Monday, August 07, 2006

The Visible Disunity of the Church

The L.A. Times ran a story this past week about the unique problem faced by municipal leaders in Stafford, Texas -- too many churches!

Stafford is a town of just under 20,000 residents with some 51 churches. Located between Houston and Sugar Land, Stafford is the only town in Texas that has no property taxes, funding city services with sales and business taxes. With only 300 unproduced, revenue-potential acres left in this town of just seven square miles, city officials are concerned to stop the further proliferation of churches in favor of some revenue generating businesses.
In one quarter-mile section near the city center, parishioners can choose among 17 churches. There are three small churches in the Quail Ridge Plaza shopping center, and three large brick churches on the street behind it. Down the road, the Evangelical Formosan Church is tucked behind a muffler shop.

One official remarked: "If you can't find religion in Stafford, Texas, you ain't looking hard enough."

Here's the question: Did no church leader have enough spiritual integrity to check whether there were other faithful gospel-preaching churches in the town before deciding to start another church? With this kind of density, how could the friendly neighborhood Baptist, Methodist, or non-denominational church get overlooked?

I'm hard-pressed to think that there are so few worthwhile churches in a small town like Stafford that 51 upstarts are needed in order to reach the 4,035 families living in the city. Here's the spiritual discernment reportedly used by the pastors and leaders locating churches in Stafford: One city official "said he asked the last six applicants why they wanted to build a church in Stafford. 'Every one of them said they prayed about it, and God said to come here,' he said. 'I can't compete with that, so here we are'."

"I prayed about it, and God said to come here." Just maybe God meant go there... and join an existing church and serve an existing congregation!

The city official's response ("I can't compete with that, so here we are") is perhaps more perceptive than he realized. Very often one can't compete with the self-proclaimed revelations and answers to prayers received by leaders looking to baptize their whims in God-talk. The phrase is usually evoked to silence objections and avoid careful teaching and accountability. And apparently, its use is on the rise. "God told me so" is now perhaps the most dangerous four-word-sentence uttered by church leaders.

Here's what I'd propose: the next time you hear someone say "God told me to do so and so," ask them to prove it before you follow along with them. If God has spoken then surely it should be evident in His word. If God said it then it shall surely come to pass (Deut. 18). But if God has not said it, then that "prophet" is a false prophet, a deceiver, a twister of God's "word" to his or her own destruction. Mark such a man and avoid them.

Perhaps most lamentable is the negative effect this situation is having on the witness of the church. Non-Christians are likely looking at the situation in frustration and concluding that the local Christian church is little more than the social club of the property-tax-dodging moralist. The church looks and acts as though it has no concern for the well-being of the community, particularly since most of the congregants on a given Sunday come from places other than Stafford.

The unity which is supposed to testify to the gospel truth that the Father has indeed sent the Son is outshone by storefront neon signs advertising 51 churches of the disunited. That's more church flavors than Baskin Robbins, and more churches in one small location than is reasonable or healthy.

Resolved: Not to plant a church or support the start-up of a church without understanding the existing church landscape, cooperating and supporting in some tangible way existing churches in the area, and considering the community impact of another local church.

My guess is that this resolution will apply to far more places than Stafford, Texas.


K. Elijah Layfield said...

Revealing post. Thank you.

Unknown said...

very perceptive

Shawn Abigail said...

Good point on the proliferation of churches being a manifestation of our disunity. Of course, the Lord Jesus Christ has already established a unity, but we tend to be too carnal to recognize it.

I tend to think that if a few "prophets" received the punishment of a false prophet, we'd have less problems with people telling us that God is telling them to act carnally, pridefully or selfishly.

FellowElder said...

Sorry for the slow response brother. Hmmm... interesting problem. Ultimately, there's nothing we can do to prohibit someone from starting a church if they wish. In your case, the Chicago area is a big area. I guess I'd want to do a few things:

1. I'd want to talk with this brother to discern whether he is like-minded or quite different in his theological perspective. I'd also want to help him think (if he is open) about the "calling" in theological, historical, and practical terms. Maybe work through Edmund Clowney's little book, Called to the Ministry, for starters. Perhaps push him to think about whether his sense of specificity is beyond what Scripture warrants, or whether his sense of strategy is flawed in some way. Does his former church down south recognize this as a "call," as one they issued? And if so, is there a way to broker conversation between the brother, yourself, and the "sending" congregation?

2. If he is likeminded, then one of two things. I'd encourage him to find another area in greater Chicago that we might have more Reformed witnesses there or to prayerfully consider joining the church (since he thinks God called him to that precise location). But, I certainly would NOT make that invitation to join in any way that implies an invitation to leadership or influence beyond what every other member would be expected to have.

3. If he is not like-minded, particularly on the essentials, then I guess you could still encourage him to meet elsewhere. But failing that, I think you're probably facing the uncomfortable situation of having another church in the same camp.

Just some quick, imperfect thoughts for a clearly imperfect situation.

Let me know ow things progress.


Anonymous said...

Here's a thought.

Perhaps the first few who planted churches in Stafford, TX were truly called by God to plant a church. However, it's very possible that somewhere along the way, those churches, the leaders, or the pastors either lost their passion, lost or gave up on the initial vision God had given them, lost hope, or many other numerous situations. Thus, when God spoke to them to renew their passion or their vision, those leaders didn't listen and perhaps God called more leaders to come and plant more churches to do the work that the previous churches gave up on.

Thus starting a trend of new people being called to come and take over the work that was given up on by the previous leaders.

I'm not saying this is the case. But what if?

Anonymous said...

In my community, we have a 'gazillion' different Baptist Churches, independent churches, mainline churches, etc. etc. Where does it end? There has to be some balance here. I am so frustrated in my community with congregations and parachurch organizations not humbling ourselves to work together in unity. It's sickening and it speaks volumes about our motives in doing the work of God. Most believe they have a corner on God. Really?

"Father, forgive us for impure, selfish motives that deter from the genuine work of Your Spirit through the unified church, though fragmented in our communities." Amen.