From time to time, some people end up church shopping. That could be for various reasons, some good, some maybe not so good. Inevitably, however, when church shopping, one identifies and contrasts churches by their names, brands, denominations, and size. The most significant contrast worldwide would be between Catholic and Protestant churches. After that, we have divisions and types such as liturgical, evangelical, charismatic, pentecostal, etc. Within those types of churches, there are further divisions such as Biblically or culturally based values, the style of worship, youth programs, the church size, etc.
In addition to vital criteria (such as Bible or culturally derived values), what if there were another index we also utilized in accessing churches- the measuring rod of generosity?
I caught up a few days ago with a guy I began to mentor a bit last year. In September, he flew from his home state, Idaho, to join me for three days of meetings at a church I was ministering in, in Southern California. I asked him what his takeaways were from the weekend. One thing he related gave me food for thought. He shared that he had been deeply impacted by how many people he met in that church that wanted to talk with him, pray with him, and expressed a genuine interest in his well-being and future.
A few months ago, a visitor to my home church commented that it was ‘almost cult-like’ how many people of our church, including the greeters and ushers, expressed genuine friendliness towards him. I understood what he meant. In a cult, the upfront people, the greeters, and the ushers, are trained to be over-the-top friendly so to manipulate lonely people. That facade type of friendliness comes across as plastic, like that of some salespeople. In contrast, genuine love for others is attractive and cannot be hidden. It’s in your face as the visitor to our church experienced.
How is that sort of love for others developed? There are the obvious answers, such as growing up in a healthy family and taking seriously Jesus’ mandate to treat others as you would like to be treated. But on a church-wide level, there’s another critical factor- intentionally being outward-focused!
Seeking the Kingdom of God first necessitates picking up one’s cross and dying to oneself. In other words, it’s choosing to seek after the welfare of others, including those outside your immediate group or family. That same essential discipleship factor applies to congregations corporately, as well. The church my friend from Idaho visited with me runs a huge city-wide ministry to the homeless and the disenfranchised. In the same vein, my home church has invested heavily in the youth of the somewhat broken communities of East San Diego County for over three decades. We have also invested in a big way in far-off places such as Kenya and Cuba in helping their local churches reach their younger generation. As a church, we take seriously God’s mandate to preach ‘the gospel of the Kingdom’ to the world (Matthew 24.14).
In contrast, many churches, no matter their label or affiliation, tend to be more church-centric than Kingdom-centric. A church-centric church spends most of its time, energy, and money on itself. Their highest goal is to grow their church. A kingdom-centric church, in contrast, sees its call and mission to extend way beyond the four walls of its buildings. The overarching goal of a kingdom-centric church is to touch lives with God’s saving grace, whether those people attend the church or not. Church growth is then viewed as the fruit of extending the Kingdom of God.
To be sure, a definite portion of any church’s ministry should be focused on in-house needs such as developing community, healing the congregational members from life wounds, worship God, etc. But, at the same time, we are called to embrace the heart of God for all, as God gives us opportunity and empowers us.
I want to reemphasize that the labels and brands are not nearly as important as the heart of a church. For example, a few months ago, I was privileged to be with a Lutheran State Church in downtown Stockholm. This church, in stark contrast to most State Lutheran churches in Scandinavia, is thriving, even though their diocese almost sold off their building in the early ’80s due to meager attendance. Their turning point came when the church priest committed to minister (serve) the drug addicts, street people, and prostitutes in their neighborhood. In short, they became Kingdom-centric, as opposed to church-centric.
I had never had the privilege of ministering in that church previously. When I visited them, however, I found they were generous in their love and friendliness. Indeed, I have seen many churches worldwide that could be characterized as ‘kingdom-centric’ to have that same generosity of friendship in expressing God’s love. When we take Jesus’s directions seriously, to freely give what we freely receive, we then freely reap in a multitude of ways.
So next time we’re considering differences between churches, denominations, and church networks, let’s consider the generosity factor. It’s life, church, and world changing!
‘One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want’. (Proverbs 11.24 ESV)