Friday, July 17, 2009

Mission or Empire Building

Evangelical Christians – naturally enough – pay a lot of attention to evangelising. One of their main aims is often to convert people. A successful evangelical preacher is one that has had a large number of converts. A natural accompaniment to this is church growth. Evangelical churches want to grow. Churches are either pleased with their growth or believing God for the growth that is about to happen. A successful church is one that has a large number of attendees.

Now there’s nothing wrong with converting people or wanting a large church. However, I do think that some churches can focus too much on kind of these kind of empire-building things, neglecting the larger issue of mission.

Converting people to Christ can almost be a kind of scalp collecting exercise. The more we get the better. The higher our numbers, the more successful we are. But just because we have quantity doesn’t mean we have quality.

Every so often a Christian event will claim that a certain number of people made a commitment to Christ. That’s great, but how important is it? Not very, if they didn’t stick with it. How many of those people were still committed a week later? How many were truly seeking to live a Christ-like life six months later? How many were dedicated to the mission of Jesus Christ two years down the track?

I’m sure some would be. If such a huge number of people were committed, some of them will stick by that commitment. And so, one might argue, does it really matter that some of them fell away? Well it does, if they now have the attitude of been there, tried that, got the postcard and don’t need to go there again. It does if their sudden commitment actually prevents them from developing a relationship with God later on.

We wouldn’t be happy about anyone who came to us saying that they made a marriage commitment to someone they had only met that morning. So why are we so happy when people commit to Christ before they really know him at all? I’d much rather hear about one person who commits to Christ, after developing a relationship and getting to know who he is, than about 50 who made a spur of the moment decision.

I talk about Jesus all the time. Not in terms of if you don’t believe in him you’re going to Hell. Those kind of fear tactics may have worked well in medieval times, but we’re living in the 21st Century. I talk about Jesus in terms of who he was, what he stood for, what he said and what he did. I don’t do this to convert anyone. It’s just, as I said to one person, “Jesus was a great guy. I just want people to know that.”

The other way people get to know Jesus is through seeing Jesus in the lives of Christians. That’s where mission comes in. Christians should be the ones out in the world doing the kind of things that Jesus wants us to do. Christians should be out there feeding the poor, helping the homeless, comforting the lonely, reaching out to the those in need. And we should do all this in a loving and non-judgmental way. Not to convert, not to build our church. Just because we should – because it’s the kind of thing that Jesus would want us to do.

But that brings us back to church growth. Obviously the more people that are in a church, the more people can be released into performing the mission of the church and the mission of Jesus Christ. And that’s great. The more people there are out there following Jesus and doing the kind of things he wants us to do, the better. But just because someone is a church attendee, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing this.

So instead of counting numbers of church attendees or converts, maybe we should count the number of people we help. Maybe we should count the number of outreach programs we have. Maybe we should count the number of people who demonstrated a long-term commitment to the cause of Christ. Maybe we should stop focusing on empire building, and start focusing more on mission.


  1. I like your attitude with this, Liz. I have two examples.

    The first is my grandfather (I know I talk about him a lot but he was a great man). As a Pastor, he inspired people from the pulpit, but he also inspired people in the real world. He did this without heavy evangelizing. He led by example, offered people prayer without expectation that they accept it, and told people about Jesus when it was appropriate. He never forced his faith on people, but he converted many people, because he was such a good person.

    Then there are my inlaws. They are fundamental Baptist, and live their lives with what seems like a spreadsheet of converts, sinners, and backsliders. They're very good people, but it is their mission to evangelize, and their tactics are very off putting. They are the types that will approach people and tell them that they're afraid for their souls, and explain the pain of hell. Needless to say they scare people. They scare me! And they are very judgmental. On my very first meeting with them, they bombarded me with an impromptu intervention for my salvation. I told them I'm already comfortable with my relationship with God, which led them to tell me that I was going to hell.

    So...yeah. There is a right way and a wrong way to spread the message!


  2. Hi Natalina,

    Your grandfather does sound like an amazing person. I always like hearing about people like that. And the scary thing about your in-laws is there are a lot of people out there like that, scaring people out of a relationship with God.

    I'm going to share a story about pies, that may not seem relevant, but I think it has something to say about evangelisation.

    The other day I was at the shops with my boys when I saw these pies that looked really, really yummy. I asked my boys whether they wanted them for dessert. They said no and that they wouldn't like them. Now I know my children's tastes in food and I was pretty sure that they would like them. I tried to tell them that, but they would not be convinced. As the mum, I could have put my foot down and got the pies anyway and insisted they ate them. But then they probably wouldn't have like them, because the idea would have been in their head. And it would have been more of a punishment than a treat.

    Instead, the next time my boys were at their dad's house, I got those pies for me. I had one, and put the remaining three in the freezer. A couple of days after they came home, I had the freezer open and the kids were in the kitchen. Predictably enough, they saw the pies and asked what they were. I said that I had bought them for myself. And immediately they asked if they could have one. So we all had the remaining three and my children loved them, as I knew they would.

    But that wouldn't have happened if I'd forced the issue.


  3. I heard once (and i have no proof of this) that Billy Graham estimates that only about 3% of the millions of people who have been 'converted' at his rallies actually enter into a real relationship with Christ. 3%.

    That's tiny!

    I thin you're right on with what you're saying and I love Natalina's real world example of it!

  4. Hi Peter,

    Thanks for commenting. That doesn't suprise me as much as it should. Three per cent is very small. And it's interesting, because Billy Graham is often held up as this ideal of what an evangelist should be like. I guess a lot of people just get caught up in the moment.




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