Two Kinds of Churches Part 2: Is Your Church Reforming or Transforming?
There’s a big push among North American churches to be transformative because leaders realize how spiritually impoverished the country has become. Both newly started and established churches are adopting the adjective ‘transformational’ as part of their current label: “We are a transformational church.” “We exist to transform people.” “We exist to bring transformation to our community.” Conferences are convened and seminars are offered to teach churches how they can have a transformational impact on their neighborhood. “And after all,” we might think, “where there is all this smoke, there must be fire.”
Or is it just smoke and mirrors? Maybe it’s just a lot of talk. You cannot have transformational churches if they are not producing transforming disciples. If you consider the kind of disciples being produced, it is not hard to see that transformation may not be what many churches actually are pursuing.
There are two kinds of churches. One is the reformational church, where people are taught God’s truth and encouraged to obey it without being taught how the Spirit, who is in them, is empowering their obedience. These kinds of churches present a reform-yourself-into-the-image-of-Jesus approach, which puts the entire obligation on the believer to be obedient.
In contrast, a truly transformational church, while teaching God’s truth, knows and teaches that no one can obey God in their own strength. This is why God gave the Spirit to everyone who puts their faith in Jesus. It is by his empowering presence that believers are conformed into the likeness of God’s Son. Because of our inability to be good for God in our own strength, transformational churches disciple people to keep in step with the Spirit—to surrender to his work.
All churches have the potential to be transformational because of the presence of the Spirit. But regrettably, they don’t necessarily focus their teaching and discipleship with this in mind.
Transformation is the practical application of this gospel we proclaim—that God sent Jesus to die and return to life in order to restore us who put our faith in him back to the persons we were created to be. Paul said this eloquently in Romans 8:29. “For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Paul’s point is that Jesus is the second Adam—completely human in the way that was lost when Adam and Eve chose the lie of the enemy over the truth of God. Though the effects of the Fall in Genesis 3 were potent, the gospel is more potent still. No one who humbles themselves before God and receives what He offers should remain broken, rebellious, deceived, confused and soul sick. Instead, we are becoming the person we were created to be all along. We progressively become like Jesus. The topper to all of this is that God already planned to do this in every believers’ life and whatever He has planned, He will do—whether we go willingly or kicking and screaming.
The temptation at this point is to present a superlative description of the ideal transformational church. But the truth is that transformational churches are just as messy as any other living church body. If you look closely into one you will see lots of people making bad personal choices. You will see people who need restoration. You will see the mud that was thrown at others recently. These churches attract a lot of ‘extra mercy’ required people. The sinful nature shows up. Transformational churches are full of people who have a long way to go before they ‘reflect God’s glory with unveiled faces’.
Consider the Corinth church. In his two letters, Paul writes some of his most stirring transformational words—“by the grace of God I am what I am.”—“and we are being transformed into his likeness with ever increasing glory.”—“where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”—“But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”—to a church that was full of factions and doctrinal confusion. Packed with believers who were taking each other to court and others having to be told that their freedom in Christ doesn’t stretch to cover having sex with temple prostitutes! Where the church bumper sticker might have proclaimed “I have the right to do anything!” Corinth was a transformational church in process, not a finished product.
If Corinth can be described as a transformational church, can’t it be argued that all churches are transformational? That’s a pretty good question, because ‘transformational’ is the trendy word for the church today.
In practice, many churches essentially follow a reformational model. In the reformational model church, people are encouraged to be submissive to Jesus and live out the Christian life laid out in the Bible. These churches—and they are legion—emphasize personal obedience and sincere effort, which has a strong flavor of rightness about it, but misleads people away from the essential core of the gospel as Paul characterizes it in Romans chapter 8. The gospel is not just about obedience. It includes a core change that takes place in us by the Spirit. We become like Jesus, demonstrating his character. Obedience is a by-product of that.
So is your church teaching people to reform or to be transformed?
-Dr. Steve Smith