A Few Points from…
“The Church of Irresistible Influence”
by Robert Lewis and Rob Wilkins
The book begins with a quote from Robert Kennedy…
“Some men see things as they are and say ‘why?’… I dream of things that are not, and say ‘why not?’”
Then the author asks for some imagination to be used…
Can you imagine the community in which you live being genuinely thankful for your church?
Can you imagine city leaders valuing your church’s friendship and participation in the community—even asking for it?
Can you imagine the neighbourhoods around your church talking behind your back about “how good it is” to have you church in the area because of the tangible witness you’ve offered them of God’s love?
Can you imagine a large number of church members actively engaged in, and passionate about, community service, using their gifts and abilities in ways and at levels they never thought possible?
Can you imagine the community actually changing (Proverbs 11:11) because of the impact of your church’s involvement?
Can you imagine many in your city, formerly cynical and hostile toward Christianity, actually praising God for your church and the positive contributions your members have made in Jesus’ name?
Can you imagine the spiritual harvest that would naturally follow if all this were true?
The primary author of this book (Robert Lewis) was pastor of what most would consider a very successful church plant in Little Rock, Arkansas. After 10 years, they had grown to a congregation of 2500! Yet with all that “success”, Lewis confesses: “Honestly, the larger we had become, the more preoccupied we had become—with ourselves.”
Lewis goes on to describe just how common the perception of a great chasm’s existence is among God’s people today. Christianity is not viewed as a dominant social force. Six of ten Americans believe that the church is irrelevant; in fact, only one of out of three pastors currently believe that the church is making a positive impact on the culture!
How do churches respond to such a challenge? A few approaches seem to pop up quickly: Greater cultural relevance is sought; however, this has sometimes led to an approach to worship where “worshipers seek an experience with God minus the commitment”. Some just dig in, convicted to “just preach the Word”. While the sentiment seems true enough, it simply isn’t working. George Barna’s research, widely known, concluded after measuring 131 aspects of attitudes, behaviours, values, and beliefs that, “In the aspects of lifestyle where Christians can have their greatest impact on the lives of non-Christians, there are no visible differences between the two segments.” “Just preaching the Word” is obviously not sufficient. As Henry Blackaby sums it up, “Our gospel is cancelled by the way we live.”
The challenge is particularly felt by those in leadership positions within churches. Questions of structures and programs, strategies and plans can burden leaders heavily. The greatest frustration can come from the sense that even perfect answers to such questions may not truly make any difference. It begins to sink in: “America will not be won to Christ by establishing more churches like the vast majority we now have.” A group named Precept Group, Inc., who have profiled nearly 20 000 churches concludes this: “It is time to confess that our strategies have not worked… church leaders are working harder and harder for fewer positive results.”
With most of that feeling accurate, what is one to do? Lewis suggests that we are plagued by faulty design. He quotes long time pastor and author Bill Hull, who says, “The average evangelical church in North America exists for itself. Churches are preoccupied with themselves.” Picking up an image known to everyone, Lewis describes what a church of influence—irresistible influence—would look like. It would look like a bridge:
“If the church functions with any other design than that of a bridge, it dooms itself. Our hard work over time will sink in the cold waters of irrelevancy, frustration, and despair. Great, charismatic preaching will drown in isolated, self-absorbed hearts. Innovation and cutting-edge technology without a new vision will become like a pile of rusted saltwater shipwreck.”
“Bridges give life through two-way movement! Without its own bridges to the world, church life—in time—fades into isolation, self-congratulation, and finally, irrelevance.”
LIVING PROOF IN DAYS OF POSTMODERNISM
Lewis looks back on his past approaches to the world and confesses that he used to view jabbing and stabbing the world with God’s Word was the way to turn the world around. He identifies his first error as trying to convince a world of truth when this age largely rejects truth, especially if it’s presented from a distance. So how does one witness to such a society as this? I believe Lewis is on to that in these words…
“To our age, truth is nothing more than talk—especially when you don’t show it. The eye, not the ear, is the decisive organ. Our postmodern world is tired of words—it wants real. Real is everything. Real is convincing.”
This thought leads Lewis on in his bridge-building imagery throughout the rest of the book. At one point, he shares that he believes that a fitting description of such a church would be…
“A community of people who stand firm in the truth over time and who present living proof of a loving God to a watching world.”
Scriptures that speak of the power of good deeds receive focus. Examples of these include Matthew 5:16; Luke 6:31-35; Acts 20:35; Romans 12:20-21; Galatians 6:9-10; Ephesians 2:10, 2 Thessalonians 3:13; 1 Timothy 6:17-19; Titus 3:8; Titus 2:11-14; Hebrews 10:24; 1 Peter 3:13.
In citing the power of good works within the testimony of God’s people, Lewis looks to broader source than Scripture. A history text called “The Rise of Christianity” contains this section: It is puzzling…
“…how a marginalized, persecuted, often uneducated group of people were able not only to survive, but thrive… a key reason was their willingness to sacrifice themselves out of love for each other and for their world. This sacrifice released an explosion of light and heat the world had never known.”
