“To love is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. The only place outside heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers, all the perturbations of love, is hell.”

[C.S. Lewis]

“I don’t go to church anymore because of all the hypocrites,” she said. And of course, I can see her point. You can’t ignore the obvious signs of coma and even death surrounding the Christian church. Behavior modification and bigger buildings don’t spark the kind of revolutionary world transformation the Church is called to. With so many people giving up on organized religion, is it just time to make that hospice call? It’s clear that the Church will always exist, even if it’s just an ineffective shell. But is it possible for it to thrive?

Many hearts can no longer stomach the stench of institutional pride. Instead of abandoning ship though, these brave souls have birthed new and non-traditional churches. This is good news for weary followers of the Way. However, a skeptical eyebrow is raised by the world as it pretends not to watch these new models of community. What’s to stop these young bodies from becoming as stagnant, rigid and out-of-touch as their ancestors?

Author and pastor John Ortberg said, “Organizations drift away from their mission in order to survive.” Revolution buys its way into the status quo. Take your favorite punk band that signed a multi-million dollar deal. Or remember that little coffee shop downtown, the small one that knew your name and always topped off your frap? Yeah, they’re a chain now. In all that growth and success, that special quality tearfully left the building with the slow grace of a sunset. Now at midnight, some of us realize we’ve lost our way.

“If you change a church leader, you can change a church. If you change a church, you can change a community. If you change a community, you can change the world.”

[Bill Hybels]

In the past, gimmicks and window-dressing proved to be too little, too late. These lame attempts to make the Church “accessible” just don’t turn around its image or effectiveness for anything but a short time. Thankfully, even late in the game, some church families have found the brightest indicator lights for revival and repentance are an expanding heart and a changing mind. By again becoming hospitals for “pre-Christians” and the “un-churched,” these churches are miraculously attracting legions of burnt-out church brats.

Tampa’s Bethel Assembly is one such church. Since 1999, senior pastor Guy Glass has spearheaded Bethel’s departure from 50’s church mentality towards a “mission outpost mindset.” “In the 21st century, the church in America is no longer a local church,” Glass said. He believes the Church should work through culture—and the cultures around them—to share the grace of Christ. Instead of planting a new church family, Glass chose to lead change in a traditional, Pentecostal church carrying baggage older than their building. Bethel Temple soon became Bethel, a place where “Love always wins.” But change has to run deeper than the cosmetic, and revolution of the heart is a dangerous mission.

Change is messy. It’s natural to push away the man with a knife. But, only a surgeon can make the healing cut. Glass pointed out, “Most people freeze church life at the point where they were saved. But, to have authentic change, you have to be willing to look beyond what you have experienced. You need to read widely and look for transferable principles.” Yet, the Church finds it difficult to learn from others.

“You must not be afraid of making mistakes. People think they will become good by doing no harm, but that’s a lie. Such a frame of mind leads to stagnation and mediocrity.”

[Vincent van Gogh]

The Alban Institute has collected some brilliant research on the Church. Of special interest is their study on “The Life Cycle of a Congregation.” Be honest, now. Did you even know that a church has a life cycle? Not surprisingly, it mirrors the stages of our own lives: Birth, Infancy, Adolescence, Prime, Maturity, Aristocracy, Bureaucracy and Death. Young people carry with them dreams, goals and (most importantly) passion. But, there comes a time when getting a degree to “fall back on” steps ahead of your big dream. Steadily, the passion of life fades away as the pressures of the world persist. Faith itself can follow the same course from birth through death.

Churches begin with hope, vitality, vision and mission. “The infant congregation inherits a high level of enthusiasm but develops a strong need for survival,” detailed the Institute. This drives a church to focus on more organization and structure. Obviously, these tools will help a church grow. But, those very needs can choke the life and passion from a church family.

Amazing as it sounds, no church is hopeless and left to die. At any point in its life cycle, churches can turn around and find rebirth. Glass added, “Strong images in the history of the church can be reinvented to be newly relevant. Their new meanings can be instruments of change.” With an open heart, you can lead those still uneasy to change. In his book, Leading Change, John P. Kotter wrote, “You have to explain the reason for change, build consensus and develop the vision of the new.”

“If change is to come, it will come from the margins … It was the desert, not the temple, that gave us the prophets.”

[Wendell Berry]

The sad reality is neither good intention nor smart strategy will change a heart, let alone a church. But, this hope of church in malleable motion should remind us of Christ’s desire and ability to renew our own faith. It’s not the job of pastor or priest to change how the church lives. Too often, the very people who see the need for church to transform refuse to welcome change into their own hearts.

Many followers are broken and scorched by this very community that proclaimed restoration. Now bitterness and arrogance have set like cement. Hypocrites or heroes, the church is filled with people struggling to love an unseen God and their jerk-of-a-next-door-neighbor. The fact that the church has failed to live up to its mission blatantly signals that our faith desperately needs some hangout time with the extravagant love of God.

Without constant revolution, a church is destined to die. But, the moment that zeal for authentic Christianity returns, at the point of new connection to the miracle of grace, the dreams written off as “childish” will flood our hearts with sudden healing. As children of God, we can set aside our hurts, methods and stereotypes.

“We are secretly in a close connection with the eternal truth and love, even if we ourselves are not aware of it.”

[Karl Barth]

Change won’t come quickly. But, as we wait in the peaceful presence of the One who ignites passion, we can wave farewell to our own hypocrisy and embrace with welcoming arms those hypocrites around us. For we—all of us—are the church. Empowered by a supernatural love, we become agents of change.

If weary followers of the Way can recognize this hope, those who seek without agenda will find Christ in their midst. “What if we were a bunch of no-names? And instead of being known for great teaching or music or a building, we were known for our huge capacity to love?” asked Glass.

Just imagine. Imagine a church that has “not yet arrived” in its own mind. Imagine a church where—in the words of Peter Vaughan, a teaching pastor at Bethel—it’s not about the establishment, “but about the journey; the joy of the process.” The church can be made new, over and over and over again.

RELATED LINKS:

HOW TO CHANGE YOUR CHURCH (WITHOUT KILLING IT) CONFERENCE

BETHEL ASSEMBLY (TAMPA, FLA.)

THE ALBAN INSTITUTE

TRANSITIONING—LEADING YOUR CHURCH THROUGH CHANGE

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