Gossiping the Gospel

I was asked by some congregations to consult with them about how they might be more effective instruments of Christ. I consider this a privilege and have learned as much from these members as they have learned from me.

One congregation had been devoting themselves, as a group, to asking God to transform them so that they might be able to fulfill his will. Together we discovered that we are bound to some faulty paradigms, which must change if we are going to be effective stewards of the gospel.

Toxic paradigms

Paradigms are values and assumptions we never question. They are difficult to change because they remain invisible. Everyone just “knows” that a particular way of doing or thinking is right—so paradigms are assigned a truth status that is rarely questioned. Some are incorrect from the outset. Others may have been correct initially, but as situations change, a helpful paradigm can cease to be valid and become toxic.

It might be helpful to share a couple of areas where we (Western Christianity, including our denomination) tend to be paradigm bound—that is, unquestioningly accepting a faulty paradigm. I’ll then try to contrast the faulty paradigm with one that is hopefully more reflective of Christ’s intent.

Static vs. dynamic

Christ intended that his disciples embark on a lifelong journey with him. The early church was dynamic—it spread like yeast, penetrating increasingly diverse places, crossing ethnic and cultural boundaries. The church could not be contained by any economic stratum and surmounted all class barriers. Only after several centuries did the church begin to position itself as the center of society, government and culture. It became the static church—everyone and everything in society was expected to revolve around the church.

In the United States we have no conscious awareness of this dynamic; nevertheless, this is where the prevailing Western Christian paradigm got its start. Over the last few centuries, government and society rejected the church being the center of all things. The church was forced to accept this new status, but did not shift back to its original dynamic, journeying role. Instead, the church began to compete for a place in the life of the individual, which brings us to a second flawed paradigm.

Attraction

As the increasingly disenfranchised church continued to cling to the security of its centuries-old static paradigm, it was forced to adopt an approach of trying to attract unbelievers to it. As a result, nearly every evangelistic program and effort is built around the concept of either directly attracting people to join the static church, or to raise the awareness and reputation of the church. This is part of an effort to grow by attraction. The attraction paradigm is essential if the church is going to be static and still grow. This approach was effective to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the receptivity of the target audience.

Marketing paradigm

Since World War II, the church in the West has been considered increasingly irrelevant. The target audience has grown more resistant to organized religion. The continued attempts to attract have often resulted in sheep shuffling, or transfer growth, rather than an increase in conversion of unbelievers.

Marketing the church

The static and attraction paradigms have caused us to adopt and cling to another toxic paradigm that I’ll call the marketing paradigm. To attract effectively, the church has essentially cloned the business model and seeks to market the gospel. Hence we have a huge emphasis on “evangelism,” a term that seems to defy precise definition.

We find a strong focus on learning how to witness, share our faith, advance the kingdom, lead someone to Christ, give our testimony, fulfill the Great Commission. We take out ads, we do radio and television shows, we have seeker services, we conduct crusades and revivals, we canvass neighborhoods, we build attractive buildings with maximum amenities, such as childcare and exciting audio-visual effects.

All this is part of trying to make our product (the static church) more attractive to unbelievers. The desired result is the same—that unbelievers are brought to Christ—hence to the (static) body of Christ. The problem is that more and more effort is being expended for less and less result. Modern unbelievers in the West tend to reject the institution of the church.

Increasingly, wise heads within Christianity are urging us to force ourselves back into a dynamic mode instead of our comfortable static/ attraction/marketing mode. I urge our congregations to follow suit for two reasons. First, if we pursue a marketing paradigm, we are taking on as new something that is actually old and increasingly proven to be ineffective. Second, we are too small, too poor and too far behind to compete in that market. The good news is that there is a better way.

Dynamic church

Let’s take a fresh look at the principle on which Jesus founded the church and see if we might recapture some of Jesus’ paradigm. One of the most overused slogans in the marketing paradigm is Matthew 4:19, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Reading this through marketing-paradigm eyes causes one to miss the true paradigm that Jesus was communicating. Under the marketing paradigm, we place the emphasis on learning how to be effective “fishers of men.” That is backward thinking! The emphasis of Jesus is on “follow me.”

