The Son of God walked into an upside-down world and revealed what the right-side up kingdom should look like: strength through humility, power through sacrifice, wealth through poverty, and life through death. It is no wonder he was accused of being a madman by his own family and no wonder that his disciples seemed utterly confused at almost every step of his journey to Calvary. This same inverted paradigm is worth further consideration as we wrestle through what being salt and light looks like for Christianity today. Evangelicalism can become more concerned with building empires than building the kingdom. Sadder still is our tendency to become blind to the distinction. The point is not to condemn any effort to bring the church into the 21st century and beyond, but rather to call for serious introspection of just how far we’ve gone and how much further we are willing to go.
Business as Usual
In the land of the American dream, bigger is better and more is always more. This mantra has become all too common within the realm of church growth strategy. As pastors and Christian leaders from all kinds of organizations adopt methodology from the playbooks of leadership gurus and Fortune 500 CEOs, the dividing line between corporation and congregation becomes blurred. The shift is subtle at first, but its scope increases and it integrates itself so delicately into the framework of our faith that the great gulf goes undetected. The ministry of the church becomes business as usual.
Examples abound. Christian publishing, CCM, Christian higher education, and American mega-churches could all offer case studies of how building empires has supplanted kingdom growth as the goal. The accusation of generalization may likely be given here; however, I admit that each of these realms does their good and this is why I’ve intentionally stated that they could offer case studies. Again, my aim is to push for serious introspection.
Let’s take one current example as a case study of sorts. A recent evangelical and political debate surfaced in the allocation of funds to the ERLC given Russel Moore’s stance on once candidate and now President Trump. Prominent SBC Pastor Robert Jeffress was quoted in a statment to the Wall Street Journal as saying, “…our church, like many churches, is always looking at the wisest expenditure of its dollars.” To be fair, Pastor Jeffress made this statement following his pointing out concern by his congregation and church leaders of the direction at the ERLC and an acknowledgment that “he has other things to be concerned with.” Nonetheless, this led to the Washington Post interpreting his statements as an “insinuation of his church withholding funds from Moore’s agency.” Laying presidential and denominational politics aside for the moment, Jeffress’ profile summary on First Baptist Church of Dallas’ website includes one such wise use of their funds.
Dr. Jeffress recently led the congregation in the completion of a $135 million re-creation of its downtown campus. The project is the largest in modern church history and serves as a “spiritual oasis” covering six blocks of downtown Dallas.
All of this is not meant to take one side or the other. My aim is to raise questions that are equally applicable in this situation as hundreds of others. What is the wisest expenditure of dollars as it relates to massive building projects like this for mega-churches or Christian institutions of higher education? What is the correct mix of politics, Christian influence, and denominational power currents? Where are we more concerned with building empires than building the kingdom? Where are we blind to our emphasis on the former and neglect of the latter?
Business as Usual?
While the world of business and marketing are the modern climate the church finds itself planted in, the word of God offers a different analogy: agriculture.
- Jesus’ parable of the soils establishes a spiritual realm of spreading the Gospel where distractions, powers of darkness, and suffering are all present. The seed must be sown nonetheless. (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)
- The parable of the seed growing in Mark 4:26-29 emphasizes the supernatural work of God in sowing the seed and waiting for the remarkable kingdom growth.
- Paul points out the futile nature of identifying as a follower of man while acknowledging man’s humble part and God’s necessary part. We plant and we water, but only God gives growth. (1 Corinthians 3:4-9).
Add to this two principles from three of Jesus’ encounters and you can begin to see where we may veer off track. First, Jesus says in response to Judas’ objection of the expensive ointment used to anoint him, “the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:8). Judas of course had objected on the grounds that it could have been sold and given to the poor, which may have been honorable if not for his ulterior motives. Second, Jesus’ cleansing of the temple both in John 2:13-22 and the synoptic Gospels (Matthew 21:12-17, Mark 11:15–19, and Luke 19:45–48) highlight the antipathy Jesus felt for gaining profit in his father’s house as he cited Scripture to assert the purpose of his Father’s house for prayer and fulfilled scripture with a consuming zeal that objected to making his Father’s house a house of trade.
Where might we go astray? It is possible to fundamentally confuse our humble part and God’s necessary part in kingdom growth. We, like Judas, may mistakenly object to kingdom resources being improperly allocated while blindly missing the bigger picture and our own hidden motives. Convinced of our own good works because of proximity to “God’s house” (the church), we might actually be engaging in something Christ would turn over and drive out in zeal for his Father’s house.
So how can we discern between whether we are building an evangelical empire or the kingdom? Through honest examination of our hearts, a weighing of each factor against Christ first and foremost as well as with the greater Gospel and global impact in mind. We indiscriminately sow the seed, but trust God for the growth. We lay aside the wisdom of the age and embrace the “foolishness” of the cross, which is the the power of God. We think, pray, discern, act, and repeat. We eagerly await “the kingdom of the Lord becoming the Kingdom of our Christ” and diligently labor towards that day. When that day comes, our empires will be burned up like wood, hay, and straw, but what is built on the true foundation for the kingdom will endure (1 Corinthians 3:11-13).