By Jeff Matas
W. Edwards Deming was a revered prophetic guru in the manufacturing world. An American academic, he rose to fame after World War II, teaching and preaching quality control. At first, his admonition on the importance of quality control systems was ignored by American companies. After all, who cares about quality when most of the industrialized world was devastated by WWII leaving the U.S. as the only source of production? The Japanese, though, welcomed Deming and his message. They wanted the reputation of “made in Japan” to represent quality. They implemented Deming’s philosophy and systems and transformed their manufacturing culture. Later in the 1980s, American companies, especially automotive, were struggling. They invited Deming to teach quality control systems to their manufacturing executives. During my years at General Motors in the 1980s, we would fly Deming (who was in his 80s then) on a corporate jet to Detroit every year and treat him like royalty just so GM execs could hear him and his message. From those seminars, I was given Deming’s classic book on the subject, which I still have. Deming had a famous saying, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”
When it comes to the local church—the way we do it, the processes we use, the methods we employ, are perfectly designed to get the results that we see. Many churches continue to operate with systems from the 1960s and 1970s. I grew up in western Pennsylvania during the 60s and 70s. In the neighborhood I grew up in, everyone had a home church. Everyone. That doesn’t mean all my neighbors would be followers of Jesus (as we understand it), but they all had a home church and most of them attended nearly every week. It would have been interpreted as odd for a family to have no church affiliation. In my high school graduating class of 140, I knew of only one student whose parents were divorced. No fault divorce wasn’t the law then in Pennsylvania (and for most states during that time), family law was geared toward protecting marriages so that divorce was rare. Blue laws were enforced so that most stores were closed on Sundays. Churches were designed to leverage the culture. Every family, every person was assumed to have a home church or would be looking for a home church. Churches sought those that were new to the area and looking for a home church, or those who were established in the community but were looking for a new home church. Our strategy was to give our guests a great first experience—they would be welcomed; they would experience uplifting worship and an inspiring sermon. Once we got them in the doors, we would make sure their experience was such that they would want to return and eventually be assimilated into the life of the church. The model we used was called the “attractional model.” The upside of the attractional model is that it caused local churches to focus on the quality of what happened inside the walls of the church. We began to think about things like assimilation systems to incorporate people into the life of the church. We focused our attention on the worship experience. No longer could a layperson call out hymn numbers and lead worship. Our attention shifted to talented choirs and later we switched gears to worship bands. Whether choirs or bands, engagement of the church during worship was the key. Pastors began to preach better sermons. Growing up, I never heard a pastor teach a “sermon series,” but now it’s common. There was a lot of good that came out of the attractional model.
The world changed, society changed, culture shifted, yet churches are still putting all of their eggs in the attractional basket. Today, very few people are actively searching for a home church. Most of the families in my Fishers neighborhood don’t have a church home and when they wake up on Sunday mornings, the thought of “We need to find a home church” never crosses their mind. It’s not even on their radar. Many churches are struggling and working hard to just maintain a plateau. And many churches are declining. As Deming would say, our systems are perfectly designed to get the results we are getting.
What are we to do? Maybe we need to unlearn some things and relearn some others. Maybe we need to go back to the future. In the classic movie from 1985, Marty McFly travels back in time for the sake of his and his family’s future survival. Could it be that the solution for the modern church in this post-modern world is go back in time—back to Scripture to unlearn some habits that might be more grounded in time and culture than God’s Word? Or, maybe to relearn some timeless truths and methods that we have failed to apply to our context?
Last month, Indiana Ministries partnered with Healthy Growing Churches and our fellow state ministries in Ohio and Michigan for a tri-state leadership event in Lima, Ohio. This gathering focused on the paradigm shifts that churches need to embrace to be relevant and missionally effective in the world in which we live. The one-day workshop was led by Dr. Brad Brisco.
One paradigm shift that is essential is: The church doesn’t just send missionaries; the church is—we are—the missionaries that are sent.
We are not a sending body; we are a body that is sent. Yet the most prevalent view of church in America is that it is a vendor of religious goods and services. In fact, Christians were asked via a recent survey “What is the purpose of the local church? Why does your local church exist?” Over 80% responded that the local church exists “to meet my needs and the needs of my family.” Church members view themselves as consumers of the services of their local church. They leave churches because of a perceived lack of services (programs for their family, being “fed” by sermons, etc.), and church leaders treat their people as consumers whose preferences must be satisfied.
The built-in assumptions, values, and systems in many churches require the non-believer to be the missionary. We don’t leave the comfort of our sanctuary walls to go to them. We don’t make an attempt to understand their culture. We don’t build relationships with them. We expect them to be the missionaries, to come to where we are, to understand our language and culture, and to adapt to us.
We need to go back to the future. We need to rediscover the missional nature of God and the church. Our God is a missional God. We talk about the attributes of God—his holiness, his love, his grace, his mercy—and we forget a central characteristic of his nature—that he is a missional God. Our God has a missional heart that breaks for lost people. In fact, the only way to interpret all of Scripture is through the lens of God’s mission. The mission of God is what unifies the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Throughout Scripture, God is always calling his people to be a sent people, to go, to set free, to redeem, to be His hands and feet. We need to rediscover the missional heart of God. We must begin by going back to the Great Commission to make disciples. Theoretically, we have always given assent to the Great Commission, but practically we haven’t really embraced it. We think of disciple-making as something that happens through a process of knowledge or through a series of classes combined with church attendance and church involvement. Look how radically different Jesus did discipleship. Scholars estimate he spent 90% of his time with the Twelve. He began his discipling with an invitation to “follow me” and for three years he spent time with his disciples. He invested in them. Jesus’ discipleship training didn’t rely on formal classroom learning. Jesus didn’t disciple people by the thousands through mass gatherings. He made disciples one-by-one or in small batches. He knew that transformation only takes place through the powerful dynamic of relationship. We believe that Jesus’ words were infallible. What if his methods of disciple-making were also infallible? I believe they are. Disciple-making and making better disciples happens best through relationships with other believers. God could have left the growing of disciples simply to their one-on-one relationship with him, but he didn’t. He has designed much of the transformation and growth of new believers to take place in the context of relationships with other believers through the local church. We know this to be true when we have a person in our congregation who is struggling with addiction – we know that the best chance they have for victory is to join in with others in transparency and accountability. There is a holy dynamic for spiritual growth that God reserves for the Body of Christ through intentional relational discipleship.
Going back to the future also means a rediscovery of the missional nature of the church both corporately and individually. We pastors need to lead the way through seeing our neighbors and those we meet as the people God is sending us to. We need to build relationships with our neighbors, invest in them, share meals with them, spend time with them so that we can be Christ to them. We need to be praying, I mean passionately praying, for those around us who are lost. We need to have a heart that breaks for lost people because our God has a heart that breaks for lost people. God is calling out, “Whom shall I send?” to your neighbors and those you come in contact with and we need to cry out, “Here I am. Send me.” We need to model being a missionary to our people—to those in our churches. Then we need to start teaching the heart of God. We need to tell our people about the missional heart of our God, and we need to equip them to be missionaries in their neighborhoods, in their schools, their families and workplaces.
Church, we are a called and sent people. May we return to and rediscover the missional heart of God so that we can rediscover and embrace fully the Great Commission. May we go beyond a church that sends and become the body of Christ that is sent.