Saturday, October 3, 2009

Too Simple, Too Unbiblical

I just finished The Present Future. As I indicated in a previous blog, it is worth reading; McNeal starts a conversation we all should be a part of. But it should be a conversation. The reader should not accept and adopt McNeal's viewpoint uncritically.

Before critiquing the book, however, I want to say that there is a lot that is right on. For one, the church, when it becomes ingrown and club-like, needs to recognize that it is retreating from the Great Commission. We will not reach our world with the gospel of Jesus by waiting for them to join the club. In fact, many of the strategies for evangelism including "getting them to church" that were effective in the past will not work today. Among the strategies that will not work are revival meetings and large group evangelism. There are some exceptions to the the latter, of course. Large group evangelism with a narrow focus and appeal to young people does work, but it can not stand alone. It will not work with adults.

Secondly, too many churches have created bureaucracies that demand too much of our attention and eat up too much of our energy. As an example, a church I once served had a thirty-seven page constitution that established an office for every function of the church including pianist and organist - who were elected annually by the congregation. Another church of which I was a member even established the number and times for the services of the church. In the former, we, for the most, part simply ignored the constitution and operated on an ad hoc basis. The latter congregation continues to be bound by their constitution, forever known for their stand against any surrender (read adaptation) to the contemporary culture.

That said, however, there are some serious flaws to McNeal's analysis of the church in America and some even greater flaws in his suggestions for remaking the church. The first flaw is that McNeal sees the church in black and white and in doing so he creates a false dichotomy. The true picture of the church in America is not missional versus Pharisaical. There are many churches that function in a fairly old (modern versus post-modern) organizational mode yet are actively missional. In other words, there are a lot of grays in the picture of the American church.

The greatest flaw, however, in McNeal's model of the church in a post-modern world is that it is not biblical. I know that is a strong statement, but hang in there with me.

First, McNeal calls for a new model for leadership - apostolic. He defines that on pages 126 and 127. It is missional, visionary, entrepreneurial, operates in teams, and is genuinely spiritual. I would add that it functions largely on the operational methods developed by business and corporations. Except for the "genuinely spiritual," which is left undefined, those characteristics are primarily worldly, and they are not the characteristics of the New Testament and first century church. Some of those characteristics might have described the Apostles, but they do not describe the early church leaders. In fact, they ignore the functions most often encouraged in the New Testament church - pastor and teacher (Eph. 4:11). That is a serious flaw. The church will not survive apostolic leadership alone. That is why Paul appointed elders (including pastors) in every church he planted.

Also, conspicuous by its absence is the importance of teaching scripture. That is ironic because an army of community transformers without a biblical worldview that deeply informs the doing is bound to be ineffectual in bringing anyone to Christ. Such doing will be energized by the "leadership" not by the Lord. It may be well-intentioned, but it will be worthless because it is not done in the Spirit.

I have seen that happen. In one church I attended, the men of the church served at the Union Gospel mission once a month. We provided and prepared the meal and conducted a service. Most of the men went immediately to the kitchen when we arrived and busied themselves preparing the meal. They did not find time to greet or even meet the men and women as they arrived for the service. During the service they stayed in the kitchen. After the service they served the meal and then ate themselves in a location apart from the men and women who had come to the mission. They had done their job, but they failed to touch any life in a vital way. The state or city could have done as well. The fact is they were not driven by love for these men and women. They were driven either by guilt or by the leadership. It would have been better to hire the meal done and sit with the men and women in the service and eat with them as they ate. That is the outcome of what McNel suggests.

Most importantly, McNeal misses the genius of the first century church. It was effective in reaching and changing the world around it because it was different. It was holy. Yes, Christians acted in compassion outside the church. But it was not that alone. It was their patience, goodness, love, joy, peace (yes, I'm listing the fruit of the Spirit) and their humility that purchased for them the opportunity to share the reason for their hope (I Peter 3). That is the key. But where is that in McNeals book?

Read the book. Think. Compare it with what the Bible says. Let's become the church God truly inhabits.

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