It’s easy to go with the flow and never push back against our churches or leaders when they drift from their straightforward mission. If Jesus were a consultant we could hire, what would be the results of his audit of our churches? I suspect that he’d flip over tables indiscriminately because there was so little of himself and his Gospel evident. If we hired a church growth consultant, they’d likely recommend we improve our search engine optimization and make every facet of our ministry relevant to the needs of a typical young family. Neither of those things is inherently wrong, but they are insufficient. To the degree we place faith in strategies like that instead of Christ, they are idolatrous.
My general approach to most issues is to find the center and to seek peace with all parties involved. However, I’ve become convinced that reclaiming the Gospel’s centrality is an issue where we may need to flip tables because churches, leaders, ministries, and organizations have side-stepped Christ in the very name of Christ.
Every institution, organization, congregation, and person is prone to mission creep. There are no exceptions. The Gospel’s consistent proclamation in our churches every week is part of the rhythm of ministry and the means of grace that counterbalance that tendency. What if that consistent pronouncement of good news starts to fade into the background?
What begins with simple Gospel proclamation morphs into a much more complicated ministry model. If we’re not careful, what could be an easy course correction could turn into cause for flipping tables. As time goes on, the singular focus on the Gospel begins to drift as we emphasize disseminating knowledge, getting results, programming our way into relevance, and disregard the priesthood of believers.
Churches can often change into carbon copies of what pastors have experienced in their respective seminaries. We trade green pastures for lecture halls and gospel-centered sermons for theological TED talks. Where is the proclamation of Christ for the forgiveness of sins to those particular people gathered in his name at that very moment in time? Where is the pronouncement of absolution for all who have entered that room as believers in Jesus yet who are heavy-laden by their sin?
Our churches can be theologically pristine, our congregants well-read, and our services intellectually vigorous. However, if they lack the scandal of Christ’s atoning work, then they are like altars immaculately adorned with no sacrificial lamb. As ornate as it might all appear or sound, it is the sacrifice that atones. If we drift from proclaiming Christ’s dying work for sinners in favor of theological lectures, then we allow human knowledge to supersede wisdom, which is the foolishness of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:17-25). That is cause for flipping the seminary table.
Marketing and Metrics
Marketing and metrics are powerful forces that can lure church leaders into supplanting the gospel with gimmicks. The essential aspect of finding the balance here is ensuring that furthering your reach isn’t mistaken for Gospel fruit. Furthering your reach can be a tremendous blessing; however, one cannot assume that reaching more people with your message is equivalent to reaching more people with and for Christ.
Conversion in the marketing sense is merely turning someone into a paying customer. Conversion in the Christian sense is supernatural, solely by grace through faith, and comes through hearing the word of the Gospel. When churches become distracted by increasing their number of paying customers, enhancing their branding, or developing merchandise to spread the reach of their logo instead of delivering the timeless message of Christ for saints and sinners alike, it’s time to flip the merch table.
It’s entirely possible to be so busy for God that you don’t have time for him. As we fill our calendars with church events, activities, classes, sessions, and meetings, we find little time to organically love our neighbor, which is the truest form of ministry. Little by little, we distract congregants with things to do at church while sharing the Gospel directly with those we’ve built relationships with is replaced by inviting people to hear the pastor preach. Even that invitation is iffy these days in terms of hearing the Gospel clearly proclaimed.
Instead of the congregation having people over for dinner to live life, discuss the Bible, or pray, we put together a program for various groups or demographics to meet at the church. There is nothing inherently wrong with meeting at the church or intentionality in discipleship. Still, the danger is in edging out the opportunity for the kind of natural ministry that takes place when people eat, drink, and discuss life without a script. When our ministry definition only fits within the confines of our church calendars and program guides, it’s time to flip the sign-up table.
Ironically, making clergy into professionals who conduct the business of ministry is one of the causes and a cumulative effect of letting the Gospel take a back seat. There isn’t a pastoral tier and a laity tier of Christian ministry. The priesthood of all believers puts everyone who professes faith in Christ in direct communion with God and places a great commission call upon their lives in whatever vocation they serve.
If we perpetuate the false paradigm of professional priests, then the simplicity of ministry as the overflow of living life with neighbors and the Gospel proclaimed in those relational contexts is lost. Ephesians 4:11-12 explicitly states that pastors and teachers’ roles are given to equip the saints for the work of the ministry where the subject is the knowledge of the Son of God. Too often, we find pastors veering away from the simplicity of Gospel proclamation and equipping saints to build their platforms and personas. The former is profound yet simple, while the latter is shallow and complex. When pastors become celebrity CEOs instead of shepherds, then it’s time to flip the conference table.
Refocusing and Flipping
How might we avoid mission creep, and what does it look like to keep the focus on the Gospel? First, we must center our weekly gatherings on the Gospel to confront and reorient the works obsessed hearts of saints and sinners alike. Second, all aspects of our churches must pale in comparison to the consistent and clear proclamation of Christ crucified for sinners. Third, we may need to flip a few tables. We might need to have some difficult, tense conversations with church leaders and question why the Gospel is not central in every aspect of our services and ministries. Fourth, we may need to be willing to walk away from our churches to find one that consistently proclaims the Gospel. That is not an easy decision, and one should not make it lightly; however, it may be necessary.
Ask yourself what our churches ultimately have to offer people, if not real forgiveness, tangible peace, genuine hope, and eternal salvation through Christ. Could we provide tips to improve family life? Perhaps we might offer a more intellectual engagement with a philosophical faith. Maybe we could present them with a roadmap to more holy or productive Christian lives. In too many cases, our churches have lapsed into those merit-based ministry mindsets. When we notice the focus has flipped away from Christ, his finished work on our behalf, and his Gospel, then it may well be time to flip a few tables.