I like to have the church board and staff read a book together each year. This year I chose Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation by Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken. Renovation of the Church is named in honor of a book about spiritual formation written by the late Dallas Willard entitled Renovation of the Heart. What Dallas does for the individual believer, Kent and Mike try to do for the local church.
Renovation gives helpful pastoral and congregational advice set within the narrative of the transition of the church they lead from a seeker-friendly mega-church into a congregation focused much more intentionally on forming people spiritually into disciples of Jesus. Because of its honest narrative format the book is engaging and accessible for most pastors and laypeople.
There are two things that I especially appreciate about the book.
First, it names the tension that many of feel between forming people into disciples of Jesus and trying to “succeed” in such and overwhelming consumeristic culture. As they point out well our practices as a church are not neutral. The medium is the message. Too often our desperate attempts and being relevant to people and attract them to worship work directly against the call of the gospel for people to take up their cross and follow Jesus. Rather than forming people who have found their lives by losing their lives, the church in a consumer culture can quickly turn Jesus into one more commodity to consume.
Consumerism is an easy thing to recognize and even to preach against. But a culture of self-centeredness and consumption is so deeply engrained in our imaginations, it is very difficult to move beyond in order to discover God’s kingdom. Which leads me to the second thing I like most about the book.
Kent and Mike are brutally honest about how difficult, how painful, and how costly the shift from one vision of the church to another has been not only for them personally but for their congregation. Although they share things they are learning in the transition, they also share some of their failures and things they wish they had done differently. There are places where they feel like they are finally starting to “get it.” But at the same time they recognize that there is no program that will move the church from one way of seeing and living to another. It is complicated, messy, and contextual.
If you are a pastor or lay-leader who struggles because you signed up to guide a mission and feel like you instead are leading an institution (and a cranky one at that) – Renovation of the Church might not only help you but it might help others appreciate the tension you find yourself in.
My favorite quotes:
Underneath it all, though, there is something going on that makes all this rather complicated and messy, and, from our perspective, exposes some core difficulties about church life today. This family innocently approaches our church as consumers, and I, in turn, respond as a provider of religious goods. It is my job to present our various “products” in such a way that this family will be inclined to choose us over the religious offerings of the other churches in town… I can’t help but feel that there is something fundamentally flawed about the whole thing. 14
One of the undeniable truths of the culture of the large entrepreneurial, attractional-model church is that it requires constant feeding. When we structure a church around attracting people to cutting-edge, entertaining, interesting, inspirational and always-growing services and ministries, there is simply no room for letting up. 27
During these days there was a growing and nagging realization that there simply was not way we could attend carefully to a rich and full life with God and still live at the pace we were living. In addition, we also began to grow increasingly uneasy that this model of doing church might be unhealthy for the people whose understanding of the Christian life was shaped by a church culture that treated them as religious consumers. 28
Dallas Willard… His writings began to infect our minds with so many thought viruses that we found ourselves in an almost constant state of ecclesiastical disequilibrium… Willard argued that spiritual growth into the image of Christ is to be the normal experience of the follower of Christ. To follow Christ in any meaningful sense requires that we must be profoundly transformed. We spoke endlessly about this and struggled with the obvious truth that this kind of transformation was not the normative experience of the average follower of Christ. Even more troubling, we realized that it was not even our own experience. 32
In retrospect, perhaps it was this issue of consumerism that brought the conflicting values of external success and authentic spiritual formation into such sharp contrast. Gradually, we began to get some clarity on a troubling truth: attracting people to church based on their consumer demands is in direct and irredeemable conflict with inviting people, in Jesus’ words, to lose their lives in order to find them. It slowly began to dawn on us that our method of attracting people was forming them in ways contrary to the way of Christ… The real issue, we believed, was far more insidious than that. We began to realize that our current church structure was actually working against the invitation of Christ to experience his authentic transformation… to be faithful to the gospel of Jesus, consumerism was to a force to be harnessed but rather an antibiblical value system that had to be prophetically challenged. 35
We went back to the basics and essentially started over. We did it in our teaching. We did it in conversations with our staff. We did it on the elder board. And we did it in the various meetings we had with individuals and ministry teams. We asked basic questions all over again. What is the good news? What are we called to do in response to it? What is the purpose of the church? How does the church relate to a consumer-driven culture? To understand the story of Oak Hills is to understand that we spent several years sorting through these kinds of questions… People were antsy to know what they were supposed to do. They wanted programs to enroll in, classes to attend and strategies to implement… We needed a new foundation. 39
