Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Church: Ingrown or Outreaching?

Nothing is more exciting that living in an outreaching church. Nothing more dreadful than living in an ingrown church. The difference between these two is greater than night and day, as anyone who has experienced both will attest.

In a victorious outreaching church, people feel a tangible sense of excitement as they watch others come to Christ. The church's mission is clear, and God's blessing rests on the community as they share the love of Christ. Both those with evangelistic gifts and those gifted in nurture have their hands full as the needs of lost people and brand new Cristians call out to Christian hearts like the cries of baby birds to their mother. People routinely experience the thrill of sensing God's power flowing through them as he uses them to meet desparate needs in others' lives. Those with encouragement gifting have lots of work to do as they urge forward those who reach out. Prayer ministries are at a premium in an environment that will draw extra fire from Satan, who ignores peace-loving, ingrown churches to focus his attacks on outreaching churches. The outreaching church is always totering on the edge of confusion and chaos as the action challenges those with administrative gifting to keep up.

As the pace of outreach picks up, every member is naturally compelled to lay aside any number of selfish issues that might lead to fights and dissapointment, to grab the nearest oar and pull for all they are worth. With more younger, unsanctified Christians in the group, financing the church's ministry is always a challenge. Even though people are growing in the area of giving, the church is chronically short of finance, trying to stretch a dollar and get by with less. Staff members have to live with tremendous sacrifice as they earn far less than their secular counterparts. They do so willingly because they are excited to be a part of the spiritual action.

An ingrown church suffers pitifully by comparison. The biggest question in the minds of members of an ingrown church is "What's the point?" As the sense of reality in people's Christian walk drifts into eclipse, a quiet desperation wells up. "What's wrong with me?" people wonder. They begin to question whether they have drifted away from God. With a sigh, they may remember earlier days in their Christian journey and wonder where the zeal went. An ingrown church is rarely unified. In the absence of clear direction, everyone has a different idea of what the church needs. Yet, outright division may not occur for the simple reason that no one has the energy to put up a fight. Squabbling and negativity are the more common result.

While outreaching churches feel the power of God shaking them in annointed ministry, people in ingrown churches live in a dangerous experiential vacuum. In this vacuum of healthy experience with God, the quest for excitement can lead to bizarre and dangerous conclusions. People are ripe for exploitation by those who promise to fill their vacuum with the final experience. Depressed people in the ingrown church often turn to the standby pacifier of religion the world over: religious dissociation. Dissociation means a separation of attention, or an altered consciousness. People who no longer sense the reality of God in their normal state of mind try to "zone out" in a dream-like state which they interpret to be the presence of the Spirit.

Efforts to attain this dissociated state may become quite frenzied, sometimes including corporate self-deception as everyone agrees to unspoken rules like "Miracle stories and manipulation can never be questioned, because that would be quenching the Spirit." Some churches may become quite artificial in their deliberate efforts to stimulate dissociation. What evoked the sense of God's presence at one time may not be enough for long, and the group may turn to more strange and far-out efforts to preserve the sense that something is happening spiritually.

Strangely, we find no suggestion in Scripture that the people of God should seek dissociation. On the contrary, Christians are called to be "alert and sober," ready to engage in spiritual warfare. When extraordinary experience came to people in the Bible, it did so unexpectedly and spontaneously without any need to meet and pump up the juices. But when dissociation becomes the goal of the church, prayer is perverted. Instead of being a time of simple communion with God and a crucial tool for waging spiritual warfare, prayer now becomes the avenue to a pleasure state. Intead of praying as a ministry to others, I begin to see prayer as my time of transcendence and dissociation. Prayer has become self-centered.

Don't think I'm pointing the finger at the charismatic church. Many charismatic churches are among the best outreaching churches. A great example would be Chuck Smith's Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California. Many non-charismatic churches are among the worst ingrown churches. I believe the movement in some evangelical circles toward high liturgy is an indication of an ingrown experience quest. Some charismatic and pentecostal churches are ingrown as well. If the shoe fits, wear it.

