Right before ascending to heaven, Jesus gave instructions about how they are to live: Go and make disciples of every nation. Two thousand years later, this is our same mission. Simple and clear, but is the Church really living into the mission of what we are called to be and do? And most importantly— how do we get back on track?
I talk with Jeff Christopherson about the health of the Western Church. He is a a missionologist (meaning he studies the mission of the Church), the Executive Director of the Canadian National Baptist Convention and the Executive Director of Church Planting Canada. He’s also the author of the best book I’ve read this year, Once You See: Seven Temptations of the Western Church, which takes a novel approach to the conversation about the challenges we face in the Western church today. Literally— the book is a work of fiction, a novel that helps us see ourselves.
Rather than outline in essay form the challenges and correctives for the Western Church, Jeff tells us a story— and through it, he brings into focus the challenges to the Church and encourages and inspires every Christian to start thinking about how God might be calling us to Kingdom living.
This is an edited excerpt of Carmen’s interview from Mornings with Carmen. To hear the full interview, listen online at MyFaithRadio.com. The book giveaway mentioned during the interview is now closed.
This conversation is one from a series on Jeff’s book and the mission of the church. Want more? Listen to other interviews in this series:
- May 2023 interview on what is the Kingdom of God
- May 2023 Interview on the temptation of power
- June 2023 interview on the temptation of professionalism
- July 2023 Interview on the temptation of passivity
- July 2023 interview on missional living
- August 2023 interview on the temptation of partisanship
- September 2023 interview on learning from believers overseas
Carmen: Let’s do the little exercise of offering maybe an annual physical report on the church, and here we’ll just bring the Western Church into view.So we could do this from a diagnostic approach, but I think sometimes it’s just helpful to say, “All right, if the church were to walk into the great physician and get a physical, how would the body of Christ be judged right now?” Aging, anemic, limping, paralyzed, stiff neck, limber, responsive, spastic, bloated, agile. You see where I’m going, right?
Jeff: I don’t think agile would be the word. Oh. I think limping might be a good word. And not limping in a sense like we’re walking with a limp and we’re rejoicing in that because we understand in our weakness is God’s strength. We actually are walking with a limp but thinking we’re strong, and thinking nothing needs to change, and we need to just keep going in the direction we have been. And I think that’s the worst news.
Carmen: Talk with us about pragmatism. What is it? What is tempting about it? And then what’s the kingdom corrective?
Jeff: All right. Well, pragmatism is the temptation of competition. We speak of the local brand advancements so our local church outranks any greater kingdom revelation that happens. When the kingdom of God is our only goal, then the advancement of our individual brand becomes less of a thing.
The kingdom corrective is, we’re not celebrating—we are one of the fastest growing churches when we look around and see that actually there are fewer people in church now than there’s ever been. We actually choose to measure growth in different terms. I would suggest, citywide gospel impact is the most important thing. Instead of the competition grasping over an evaporating market share of the evangelically predisposed like how do we get our piece of the pie? And how do we get the Christian that’s moving into the city rather than looking for the greater outcome, the greater good of gospel proximity? The distance between a person who is needing to hear Christ and a person willing to share Christ. And that distance closing instead of getting further and further, which has been the case for 40 years. Pragmatism hasn’t been helping us.
Carmen: Okay. I want to talk about gospel proximity. I think this is a different way of thinking for a lot of folks. When you just described it and you asked the question, is gospel proximity growing? Is it getting wider? Is the gap between people who are possessed of the spirit of the living God and know the good news of the gospel, is the proximity of our lives growing? Is there a gap widening between us and the people who are lost? That’s the question you’re asking. And if that gap is getting wider, then we are failing.
Jeff: And you can measure it. I think we alluded to this earlier in one of our conversations. If you just measure the amount of people in church on a Sunday in any city in North America, and measure it in the year 2009 and then again in the year 2019, so in that 10-year period, that in every city in North America, save one, there’s one outlier, there’s far, far less people. In some cities, it’s dramatic how the church going population has evaporated. Then you throw COVID in. The one outlier is Buffalo. The pastor of the largest church in Buffalo, he was a transitional pastor. He was on staff for a number of years, and then when the senior pastor left the first thing he did was go on an apology tour he called it. He went to other churches in the city and said, “It takes an ecosystem of small churches, smaller churches, to feed a mega church, and so I want to apologize.” And he listed the activities that their church had done. He goes, “As long as I’m the pastor you won’t see us do A or B or C or D or E ever again. And I want apologize for the way we’ve hurt you.”
And it caused a sense of trust amongst the pastors, the leaders in Buffalo and they said, “What can we do together?” And they said, “Well, let’s do the one thing that counts, let’s bring the gospel to every man, woman, boy, and girl in the city of Buffalo so that with knowledge they can reject Christ or receive Christ because right now they’re rejecting Christ without knowledge.” And so they made their commitment to do that. They brought their maps out and said, “We’re going to do two things. We’re going to start new churches to get the gospel into places where existing churches just aren’t, and we’re going to strengthen churches that aren’t doing well.” And so they brought together their map and they said, “Let’s plant a church in this area of town,” it was a tough area. And someone else said, “Well, brother so-and-so is in this part of the town. He’s been serving sacrificially for years. His church is struggling, maybe we could help him.”
