Bad Reasons to Start a Church
Almost everyone I hang out with is either a Christian or a spiritual person (many are both, of course). These people tend to have an understanding of the importance of the spiritual life in decision making. Sometimes their values are conflicted and confused, but they generally agree that the Transcendent has a place in human affairs. Because of this, my encounters with pure American secularism come either through strangers or institutions (stores, media, government, etc.). Several days ago, however, I had an encounter that broke this trend.
I was sitting with someone I’ve known for a long time, but not someone I see very often. We were at an event together. We sat at the same table for several minutes. At some point she asked how “the church” was going. I gave her a polite and positive reply. She then asked how many people we had. This is the question I tend to get from two types of people: a) those who have no idea what a church is like and simply don't know what to ask, and b) those who work for other churches and are interested in measuring their success against mine.
I told her our average Sunday attendance. I went on to tell her that we had helped start a new church south of us in the past several months and that there was a possibility we would help start another church in our area in the near future. I’m not sure why I felt that saying this was necessary; perhaps I was the one feeling competitive.
She asked me a surprising follow-up question. “Are you the boss of those other churches?” If you know about multi-site church structures, this might be a reasonable question. Given that she has no knowledge of this modern phenomenon I was taken aback. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Are you in charge of those churches, are they your franchises?” I told her that “no, they are not.” These churches are linked to us in our denomination, but they are not under our authority.
Then she asked the truly secular question. “Do you get more money by starting them?” I asked her to clarify. She went on to inquire as to whether there was a financial benefit to me personally or to my congregation from the starting of these churches.
When I told her there was not, she asked me “what do you get out of them?” I told her simply “nothing.” I went on to say that planting churches is difficult for the sending church. We lose money, time, energy, and people. I have to say good-bye to people I care about. Our church loses leadership, experience, expertise, and income. On the whole, the congregation suffers and receives no tangible reward.
“Then why would you do it?” she asked. It was at that moment I realized I was dealing with an entirely secular mindset. The only values she could understand were material: power and money. Would I be the boss?--would I have power. Would I/we get money? What would we get out of them? Control, dominance, riches, influence. These made sense to her. What other motivations could possibly exist?
I responded and said. “We do it because we believe that every person on earth should have the opportunity to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ in the context of a healthy, God-focused community. Starting new churches is one of the best ways to achieve that goal.” That is not the only reason we start churches, and I’m not entirely sure it is the best reason (the glory of God is probably the best reason). But it is the reason I gave.
That ended the conversation, and she went back to the buffet table.
As I reflect on all of this, a couple of things come to mind. First, I am reminded that the secular narrative is alive and well. Believe it or not, when you hang out with spiritual people all the time this is something you can forget. Second, I am challenged with just how secular the church can sometimes be.
The questions she asked, the values that she apparently holds, are not just those of the atheist or agnostic. They are also the values I sometimes see expressed in the god-talk of the church-growth advocates, the conference speakers, the evangelicals, the emergent, and the church planters of every theological persuasion. I see these values in my own denomination, among my friends, and even in my own heart.
Ministry in the Name of Jesus should have nothing to do with the building up of a personal kingdom. Most of us know this. But the American secular narrative is so persuasive, so ubiquitous, that it can seep into all of us. I’m glad I had this conversation. It reminded me of what is true, what is good, and what is odious. Through prayerful reflection it has helped me to wrestle with the sin in my own heart. I pray that telling this story may help others as well.
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