Read With Me: Outgrowing the Ingrown Church - Week 1
I love books. I often overwhelm others by handing them a stack. Not always helpful. But, there's much for us to learn from others who have walked with the Lord for a long time and I want to help make this wisdom more digestable for our MC leaders and church. So, I'm going to be spending some time writing a weekly post on a book I believe will be helpful to the ministry of the gospel at River City. Every Thursday I'll recap the general points of a chapter or two from a book I've enjoyed and found applicable to what God's doing in and through us as a church. I'm going to start with C. John Miller's Outgrowing the Ingrown Church (Zondervan, 1986). I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and being that it's not too long it's a good place for me to start. I'll do two chapters per week, hoping it helps us ask some good questions about what we do and why. Join me and be encouraged!
Section 1: Where Missionary Life Begins
Chapter One -- The Ingrown Church Leader: God's Call to Faith and Repentance
In the opening chapter, Miller wastes no time sharing why he wrote this book. He is concerned about the tendency of the church to start focusing more on themselves than on the work of the Lord in the world. On page 24, he describes the "essence of the threat to the modern congregation: its tendency to despair and defeat because it has redirected its faith toward its past or to human resources, rather than to the promises of God with their focus on the power of the Spirit to revive us." He describes the ingrown church as a "religious cushion," where "the local church is no living fellowship at all, but a retreat center where anxious people draw resources that enable them merely to cope with the pains of life."*
He humbly credits his own leadership for this inward turn that did not happen overnight, but came about through his own intense desire to be liked. During a sabbatical overseas with his family, he prayerfully determined that he was living in direct disobedience to the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) and ignoring the amazing fact that Jesus will be with us to the end of the age. He had forgotten the power of the indwelling Spirit, "related to the missionary mandate given by the Lord before his ascension."**
Combining his renewed faith in the promises of God and an understanding of the presence of Christ in him by the Spirit, he was able to return from sabbatical with a zeal for righting the ship that was his local church. Right away, on page 15 where chapter 1 starts, he calls for leaders in the church to repent and believe, becoming a "pacesetter" in their local church context:
Pacesetters are people who motivate an ingrown church to outreach by setting the example of a renewed leadership, people of faith who know God's will and are willing to make every sacrifice in order to fulfill it. They are the ones God uses to overcome and dismantle the barriers every congregation erects around itself to guarantee its own comfort and security.
To be clear, I do not think our church is ingrown. Not at all. However, I agree with Miller in that our tendency is to erect walls and barriers around the ministry being done here to ensure ongoing comfort and security. Ministry is messy. It has to be. If it wasn't then mercy, love, grace, and forgiveness wouldn't be necessary. If relationships were perfect that would mean the people in those relationships are perfect and that would mean there's no need for a Savior. But there is such a great need, and it's in the context of these messy relationships that grace wins and God is glorified as the Giver of said grace! This is hard to remember though when you're lonely in leadership, or abandonded by those closest to you, who said they'd be there through anything and then they're nowhere to be found. It's part of our nature to erect these walls and seek to insulate ourselves from these things. I'm just glad it wasn't in Jesus' nature to do that.
He exposed himself relationally to a rebellious people, where even his disciples deserted him as he bled and died. Jesus knows the messiness of relationships, yet for the joy before him and to remain obedient to the Father he endured the cross. Praise be to our God, look what he has done! Pacesetters in the local church remember and apply the finished work of Christ on the cross, and set the tone for gospel proclamation. May we be a church of pacesetters, not in our own power, but in the power of the Spirit proclaiming the person and work of Christ!
Chapter Two -- The Ingrown Church: God's Call to Faith and Repentance
After repenting and believing the truth in his own heart as it pertained to being a pacesetter in his church, Miller began stressing two things in his preaching flowing from the Great Commission:
- A command to go and disciple (an impossible task) and,
- A promise from Jesus to be with us as we obey the command (the power to do: an impossible task).
He also started asking pointed questions of individuals in the church as opportunities provided themselves, even asking one question that smarts a bit: have you ever done anything because you love Jesus? Ouch. He slowly began reorienting the church around the great promises of God to us in Christ and the empowering role of Jesus' presence by his Spirit. As he did this, seven qualities of an ingrown church came to the surface, and these are descriptions we can learn much from as a (relatively) young church:
- Tunnel Vision: "indifference to the peril of the lost." The local church limits itself by only looking to ministry opportunities they can facilitate in their own power. "At bottom, this is unbelief based on secularized ignorance of the Spirit's power--His ability to supply us with God's goals for the church and the supernatural means to reach them." Pg. 29
- Shared Sense of Group Superiority: "unconscious elitist attitude." The local church finds their value and worth in things they do well, looking down on other churches that don't do that specific thing as successfully. "If we are proudly clinging to an ecclesiastical tradition and making it our hope, we may have secured our status in our own eyes yet failed miserably with the Lord." Pg. 30
- Extreme Sensitivity to Negative Human Opinion: "its fears have obscured vital contact with the promises of God." Paradoxically, the church that has a sense of superiority is also very fearful of any conflict or negative opinions of the ministry. "The problem is that the people of God and their leaders have often gone a long time without seeing the Face of faces, and therefore any angry human face, or even a disapproving word, wipes them out. Often, behind this religious cowardice lies a refusal to accept suffering and unpopularity as a cost of pacesetting church growth." Pg. 32
- Niceness in Tone: "'Nice' is just another way of being safe." Building off the fear of controversy, the ingrown church wants a "nice" pastor who doesn't ruffle feathers. "[The] introverted church wants to secure the church doors against divine surprises and unannounced entrances by the King." Pg. 33
- Christian Soap Opera in Style: "gossip has become so normal..." Under the guise of "niceness" gossip is allowed to have free reign in the ingrown church. Criticism runs rampant, and showing love, grace, and patience is not a characteristic. "The members of the church do not see themselves as living, praying, and talking in partnership with Christ and one another through His indwelling Holy Spirit." Pg. 34
- Confused Leadership Roles: "fear of change runs high." Rather than an equipping role, the pastor is expected to do all the work of ministry, leading to burnout. "The sad result is that the fundamental idea that every Christian is a priest and minister serving God is almost entirely submerged. Where nothing is expected of church members in this regard, little is given." Pg. 35
- A Misdirected Purpose: "the controlling purpose in the ingrown church has to do with survival..." The desire to make disciples is replaced with a desire to maintain its "institutional values and privileges." "The church will give to itself the honor that belongs to God alone." Pg. 36
Where did Miller start to turn this ship? Though not all were a direct result of his unbelief, they were prevalent to one degree or another in the church he was pastoring. His recommendation is to start with our hearts and our tendencies: "Honesty about our aversion to God's purpose is the most important ingredient in repentance."*
As we are honest with ourselves and our tendencies, we can begin to exercise faith by looking to the promises of God toward us in Christ and living by the power of the Spirit. As an assessment, I can see each of these things in my own heart and mind from time-to-time, but I'm grateful to our Redeeming God who has saved us from these things and continues to save us from these things. Being that our drift will be toward introversion, understanding these things and looking to the person and work of Christ is crucial to the work of God we get to participate in. May we keep our gaze on Christ as individuals in community, trusting God and his promises, asking for the Spirit's help.
Next week, we'll get into Section II.