giving away success: how bigness can kill the Church.

for our intents and purposes here i’d like to restate what i think it means to be successful (and even now i hesitate to use this word) as the Church. simply put, success as the Church comes when we *are* the people of God, not only within our church buildings, but in the world that is watching. to be the people of God is to be immersed in the way of Jesus, a way that is completely different than our current culture in north america. this means not only having different “beliefs” but more-so, actually LIVING differently and in a way that reflects the values and teachings of Jesus as revealed in the Scriptures. more will be said on this later but a few examples would consist of resisting materialism and the drive to build up for ourselves kingdoms on earth, loving one’s enemies as opposed to practicing vengeance and practicing justice and mercy as a community of believers as opposed to individual justice. in other words, we are called to EMBODY the gospel of Jesus as opposed to merely SPEAKING the gospel of Jesus. secondly, the Church is successful as the Church when the inner workings of the Church are practiced and lived out in the community of faith.

the later point is what i would like to examine at the moment. i think that scripture suggests, along with many others since, that the Church is DOOMED from actually being the Church if our goal is to “get bigger”. i wish to challenge the idea that a larger church necessarily is more successful at “doing church” (whatever exactly that means) especially given the fact that a church, if too big, is actually hindered from BEING the Church in the sense that it is harder to practice and live out the inner-workings of the Church.

a goal of the Church ought to be to bring new believers into maturity as followers of Christ and participants of salvation in the context of community. the question, as Fitch puts it, is “what kind of organization facilitates the inner workings of a local body of Christ that are necessary to properly mature new believers into followers of Christ and participants in his salvation through the body of Christ?”

again, i wonder if these inner-workings of the Body are at all hindered if a church becomes too big. the following is a lengthy but great quote from Fitch:

“once we see it is the quality of these inner workings of the body of Christ (not the quantity) that are necessary for the nurturance of each new convert, we can no longer manage the body of Christ as if its size is irrelevant. in fact, in critique of modernity, we should note that largeness and organizational efficiency risk crushing the goals and substance of what it was we were organizing for in the first place. if we make bigness and efficiency a goal in itself, we may leave the church void of its original calling to be the living workings of the body of Christ before a watching world. therefore, it will not do any longer to naively measure success via the size and efficiency of an organization to manufacture decisions for Christ. instead, we must have measures of success that locate whether an organization is indeed functioning as a living breathing body of Christ. this does not require that bigness in itself is antithetical to being the body of Christ. but what it may uncover is that bigness is a hurdle to overcome and not a goal to be sought in being the successful body of Christ.”

when decisions become a goal in and of themselves, then obviously it makes sense for the church to organize itself in such a way as to be efficient at accomplishing this goal. “but if we see that salvation is more than one’s personal transaction with God, if we see that salvation is the invitation into God’s cosmological work of redemption over sin through Jesus Christ, our idea of church changes and we must organize accordingly.” when we no longer separate one’s sanctification from justification but rather, recognize that one’s sanctification is dependent upon membership into the body, then our idea of the church shifts and we must organize differently.

Fitch sums up a quote by mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder by saying: “it does not make sense for the church to seek decisions for Christ as an end in itself apart from being his visible body on earth, which makes it possible for people to make such decisions. the church is much more than the machinery that produces decisions for Christ. it is the social space, under his lordship where the Holy Spirit works to build up believers and equip the saints (Eph. 4). it is the social foretaste of his reign where God is taking the rest of the world. it is spatial because we are a people “called out” from the world to be the ecclesia.”

it is only when the world sees the life of this new society (the Body) that they are made aware of their lostness and separation from God. out of this new life, the decision to a call for Christ, to repentance from sin and new life in Christ actually makes sense to those who are lost without Christ. Fitch carries this on by saying: “when we see the church like this, we cannot organize blindly for the manufacture of decisions. we must organize toward the goal of being the body of Christ, the manifestation of the work of his Spirit among his people, into which the lost are invited to be saved. we must organize for the facilitation of the inner workings of the body, not for the end result of decisions regardless of whatever it takes. we must measure for the quality of these inner workings that mark faithfulness to the call to be his body, not just measure numbers of decisions, which can be meaningless without a context that allows them to make sense.”

