Church is a Mystery

The text message from my wife made me sweat with embarrassment. “This doesn’t look like a book you would read,” she wrote, with a picture of the book in her hands. She was home when it arrived. What should I do? “I know,” I hurriedly replied. “Let me explain!”

The book in question was 8 Virtues of a Rapidly Growing Church (Abingdon Press, 2018). I am skeptical of church growth books and their strategies. They’ve been the victim of a wisecrack in sermons; I’ve railed against the whole industry in conversation with other pastors. Their blasé titles are so formulaic and simplistic: A number + a business word + Church + a word indicating numerical increase. (Search “church growth books” on Google. You’ll see what I mean.) I’ve never read any of them. That’s my badge of honor.

And though I took a serious risk, I still wear my badge of honor with pride. I bought the book because I’ve followed some of Jason Byassee’s writing in Christian Century. He’s a talented storyteller. His church and pastoral profiles make me want to be a better pastor. A person recently called me to ask if I would tell them about my experience leading Alpha groups at my church. I called them back and said, “I’ve never led Alpha groups. I just read an article about them and have been talking about them since.” Jason Byassee wrote the article that sparked my interest in Alpha. So, I bought the book.

“A church,” the book begins, “is not a recipe or a template or a blueprint. It is a mystery.” Hallelujah. I can get behind this kind of book. “We disgrace a mystery,” the authors continue,

when we treat it like a formula to be copied. Instead we should stand in awe of a mystery: admire it, ponder what we stand to learn about God from it, speak about it to others. We hope this book, with its profiles of highly successful church plants, provides rich fodder for your pondering, examples for you to learn from.

And herein lies the premise of the book. Jason Byassee and Matt Miofsky, two Methodist ministers, unpack eight virtues identifiable in several Methodist church plants that are experiencing growth in numbers, yes, but also in deep discipleship. They suggest that the rapidly growing churches they profile aren’t “content with a crowd. They want that crowd forged into a church.” One of their refrains points to their revivalist heritage: “If we’re not reviving anybody, what do we exist for?” The authors’ urgency is not to make every church a megachurch but to call churches of all shapes and sizes to remember their mission.

I am susceptible, as is anyone, to “confirmation bias.” I want to hear what I already believe. So, I was thrilled that the authors note a pattern in these churches: their pastors and congregations “love the local.” Each pastor seems to really love the people and the place they serve. The authors point out the practical gains of this virtue: a local knows. They speak the language, they get the culture. But I think there is something prophetic about loving the local in pastoral ministry today. In a cultural age marked by transience and mobility, a pastor who loves the local reminds Christians that where they are matters. Speaking of churches who love the local, they write, “They show a different way of living than their neighbors, in order to bless those same neighbors.” How can I live differently in order to bless Huntington? Simple. I can love Huntington. I can resist the trope that this is a good-for-nothing town, either because it hasn’t changed in fifty years or because it has changed beyond recognition in fifty years. I can help people see beauty in their neighbors and their neighborhoods, showing them a different way of living and blessing them in the process. After all, we Christians aren’t escape artists, eager to leave the world, our bodies, or our towns behind. We’re resurrectionists, learning to let God bring to life that which is in some way dead.

Byassee and Miofsky have done well in such a short book to present an image of church mission, pastoral ministry, evangelism, and discipleship that is compellingly practical with clear theological depth. In an e-mail, I thanked Jason for not producing a business strategy dressed up in an alb. Instead, they have profiled what is possible when pastors and churches take their mission seriously. I intend to read this book with my staff, prayerfully asking, “How might God lead us deeper into the mystery of church, while leading others in with us?”

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