Another article in “Christian History” observed the Christian community’s responses during the great plagues in the Roman Empire (in 165 and 251 A.D.):
“The willingness of Christians to care for others was put on dramatic public display…. Pagans tried to avoid all contact with the afflicted, often casting the still-living into the gutters. Christians, on the other hand, nursed the sick, even though some died doing so…. Christians also were visible and valuable during the frequent natural and social disasters afflicting the Greco-Roman world: earthquakes, famines, flood, riots, civil wars, and invasions. Even in healthier times, the pagan emperor, Julian, noted the followers of The Way ‘support not only their poor, but ours as well’.”
In reviewing such quotes, Lewis remarks, “High morals, superior lifestyles, good works, sacrificial acts of love. Against raging currents of opposition in the ancient world, the message of the gospel nevertheless exploded because it was built over a bridge of living proof.”
In this sense, it is likely nothing has changed at all, as to what the church’s testimony to the its world needs to consist of.
DESIGNING THE STRUCTURE
In observing most churches’ structures of operation, Lewis is convinced that most Western congregations are driven by one of two “big ideas”: 1) To create a church that meets the needs of its members, and 2) Bigger is better. Having never been in a large church myself, I’d claim greater familiarity with the first “big idea” than the second.
Of course, it would never be stated openly that a church was absorbed with itself. There may be tales of Christianity’s glorious missionary advances, courageous sacrifices, and world-changing impact. But it’s often like young men reading great books instead of engaging real life. It’s more about memory (sometimes not even our own) than experience.
Researcher Michael Regele describes such congregations this way:
“Leadership, within this current church model—and people hate me for saying this—basically functions as the board of directors of a social club. They are very serious and well intentioned, but they have created a social structure that exists solely to care for the Christians that are members of their church. Such questions as ‘What does evangelism mean?’ and ‘What does discipleship mean?’… seem like luxuries in that kind of environment.”
As Lewis’ church struggled through the process of identifying the type of witness they needed to be within their community, they reached the conclusion that without practically attractive, spiritually compelling, proof-positive lifestyles, claims and pronouncements about a life-changing God have no power. In Lewis’ words…
“If we can’t outlive the world at every point—in our marriages, with our children, at work, with money, in our relationship, in the use of our time—why dare to speak of salvation and abundant life? Incarnation of the Word must precede and empower the proclamation of the Word.”
Over time, this focus showed itself in six aims. They desired to be a church that was…
- Passionately committed to Jesus Christ (a heart for God)
- Biblically measured (everything by the Book)
- Morally pure (in a morally compromised age)
- Family centered (healthy homes are priority)
- Evangelistically bold (willing and confident in sharing one’s faith)
- Socially responsible (the community around us is our business)
While that may sound significant already, their finding was that those who truly game themselves to more deeply Christ-like living found themselves battling a feeling of stagnation. People’s lives were changing and being shaped, but for what? Surely it was supposed to be for service. And not just for “punch the clock” types of service but for influential works of service in the community and in the world.
In the quest to empower people towards good works, the church leadership made a decision…
Our vision for good works was simple. Help people discover their unique design and then dream with them about where that design could be employed to both stir their passion and advance the kingdom of God. We did not limit our agenda to the usual slots of church need: Sunday school teachers, ushers, helpers in administration, youth workers, musicians. Our vision of good works was openhanded: Wherever your gifts and abilities could make a difference for Jesus Christ… then go! We will encourage you, support you, serve you, and cheer for you. Go and make a difference!
With the comfortable borders of the church exploded, the limits for the work of the church are practically endless. The tidy definitions of ministry in an isolated and cramped church – teaching Sunday school, ushering, or serving on a board or committee – become inadequate. What matter now is simple: good works that display the love of Christ. The truth is finally revealed: Anything done in the name of Christ, in the name of love, is ministry. Anything. Of course, the more it touches real needs and vital areas, the more influential it will be. But nowhere does the Bible “qualify” good works, and neither should we. Instead, we should celebrate the infinite ways people can “go in Christ’s name”. We must broaden and enrich the concept of personal ministry; we must bless, affirm, and be willing to release our people into areas that may not directly benefit the church itself.
I think that concept is so powerful, and so simple… and so overlooked. Within many congregations (maybe our own?), there are people who are uniquely gifted and enabled to do much. Yet the spoken or unspoken menu before them consists of only Sunday school teacher, worship leader, public speaker, or janitorial duties. Finding nothing that stirs them, they conclude that service to God must not be for them. And in that moment, their gifts may get buried (because clearly God doesn’t use such gifts) and their image of God and the church gets distorted.
From here, Lewis goes on to develop the idea of influence… irresistible influence. How might a person go about living that way? What about an entire congregation? He views three steps that will need to be taken: 1) Confession, 2) Vision, and 3) Structure.
I believe that Lewis is right about confession as the first step. As he says: “We must painfully and with great sorrow admit that the flimsy efforts we pass off as bridges are not really bridges at all. They are so much hot air and, as such, are as insubstantial as clouds or dreams.” If one were truly confronted with a reality that stated that love of comfort, moral compromises, and misguided priorities had rendered us impotent in our community, then only confession of our current situation could free us to reconsider how to span the chasm between us and our world.
After an experience of confession, the two main trains of thought that a congregation would need to process would be those of vision and structure. Both of these are significant and weighty in themselves…
And I’ll post them in a future post… or maybe not.