“It doesn’t matter whether you go to a traditional or a contemporary church. It seems that they are focused on what they do to attract people but they do not seem to be producing changed people.” I sat across from a friend of mine who works for a major para-church organization, listening to him summarize his frustration over not being able to find a church in his neighborhood which he felt was making a difference within the community. It was not any lack of evangelistic zeal that he was lamenting. He was questioning aloud why so few churches were actually transformational—as in guiding people in becoming more like Jesus. He wondered why they desired to be on the cutting edge in style but generated so few cutting edge disciples.
He’s not the only one to wonder about this. I hear this lament from pastors and leaders all the time. Why is it that our churches are full of people more like the ones that crucified Jesus than followed him? Ones who are careful about their personal purity to the point of throwing those who fail to measure up under the bus? Or ones who wander away from the faith as casually as changing phone services? Who are fine as long as the church rolls along in calm waters but become aggressive sharks when the pastor or the leaders falter? Or seem indifferent to holy living and stay spiritually underdeveloped long after the time when they should have gone on to maturity?
What if you could see real change in your attenders’ lives and lead a church that is regularly having more and more of its people truly become more like Jesus? Would you be willing to start by humbly admitting that your church has a culture that does not produce such people? You may have never thought of this before because how you “do church” feels so natural that you have never understood why people are not being changed. If you really want to see change to the people you lead—and see them being used to change the surrounding world for that matter—then you have to be willing to let go of practices and teachings which impede spiritual transformation.
Over the next number of posts I am going to explore with you the culture of transformational church. I believe it not only exists but also that God is able to make this happen powerfully in every church. Transformation is at the heart of the gospel. In fact it is the practical application of this gospel we proclaim—that God sent Jesus to die and resurrect in order to restore all who put their faith in him back to the person they 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.” Jesus here 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. So 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, they are becoming the person they were created to be all along.
The temptation here is to present a superlative description of the ideal transformational church. But the truth is that they are just as messy as any other living church body. If you look in closely you will see lots of people making bad personal choices. And people who need restoration. And the mud that was thrown at others recently. These churches attract a lot of very needy people. The sinful nature shows up. Transformational churches are full of people who have a long way to go before they reflect with unveiled faces God’s glory.
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.”—“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. A church 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 sex with temple prostitutes! Corinth was a transformational church in process, not a finished product.
So what’s the difference between transformational churches and other ones which I will call “outward conformity” churches? By outward conformity, I refer to churches that encourage people to reform their lives into the Christian life laid out in the Bible. These churches—and they are legion—emphasize personal obedience and effort, which has the strong flavor of rightness about it, but misses the gospel at its core.
I suggest that there are three primary distinctions between these two manifestations of the church in the world.
- Their understanding of the way to live a godly life in Christ. A transformational church knows that none but Pharisees are fooled into thinking that they can live the life without grace. No amount of sermons with pointed guilt or lavish shame will herd people to the abundant life Jesus promised. Instead, these churches focus on grace—the empowering presence of God through the Spirit in each believer—as God’s provision for becoming conformed to the life of His Son. They understand that personal effort always leaves people focused on what their strength can produce rather than trusting God for what only He can do in them. For a transformational church, “by grace” isn’t just the starting point for salvation. Grace is how one was saved, is saved and will be saved. It is the power God uses to make people holy. They teach those who attend how grace can powerfully transform their lives.
- In transformational churches, people are expected to be changed. Not just from their hidden nasty sins, but from those which often are accepted as normal in the church. Sin such as living in self-pity, or having a disinterest in whether fellow believers are cared for. Or retaining a grumpy disposition or spending all on oneself instead of being generous. Or arrogant leadership that dishes out spiritual abuse. Or being a controlling parent or a judgmental neighbor. Here there is an expectation that from the start, all who attend will become like Jesus. People are expected to embrace a discipleship process that leads them in that direction. No one is allowed to be left behind.
- Transformational churches are restorative. People in all churches mess up, but in these churches, believers will not let the messed-up go, will not toss him or her out of the fellowship. They understand that the church is incomplete if those who fall are not picked back up, no matter how odious their sin. People who have messed up know that they can come back and be accepted—more than that, loved. It is not that attenders are never disappointed or concerned about the life choices of others in the body; it is just that they choose not to respond with disgust and anger. They have learned this from the Father, in whom they have their own hope (Romans 5:1-2).
Take up the challenge as leaders to help your congregation to become a church like this. I will tell you up front that you cannot program this into existence. It has to be the DNA of your church body. As we go along, I hope you will see both the significance of choosing to be transformational and discern the steps your church will need to take to be all that God intended you to be.