So they went and visited brother so-and-so and said, “Tell us your story, what do you need?” And he began to share. And three or four other churches says, “Well, we can send you people, and we can send you money, and we can” … And all of a sudden the church began to wrap their arms around one church that was actually trying to make a difference in this part of the city. And that church began to grow healthy and began to become more effective in reaching their neighborhood.They brought out their map. “Let’s plant a church here.” Another church said, “Well that’s right close to where ours is and we’d be glad to be a part of it, I don’t know if we can do it by ourselves.” And so two or three other churches said, “Well, let’s join together and do this.” And so they began to work together on planting a church.
This selfless behavior, if you measure it over that period of time— it started in 2009 and by the time 2019 came, the rest of North America, with our church growth mindset, our pragmatism mindset of how do we compete against one another, we have diminished the body of Christ everywhere. And in Buffalo, New York, they’re up 27.5% over that same time period. 27.5% more people in church in 2019 than there was in 2009, even though the city of Buffalo has actually contracted, gotten smaller. You just look at the raw numbers and you begin to see well, this fascination we have had with ourselves. When I say ourselves I mean our local church. Over the kingdom of God and what Christ wants done in a community is actually killing the witness of Christ.
Carmen: Jeff, when you think about how you pivot. Okay, so you’ve told us the story of what’s happening in Buffalo, and you’ve painted the picture in the novel, and then I go to church. Which is a terrible thing to say, and I’m not supposed to be saying it, but that’s what happens, right? Sunday comes and I quote-unquote go to church. I’m seeking to live as a kingdom person. I am seeking to advance the gospel in every direction every day in every way, but still, on Sunday I go to church. Can you break me of my own thinking on this? Help me be helped and then help me turn and help others. I got to say, it is discouraging to be aware of this and then still live in an environment where churches are competing.
Jeff: Well, I think the first point or the first step is really open your eyes and see. I agree with you. We swim in something and we don’t even understand that there’s another way. And it’s almost like can you pull the lens off and see things for just what they are? If you just look at team or body, there’s five levels of it, and the lowest is competition, that’s the very lowest. Many of our churches are stuck there. We’re literally competing with one another, not for the lost but for the evangelically predisposed.
If you look at a pie chart, and you look at what slice of that pie, in any given community, is likely to wake up in the morning and say, “Let’s go to church,” it’s a pretty small slice.
Most of our churches are in that little slice trying to compete with how do we get everybody in that slice instead of the big pie that really no one’s going after. And so we compete with one another.The second level is a little better, I guess, I’m not sure, it’s called coexistence. And we just exist beside each other, we don’t really talk with one another. We’re just “Okay, you’re for Jesus, we’re for Jesus, yay” and we just sit in our own silos, operate.
There’s a slightly better level, and that’s a third level, and that’s what I would call communication. We begin to say, “Oh, Pastor so-and-so in the other church’s wife just had a stroke, and our church is going to pray for you.” We begin some communication, there’s some conversations happening between churches. We’re generally for one another and we’re communicating a little bit.
The fourth level is cooperation. And so it’s like oh, what are some things that we could do actually together that would actually bring some synergy to the city for the cause of Christ? And so they say, “Well, on Good Friday let’s all have a good Friday service together. We’re going to rent the stadium and we’re going to” whatever. And so we’re getting better.
But actually, collaboration is the step even further, it’s what Buffalo did. How do we bring the gospel to every man, woman, boy, and girl? And you draw a circle around your city and you say, “What people are in this city?” And there’s bikers. “Okay, who’s going to bring the gospel to the biker community?” “And well, we’ve got some bikers in our” “Okay, let’s figure out how to do that.” “There’s Vietnamese, who’s going to bring the gospel to the Vietnamese?” And you just begin to collaborate together and the win becomes a totally different thing. The win is no longer we’re the fastest-growing church, the win is, what percentage of our city knows Christ? Or is at least exposed to Christ?
We just have to figure out where we are on that train of competition, coexistence, communication, cooperation, collaboration. And if we’re way up on the beginning stages, the training wheels, maybe we need to dive a little deeper and get over pragmatism and get towards what is it that Christ wants to do in our city. It doesn’t take many. The truth of it resonates in people’s hearts. You speak the truth. And for many pastors, they would like to hear this from their people because they’re a bit afraid to give this leadership. And if they begin to hear, “We do desire this,” you might be surprised how many pastors lean in towards this.
Listener’s Guide: What’s Next?
Before you quickly move on to the next thing on our to-do list, let’s take a moment to pause, reflect on what we have heard and consider what God may be asking us to do in response.
- Assess where you are— and where your church is— on the train of competition, coexistence, communication, cooperation, collaboration.
- How has pragmatism or competition been tempting to you or your church?
- How does Buffalo’s story of church collaboration and gospel proximity challenge or inspire you?
- Pray for a vision of Church and ministry that is more concerned with the name of Christ in your city than the brand or name of your particular church.
- Pray for opportunities to cooperate and collaborate with other churches in your community to the glory of God.
- Pray that God would work in and through all kinds of gospel-proclaiming churches in your area, with the mission of reaching every person with the gospel in your city.
- Read Jeff’s book Once You See (if you have not already) and consider inviting friends to do it with you. See what kind of conversation it might start in your church or community.
- Consider ways you can be a catalyst for cooperation or collaboration among churches in your city, for the sake of the gospel.
- Attend a city/community wide event put on by another church (or if you live in a larger city, find a church-sponsored event in another part of town) and meet someone new, learn about their church/ministry and consider possible ways to work together or support them in their ongoing work.