The pornography of church growth

A postcard from America.

Dear Tony,

How are you doing? That’s what Americans keep asking me. Not ‘how am I going’, but ‘how am I doing’. I have a theory that the difference between American and Australian culture is encapsulated in those simple phrases. The US variety is dynamic, assertive, achievement-oriented. It’s all about who is trying harder, doing better. The Australian equivalent seems more laid-back—a reference to sort of wandering along, taking it easy and seeing what happens along the way.

The difference is notable in many areas of life. In America, waitresses actually serve you, look after you during the meal and work hard at giving you what you want. It’s overwhelming at first. (Jane’s theory is that they are in some way mother substitutes. I think she’s right.) As an Australian, I instinctively expect a waitress to either ignore me or be rude.

Yes, they try harder here, and you notice it at church. We have had the opportunity to visit a number of churches over here and each has been mind-blowing in its own way. The leadership is strong yet godly, the preaching is biblical and passionate, the people seem keen and committed to ministry, the facilities at church are incredible, the music and so-called ‘worship times’ are inspiring, and large numbers of unchurched people are reached with the gospel. It’s easy to get the impression that everything is wonderful in churches here.

It’s an enormous danger for wondering Aussie Christians like us. I call it the pornography of church growth. You know, like a Playboy magazine that presents a distorted view of sexuality. It looks real, but it’s not; it’s just a fantasy. Women don’t actually look like that in real life. People don’t actually relate to each other like that in real life. One of the big dangers of pornography is that it encourages you to expect reality to be like fantasy. And, of course, it never can be.

The danger when I go to these places is that I believe the glossy external and forget the reality. Real gospel ministry is hard, no matter where it is. What you see on a short superficial visit to a church can never be the full warts-and-all reality.

Now, not all these places encourage the fantasy view of ministry. At Willow Creek in Chicago, the best talk I heard was one called ‘The Ten Biggest Mistakes We Ever Made’. Members of the congregation talked openly about ‘the train crash of 1979’, which was a split in the membership of the church. The thing that impressed me most about the place was the genuine desire of the ministry team to be godly servants of the Lord Jesus Christ. Now that’s the sort of reality I need to hear.

I’m still convinced it’s worth visiting some of these places. Come on Tony: sell the Mac and take the plunge! (I know, people never sell their Macs except to buy newer ones.) But if you do go, keep a healthy view of reality. The further you are from a church geographically, the better it looks.



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