The ingrown church has lost its sense of mission. Experience becomes a problem only because the church isn't sure what it's supposed to do. Instead of experience following after spiritual reality--a natural reaction to the great hand of God moving in the church's midst--experience becomes an end in itself. This is why the ingrown group turns features of healthy Christianity into unhealthy gimmicks. While prayer, praise, the performing arts, and worship should take their natural place in the lives of Christians actively serving God and seeing him work, in the ingrown church these become the hoped-for avenue of experience to fill the aching vacuum of reality with Christ. How can praise and worship be authentic when we have one eye on God and one eye on our emotional thermometer, checking to see whether we are attaining an adequate high?

Am I exaggerating? If so, why not set me straight?


Randall Neighbour said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Randall Neighbour said...

I don't think you're exaggerating or overstating your case. Problem is, "outreach" is defined as corporate events for churches today and not the healthy, organic, and highly relational way you are describing it.

The church has drifted a long way from what you are describing, yet they still consider themselves successful "outreaching" churches for the crowds they draw and their "celestial funnel" approach to assimilation.

Dennis said...

If we look behind the unwillingness of church members to share their faith in a relational way today, what do we see? I wonder what the underlying reasons are for this unwillingness?

Gloria Patri said...

It seems to me as I was reading your description of the ingrown church, that I was reading a description not only of a church as a whole, but also a description of myself. I know that I have reach a stagnation in myself due to letting go of Gods hand when he wanted to lead me further into loving others and giving up more of myself. My self centered views has taken me off of course, it has taken my eyes off God and put them back on myself. I know that until I grow beyond this, I can go no further, so slowly I am working through it, with 10% me and 90% God. Just as you described, the frustrations of the ingrown church are the frustrations of the ingrown Christian. I am only guessing from my own experiences, and I am no expert, but maybe it is an unwillingness to put others before self, or more so, unwillingness to put Gods desire for us first.

As I have been struggling though this issue I came upon 2 Peter 1:5-9

(For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness;
and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to
self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to
godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if
you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.)

So with this, I wondered if possibly you must practice knowledge, then self control, then as you grow these things you grow love as an outcome? If love for others is something that comes from growing in the order the scripture describes? And also there is the verse that states if we are without them it is because we have forgotten what God has done for us by saving us from being condemned. Maybe this is where the outreaching church is strong, it might have a strong grasp on what it is rescued from and how desperate the world is to be rescued also. Maybe the
ingrown church is like the church in Revelation, and has lost sight of its first love?

As I said before, I am still trying to put it together myself, but when
I look back on times I have experienced true unity, it was in those moments that come like 9/11, when shaken by such a great tragedy, we turn to each other grateful to have the comfort of each other, common goals,
understanding of what we lost, and what we had to bond together to fight for. That week I can not even remember an episode of road rage, or people in grocery lines getting angry and impatient as the person in the front of the checkout line wrote a check. As a church, it is very much the same in my eyes, we
get attacked, we have common goals, we should be grateful for each other in the face of opposition and challenge, but often when things go well we get complacent, God blesses and time and time again in the Bible histories and in my own life, when blessings come, it is easy to start to take God and each other for granted. I do not think your description of the ingrown church is exaggerated, and it seems to me it can be a real stopping point for individuals, church's, and bringing people to Christ. The answer I believe, is multifaceted, but starts with our first love,
with the excitement of Christ and what he has done for us, and staying God focused as we walk with him.

Dennis said...

Yes, Gloria, it does have to begin with out appreciation and gratitude for what Christ has done for us. And I also agree that the description fits equally for individuals as for churches.

In my experience, most churches that see lots of outreach do so not out of any sense of duty, but because they enjoy the thrill of seeing people come to Christ. You should read the section in Organic Discipleship on coaching evangelism. It makes some good points on how to motivate people.