wow. so, in other words, the church must not organize itself in such a way as to simply manufacture or collect decisions for Christ. we must, as the Body, organize “toward the goal of being the body of Christ” and for the “facilitation of the inner workings of the body”. as we live this out and as we actively BE the Church in the world, then people see this alternate society that is under the lordship of Christ and can make decisions to become a part of this kingdom. NOW these decisions can actually make sense. they are no longer arbitrary. they are no longer self-serving. for they arise out of a longing to submit to Christ Jesus and to participate in a BETTER way, the way of the kingdom. on the other hand, people will never know what they are signing up for (sorry for the choice of words) so to speak, if the Church isn’t actively BEING the Church because we are merely settling for the manufacturing of decisions.

however, the problem is that these inner workings of the Church (that allow the Church to actually BE the Church and therefore draw out decisions that make sense) become more difficult the larger a body becomes. please note, i’m not saying that the inner workings of the Church are impossible if a church becomes too large, only that they become significantly more difficult. so, what exactly do we mean when we speak of the inner workings of the Church?!

as the body of Christ we:
– speak the truth one to another in love (eph. 4:15)
– we bring things out into the light (eph. 5:8-13)
– we gather together to resolve conflict and forgive one another (matt. 18:15-20)
– we discern and make decisions (matt. 18:15-20)
– we share the gifts of the Holy Spirit with one another for mutual upbuilding (1 cor. 12, 14; rom. 12:3-8; eph. 4:11-13; 1 pet. 4:10-11)
– we confess our sins one to another and pray for and anoint the sick (jms. 5:14-16)
– we gather to take part in the Lord’s Supper in his special presence and worship (1 cor. 11)

Fitch argues that, “activities such as these define the church as Christ’s body. they can happen here in a way like nowhere else. these inner workings, however, rely on interpersonal community that resists larger more efficient forms of organization.” the reliance of these inner workings upon genuine community means that larger communities may, in fact, hinder the Church. take the exercise of spiritual gifts in community as an example. for Paul and much of the new testament, the spiritual gifts define the very essence of the church. in order to fully exercise these gifts, “church members need to recognize, affirm, test each other’s exercising of the gifts in the arena of Christ’s body (1 thess. 5:19-21). this requires that we know one another. therefore, the exercise of one’s gifts will become more difficult the larger and more impersonal the church gets.” there are many other examples like this. in the same way, true community diminishes with increased size. and there really is no way for a larger church to mass-organize thousands of people for the goals of community. Fitch takes this a step farther saying, “it is nigh impossible to organize multiple groups who can genuinely come together to pray for one another, edify one another, support and affirm one another, correct and forgive one another. because in mass, groups will always tend to come together based upon affinity instead of the Lord’s Table. groups will not come together as black and white, Jew and Gentile, woman and man, poor and wealthy. such groups, when mass organized, easily degenerate into self-fulfillment enclaves that last only as long as we each have need of specific services and supports.” without a pastoral leader willing to guide this “inner working” of true community, it will be lost.

to wrap up, here is Fitch one more time:

“the body of Christ is an alive organism of the Spirit, which cannot be manufactured. it truly is a culture as opposed to a company. through our worship and conversations, our reading of the Word and ensuing hospitality, we learn a new way to speak and a new narrative to live. the body of Christ is a way of life lived and practiced, not a set of programs and activities volunteered for…evangelicals therefore should pursue a version of success that is formed out of faithfulness to God’s call to be his body as opposed to success via numbers. we should organize ourselves consciously away from the goal of getting big toward the goal of being the body.”

peace.

jt.

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