Congregations fall somewhere along a spectrum that runs from authentic to inauthentic. Leaders at the authentic end know that their congregation belongs to Jesus, not to them. Leaders at the inauthentic end are driven by personal preferences, rather than by Jesus’ mission to make disciples for the transformation of the world. Preference driven congregations seek mostly to be a blessing to themselves; missionally focused congregations seek mainly to be a blessing to others.
Unsure toward which end of the spectrum your congregation falls? Here are four indicators to help you discern.
When making decisions, preference driven congregations are centered on what they like and what makes them feel comfortable. “This is what we want, what we are used to, and what feels good to us.” On the other hand, missionally focused congregations consider the preferences and needs of the people in the community to whom they seek to minister. Preference driven congregations are inwardly consumed; church membership is about entitlement and privilege. Missional congregations are more outwardly focused; discipleship is about obedience and service. I recently spoke to a leader of a congregation in another state who told me how their congregation last year had spent over a million dollars on renovating their bell tower, but had just recently voted not to spend a hundred thousand dollars over three years to build three sanctuaries in Africa.
When making decisions, preference driven congregations often get into conflicts. One group likes this option, another likes that option. “We think the worship service should stay traditional because we like singing the old hymns.” “And we like a more contemporary worship service because the music has a beat.” What neither side asks is, “What style of worship will best advance Jesus’ mission in our community?” Choices become political contests -- often with lobbying, heated arguments and personal attacks -- rather than a process for corporately discerning the Spirit’s leading or determining which strategy might be most missionally effective.
When making decisions, preference driven congregations take votes. “How many people want the 11:00 worship service to remain traditional in style?” People campaign to persuade others to view things their way. When votes are taken, there are usually winners and losers: some get their way and some do not. Decisions in missionally focused congregations are often made by consensus. Their leaders seek to discern what Jesus is inviting them to do. If they vote, instead of asking what people want, they ask how people are sensing Jesus leading the congregation in a particular situation.
When making decisions, preference driven congregations often sever relationships. Because it is really about what “we want” rather than what “God wants,” and because there are winners and losers when voting, preference driven congregations often find friendships strained and sometimes relationships broken. People seldom leave a congregation over discerning the most effective missional strategy. They may quit coming when they don’t get their way, however.
What strikes me as I write this is that so many church goers really couldn’t tell you the Biblical mission of the church. They seem convinced that the mission of the church is to take care of them, to please them, to meet their needs and to do so in a style that they prefer. They see themselves as consumers of religious services. And they are hard pressed to explain what Jesus’ invitation to follow him by picking up our cross in service to others has to do with being part of the congregation.
How is it that people can come to church for years, hear sermon after sermon, are involved in Bible study after Bible study and still miss that the church is not primarily about them? How can we help them grow up spiritually: to understand that the church is about making more and better disciples who serve and bless others in Jesus’ name?
“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 10:39
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Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Center for Congregational Excellence