In the midst of another hyper-busy day, the rueful Christian leader paused, looked across his desk, and said, “I no longer feel I’m running this organization. It’s running me.”
For many, ministry has become a machine. A big, complex machine that requires constant feeding and maintenance. What began as a tool and a structure to accomplish greater good has become, itself, the focus. Rather than a means to an end, the means has become the end.
This is part of what’s causing the drift of the American church, which has become big, complicated, bureaucratic, expensive and professionalized. Our new documentary film on the state of the church, “When God Left Building,” illustrates this phenomenon. Take a look at this brief clip with Rick Warren and a former megachurch staff member:
Tony Steward, the second man in the clip, said the American church is currently in its own “Industrial Age.” And that’s contributing to the church’s tendency to focus on professionalism and self-preservation, rather than the real results it was established to create.
Most of the ministry leaders I know lament this industrialization. But they’re caught up in a structure that consumes their time and attention. One pastor told me, “This isn’t the job I signed up for. I wish I could spend more time talking with people about faith. But most of the time I’m expected to get the air conditioner fixed, fill the pews on Sunday, and keep the toilet paper stocked.”
What might reveal that a church has become more focused on the machine than on God? Here are a couple of indicators:
Aftertaste. What do you most often talk about after leaving a church activity? Is it about how God showed up–or something else?
Agenda. What occupies the bulk of your leadership meetings? Matters of God? Or matters of machine?
So, how can a church temper the tendency for ministry to devolve into a machine? Some suggestions:
1. Start with the staff. Devote time developing and nurturing staff members’ spiritual lives. Pray together–for one another. Care for one another. Model real ministry and Christian community at the staff level.
2. Focus on what God is doing. Among the staff and with the congregation, tell the stories weekly of how God is changing lives among your people.
3. De-emphasize the church’s typical industrial ABC score cards–attendance, buildings and cash. Recalibrate attention onto Jesus’ Great Commandments–love God, love people.
Author and church consultant Reggie McNeal, who also appears in our film, summed it up bluntly: “The church is not the point.” The church is like an airport. It facilitates our journey. But it’s not the destination.