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6 things the American church is doing well

June 30, 2011

I often coach people in our Learning Communities that what we need is EVOLUTION not REVOLUTION. If we try to revolutionize the church over night (either on a macro or micro level), everyone winds up dead. It’s not spiritually responsible in how we are forming people and suggests that somehow the Spirit of God hasn’t been at work previously. We may not like it, but change takes time. And because of that, it’s important to note where things have shifted and where we are seeing positive transformation.

There are always some who are called to be revolutionaries – exploring new frontiers, taking new ground for the Kingdom in new and innovative ways, even serving in prophetic and ultra-counter-cultural ways. But not everyone is called to be a pioneer. Some are called to advance at a different pace, in a way that takes along the masses who don’t change quite so quickly.

Sometimes it seems there are two polarized camps – those pushing out, who want to throw out the dirty bath water (and sometimes the baby with it) – and those who staunchly want to stay put – doing the same things and expecting different results. Those two camps are often quite critical of one another – rather than recognizing that there are unique callings within the Kingdom.

As someone who has spent the majority of my life living outside of the United States and didn’t grow up here, I think there is a perspective from an outsider that is always helpful. With that being said, with an outsiders perspective, here is what I think the American church is doing well:

  1. SUNDAYS. We may not love everything about the attractional nature of Sundays that many churches are currently trying to get out of, but by-and-large, we are probably seeing stronger teaching from scripture, more creative expressions of worship, more passionate people coming together to worship the Lord, partnered with a greater sense that Sundays aren’t what “it’s” about. I think we’re seeing lots of innovation/imagination in the realm of teaching, doing more to connect the truth of scripture with the context of our lives. I think you’d be hardpressed to think we were better off 50 years ago with worship services. That being said, I think we all believe we need to see just as much (and MORE!!!) imagination/innovation go into how we live OUTSIDE of that 90 minutes on Sunday. We can always do better than we are now, but we should also celebrate when positive change happens.
  2. AUTHENTIC. People can idolize the 1950’s all they want, but I’ll take people not sweeping their issues under the rug any day of the week and twice on Sunday. The fact of the matter is that people were just as broken in the 1950’s, we were just better at hiding it. As Christendom has faded and we live in an increasingly post-Christian culture, the church has become far more comfortable with accepting the fact that every person is broken and there isn’t a need to hide it. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t change, repent and seek transformation, but at least we can be more honest about who we are in the church (or that there is a greater sense of that).
  3. ACTIVATION. At least within the evangelical tradition of the last 50 years, when the evangelical church has gotten behind something, they have been able to activate people behind a singular cause and will do everything they can to get people on board. The problem has been that, often times, we’ve activated behind suspect causes/ideologies. But there seems to be a swing more and more towards a wholistic expression of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God.
  4. SELF-CRITIQUE. Sometimes observing evangelicals is a bit like watching parents eat their young…in the sense that no one is “safe” (which is sad). However, the flip side of that is the ability to be agile and self-critiquing and to change quickly. Simply look at Willow Creek. The church saw enormous numeric success, thousands join the Willow Creek Association and 30 years in they release the Reveal Study. And they very publicly admit where things aren’t working, where they got it wrong and how they are trying to change. Thirty years sounds like a long time, but in all actuality, that’s not a lot of time in comparison to the church’s ability to be self-reflective in the past. Now if we could learn to critique with civility and grace, that would be a huge step forward as well.
  5. ENTREPRENEURIAL. Again, sometimes we can get lost in the bubble of our own making, but can we think of a more imaginative or entrepreneurial time in church history? We are boldly stepping out of “well, that’s how we’ve always done it” mode and are constantly trying new, exciting and frightening things to push forward the Kingdom of God. We may fail from time to time (or more than that), but at least we are following the wild goose of the Holy Spirit and having a go at it. I have to imagine the the original entrepreneur, the God of creation, is smiling as we go about His business. More and more, there is a missional disturbance happening. We certainly don’t have all of the answers, but the desire to change the world and impact people other than ourselves grows daily. And out of this desire we see new and fresh expressions of the church.
  6. SMARTER. A huge knock on the church has been how negatively the business world has affected the way the church functions. This is a pretty fair reaction. However, we would be foolish not to see a few of the benefits, with two big ones coming to mind. VISION/PURPOSE. Any time a church is asking itself, “God, why have you put this spiritual family here? What are you asking us to do?” is a good thing. While there is the meta-narrative of God’s grand rescue mission that we all exist in, it never ceases to be helpful to see how our community fits into it on a more micro level. This can be particularly helpful as we are spiritually forming people (though, can be narcissistic or ego-driven if not done well). The second is FINANCES. I think we’ve gotten much shrewder with how we use the finances within the church. Rather than hoarding the money and protecting it, we are pushing it out of the safe, interest-collecting coffers and putting it to work (though I imagine we could question HOW and WHERE that money is being spent in many cases). But we still need to recognize it’s a step forward. Most churches and denominations are no longer collecting endowments but spending them on Kingdom-initiatives. Even if it’s not close to perfect, this is a good thing, a shift and a re-orientation towards the Kingdom.
14 Comments leave one →
  1. June 30, 2011 7:09 pm

    Great Blog!

