Authentic Church: Road to a Re-newed Reality

Celtic Transformation

I have been mulling on something the late Francis Schaeffer said:

“There are four things which are absolutely necessary if we as Christians are going to meet the need of our age and the overwhelming pressure we are increasingly facing.”

No doubt that the Church, in our culture as well as other cultures, faces increasing and overwhelming pressure.  Pressure to cave. Pressure to capitulate. Pressure to compromise.  These pressures come from both  subtle and overt threats from the culture and from the government, as George Orwell predicted in his classic 1984.  Perhaps even more devastating is the subversive seductive pressure. The craving of the church to be “relevant”, to fit in, to be liked, so people will come in great numbers, so we can be considered successful, has seemingly replaced a commitment to faithfulness and fruitfulness.  This mindset seems in line with Aldous Huxley‘s “nightmarish vision of the future” in his opus Brave New World.  And while there is certainly nothing wrong with a desire to be liked, nor to see our churches full, these consuming desires are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus, and consequently, I fear, resulting in an increasingly impotent Church.

So what are Schaeffer’s four things?

Schaeffer labeled them Two Contents and Two Realities.

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Chrysalis Factor


There are times I feel somewhat like a sea captain who took charge of a ship that had experienced unprecedented prosperity under the direction of his predecessor, and then sprung a leak a few months into his tenure.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the church where I serve, but some of the challenges came as a bit of a surprise.  Chiefly a decline in attendance and a corresponding budgetary strain.

In some ways this was inevitable. In some ways this is circumstantial. And in other ways it is personal.

It was inevitable because nothing stays the same forever. No organization, or organism, experiences perpetual increase in prosperity.  Sooner or later, changes, challenges, and a period of decline is certain.

It is circumstantial, if for no other reason, the nature of the community where our church is located is a very fluid, very transient community, Many who live here are in the military, and so they are only here for a short time. Others who live here have retired – often early – and come to enjoy the wealth of cultural, historical, and natural amenities. However, there seems to be a pattern – when one member of the marriage, husband or wife, experience injury or become ill, the couple moves away, back home, or somewhere near their children.  Understandable. While Williamsburg is a beautiful place to settle, they have no roots here, so they move on.

It is personal in the sense that whenever a church changes pastors there is almost always some turnover among the members.  No matter how capable the new minister is, his presence is a constant reminder that things have changed; that this is not exactly the church that they had joined anymore.  And as American church culture becomes increasingly more consumeristic, the less likely folks are to stick around to get used to the changes.  After all, if they have to adjust to change, why not use it as an opportunity to trade in for a new model that has some amenities that they had not been looking for a few years ago, but would provide a pleasant upgrade.  Consequently new pastors are often not treated like people, who might have feelings, but rather as a commodity to be embraced or discarded at the whim of the customer.  Or another aspect of the personal – some church members just don’t like the new pastor’s personality (or lack of it).

I suspect differing measures of all three of these played a part in our initial decline.  Fortunately we remained stable. We have a good cohesive staff; wise and godly officers who work as a team, a band of brothers; and no panic or finger pointing from the congregation.  So despite our leak our ship has remained in pretty good shape.

As we move forward it is essential to assess where we are, and to map out where we are headed.

At present we are in what Thom Rainer calls the Chrysalis Period.  According to Rainer, during the Chrysalis Period a church or organization undergoes changes beneath the surface that are necessary to become what we will inevitably become.

The chrysalis is the pupa of a butterfly encased in a cocoon. It is the former caterpillar and the future butterfly. It is the stage when the worm-like, slow-moving caterpillar becomes a beautiful, free-flying butterfly.

I like the imagery.  It seems apt.  We are a work in process.  And not all that is going on is evident to all who take a look.

