John 12:20-33; Jeremiah 31:31-34
The church growth movement, which gained a lot of momentum in the ’90s, focuses its attention on how to draw seekers into church. “There are cultural trends that people naturally gravitate towards,” they reason; “so we ought to offer the products and ideologies that people want. People flock to Starbucks; so let’s offer them a place to gather, drink fair-trade coffee, and fellowship over fresh bagels. That ought to bring ’em to church!”
Out of this movement arose the so-called mega-churches—churches like Willow Creek Community Church, which in 2013 boasted a Sunday attendance of 24,000 and an annual budget of $36 million; and Saddleback Community Church, with a Sunday attendance of 22,500 and an annual budget of $31 million.[i]
So, arguably, the church growth movement has done great work. Just look at these results!
But why isn’t this movement—this apparent recipe for success—working on today’s 20-somethings, a segment of our culture that is noticeably sparse in mega-churches?
20-somethings are a very me-oriented group. We are probably all familiar with the image of several young people sitting around together—in a restaurant, at someone’s home, wherever—yet they are not talking, joking, or otherwise interacting with each other; rather, every single person is absorbed in his or her own world, a world in the shape of some gadget.
According to the church growth movement, then, the church should be able to reach these 20-somethings simply by tapping into their world of technology. Questions surface along the lines of: what kind of app can we create that will attract these young people? How can we go viral? To tweet or not to tweet? (That is the question!)
Mega-churches are asking these questions, don’t misunderstand me; and they are trying to reach this subculture. But their efforts just don’t seem to be working: this segment of society is noticeably missing from the pews.
In fact, according to recent Barna Group statistics I read recently in Christianity Today, more than 8 million 20-somethings in our country have walked away from church; they’ve given up on Christianity.
So, where are they going? And why?
The answers may surprise you. By and large, 20-somethings are turning from Christianity to Atheism.[ii] Why? Authenticity, they say.
Churches are trying to imitate popular culture, the argument goes; and this imitation strikes 20-somethings as second-rate at best, more likely as hypocritical. Pandering to the culture is seen as inauthentic, disingenuous, and therefore not worth their time, talents, or treasure.
Atheism, on the other hand, though pessimistic is also genuine. Atheism is asking the deeper questions that 20-somethings seem to crave. Atheism offers a reality that few other ideologies, including today’s version of Christianity, want to touch.
Critics of the church growth movement conclude, therefore, that the church ought to be counter-cultural, not pandering.
And so goes the church growth debate.
But what does Jesus have to say about it?
“Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks.”
Greeks, the Bible says. Non-Jews! Who went up to worship at the Passover—a distinctively Jewish—festival!
What were these Greeks but seekers of the way, the truth, and the life?
Here is a tremendous opportunity for church growth. Both Philip and Andrew recognize it. Some Greeks have come to the festival, they tell Jesus. Some seekers have come to church! What an awesome opportunity!
So what does Jesus do? He summarizes the entire Gospel, the good news about himself, in a short parable about agriculture:
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”
Or, to summarize, Jesus proclaims that his disciples must:
- Embrace death;
- Hate life;
- And follow him through death to life.
Well, that’s an attractive message for seekers!
But that’s exactly what’s going on here! These are Greeks he’s talking to. They’re seekers, born and raised under the ideological umbrella of Hellenism—the pop culture of their day! And yet, Jesus does not try to meet them where they are. Jesus does not try to attract them to his cause by offering a trendy message or an attractive object.
In fact, his message is death and his object is the cross—a symbol of execution! His message to seekers—to those wanting to become his disciples—is crucifixion! Granted, it’s also resurrection.
Here is genuine, authentic Christianity: Christ was crucified, died, and rose again; so we were crucified with Christ, have died to our own sin, and are now risen to new life. This is the message we need to take seriously today—whether or not it includes fair-trade coffee and fresh bagels! This is the message the world needs to hear.
So, how do we do this? As individual disciples and as a church body, how do we take Christ’s message of crucifixion and resurrection seriously?
The text gives us three suggestions:
First, Jesus says: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Disciples of Jesus must embrace death. And the kind of death we’re talking about here is death to self. Discipleship leaves no room for narcissism, or self-absorption.
Many of the 20-somethings in the article I mentioned above readily admit that their generation is self-absorbed. They regularly take selfies; post about themselves on social media—both the good and the bad; and are generally apathetic or even indifferent to the world around them. Their generation both breeds and nurtures narcissism.
It might seem counter-intuitive, then, when a church that fosters narcissism is seen by them as second-rate or hypocritical. But in interviews, the 20-somethings said things like:
- The church should be engaging the world, not retreating from it.
- We definitely want to see Jesus at the center because the rest of the world keeps shouting that we are the center. We don’t need the church to echo the world.
- We long for authenticity, and we’ve failed to find it in our churches. So we’ve settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, feels more genuine and attainable.[iii]
Narcissism is a retreat from the world. When church leaders appeal to it by offering products and ideologies aimed at attracting the people who engage in them, such attractive packaging backfires. It negates the message of Jesus Christ. And perceptive 20-somethings see right through it. They would rather learn how to die to oneself.
A second suggestion; Jesus says: “Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Disciples of Jesus must hate life.
But what does hating life mean? I remember using this as a catch phrase when I was a kid. It usually involved some kind of physical activity—surfing or motorcycling or playing football. Someone would wipe out or high-side or get tackled by the entire opposing defensive line, and I’d say, “Oh, he’s hating life right now.” Ever hear that?
Well, that’s not what Jesus means here. Instead, it’s about hating the things in our culture that can entangle and ensnare us.
Things like money; things like ideologies, like narcissism; even things like unhealthy relationships. These entangling things are here, all around us, confronting us every day. We can’t ignore them. We have to live with them; face them; deal with them.
Authentic Christianity is not afraid to do this—to wrestle through such things. If there are people you know struggling with Atheism, narcissism, paying their bills, or even with each other, don’t be afraid to talk about it. And—this is important!—don’t feel like you have to come up with a solution to the problem right now: it’s okay to live with tension for a while.
So: embrace death, hate life, and, thirdly, follow Jesus through death into life.
Jesus says it this way: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.”
But we also heard it said another way this morning, from the Prophet Jeremiah. There will come a time when laws will no longer have to be written down, for everyone will have the law of God written on his or her heart.
And what is the law of God? Love! Love the Lord your God with all your being! And love your neighbor as yourself!
We think long and hard about this law of God in this church. So I’m not going to tell you anything new about it. Instead, I’m going to ask you to imagine with me for a moment what it should look like. What would it look like—close your eyes if it helps—if everyone everywhere abided by this unwritten law called love?
Would we need to worry anymore about gun control, open-carry laws, or terrorism? Would we turn on the local news and be sickened by all the criminal behavior going on right around the corner from our homes? Would there be anymore greed, corruption, or injustice?
Hmm, a place where everyone lives in harmony according to an unwritten law of love? Sounds like heaven!
Well, it is.
It’s also new life, a life gotten to only after passing through death to self. This is the life Christ calls his disciples to live now, here, in this culture, in this world. This is authentic Christianity.
And if we model such authenticity to seekers—whether Greeks, 20-somethings, Generation Xers, Baby Boomers, or any other demographic we want to name—they will come and see.
There really is no recipe for successful church growth other than authentic, genuine faith in Jesus Christ.
[i] Cf. http://www.onlinechristiancolleges.com/megachurches/.
[ii] Cf. http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/2013/august/how-seeker-sensitive-consumer-church-is-failing-generation.html?paging=off.