The last seven months have totally changed my view of churches. I no longer go to the same church every week. And I don’t preach weekly to the same people in a congregation. No, I have been on the road. I now travel for Christian Relief Fund bringing a message from God’s Word focusing on compassion and justice especially where it relates to children. So I no longer evaluate or judge churches as I have most of my life.
In his insightful and convicting book, Radical, David Platt gives a history of how churches in America have tended to follow the pathway of the American success story rather than the example of Jesus. He exposes how the goals of most churches today tend to be the marks of an American success story much more than the pattern of Jesus who was walking around with twelve guys telling stories about the kingdom and helping the weak.
Platt gives the ingredients needed for church success. There are usually four of them. First of all, you need the dynamic deliverer of the message who attracts people to him. Secondly, you need someone who can really provide contemporary and experiential music. Then, you need a great facility where people want to come. And lastly, you have to have a bunch of innovative programs to engage everyone’s interests. I’m not saying this is always the case, but it has been a pretty consistent formula. Platt proposes that these criteria may have more to do with the American success model than that of Jesus and discipleship.
I have to admit that I have evaluated churches in this way. I can’t tell you how many times that I have left a church and my likes or dislikes of the congregation had to do with how good the preacher was or how perfect the music was. In fact, I have to admit that certain congregations were immediately judged by the coolness of their building. And if they didn’t have the cutting edge programs, they just seemed out of date or irrelevant. That’s not how I see things now. It’s not that those things are right or wrong. It’s just that I’m noticing something else. And those that have all the criteria that I used to look for are sometimes very good at this other deal. And sometimes they are not. And those that seem to miss all these criteria that seem to make churches grow are often very good at this other deal, and other times they are not. One day in the Nyalenda slum of Kisumu, Kenya—I heard that the district hospital was running a special and had discounted mosquito nets by about 80%. Since we had around 500 AIDS orphans there, I grabbed my friend, Jared Odhiambo, to go to the hospital to get nets for these children who had been so victimized by malaria.
We got to the hospital and I ordered 500 of the nets at the cheap price. As the man who handled the nets was going to get them, he asked me why I needed so many. I told him that they were for a bunch of AIDS orphans in the slum.
“AIDS orphans!” He cried. “I’m not selling my good nets to them at a reduced price. They are just going to die anyway. You will have to pay regular price.”
I was livid. As I was about to jump over his desk and let him have it, Jared started pulling me out of the building before I did something I would regret (although I don’t think I would have regretted it). As we got outside, Jared said, “This man does not see the world as we see it. He does not see the world through the lens of James 1:27”.
Jared was correct. You remember that verse, don’t you? It is the one that says God’s kind of religion is about widows and orphans. Jared and I saw everything in the world through this lens. If there was a sale on mosquito nets, all we could think of was that there were a bunch of orphans who needed them. This other man didn’t view the world through the lens of James 1:27.
Now, I preach at different churches every week with a message of James 1:27. When I leave them, I evaluate things very differently than I did before. I preach at big churches. I preach at small churches. I preach at progressive churches. I preach at conservative churches. I preach at innovative churches. I preach at rigid churches. And when I leave them I only notice one thing. My focus isn’t about the building, the music, or the programs. Only one thing comes to mind—did they help any orphans today? If they did, I’m pretty pleased—no matter what those other things looked like. If they didn’t, I leave not very impressed with all those cool songs, programs, and buildings or the lack of them. And I think God may be looking at it that way too.
My view of church has been revolutionized as I look at it through the lens of James 1:27. Take a look!