Bounded-Set vs Centered-Set


Some time back I posted a piece titled Numbering Those On the Ranch, exploring the concept of what missiologist Alan Hirsch refers to as a “centered-set” metric for evaluating a church.  More recently I stumbled across a post by Bob Thune, of Coram Deo Church in Omaha, explaining his understanding of Centered-Set verses the more traditional Bounded-Set metric. I appreciated what Thune had to say, so I wanted to post it, even if primarily for my own benefit, as a resource for future use.


There are two ways of thinking about social groupings: centered-set and bounded-set. These terms come to us from the field of mathematics (set theory). In recent years they’ve been applied more broadly by sociologists and missiologists. The fountainhead of most of this thinking in the Christian church was Paul Hiebert, a missiologist at Fuller Seminary.

Hiebert suggested that our minds categorize people according to either “bounded set” or “centered set” thinking:

Bounded Sets

  •  are formed by defining the boundaries – the essential qualities which separate something inside the set from something outside. Heibert’s classic example is “apples.” Either a fruit is an apple, or it isn’t.
  • Maintaining the boundary is crucial to maintaining the category.
  • Bounded sets are static sets – they don’t change, they only add or lose members.
  • The important thing is to “cross the boundary” to be part of the set.

Centered Sets

  •  are formed by defining a center. The set is made up of all objects moving toward that center. As an everyday example: “bald men.”
  • While a centered set does not focus on the boundary, a boundary does indeed exist. The boundary is clear so long as the center is clear.
  • The objects within a centered set are not categorically uniform. Some may be near the center and others far from it, even though all are moving towards the center.

Hiebert asserts that Americans tend to think almost exclusively in bounded-set categories. And this affects our understanding of Christian discipleship. We tend to “stress evangelism as the major task — getting people into the category. Moreover, we… see conversion as a single dramatic event — crossing the boundary between being a ‘non-Christian’ and being a ‘Christian’” (Hiebert, 1978).

Hiebert argues instead for a “centered-set” way of thinking about Christian conversion:

A Christian would be defined in terms of a center—in terms of who is God. The critical question is, to whom does the person offer his worship and allegiance? …Two important dynamics are recognized. First there is conversion, which in a centered set means that the person has turned around. He has left another center or god and has made Christ his center. This is a definite event—a change in the God in whom he places his faith. But, by definition, growth is an equally essential part of being a Christian. Having turned around, one must continue to move towards the center. There is no static state. Conversion is not the end, it is the beginning. We need evangelism to bring people to Christ, but we must also think about the rest of their lives. We must think in terms of bringing them to Christian maturity in terms of their knowledge of Christ and their growth in Christlikeness.

Theologically, I find some aspects of Hiebert’s argument poorly nuanced. He would do well to differentiate regeneration (the invisible, immediate work of the Holy Spirit on the soul, which is in fact a decisive event) from conversion (our experience of that event, which often feels more like a “process” than like a decisive moment). Those who have applied Hiebert’s set theory to individual salvation (Brian McLaren, for instance) have tended to drift in fuzzy doctrinal directions.

But I find Hiebert’s insights immensely helpful when applied to ecclesiology. This is where I first encountered the set-theory rubric, as applied by Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost in their 2003 book The Shaping of Things to Come. Frost and Hirsch argued for viewing the church as a centered set rather than a bounded set. Why not build a church by defining the center rather than patrolling the boundaries? Why not place the gospel of Jesus Christ at the center of the church’s life and practice, inviting everyone to reorient their lives around Him? In this way, we continually invite Christians into deeper and deeper discipleship, while also inviting non-Christians to deal with the claims of Jesus on their lives. As Hiebert himself acknowledges, this does not mean there is no boundary; there is just “less need to play boundary games and to institutionally exclude those who are not truly Christian. Rather, the focus is on the center and pointing people to that center” (Hiebert, 1978).

It is my personal conviction that: a) this is what the New Testament church did (see, for example, Galatians 1:6-9; Colossians 1:6; Romans 1:13-15); b) this is what it truly means to be a “gospel-centered” church; and c) this is the only way to have a truly missional church, where non-Christians are treated with true Christian hospitality AND are regularly being converted to faith in Jesus.