  2. July 1, 2011 4:10 pm

    Mike, Love the blog! I’m glad I’m not the only one out there saying these things. It’s good to be able to show church leaders that other people see the same things going on with the church and that we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water. I always ask people to reflect on their particular church’s history of why they were planted in that particular community/location to begin with. Then I state that the history of their church began by being missional. We are just trying to get back to the roots of why the church was planted in that community to begin with. See my blog..
    On another note: the use of the term “wild goose” although a very attractive one, is a hot button right now due to the Wild Goose Fest that was held by leaders of the Emergence movement who, in my opinion by hearing it for my self, are not Biblical at all. In fact, some of the leaders are anti-messiah because they do not desire to hold to Jesus as our one and only Savior but rather as a “good guy in a violent culture that killed him”.

    • July 5, 2011 9:32 pm

      Aaron – you basically are saying “Don’t use a word because someone you disagree with uses the same word.” Wow. It’s sad that we are that afraid of guilt by association or something. It sounds like I would agree with your theology of Christ but I don’t agree with this kind of fear.

  3. Paul permalink
    July 5, 2011 9:30 pm

    “A huge knock on the church has been how negatively the business world has affected the way the church functions. This is a pretty fair reaction. However, we would be foolish not to see a few of the benefits, with two big ones coming to mind. VISION/PURPOSE. Any time a church is asking itself, “God, why have you put this spiritual family here? What are you asking us to do?”…. This is a really interesting point, and one which I’d love to see explored more in the church. For me, the question of the extent to which ecclesiology has been syncretised with corporate strategic management culture is one of the most urgent questions facing the missional/church growth movement. My journey recently through my Masters work and exposure to key writings on strategic management has been to realise quite how much churches have simply baptised corporate management practices in order to create a framework for running our organisations. Re-reading Hybels’ Courageous Leadership after my Masters has opened my eyes to how much of his approach here has simply taken strategic management theory and interwoven it with Christian language. Don’t get me wrong, there is still much to appreciate! But also much to critique. Concepts like ‘alignment’ suddenly look much more like corporate management theory about the best ways to enable efficient use of resources across departments than helpful biblical teaching….The classic of church growth theory is the mistranslation of Proverbs 29:18 as “without vision the people perish”, rather than without revelation (implicitly of Christ) the people perish (NIV). This scripture in my opinion, in its badly translated form, has been a biblical foothold to justify bringing in a raft of questionable theroies from wider culture about how to discover our purpose in Christ. I am beginning to want church consultants, missiologists and church-growth theorists to become much clearer about what they mean by the word ‘vision’. I think that there are more biblical and less biblical ways of understanding this word, and I fear that too often this word is not defined clearly enough to de-syncretise it in the minds of your average church-goer, who usually has a recieved understanding of what this word means from their work context…linked very much to corporate strategic management literature. ‘Vision’ in that literature is very much anthropocentric and instrumentalist. Furthermore it is often very platonic and non-dynamic – abstract concepts dreamed up in a boardroom and projected as the goal of a 5 year plan, which unfortunately squeezes out the reality of the messiness of economics and life, assuming that all variables are controllable. In addition, in the predominant school from the 80’s and 90’s, it roots the formulation of vision very much in the character of the charismatic leader, reinforcing a hierarchical structure of vision-formation. Worst of all, it is depersonalised…eliding Christ, and especially eliding the more biblical idea of ‘calling’, which is rooted in personhood and is dynamic (a present particple verb and not a noun). To the extent that churches embrace these kinds of meanings of the concept of vision from the corporate world, I think they can be harmful, disempowering, and potentially destructive and, at worst, simply end up turning church into another principality and power that enslaves people and squeezes out the Spirit. As Bonheoffer said (and I paraphrase) – “he who loves hi own vision for community more than the community itself becomes the destroyer of that community. Bonhoeffer was also right when he highlighted that the greatest danger to humankind in a technological era is less and less the danger of uncontrollable elemental forces and more and more the danger of oppressive organisational structures. What is the alternative? Well, we know that hebraic thinking actually introduced the concept of purpose and historcial time into human affairs, and much earlier than Greek thought. Why thank the business world for helping the church to discover the power of teleological thinking when in fact the Scriptures offer up much richer pickings for this important impulse? Surely the church has more to offer the world about purpose than simply transferring the instrumentalist philosophies of organisational structure that the business world has to offer? Come to think of it, what about nature (chaos theory, emergence) being a source of inspiration? We must develop a deeper theology of purpose for our ecclesiogies than that which is on offer from the business world and which has been so formative in church-growth theory. We must put the instrumentalism of strategic management literature in its place, rooting it instead in a relational understanding of purpose, rather than the other way around. In other words, the vision really is Christ, in the way he is at work by his Spirit in often hidden and paradoxical ways to draw the world towards the new creation promised in Revelation. The minute we lose this in the midst of our discussions of vision is the minute we lose the very thing that makes the church distinctive as well as engaged, resilient in the midst of change, secure in the midst of anxiety, and mobilised as individual disciples to contibute in their own unique ways. It is also the moment we become susceptible to anthropocentrism, and what I call the ‘consumerism of vision’, which is to say that we lose our faith that the Spirit can lead us where we are into the unique purposes of God for our communities and begin to shop around for off-the-shelf instrumentalist solutions developed in inapplicable contexts. This ‘consumerism of vision’ (often fostered, unfortunately, by the culture of church consultancy anxious church leaders have created and reinforced) is rooted in a deep anxiety in church leaders as to whether our people, our gifts and our community can be the locus of brand new creativity and spirit-led purpose deeply rooted in our own place. There is much more to say here, but little time and space. A final point is this: why do we still too often assume in charismatic circles of church that “the vision” descends as a function of revelation from on high rather than a process of emergence from incarnational engagement rooted in Spirit-led discernment. This again, for me, seems to fall foul of the corporate models of strategic management which suggest that planning is a function of planning before doing rather than discovering what works at the same time as engaging in the problem. It is modernist in assumption and rooted more in Barth than scriptural thinking. Many voices in the missional movement (Cray, Hirsch, Frost, Roxburgh etc) are edging towards new approaches to thinking about churches discovering their calling, purpose and goals. I think that this exploration is leading towards a desyncretisation of church organisational theory from the dominance of corporate strategic management literature…images of gardening rather than entrepreneurial leadership, an application of helpful eschatologies of hope and categories of missio-dei, and a determination to always root vision-talk in the relationality and personhood of Christ and the Trinity in order to avoid the anthropocentric instrumentalist notions of ‘vision’ that our culture espouses.

