an explanation of why they were growing while other churches don’t seem to be experiencing the same level of success.
There is both an unspoken and very much communicated understanding that churches can be either evangelistic or discipleship driven, but not both.
It’s discussed as if they are polar opposites of a spectrum that cannot exist together in the same church. Both sides of the coin defend their perspective and are convinced that their model is best. But they’re both incomplete – the very last recorded commandment of Jesus in the Great Commission is to go (more accurately – as you are going) and make disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them everything I’ve taught you. Not go and make believers. Not go and make converts. No, as you’re going through life, make disciples. Again, how have we so blatantly overlooked and ignored the simple words of scripture and instead chased our own creation of religion? There’s an implied evangelism. After all, discipleship has to start somewhere for individuals, but it’s also clear that the making of disciples is greater than simply asking someone to acknowledge belief in Jesus.
We have churches full of believers who have never been discipled.
We have church leaders and pastors who have never been discipled.
The Evangelical church as we know it is largely ill equipped to make disciples in either its form or its function. It’s hard for leaders to pass on to others what they themselves have not received. It’s hard to disciple someone once a week in a single church service. We’re simply not set up to be successful in executing the commission of Jesus in our modern Church environment.
Part 2 of this post – Making Believers VS Making Disciples coming soon.