Significance is Not Found in the Number of Church Chairs

By Ray Wheeler, DMin. The significance of ministry is neither found in the number of church chairs occupied by bodies on a Sunday morning nor in the capacity of your building to hold larger numbers. A friend of mine recently posted a statement on Facebook that captures the essence of significance;

I measure the significance of any church, any denomination, by its leader-production. Growing congregations, erecting buildings or staging impressive productions aren’t really the point of church. Whole congregations rarely, if ever, accomplish anything lasting. Buildings usually end up either too small or too big; big events almost never feed or sustain the day after.

I agree with the notion that the measure of significance is the development of leaders (which also infers the development of disciples). However, there are those who infer something my friend did not intend to communicate. Some see in his statement that any thought of buildings or aesthetics is an inherent contradiction of disciple-making and leadership development. Such an inference misses the incarnational reality of living as a demonstration of God’s reality in time and space. Instead some interpret spirituality to be a false dichotomy that pits the material and the spiritual in opposition to one another.

There is a theological tension of course between two realities i.e., the “flesh” and the “spirit” that every first year Greek student begins to grasp while analyzing how the Pauline epistles utilize the vocabulary “sarx” and “soma”. For those who register the nuances of Paul’s arguments regarding worldview there is little danger of engaging the false dichotomy. The book of Galatians focuses on understanding what an integrated Christian life looks like in contrast to a disintegrated or artificial one. For example Paul notes:

1 You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2 I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?3 Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?[a] 4 Have you experienced[b] so much in vain—if it really was in vain? 5 So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? 6 So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”[c (Galatians 3:1-6 NIV)

Paul makes clear that there are two opposing mindsets i.e., spirit and flesh. But the assumption that the words refer to incorporeal and material aspects of life is a false dichotomy inherited from ancient Greek dualism. Dualism is a view that assumes material things are inherently evil and spiritual and incorporeal things are inherently good. Dualism creates a tension. Instead of addressing evil in actions and perspective a dualistic approach finds people living a tension in trying to live life free from corrupt material things while still having to engage such mundane activities as eating, finding shelter, mowing the lawn providing for one’s family, building a church facility or purchasing church chairs. The issue is that a dualistic perspective contributes to guilt for simply caring for ones self or ones family e.g., “I could be out preaching to the masses rather than slaving away at my ‘secular’ job.”

The error of dualistic thinking is clear in the example. Why not be the message of the good news of Jesus Christ to those at work? Why not demonstrate the love of God to your neighbors by loving your spouse and children by being truly present with them. I recall a short term mission team that returned from their travels with enthusiasm for the response they saw to God’s love overseas and lament the lack of response to the gospel in their own neighborhood. So I asked what they did overseas. They described engaging people in the coffee shops, holding a rally in the city square and inviting people on the streets to a bible study. So I asked what they did in their neighborhood and they replied, “Well we pray and pray for people to come and no one does.”

I asked, “Why don’t you do the same things you did on the mission field in your neighborhood?”

“Because it doesn’t work,” they replied.

“How do you know?” I retorted, “Have you tried reaching out to your neighbors or talking to strangers at Starbucks?”

— Awkward silence. —

The redeeming act of Christ energizes the integration of spirit, soul and body not the disintegration of human identity. The mission team in the discussion above unwittingly illustrated the assumptions of dualism inherited from their western worldview that exists in tension with God’s working. This kind of unseen tension is behind the admonition of Paul;

1Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. 2Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12:1-2 NIV)

Eschewing buildings or aesthetics in the design and furnishing of buildings does not de facto result in authenticity or significance. There are plenty of inauthentic Christians who eschew buildings or aesthetically pleasing surroundings under the guise of spirituality who are no more loving, patient, merciful, peaceful, longsuffering, good, and meek than any other person.

The authentic people I know live holistic lives that exhibit a deep care for others’ physical and spiritual needs. They nurture their own existence in body, soul and spirit and invest in others. They understand the inconvenient aspect of being a servant leader and make room in their busy schedules to invest in the development of others.

My friend’s Facebook comment is a reminder about the priority of what we do in ministry. If buildings become the end rather than a means they are horrifically draining of emotional resilience, spiritual vitality and financial resource. When buildings are the end rather than a means; they become a mausoleum holding the memory of long past vitality. If on the other hand they are simply a means of nurturing the ongoing development of others they become a canvass on which the image of Christ is reflected and interpreted for all to see and engage.

Working with churches from all over the globe who need church chairs is a daily reminder of this to us. We hear exciting stories of how God is at work in real people. And, we hear the tensions of trying to live an integrated life i.e., to manage the need for such mundane things as church chairs while simultaneously helping others become disciples and leaders. So, if one were to measure the significance of your congregation by the standard my friend set out how would you fair? If the answer is positive then how will you maintain spiritual vitality? If the answer is negative then what must change? Let me know I am still learning how to live as a canvass on which Christ is represented my self.

Dr. Ray Wheeler is the Director of Global sales for Bertolini Inc and an adjunct instructor in leadership, church growth and ethics at Bethesda University California in Anaheim, California and Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California.