The Long Over-Due Discussion on the American Church

I am concerned about the state of the modern church in America.

Disclaimer: Before I begin this article, I want to be clear that I believe in the priesthood of the believer, meaning believers have direct access to God through the power of the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 7:23-28) – I believe God speaks to all believers. I do not claim to have a leg up on anyone. Secondly, I believe in the autonomy of the local church – I believe God reveals to each congregation who they should be in the world. I sit in judgment of no pastor or congregation.

I say this because I do have some thoughts that are critical of the modern church in America and I also leave open the possibility that I might not have it all right. Your thoughts are welcomed.

I almost didn’t start Freedom Fellowship. When I was approached by my denomination about starting a new congregation in north Idaho, and I said no many times until I finally said yes.

I didn’t want my life to become engrossed in starting and maintaining the machine that we call the church in America. At the time of the writing of this article, I am in my 42nd year as a pastor. Many times, over the years I seriously considered leaving the pastorate. Not because I felt God wanted me out, but I never seemed to fit.

Like most preacher boys, in the 70s, and in the south, I began my ministry as a youth minister. I will never forget a call I received from a colleague when I took my first full-time position as a senior pastor. “Gary, I hear you are leaving the ministry for the pastorate!” He knew of my love for people and disciple-making. While there are always administrative chores to be done, ministry to youth and their families is just that – ministering and discipling.

What my friend was trying to communicate to me was that pastors seldom get to spend time with people. Pastors are more like CEOs of the corporation. Most of their time is spent dealing with the board of directors and serving on the many church committees.

Boy was he right! In my first pastorate, all I had time to do was meet with the committees and boards. Seldom, if ever, did I get to spend time with the people. And when I did squeeze in the occasional visit, it was always about the machinery of the church. Asking someone to fill a position. In the churches I served, we had so many committees that we had a Committee on Committees! That group met to choose the chairs of each committee.

The church has become a machine, a business, a corporation and the pastors are the CEOs. We have bought into the American mentality of consumerism. We provide services to the masses and they consume them. There is a formula when it comes to the machine – 20% do all “the work” and 80% never become engaged in “the work”, they always remain consumers never becoming disciples. Though out the decades, I have found this to be true. When a church discovers that a person will work in the machine, they work them to their spiritual deaths.

This is not to say that there isn’t a measure of good being done in our churches. I know of several churches in our area and across the country who have mastered the art of the machine and they are making a difference in some people’s lives.

The problem, as I see it, is that God didn’t call the church to be a marketing, commercial enterprise, He called us to be the body of Christ.

The church isn’t an organization, the church is a living organism.

Make no mistake, the church is a business, of sorts. Jesus said himself that he must be about his father’s business. Only that business is ministering life to people and to minister in the lives of people. That business is to make disciples and to take the message of Christ to people where we live and to the ends of the earth.

We get caught up in processes, procedures, and structures and forget that people are not robots. Disciples are not made on an assembly line. People are spirit and flesh, they do not need to be run through processes that lead them to become a part of our machinery. They need a relationship with Christ and other believers. They need to discover their place in the body of Christ and their part of what God is doing in and around the world.

The American church has become a place, a building, a corporation. Discipleship has become a process where people are recruited and trained to fill a position on the organizational chart.

Ministry Is what we do “at the church” and for the growth of “the church”.

I believe it is possible that disciples are a part of the machinery in some churches, but they are disciples, not because of the machinery, but despite it. I believe that some people are coming to Christ through the efforts of those involved in the machine, but are they becoming disciples or are they becoming good churchmen and women? Could it be they are not involved in God’s business, they are involved in church busy-ness – going about fulfilling the vision of the current CEO (pastor)?

This series is my contribution to a discussion that is way over-due by Christian Americans. Just what is the church? What has the American church become? Has the American church become what Christ intended when he said, “I will build my church”? And deeper, what does it mean to be a Christian?  A disciple?

And, by the way, God did eventually start a new congregation through us, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. After much prayer, my wife, Cindy, and I launched out on a journey together, with a few others who dared to come with us. That small group of Believers became Freedom Fellowship.

I hope you can join us on this journey. Your participation in the discussion is most welcomed.

Gary Brown, President of Reach America

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