Because of its high profile, yesterday’s news from the Mars Hill church community in Seattle may create questions and/or pain for Christ followers in both Seattle and beyond. But churches closing their doors is nothing new. People who count such things say that about 4,000 churches close every year in America and the reasons are wide ranging.
I take hope in knowing from the Bible that organizational failure and church failure are two different things. The former is product of human error, economies, shifting demographics and at least a dozen other things. The latter though, failure of the church, is something that doesn’t happen, because after 2,000 years, a handful of eyewitnesses to Christ’s resurrection, all of whom were martyred or imprisoned, laid a foundation for a work that’s continued to grow throughout the world. Organizations will fail. Christ won’t, and so it’s vital to gain Christ’s perspective on the “Big C” church when stuff like this happens. Here are three truths to give you hope:
I. Don’t confuse “church” with “organizations”
Down here in the muck of daily living there are so called “churches”. I lead a large one in Seattle, but must confess that I’m ambivalent about using the word “Church” to describe the group I lead. I use it, of course, because it’s the idiomatic way of describing the people who gather on any given Sunday together, many of whom are deeply committed to this particular expression of Christ’s life in our city. But if we could see with the eyes of Christ, we’d see that the “church” in Seattle is made up of all Christ followers, and that there are some who attend weekly, here or there in various organizations, but aren’t really in the game, and others who gather in homes, whose church life is real and deep in spite of the fact that there’s no formal organizational structure.
While I’m speaking about home churches though, please don’t romanticize them, as if to imply that getting rid of organizational structure is somehow the promised land of a deep church life. Having pastored both a house church in the mountains and a mega-church, I can safely tell you that when a house church is doing what it ought to do, lives will be changed, light will shine from there to the community and new people will come. Where, in your house, will they sit? And when babies come along, who will care for them? And when someone disagrees with a course of action, what steps can be taken to address it? I’ll save you some time by telling you that each of these problems will require structure, and then a bit more, and still more and presto! You’re an organization. Those who dismiss organizational necessities are living in a dream world, and yet it’s vital to also remember that the structure, and even the gathering on any given Sunday, aren’t what constitute the real church. Jesus spoke of this when he talked about wheat and tares growing in a field together and said that we’re not to sort it all out now, because we’re (thankfully) not Jesus, and so we can leave the sorting to him.
The real church is there, in the midst of your gathering. Believe it, celebrate it, pray for it to thrive and be the presence of Christ in real ways; and commit to a local expression that takes shape in an organizational structure. But the structure is the wineskin, not the wine. Never confuse the two.
II. Don’t confuse “organization” with “leader”
OK, so we’re aligned with, and part of, an organization, and within that organization there are people who are part of Christ’s grand expression of life called “the church”. A common problem with organizations is that they either dismiss the necessity of leadership, or they “deify” (not literally, but poetically) their leader. Both positions are wrong and ultimately unsustainable.
By dismissing the necessity of the leader and the notion of leadership, you are swimming upstream against everything the New Testament has to say about the church. Paul speaks of the qualifications of leaders, tells Christ followers to both honor and follow their leaders, and warns both leaders and teachers that they will face a stricter judgement because of their role, so that they’d best not seek leadership as a means of self advancement, but as a calling to service.
However, nothing in the New Testament implies that a leader should ever be above accountability, and what’s more, the very nature of our calling as leaders in the church should be to embrace both the accountability of a ruling board not chosen by us, and to continually raise up new leaders so that the work, and the honor, is shared.
Years ago, as our church was growing larger, I saw the danger of both the authority and honor of the ministry being centralized in one person, and so we began living into a vision of raising up new leaders (teaching pastors) and new locations, so that we’d better fulfill our value of passing the leadership torch to the next generation. You can see this vision here.
The hope, when all this works right, is that the organization is bigger than the leader, so that when the leader is gone, whether due to old age or any other reason, the work remains.
III. Don’t confuse “leader” with “Jesus”
So now we’re in an organization that contains, but isn’t the whole of the church. We should also be following human leaders too, but never in an ultimate or absolute sense. Here’s why: No human leader is the head of the church. We leaders might make decisions about the organization (though even there, accountability and mutuality of trust among a plurality of leaders is the best thing, as you see in Acts), but we’re not “running the church”. That’s Jesus’ job, and I think he’ll do just fine, with or without we “high profile” leaders.
There aren’t any high profile leaders in Iran, where being a pastor can get you executed, or in North Korea, where it can mean you’ll do hard labor for twenty years. But in our world of conference speaking and publishing houses, market share and Klout Scores, it seems that there are plenty of people eager to find the stage and lights and this place is fraught with danger—especially the danger that we’ll believe our own press releases.
With all the love in my heart I say: don’t follow any of us blindly. None of us! Listen to us, learn what God gives you from us. When you see our sins, pray for us and if you have a relationship with us or our part of our organization, take steps to help us see it. How we leaders respond will reveal a lot about our integrity. But don’t; don’t; make it all about us. Don’t make it utterly dependent on us for success, especially as the organization grows older.
Because Christ, not any human leader, is the head of his church, and none of us charged with leadership is doing it flawlessly. None. Of. Us. If leaders would acknowledge this, they’d have a little more humility. If followers would acknowledge this, especially in an environment of grace, it would give leaders a greater measure authenticity and humility.
A “church” began twenty years ago in Seattle and now it appears the wineskin is facing challenges. But new wine of Christ’s regenerative life is now present, I believe and pray, in thousands of new believers throughout our city because of this work. Is an organization going through a hard time? Yes. And we’ll pray for them. Is the church in Seattle going to be fine?
Yes. Because the church isn’t Mars Hill, or Bethany, or EastLake, or City Church, or whatever else is shiny and bright, or small and new, or small and old. The church is Christ—expressing his life through broken people who gather under the umbrella of various organizations to be embody the hope, joy, healing, and forgiveness that’s found in Christ alone. And that, dear friends, will continue regardless of what we humans do. So let’s relax and, as Paul says, “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain.”
I welcome your thoughts…