“The more passionate a person is to see the church grow and the more their sympathies rest with the sinners we are trying to reach, the more open they become to the danger of compromise. Leaders and churches can become ‘sinner driven’.”
A deep and abiding passion to see our churches grow is a very dangerous thing.
That may seem an odd observation to make, but it is a critical one. If we run with a passion to grow things without at the same time being aware that it is one of the most dangerous passions you can have, then the passion will destroy us and our work.
The most dangerous people in our Christian community are the leaders and evangelists who not only long to see growth but who also have the closest sympathy with the needs and concerns of the sinners we are seeking to reach. That is, the people who feel most keenly the needs of the unconverted sinner, who feel most keenly their pain and the difficulties caused by the churches that are meant to be attracting them: these are our most dangerous church members. Why? Because that sympathy for the sinner can very easily overpower any other concerns, such that they see almost every issue through the lens of what will make it easy or hard for the sinner to connect in to church life. And because they long to see these people won to Christ and part of his people, they will feel most keenly anything that might potentially make it hard for them—things like what we say, what we do. They will even see some biblical ideas and practices as concerning when it comes to reaching unbelievers.
The more passionate a person is to see the church grow and the more their sympathies rest with the sinners we are trying to reach, the more open they become to the danger of compromise. Leaders and churches can become ‘sinner driven’.
We are very aware of how secular businesses can become consumer driven—they exist to get people to buy their product and will bend and shift almost anything to increase sales. But a church that is sinner driven can adopt an almost identical set of values—we will shift and change whatever we need to make church more attractive to the community of people we are trying to draw in. Barriers to acceptance of church life are identified and removed, driven very largely by the principle that if people find them difficult then we must have done something wrong. Very soon, the barriers being removed are core gospel thoughts, ideas and practices. Talk of hell is very off-putting. People don’t like to hear about it. Cut back mentioning it, lest we turn someone off. Sin is very negative. Make church more celebratory. Pursue inspiration instead of education. Public Bible reading is often clunky and hard to follow. Drop it in favour of something that will engage. And so on.
Further to this is the subtle but dangerous pattern of passionate mission-minded leaders and churches seeing the power of respect in gaining a hearing for the gospel. People will listen if we gain their respect. We shift our focus, embrace practices, all designed to establish our credibility in the eyes of the world. We want so much for church and its leadership to be regarded respectfully by the community around us so that they might listen to the life-saving message. But a church, a leader, is then only a short step away from losing that which makes us the church: the truth of the gospel, and the distinctives of gospel priorities.
It ought to be obvious but it constantly needs to be said: it isn’t our ministry practices and the message we preach that is to win the respect of outsiders. It is our daily lives. The message we preach? It always was and always will be the stench of death to those that are perishing.
It will be this because the gospel, viewed from one perspective, is a prophetic call to the world to lay down its arms, to stop rebelling. Perhaps the shortest description of the gospel in the New Testament is that Jesus Christ is Lord (2 Cor 4:5). What are those words if they’re not fighting words? To the sinner it says: “Jesus Christ is Lord. You aren’t. So turn back, repent. Bow the knee. Find forgiveness by the only means possible: the gift of grace found in the Lord himself.”
For those of us who have found this forgiveness, the gospel message is of course the fragrance of life. But that fragrance is only sweet if you have acknowledged the dent (the death) it makes in your pride. ‘Sin’ in essence is pride. It is the pride of sin that means the vast majority of people are outside the things of Christ. We cannot make the message of Christ sweet to those that refuse to bow. It cannot but be a stench until the Spirit of God gives birth, by that message, to a whole new heart.
All of this is hard for the person most passionate about growth and deeply longing to see it happen. It is hard to see the outrage of people against what we might say, and not feel we have alienated people and lost an opportunity to win the very world that is reacting so badly to us. Leaders need to make a decision: whose friendship matters most? The world’s? Or our heavenly Father’s?