Eric Bryant asks, “Has listening to church attenders led to the decline of the church?”
Declining churches, in his experience, focus on the people they already have. What do they want? How can we keep them happy?
Innovative churches, on the other hand, listen primarily to people outside the church, people they want to reach.
My first thought was: Which was Jesus’ strategy?
If we consider the establishment represented by the scribes, Pharisees and Sadducees to be the insiders of the day, they were clearly not Jesus’ main audience. Jesus spent much of his time with outsiders – people those insiders didn’t think worthy of inclusion in the work of God. The insiders were increasingly peeved at him for his actions.
But that’s too simplistic. From an Israel point of view, all of Israel were the insiders. The Gentiles and the Samaritans were the outsiders. Jesus spent most of his time with the insiders. Sure, he had a few dealings with Gentiles, and at least one with some Samaritans. But most of his ministry, at least as depicted in the Gospels, was with Israel. When he sent out the twelve he explicitly commanded them to go only to the “Lost sheep of Israel.”
Notice he didn’t call them “the sheep of Israel.” They’re the “Lost sheep of Israel.” While all of Israel is, in a sense, on the insider, Jesus puts himself on the outside, and approaches them with the voice of the outsider. Not just any outsider, however, but an outsider whose design was to be the insider who defined their very essence: God.
There’s more to this insider/outsider picture. It is not exactly correct to say Jesus spent most of his time with outsiders. Rather, he spent most of his time with his disciples. These folks, drawn from the periphery of Israel, became a new Israel – the Remnant, to use OT terminology, or to use contemporary jargon, Israel rebooted. It was specifically with these peripheral Israelites, these insiders to the new work of God, that Jesus went to the outsiders, both the “lost sheep of Israel” and to those who were not Israel. Going to those folks was not what these new insiders desired. They were profoundly uncomfortable with the places Jesus took them.
So if the church wants to reach people today, to whom do we listen – insiders or outsiders? That way of putting the question guarantees the wrong answer. Our starting place is Jesus. We begin by listening to Jesus. When we leaders listen to Jesus, Jesus will lead (or shove?) us out of our comfort zone. He will direct us to those on the periphery of the church and to the outsiders.
The trouble with listening to Jesus first, is that comfort (except comforting the broken hearted) never comes into play. We don’t relax in church, comfortable with the way we’ve always done thing. We don’t morph the church into a spiritualized version of what the world calls comfort. We’re taking the message of Life to a lost and broken world.
Church ministry – or innovation – is never about tickling the itching ears of either church members or currently-outside-but-maybe-future-church-members. I know I never would have been reached by the church if they had only sought their own comfort. I also never would have been reached by the church with the Gospel if they had only sought to meet my “felt needs.” I was an American teenager. To the extent that I recognized my felt needs, many of them were misguided. The innovation that built a bridge to me enabled me – over time – to gain a clearer and healthier understanding of my needs (to begin to feel some needs, and to stop feeling other needs) and to see Jesus as not merely the meeter of my needs, but as the Lord of the universe who calls me to follow him.
I want to lead a church that follows Jesus, a church that is willing to tolerate discomfort, change and innovation to be faithful to him, and to connect with people we aren’t now connecting with.