Jesus is saying that we are invited to be on a journey (dynamic paradigm) with him. It is in following Jesus in a journey that he will cause us to be effective at catching other people. This is the opposite of the static paradigm—and takes us in the opposite direction from the marketing paradigm. As Wayne Meeks, church historian, puts it, the early Christians, who were a vibrant part of their communities, “gossiped” the gospel. The joy of the journey with Christ simply overflowed, impacting those in their intimate community. They didn’t have to “evangelize.”

The church Jesus founded was dynamic, not static. They had no status, no grand institutions or facilities other than their homes. They expected Jesus to return, and viewed themselves as sojourners. They lived normal lives and did not stand out from the culture around them—except that inwardly the Holy Spirit of God was radically transforming them.

The church was fully engaged with its community. Unlike our history, where we awaited Christ’s return in as much exclusion as possible, Jesus plunged the first Christians into the world.

Except for avoiding idolatry, the culture of the church was virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding Jewish, Greek or Roman culture. By Christ’s design, his people remained tightly connected to their friends and relatives. It was Christ living out of the daily lives of Christians that made them attractive. The focal point of the life of the church and the basis of its growth was the household—a fabric of family and business relationships.

Rodney Stark, sociologist of religion, relates research on the growth patterns of the early church in his book The Rise of Christianity. Stark shows that the growth of the church from its tiny 120 person beginning to a conservative estimate of from 5 to 7.5 million Christians by the early 300s need not be the result of unending signs and wonders or any other abnormal process. Stark demonstrates that a growth rate of about 40 percent per decade would account for the growth of the early church. This translates to about 4 percent per year.

Even in our modern context, this is not unknown. The Mormon Church has grown about 40 percent per decade for the last century!

Importance of the household

Stark shows that the primary means of the growth of the early church was by attachments and networks of intimate relationships. Stark says that “conversions to new deviant religious groups (as early Christians were viewed by those around them) occurs when, other things being equal, people have or develop stronger attachments to members of the group than they have to nonmembers” (p. 15).

Stark then points out that

the basis for successful conversional movements is growth through social networks, through a structure of direct and intimate interpersonal attachments. Most new religious movements fail because they quickly become closed, or semi-closed networks. That is, they fail to keep forming and sustaining attachments to outsiders and thereby lose the capacity to grow. Successful movements discover techniques for remaining open networks, able to reach out and into new adjunct social networks. And herein lies the capacity of movements to sustain exponential rates of growth over a long period of time.

I urge any and all congregations to devote significant time and prayer to trying to discover how they can create and maintain open networks.

The early church grew because close friends and relatives of new Christians saw a transformation taking place in the lives of the believers. As a fellowship, we need to start living. We need to get in a frame of mind that embraces the fact that we are spiritual pilgrims while living a normal life, with relational attachments to our unconverted friends and loved ones.

By breaking out of the marketing paradigm, we will instead become servant-priests (1 Peter 2) who offer spiritual sacrifices of love, prayers, and quality time given to our households. This includes those friends, relatives, neighbors and associates with whom we have an open networking relationship. This may mean re-ordering our use of time.

Accepting Jesus’ paradigm would lead us to love and serve rather than look for the opportunity to give our gospel sales pitch. Jesus said in Acts 1:8: “You will be my witnesses.”

We witness him by living in close connection with our household, or network of relationships. The growth of the church will take care of itself when we love the household that God has given each and every one of us. Growth takes care of itself because “as movements grow, their social surface expands proportionately. That is, each new member expands the size of the networks of attachments between the group and potential converts.”

To summarize, we need to transition out of the paradigm of marketing, which tries to attract people to the institution, and seek instead to do the following:

  1. Every individual asks Jesus to transform him or her enough into his likeness to be an effective witness through ordinary living.
  2. Every individual seeks to deepen the attachments with his or her existing network of relationships of unbelieving family, friends and associates. The individual purposely looks for ways to love and serve—with no strings attached.
  3. When the Holy Spirit brings the unbeliever to a desire to know more, the Christian needs to have, through personal study and prayer, an effective answer for the hope that motivates them.

I will develop these concepts further in the following two articles.

Randal Dick

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