Ministry Diagnosis Questions

Country Doctor

As a pastor it is not only requisite to be a student of God’s Word, but it is also essential to be a student of the people to whom I preach and teach.  This is true for any church or ministry leader.  If we do not know the Bible, and sound doctrine, we have nothing to offer. But even if we have voluminous knowledge, if we do not know the people with whom we are called to share these truths, then we will not know how to apply these truths.  It would be as ineffective as a medic possessing all the medicines but without enough biological understanding to make a valid diagnosis.

In a recent post, 9 Questions for Ministry Leaders, Paul Tripp identifies nine helpful questions to ask ourselves, and to discuss with the other leaders in our churches or ministries, as we attempt to become effective students and exegetes of our people:

  1. What are the cultural idols that are particularly attractive to my people?
  2. Where do they tend to buy into an unbiblical worldview with its accompanying hopes and dreams?
  3. Are there themes of spiritual struggle that I need to speak to?
  4. Where do they tend to get discouraged and need the hope of the gospel?
  5. What is the level of their biblical literacy and theological knowledge?
  6. How many of them are actively involved in service, and how many are “ecclesiastical consumers”?
  7. What do they tend to struggle with in the workplace?
  8. What do they wrestle with at home?
  9. What are they reading, watching, and listening to, and how are they influenced by it?

Three Times a Month

Abstract Trinity (Dumitru Verdianu)

Thom Rainer recently noted that there has been a marked change in the measure of comitment the average Christian had to his or her church. At least there has been a change in one measurable detail:

An active church member 15 years ago attended church three times a week. Now it’s three times a month

I do not know if this is an accurate assessment from some of Rainer’s research, or if this is more of an anecdotal hyberbole reflecting an evident trend. Regardless, I suspect that it is not far off base.

I also suspect there are some reasons. Among them would seem:

  • Baby Boomers Reaching Retirment Age
  • Rise of Churchless Christianity

Is Bigger Really Better?

Big Fish Small Pond, Small Fish Big Pond

No matter how much I have grown to despise the discussion, it seems I cannot avoid it entirely.  Almost any conversation about church, it seems, inevitably gravitates in some form toward the Bigger is Better or Great Things Come in Small Packages debate.

It is not always an actual debate. In fact it is probably more often than not simply an expression of personal preference. But I have come to loathe the whole subject, having come to believe that the comparisons are largely irrelevant. There are some great large churches, and there are some great small churches; There are some horrendous large churches, and there are some pathetic small churches. And there are good and bad churches of all sizes in between.  The issue is not which size is best, but rather: Is your particular church – and my particular church – healthy, God-honoring, and fruitful?

That said, and with no desire to encourage debate, I found an observation by Neil Cole to be interesting:

There are millions of people in smaller congregations across the country who live with a feeling that they are failures because their church isn’t as big as the megaplex congregation down the street. This is sad and should not be the case.

A global survey conducted by Christian Schwartz found that smaller churches consistently scored higher than large churches in seven out of eight qualitative characteristics of a healthy church. A more recent study of churches in America, conducted by Ed Stetzer and Life Way Research, revealed that churches of two hundred or less are four times more likely to plant a daughter church than churches of one thousand or more. The research seems to even indicate that the pattern continues—the smaller the size of the church the more fertile they are in planting churches.

It pains me that so many churches and leaders suffer from an inferiority complex when in fact they could very well be more healthy and fruitful than the big-box church down the street.

I am not suggesting that the mega church is something we need to end, I am simply saying that we need other kinds of churches to truly transform our world. I also do not want people in huge churches to think that just because they have more people and more money that they are more blessed by God. The stats tell us that ten smaller churches of 100 people will accomplish much more than one church of 1000.

Read the rest of  Cole’s article: Is Bigger Really Better?

And again, while not wanting to prompt debate, I do welcome any comments about Cole’s observations.

Here AND There

Church Scattered

We don’t just go to church, we ARE the church …sent out by the power of the Spirit to BE the church.

