Here is the church, here is the steeple…


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“…Open it up, and see all the people. … Hey! They look just like me!”

I’m in the middle of a seminary class this week on leading change. “Change” is a big word in church circles these days. It seems like everyone is either dying for it or dying to avoid it.

I’ve been part of church change conversations in a variety of contexts over the past several years. I’ve been part of internal change movements and have tried to help others either facilitate or manage change.

There are a few things I’ve noticed about change in churches:

1) Almost everybody seems to know they need to change. The alternative to changing is to fade into non-existence.

2) Almost everybody is terrified to actually implement change. They understand the consequences but simply can’t bring themselves to endure the uncertainty that comes along with it. By doing so, they essentially choose a slow but sure diminution into non-existence.

3) Those who want change generally want something specific. And what they want is for the church to change to be more like them.

It’s that third thing I want to focus on.

When I was part of a change movement in my church several years ago, I had a vision. At the time, I thought that vision was for a more vibrant, more lively, more “relevant” expression of the church.

In hindsight, what I now realize is that what I wanted was a church made in my own image. One to suit my wants and desires and perceived needs.

I arrogantly assumed that everyone would (or at least should) want the same thing. And even if they didn’t know it yet, that was the kind of church that they really desired to be part of. Once they could experience it, they’d surely come around.

Now that I’ve spent some time seriously studying the church in its various expressions and various movements, both historically and contemporarily, I’m coming to the realization that that’s pretty much what everyone wants.

The best church, we assume, is the one that’s most like us.

And so we embark on these Quixotic change missions, trying to make the church what we want it to be, laboring under the assumption that what we want is really what everyone wants. More hip. More traditional. More welcoming. More stable. More conservative. More progressive. More evangelical. More missional. More straight. More gay. More “biblical.” More “spiriti-led.” More diverse. More homey. More young. More multi-generational.

What you seldom see or hear in these conversations is probably the one thing that maybe we should all be striving for.

Instead of a church that’s more like us, maybe we should be seeking a church that looks more like Jesus.

Of course, our immediate response to that is to say, “That is what I want! JESUS WANTS EXACTLY WHAT I WANT!!”

Really?

Here’s the thing: The church of Jesus almost never looks like what we think we want.

Because Jesus is dangerous.

Jesus calls us into those places that make us uncomfortable, that challenge our preconceptions, that stretch our imaginations. The church we think we want, the one that looks and thinks and acts just like we do, does none of those things.

And do you know why?

Because Jesus is all about LOVE.

Sound oversimplified? Think about it. Really think about it.

Love is anything but simple.

Love makes us uncomfortable. Love challenges our preconceptions. Love stretches our imaginations.

Love—real, authentic, unconditional, life-giving love—is the hardest thing we can do.

Love calls us to die so that it can rise up in our place.

We cannot continue to box ourselves into our labels and categories and preconceptions and preferences, and love like Jesus loves. It’s not until we abandon all of those things that we can even begin to glimpse what that kind of love is like.

It’s only in utter surrender that we can find true freedom.

In Wesleyan theology we talk about the idea of “Christian Perfection.” That’s a pretty hard concept to get your head around. We all know instinctively that we can never be “perfect.” But because of that instinct, we never really give the idea an honest try.

What John Wesley meant by “perfection” wasn’t an error-free existence. What he meant was that we could—at least conceivably—actually love other people and the world around us the way Jesus does.

Bob Tuttle, one of the most brilliant professors I’ve had the privilege to study under, defined it like this:

“Love devoid of self-interest.”

The love of Jesus, the love he calls us to as individuals and as his church, is a love that does nothing for its own benefit and everything for the sake of others.

Everything.

So whatever our agendas are and as noble as they may be, unless they are founded on that kind of utterly self-sacrificing, thoroughly generative love, they fall short of the best life Jesus calls us to.

So what kind of church do you want. Really want?

If you want one that’s just like you, I guarantee you’ll find it.

I hope we can choose the riskier path.

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4 thoughts on “Here is the church, here is the steeple…

  1. So, if we need to look like Jesus and Jesus looks like love in the end, does anything else other than real, authentic, love matter? Even the things Christians have considered essential in terms of belief? In other words, it seems to me this is far more about life than church and that in the 21st century our own religious baggage tends to be the same pile of dung everyone else’s is. I guess I am asking if the real name of Jesus is actually love, and therefore can he be known outside of sphere of our labels we have made out to be so important?

  2. There are three issues that slow church change implementation.

    First, there is obviously the fact that we are comfortable and wish to be comfortable. And so we don’t want to change. The way to overcome this is to deeply recognize the lack of comfort that imitating Christ calls for. Whips and crosses, anyone?

    Second, although we claim to care for and love others as well as Christ, we have a perspective issue. Sure, we all wonder if we would hold onto our faith to the point of martyrdom. Would we be willing to sacrifice our life for a friend?: Perhaps – perhaps not. The real question is whether or not we are willing to listen to rap music and sit beside a smelly, drug-using, tattooed, long-haired person with mental problems and screaming kids during a Sunday morning service. THAT’s the hard part. We might sacrifice our lives – but we won’t sit in the service.

    Third, we fail to understand that those “traditionalists” among us are also people who are formed in the image of God. Too often, we see the need for change, and we have the passion for change – but in any voluntary organization, the leader needs to recognize the absolute requirement to change the hearts and minds of the existing membership before pushing for change. Effective, workable change comes from within the congregation when the congregation as a body has been touched by the Holy Spirit.

    The real problem which blocks change in most congregation is that key formal and informal leaders do not listen to the Holy Spirit, do not understand that the Great Commission applies to them personally,and thus are not ready to initiate change. Do not preach “change”. Preach the Great Commission and preach “listen to the Holy Spirit”. Then, after a year or so, all those who actually lead the congregation will come forward with changes that need to be made. And at that point, the pastor needs to just get out of the way.

  3. Our idea of who Jesus is is also intimately tied to our perspective. If most of us think the perfect church is the one we want, likewise it is easy to imagine Jesus as the perfected image of ourselves. Jesus is who we would be if we could just live up to our ideals. Trouble is your ideals and mine might be different.

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