  4. July 5, 2011 9:33 pm

    Oh, and great blog post. Thanks!

  5. Phil permalink
    July 6, 2011 7:16 pm

    Great post. In #2, Authentic, you state that “people were just as broken in the 1950′s, we were just better at hiding it.” I’ve seen and read the “broken” language in a number of places, and begun to start using it myself as I describe the reality of our condition and the need for God’s healing, restoring grace. My question is this: where does that language come from? Are there some key Scripture passages that someone can point out to me, or does this metaphor come more from the world than the Scriptures? If it’s not a Scriptural phrase, what are the parallel Biblical phrases? I agree with acknowledging the reality, I just want my language to resemble the language of Scripture as much as possible.

    • July 6, 2011 8:58 pm

      Great question, Phil. I think the “broken” language is one of those words in our English lexicon this is equally informed by scripture as it is “the world.” From scripture, you can place right in Genesis 1, 2 and 3. The Greek word we find in the Septuagint for to describe humans as “made in the image/likeness” of God is the word EIKON…or “image reflector”…which speaks to mirror images, etc. Obviously in Genesis three, with the Fall, humans now become the shattered, broken images of God that he is now trying to put back together. That’s probably the easiest place to start, though you could find this metaphor used throughout scripture with pottery references of things being whole and broken, etc.

  6. July 7, 2011 9:36 pm

    Thanks for pointing out some important baby steps in the Body’s growth. It’s easy for me to obsess about the negative.

    God is moving, and he’s bringing the church along for the ride, however reluctant she might be.

  7. Kirk permalink
    July 17, 2011 1:02 pm

    Because the earth is God’s footstool, it is therefore ours. We have to live, function and operate in Kairos, and raise everyone around us up into the kingdom through the power of the Holy Spirit. Plant seeds, water and care for them, God will give the growth. Be intentional, in all our actions, words, efforts. Col. 3:17 The cross may seem heavy until we realize who’s really carrying it. Go beyond the comfort zone, don’t be afraid, God is always with us. The devil, and the world don’t stand a chance. Him in us, us in Him, go with power and boldness, not forgetting that He really doesn’t need us. His will, will be done, and quite often not how we expect it. Be as little children, totally trusting, faithful servants. SHARE THE LOVE!


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