This illustration above represents two aspects of being a faithful church:

Attractional – those elements of a particular congregation that draw people into the church community. Among these would be the quality of music, the substance and winsomeness  of the teaching, the variety and sufficiency of programs offered, and the friendliness of the members.

Missional – this is the sending of the church members into the community, and to the Nations, in order to make a positive and kingdom impact.  While this is often neglected, missional is not optional.

  • The mission of the church, and her members, is rooted in the nature of God who seeks and sends. (Isaiah 55.5; Isaiah 60.3; John 4.23; John 20.21)
  • Intentionally serving the community is faithfulness to the Covenant God cut with Abraham.  (i.e. Genesis 12.2)  If you look carefully at the Covenants of Scripture you will notice that there are always two dimensions, what I call a Top Line and Bottom Line.  the top line is God’s promise to bless those with whom he has entered into Covenant, evidenced by such promises as “I will be your God and you will be my people”.   The Bottom Line is is consistent with such expectant promises as “You will be a blessing”.   Both dimensions are reflected in every covenant.  Therefore, intentional mission to our community and world is not optional, or part of some deluxe package of being a Christian. If one follows Jesus, he or she does not have the option to choose the arrangement that does not require mission.
  • Mission is a is a clear mandate.  (Matthew 28.18-20; Luke 24.46-49; John 20.21; Acts 1.8; Jeremiah 29.7)

BOTH Attractional and Missional are necessary to be a healthy church. If we are not going, we are not faithful. And if no one is coming, well… the implications are pretty obvious.

10 Warning Signs of an Inwardly Obsessed Church

Researcher Thom Rainer warns of signs of a church that is so inwardly focused that it has ceased to be the church of Jesus Christ and has become, at best, a museum to (assumed) past glories, in which the membership makes up the board of directors.   Rainer writes:

Any healthy church must have some level of inward focus. Those in the church should be discipled. Hurting members need genuine concern and ministry. Healthy fellowship among the members is a good sign for a congregation.

But churches can lose their outward focus and become preoccupied with the perceived needs and desires of the members. The dollars spent and the time expended can quickly become focused on the demands of those inside the congregation. When that takes place the church has become inwardly obsessed. It is no longer a Great Commission congregation.

In my research of churches and consultation with churches, I have kept a checklist of potential signs that a church might be moving toward inward obsession. No church is perfect; indeed most churches will demonstrate one or two of these signs for a season. But the real danger takes place when a church begins to manifest three or more of these warning signs for an extended period of months and even years.

1. Worship wars. One or more factions in the church want the music just the way they like it. Any deviation is met with anger and demands for change. The order of service must remain constant. Certain instrumentation is required while others are prohibited.

2. Prolonged minutia meetings. The church spends an inordinate amount of time in different meetings. Most of the meetings deal with the most inconsequential items, while the Great Commission and Great Commandment are rarely the topics of discussion.

3. Facility focus. The church facilities develop iconic status. One of the highest priorities in the church is the protection and preservation of rooms, furniture, and other visible parts of the church’s buildings and grounds.

4. Program driven. Every church has programs even if they don’t admit it. When we start doing a ministry a certain way, it takes on programmatic status. The problem is not with programs. The problem develops when the program becomes an end instead of a means to greater ministry.

5. Inwardly focused budget. A disproportionate share of the budget is used to meet the needs and comforts of the members instead of reaching beyond the walls of the church.

6. Inordinate demands for pastoral care. All church members deserve care and concern, especially in times of need and crisis. Problems develop, however, when church members have unreasonable expectations for even minor matters. Some members expect the pastoral staff to visit them regularly merely because they have membership status.

