Church consultants are everywhere these days, flying in, costing a fortune, and teaching church leadership teams to “establish their vision,” “figure out their unique value proposition,” “settle on a purpose statement and what they will offer to the community.” Demographic analysis, carefully targeted music, and ad campaigns to catch the eye of consumers, all designed in hopes of attracting people to your church. The results are tastefully crafted church names that remove offense for the irreligious, facilities that are hip with coffee shops, and mini Disney Worlds for kids, stage lights, sermon bumps, and preachers on stools with a bottle of Snapple. None of these things are wrong! Some of them are unquestionably helpful—but they are not, not, not what makes a church of Jesus Christ distinct.
It is not a refutable point, and I confess to hitting the computer keys somewhat harder just there. What makes a church distinctive is where we must draw the line and fume and fuss—so let the sparks fly. Regardless of a thousand legitimate ways our churches can distinguish themselves from one another, this single thing we must all have as our greatest commitment and passion. Whether you are 15 people around a candle and a coffee table or 150 people in a tired building trying to turn it around or 1,500 people on the rise with plans for another service—regardless of size: if you don’t have the thing that makes us distinct, you have nothing, no matter what you have. And if you do have it—what we were made to long for; what makes us a true church of the one true God—you have everything you need, no matter what you lack.
Moses Hit the Bull’s Eye
Moses continued his foaming-mouth frenzy: “Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” (Exodus 33:16). Moses knew in the depth of his being that his only point of identity, his people’s onlyscintilla of significance, was the distinction of God’s manifest presence in their midst. If you accept the authority of God’s Word, you must embrace the distinctive mark on the people of God: what separates us from all other people groupings on the planet is the presence of God manifest among us. What Moses pleaded for can’t be had at the rotary club and has never visited the PTA. God’s manifest presence doesn’t come to the NFL or the NRA. What God gave to Israel then and wants to give your church today is our birthright as His children—the distinctive of His manifest presence in our midst.
It’s not for the parachurch per se and it’s not promised to the Christian college or the mission agency. As wonderful as all those ministries are, their own leaders readily admit that they have to find a church to find this. What we pastors and church leaders too often lose sight of is that the only thing that makes a church worth shouting about is God showing up in power and doing what we cannot do for ourselves—and so many churches miss it completely!
Does its availability ensure its inevitability? No! Good speakers and great music are nothing unless God breathes into them. Even a little church with a corner on community and a happy, contented pastor who is faithful to the text are worthless without this. And bigger churches with lots of “baptisms” may be far less than they appear when “the fire [tests] what sort of work each one has done” (1 Corinthians 3:13). Is it my work, or is it God’s? Am I the one pulling this off with my cultural savvy and my superior programming, or is the fruit I see a work done in God? Are my struggles and failures the result of my paltry pursuit of His presence? Is the lack of lasting fruit from your faithful disposition of duty a concern? These are hard questions to ask people in ministry who work so hard and care so much, but I pray you resist the temptation to get defensive and endure the discomfort of a deeper reaction.
I write as a friend whose only goal is to increase our joy and effectiveness in church ministry: “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:4). Maybe it’s time we stopped hiding behind omnipresence and assuming it is the same thing as manifest presence.
Excerpted from Vertical Church.
FG_AUTHORS: James MacDonald