My Dream Church

The “missional movement” and the “emergent church movement” are relentless in their attacks on the “church growth movement” and any byproduct it has created. But what I’m finding is that the alternatives they’re providing are not always that different.

In his January 2, 2012 (today) post titled “Why the Corporate Church Won’t Work,” missional guru Mike Breen is adamant about the negative impact of running the church like corporate America:

“You see, I am absolutely convinced that 100 years from now, many books will be written on the phenomenon that is the late 20th Century/early 21st Century American church. And I am fairly certain that it will be with large degree of amazement/laughter that people, in reading about it, will say to each other: “You must be joking! Seriously???! People actually thought it was a good idea to structure the Church as if it were a business? Honestly?!”

Perhaps we don’t have the perspective necessary to see how funny or strange this really is, but I promise you, if you run your church like a business, it’ll never be a family and families are what have changed the world. Bill Hybels was right about the local church (as the Body of Jesus) being the hope of the world…just not as we are currently seeing it.

Efficiency has replaced effectiveness. Many churches are organizationally efficient, but we aren’t affecting the lives of people the way in which Jesus imagined a family would do.

We’ve created a corporate America-like church, somehow buying into a false dichotomy between a Leadership Culture which produces leaders and a Discipleship Culture that produces disciples. Here’s what I mean: In American businesses, it’s about moving people from A to B, but has nothing to do with making people. We have one guy with the vision and a culture of volunteerism to help that one guy get his vision accomplished. It’s the genius with a 1000 helpers. So while churches may claim to have “leadership development programs,” what they really have are “volunteer pipelines” that are run by managers, not leaders.

In doing so, we run the campus, but don’t expand the Kingdom. We’re keeping the machine of the church running (which, much to some people’s chagrine, I think is needed if done in a lightweight/low maintenance kind of way), but doing practically nothing to expand the Kingdom.”

So how should the church be organized? The oldest protestant tradition has long maintained a distinct simplicity. Reformation Lutherans state it clearly in their 16th century confessions: “It is also taught among us that one holy Christian church will be and remain forever. This is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.”  (Augsburg Confession VII, § 1-2).

In other words, it’s not about leadership or congregational governance. It’s about Word and Sacrament. And come what may, where these are, the church will not be thwarted. It will “remain forever!”

Nonetheless, much is being made about how the church should make “true” disciples—whatever that means. And though Breen is quick (and right) to point out the faults of the “church growth movement” and it’s by products, he ironically attempts to lift up a new organizational paradigm that will solve the church’s woes. It appears one organizational method is simply being exchanged for another. What is it?

“EXTENDED FAMILY. The Oikos. A group of people, blood-and-non-blood, about the size of an extended family, on mission together, often times networked with other extended families. Why the extended family? * Because it’s small enough to care, but large enough to dare. * Everyone gets to play.* Sociologically, people locate their identity within the extended family size (known as the Social Space). We’re hardwired for it. * To function well, it’s a beautiful combination of both the organic and the organized. * It’s the perfect training ground for future leaders. I believe, with everything in me, that until we embrace this reality, we will continue to struggle to be the fully functioning Body of Jesus.”

I’ll admit, it sounds appealing. It may even have some merit, particularly if it were more grounded in the immediate family. Nonetheless, I believe, with everything in me, that even if we are to embrace this reality, the church will continue “to struggle to be the fully functioning Body of Jesus.” Why? Because families are full of sinners—because the church is filled with a bunch of miserable sinners who are in desperate need of Christ and His Word of promise!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer has some poignant words for us to consider on what he calls communities that spring up from a wish dream:

“Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it has sprung from a wish dream…He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the later, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dreams bind men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.” (Life Together, 27-28.)

This is why the church must be organized around “the Gospel” that is “preached in its purity” and “the holy sacraments” that are “administered according to the Gospel.” It’s not an organizational theory that saves people or makes the church to be the “true” church. It’s Christ and His Word. Yes, leadership and organization have their place. But they do not constitute the church. The Lutheran confessions are clear on this. “God be praised, a seven-year-old child knows what the Church is: holy believers and ‘little sheep’ who hear the voice of their Shepherd.” (Smalcald Articles Part III, Article XII, The Church, § 2).

Thus, “true” disciples are made by Christ and His Word. They won’t all look the same or act the same, but they will all be sinners. And they will all continue to need the Gospel. When we buy into the thinking that there is some sort of magical formula (other than the Gospel) that will make the church into our “dream church” we’ll be sorely disappointed, and sorely mistaken.

As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).


Rev. Woodford


2 responses to “My Dream Church

  1. My dear brother; You are right on target. Luther, Walther, Bonhoeffer, rightly understood Romans 7 as applying to Paul, and Christians AFTER conversion. Keep up the excellent work.

  2. Whenever something is referred to as “the perfect training ground for future leaders,” alarm bells go off in my head. After His baptism, Jesus went away from everyone for forty days. Despite the lack of an “extended family” around Him, He turned out all right…

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