Bless This House?

by Brian McLaren, Leadership columnist

Why efforts to renew the church are often misguided.

I often hear someone say, “We’re exploring new ways of doing church.” Or “We’re seeking church renewal.” Or even “We’re developing a postmodern church service. It’s very cool. We’re very innovative.” In all these ways, my colleagues and I, for all our good intentions, show that we may not be likely to succeed.

These efforts overlook one small detail. Whatever we change (style of music, style of preaching, use of art, candles, incense, etc.), we’re not changing the thing that needs changing most.

Which is? One might recall Jesus’ words about saving our lives and in the process losing them. Could it be that the church is as it is in so many places not because of a lack of effort or a lack of sincerity or a lack of spirituality (or even a lack of money, commitment, or prayer), but rather because our sincere efforts, passionate prayers, and material resources are all aimed in the wrong direction—the direction of self-preservation, self-aggrandizement, self-improvement?

What if saving the church is a self-defeating mission?

Lesslie Newbigin often spoke of the greatest heresy of monotheism (in its Jewish, Christian, and Islamic forms): cherishing Clause A of the Abrahamic call while conveniently suppressing, forgetting, or ignoring Clause B. So, we want to be blessed (big, exciting, vibrant, wealthy, healthy, wise). We want to be great (a great nation, a great denomination, a great congregation). To this end we pray and pay and read and plead and strive and strain and yearn and learn and groan and labor. And we give birth to wind.

Meanwhile, might God be otherwise occupied, scanning the earth for people who will also cherish Clause B: to be made into a great blessing, so that all people on earth can be blessed through us? Are we seeking blessing so as to be a blessing to the world God loves?

Do you see the difference between renewing the church as our mission, and blessing the world?

Our persistent “bless-me” bug, like a nasty flu into which we keep relapsing, creates what some of my friends have called “the great commotion,” a close approximation of the Great Commission, but a miss nonetheless. Seminar junkies accumulate plastic-covered notebooks that could fill an oil tanker. Authors like myself write books whose combined gross weight may exceed the weight of our congregations after a pot-luck dinner. But not much changes.

Our efforts are all bent to renew or strengthen the current systems, which are perfectly designed (as Dallas Willard has said) to deliver the results we are now getting.

So if we are a self-centered church in America, it is because our systems—including our theological systems—are perfectly designed to produce such a church. It has been said that the greatest obstacle to the coming of the kingdom of God is the church, preoccupied with her own existence. Could our preoccupation with making better churches rather than better blessing the world be the heart disease that plagues us? And could our Clause-A theological systems be the high-fat cause of that heart disease?

This is what’s really going on beneath all the superficial talk of “emerging church.” Far more than cosmetics are under consideration: the very purpose of the church, the gospel, and the pastorate are being re-thought. If that doesn’t disturb, surprise, or excite you, you don’t understand what is being said.

Everywhere I go, on the fringes and in unexpected places (including in all the wrong denominations where this sort of things shouldn’t happen), I discover churches and leaders who are grappling with these deep questions. They want to be blessed in order to be a blessing to the world. Their dream does not stop with the church. They’re thinking about God’s kingdom coming on earth as in heaven.

These are good signs. Hopefully, the early signs of even better signs yet to come. How ironic if the church were to find life by losing it, by giving it away.

Brian McLaren is pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville, Maryland.