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Numbering Those on the Ranch

With the following illustration, Alan Hirsch offers a different way of gauging a church’s effectiveness:

In some farming communities, the farmers might build fences around their properties to keep their livestock in and the livestock of neighbor farms out.  This is a bounded set. But in rural communities where farms or ranches cover an enormous geographic area, fencing a property is out of the question. In our home of Australia, ranches (called Stations) are so vast that fences are superfluous. Under these conditions a farmer has to sink a bore and create a well, a precious water supply in the Outback.  It is assumed that livestock, though they will stray, will never roam too far from the well, lest they die.  That is centered set.  As long as there is a clean supply of water the livestock will remain close by.

The essential difference is between measuring Influence instead of simply membership and/or attendance.  The bounded-set, as Hirsch calls it, draws a clear line between those on the inside (i.e. members and regular attenders) and those outside.  The centered-set, on the other hand, measures how many people are in some relation to the ministry of the church and gauges the various relative distances from the center values.

Though I do not see these grids as being mutually exclusive, as if one must choose one or the other, I do find Hirsch to have provided a helpful distinction.

In our church, for instance, we have some precious members who do not regularly participate in any of the Life of the Church. They come occasionally to any number of things, including infrequently to the Sunday morning worship service. To assume we are having an active influence in their spiritual growth would be, at best, presumptuous. On the other hand, there are people who are not members of our church, nor even attenders, but who are being actively influenced through ministries of counseling, discipleship, mercy, etc.  While these folks are not part of the quantifiable membership, they are nevertheless beneficiaries of the mission of the church.   In many ways some of these folks are closer to our center-set than are some of the irregular members.

So again, as I think about it, I see both of these grids as being beneficial.  In fact, I would hope to see growth on both gauges.  We long to see our influence expand, and realize that many whom we influence will never become part of our congregation. Some are members of other churches, and therefore should stay there and bless the people in those churches.  But we also should be laboring, and praying, for those who are not part of a particular congregation to become connected to some expression of of the visible church – hopefully many with ours.

So, I don’t see that we need to make a choice between these two ways of measuring our congregations. I think we ought to use both. But, I guess, since relatively few are aware of Hirsch’s Ranch, we would be wise to spend our energies to cultivate and cast the importance of the centered-set.

6 Foundation Points for the Church

According to Dann Spader and Gary Mayes there are six foundational aspects of ministry crucial to cultivate an environment for (healthy) church growth.  While the culture has changed quite a bit in the twenty years since Spader & Mayes published their thoughts, their points are still valid.

1. Create an atmosphere of love

Jesus’ insight, “By this will all men know that [we] love one another,” (John 13:35) has never been more true.

2. Build a relational ministry

Building relationships with people was an intentional, aggressive agenda for Christ. “He spent time with his disciples” (John 3:22). He lived by the principle that people respond when we reach out to them.

3. Communicate Christ clearly

In a world that knows only caricatures of Christ, people need to know him as he really is. We must present him and his message of life and grace as he gave it, so that people might build a real relationship with the living Savior.

4. Build a healthy ministry image

What kind of vision do the people in your ministry have for the work to which God has called them? How confident are they in his ability to accomplish the task he has entrusted to them? Cohesiveness, commitment to the cause, receptivity to change, and teachability are all related to a healthy group image.

5. Mobilize a prayer base

Our task is to effect spiritual life change. This kind of spiritual work is not accomplished by human means. As we move into the arena of prayer, God moves into the arena of our lives.

6. Communicate the Word

Research has shown that even our most regular church-goers have some biblical illiteracy. We continually need to evaluate our teaching to insure God’s Word is being taught accurately

Again, while I believe all these points are valid they are not equally important. Nor is this list sufficient.

I think I would appreciate them more if they were reordered.  In particular #4 may be a practical truth but I would put it last.  In fact, I suspect #4 would be best described as a consequence of faithfully and effectively doing the other five.  To list it higher, even as high as the authors do, suggests that marketing and branding is more important to the health and success of the church than prayer and biblical literacy among the church members.  But then one must remember that when these authors wrote this book Marketing the Church was the “new” rage, so the these guys are in places merely reflecting their times.