For a very long time we have been trained in our country to be consumers. We have an almost limitless amount of opportunities to consume. The entire economic system of our country is built on the consumption of goods that we, for the most part, don’t really need. By the time our children reach elementary school, they are fully formed consumers. They look at their lives from a consumer perspective. Speaking to North Americans about consumerism is like talking to fish about water. It is an all-encompassing part of our daily existence and usually too close for us to even notice its pervasive presence. 65-66
The issue is that the church in North America has, for the most part, embraced the insidious monster of consumerism in the most pragmatic manner and has used it as a principle foundation for church growth. 66
The difficulty is that we live in a church culture where external success is self-justifying. If more people are coming to our church, this is obviously a sign of success, and God must be pleased. The throng of people coming into the church is decisive evidence that the kingdom of God is advancing, or so we believe… In other words, our attractional methods are not value neutral. We are training people as we attract them. 67
Eugene Peterson… “so why shouldn’t we have state-of-the-art consumer churches?... There is only one thing wrong: this is not the way in which God brings us into conformity with the life of Jesus and sets us on the way of Jesus’ salvation. This is not the way in which we become less and Jesus becomes more. This is not the way in which our sacrificed lives become available to others in justice and service. The cultivation of consumer spirituality is the antithesis of a sacrificial, “deny yourself” congregation. A consumer church is an antichrist church.” 72
The best metaphor for church community is the healthy family, not the marketplace. It is psychologically damaging for a spouse or child to live in a home where a certain level of performance is required in order for the relationship to be valued. When a relationship is conditional, deep and abiding love and community can’t be created and maintained. 83
This is the church. Humble. Unrefined. Family. People who are at different points on the journey. The church is people who are battered by life and want God. It’s also those who are going through the motions. It’s people with only enough faith to stand up and walk forward, hoping God will meet them. It’s those who understand, at least partially, what it means to follow Jesus. But it’s also those who don't’ understand and really don’t care. The church is people who choose joy even when life is hard. It’s people who complain. It’s a spectrum of people with different degrees of spiritual hunger and motivation. The church is messy, unfinished and imperfect. But the church is the beloved bride of Christ. 100
Mark Galli: “…one of the most crucial skills for pastors and church lay leaders is to manage church decline when people are leaving because they see, finally, what Jesus is asking of them. This is not a job for the faint of heart, and will require great wisdom to manage resources, personnel, and morale in such a time. Evangelicals have become the unmatched experts in church growth, but often end up with a truncated gospel. If we are to live into the full counsel of God in the years to come, I believe we’ll need a few experts in church shrink. 104
Churches have certain things to do. They have a presence in a town. They have regular services. They may have small groups. They may have various classes and programs for youth and children. They baptize. They celebrate Communion. They reach out to the hurting and forgotten. They host weddings and funerals. The outside may look the same. But when the church is driven by the transforming message of the good news, it is radically different. 111
Perhaps our greatest lesson from the past decade is that it is spiritually formative to be dissatisfied and unable to resolve that dissatisfaction. In fact, there is hardly a better catalyst for transformation than to not get what we want. Sitting in the dissatisfaction, without frantically trying to resolve it, can do wonders for the human soul. When we don’t get what we want, we are more acutely aware of eternity. We are more apt to remember God. We learn what it really means to trust him. We remember the bigger story. When we don’t get what we want, we have to deal with our inner restlessness. We have to face ourselves and our addictions. We have to deal with the various “medications” we use to cope with life… the first thing that we saw that needed to be transformed was this raging desire to always get what we want. 117
If our worship services are centered on the story of God, we will be assisted in becoming men and women whose lives are more deeply rooted in God. If our worship services are centered around our personal tastes, needs and desires, they will become merely another place that props up our inherent self-absorption. 152
When we place our sincerity and wholeheartedness at the center of our worship, the content of our worship will drift toward how well we are doing with our wholehearted worship. The danger is that worship will gradually become a performance. Rather than being centered on the story of God, worship is centered on the intensity of our sincerity and devotion… It is a great comfort to me to know that when I gather to worship with other followers of Christ, the primary issue is not how well I am worshiping but that what God has done and is doing for us in Christ is central. 156-157
Linus, the wonderful character from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts cartoon, attempted to love humanity in an abstract and detached way. He once famously said, “I love mankind, it’s just people I can’t stand.” But just as there is no way to love humankind without loving actual humans, there is no way to love the universal and timeless church without loving an actual and wonderfully flawed local expression of this church. 173
If God is doing something new in our day, perhaps there will be burst wineskins all over the place. There may even be some honor in it. When you think about it, that might be a wonderful name for a church in these days. The Church of the Burst Wineskin. A church that falls apart trying to get it right might not be a failure at all. It just might be a part of the larger story of what God is doing in this world. If we have learned anything, it’s not about an individual church’s external success but the advancement of the kingdom of God. 176