That said, I suspect the absence of #4 in a congregation may serve as a caution flag.  If #4, as it is described above, is absent it may be like a warning light on a dashboard that tells us to “Check Engine”. Something is amiss: One or more of the other points are not functioning properly in a particular body.

These insights were originally published in in the book Growing a Healthy Church.  

Living Together as the Church

The late theological statesman, Edmund Clowney observed:

“If we lack interest in the church we lack what was for Jesus a  consuming passion. Jesus loved the church and gave himself for it (Ephesians 5.25).”

Jesus’ love for his church is evident throughout the pages of the New Testament.  In Matthew 16.18 Jesus promises to build his church. In fact he promises to empower it and protect it to such a degree that even Hell itself can not stand against it.

In Ephesians we are told that we, the followers of Christ, are the Body of Christ. (Ephesians 5.30) And the way the world will know we are his people is through the way we relate to one another. (John 13.35)

OK. I know that there is little, if any, new ground being broken here so far. What I have written is widely understood and little debated by those who are followers of Christ.  But while these principles are widely known, lesser understood is how we can -and should – practically live out our life together as Christ’s Church.

The folks at 9 Marks have developed a wonderful little e-book that helps lay a solid foundation and offers wise instruction about life together.  It is titled: Living as a Church.  Originally a Sunday School curriculum, each chapter is only about 3-4 pages designed to spark conversation as well as instruction.

Below are the links to the various chapters. I commend them all, but they are also of value considered by subject of interest.

  1. Introduction: Unity- God’s Goal for the Church
  2. Church Membership: Context for Unity
  3. Preaching: The Foundation of Unity
  4. Corporate Prayer: God’s Power Creates Unity
  5. Church Government: Godly Authority Fostering Unity
  6. Fellowship: Building a Bond of Unity
  7. Discontentment: A Test of Unity
  8. Church Leadership: Submission for the Sake of Unity
  9. Church Discipline: Preseving God-honoring Unity
  10. Serving & Giving: Sacrifice for the Sake of Unity
  11. Worship: Praising God in Unity
  12. Corporate Evangelism: A Harvest of Unity

8 Qualities of Healthy Churches

Christian A. Schwarz, head of the Institute for Natural Church Development in Germany, conducted reportedly the most comprehensive church-growth study ever, drawn from more than one thousand churches in thirty-two countries. His study revealed eight qualities in healthy churches.

1. Empowering Leadership

Leaders of growing churches … do not use lay workers as “helpers” in attaining their goals and fullfilling their visions. Rather, leaders invert the pyramid of authority so they assist Christians to attain the spiritual potential God has for them.

2. Gift Oriented Ministry

When Christians serve in their area of giftedness, they generally function less in their own strength and more in the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus, ordinary people can accomplish the extraordinary!

3. Passionate Spirituality

The concept of spiritual passion and the widespread notion of the walk of faith as “performing one’s duty” seem to be mutually exclusive.

4. Functional Structures

Anyone who accepts this perspective will continually evaluate to what extent church structures improve the self-organization of the church. Elements not meeting this standard (such as discouraging leadership structures, inconvenient worship-service times, demotivating financial concepts) will be changed or eliminated.

5. Inspiring Worship Service

Services may target Christians or non-Christians, the style may be liturgical or free, the language may be “churchy” or secular–it makes no difference…. Whenever the Holy Spirit is truly at work (and his presence is not merely presumed), he will have a concrete effect upon the way a worship service is conducted.

6. Holistic Small Groups

[These groups] go beyond just discussing Bible passages to applying its message to daily life. In these groups, members are able to bring up issues and questions that are immediate personal concerns.

7. Need Oriented Evangelism

The key … is for the local congregation to focus its evangelistic efforts on the questions and needs of non-Christians. This “need-oriented” approach is different from “manipulative programs.”

8. Loving Relationships

Unfeigned, practical love has a divinely generated magnetic power far more effective than evangelistic programs, which depend almost entirely on verbal communication. People do not want to hear us talk about love, they want to experience how Christian love really works.