#BestOf2014: Why Successful Churches Aren’t Turning the World Upside-Down – But the Outcasts Might

Things Won't Change Until We DoJesus was the most culture-challenging, paradigm-shifting, tradition-breaking, change agent who ever lived.

How did his followers become so boring?

Want cutting-edge, society-shifting change? Church is the last place people expect to find it.

Want dry, stuffy, moldy, old traditions and ideas? That may be the very definition of church in many people’s minds.

This is a problem. A big problem. And it’s our fault. We’ve taken the life- and society-transforming message of Jesus and we’ve made it about … success.

Trying to maintain that success has made us safe.

Safe is boring.

This article was originally posted on January 20, 2014. It wasn’t one of the most-read posts of the year, but I think it’s worth a second (or first) look as one of the overlooked #BestOf2014.


A Successful Church Is Not Enough

When I look around the church leadership world today, I see a lot of very good, very nice people. People who love Jesus and are doing whatever they can to make a difference. And many of them are making a difference – a much bigger difference than me, that’s for sure.

They fill up churches and even stadiums. They lead people to Jesus. And nothing – absolutely nothing – will ever be more important than that.

But is it wrong for me to feel like there’s something missing

For example, can you name any Christian leader who has had a recognizable impact on the culture since Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington over 50 years ago?

Sure, there are some names people know, like Billy Graham, a couple popes and Rick Warren. But do any of those names inspire anything resembling the passion King inspires in the hearts of the average nonbeliever?


Where Are The World-Changing Leaders?

Where are the church leaders who will take up the mantle of, not just successful ministry, but life- and society-transformation?

I’m not talking about name recognition. I’m talking about leaders with such a radically positive approach to the life and message of Jesus that they have a society-shifting impact.

Where are the Christian innovators who will put a dangerous passion for Jesus ahead of personal ministry success?

I’m not upset at anyone. I just want more.

I pray for an infusion of Godly change agents who won’t just transform the institutional church, but make the world stand up and take notice. Or, more likely, change the world and leave the institutional church playing catch-up.

And no, this won’t happen because someone takes up arms against this or that sin. That’s been done. That’s being done. The world yawns at the self-proclaimed faith-defenders – if they even care enough to be bored by them.


Would We Know a Real Jesus Movement If We Saw It?

I pray for a new breed of Christian leaders who will change the world. People who make such a positive, Jesus-led impact on the ills of society that entire cultures can’t help but stand up and pay attention.

Where are the church leaders who will at least try to do

  • What Martin Luther did for faith
  • What Charles Dickens did for literature
  • What Pablo Picasso did for art
  • What Albert Einstein did for science
  • What Jackie Robinson did for sports and culture
  • What The Beatles did for music
  • What Martin Luther King Jr did for race relations
  • What a bunch of nerds in Silicon Valley and Seattle did for technology?

What did all those paradigm-shifters have in common? They were all outcasts before they became heroes.

That kind of life- and society transforming impact can happen through the church again. But I fear we’ve created such a success-based Christian culture that we won’t just miss it, we’re likely to preach sermons and write blog posts denouncing it.

How is a hurting world going to find healing inside the doors of a church whose leaders are obsessed with asking questions like “how will we measure the success of our latest venture?” and “how will this play to our biggest donors?”

The Jesus-following leaders who answer this call will need to be OK with ticking a lot of people off. Even – maybe especially – church people. Not because they’re trying to offend people. But because they’re so passionate about doing the Jesus stuff, they might not even notice that the cool kids are getting upset by it.


The Church Needs More Nerds and Weirdos

One of the reasons I’m such a fan of Small Churches is because, as I wrote in The Grasshopper Myth, real world transformation doesn’t happen from the top-down. Those who are succeeding don’t have a reason to change things.

Any real-life, world-changing, spirit-infused, culture-shaping, paradigm-shifting, hurt-healing movement will come where it’s always come from. From the bottom-up. From the disenfranchised. From the nerds and weirdos.

True visionaries and world-changers aren’t so easy to spot. They don’t call themselves visionaries and world-changers in their Twitter profile (beware of those who do). They’re likely to deny they are either of those things. They just get busy doing those things.

Since foundation-shakers won’t pre-announce themselves, I’m keeping my eyes and ears on Small Churches – especially the quirky ones – because I want to recognize the next world leaders when they start doing their work. Then I want to be a Caleb to the church’s next Joshuas. A Barnabas for our future Apostle Pauls.

I pray for leaders who have such an unquenchable passion for Jesus and love for hurting people that they don’t care how many establishment Christians they alienate. And I look forward to the day when they build their own (probably electronic) soapboxes, stand on them and scream that message of transformative hope to the world.

I just pray that it happens in my lifetime. Because I want to cheer them on.


So what do you think? Has a pursuit of success and safety replaced passion in much of our church culture?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you!
Enter your comment right below this post and get in on the conversation.

(Things Won’t Change photo from Artem Popov • Flickr • Creative Commons license)

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12 thoughts on “#BestOf2014: Why Successful Churches Aren’t Turning the World Upside-Down – But the Outcasts Might”

  1. Another spot on article my friend!

    I just have to add the prayer for those who hear the message of the “nerds and weirdos” and get up out of the seats to walk along side, after all, MLK had a great message, but it was the people responding to it that really made the impact.

    As always, keep it up!

  2. I can only speak for myself but it seems like our churches preach the belssing and increase and no condemnation so much that we forget to preach oh yeah – don’t sin. I see people so hung up on seeking a blessing that they miss out on being the blessing. My heart hurts for a hurting world and what am I going to do about it? Stirring words Karl. Pray for me to hear what God says in all this,

    1. Some churches do that for sure, Mark. But there’s another group who preach sin so much (the sins of others, that is) that their congregations only get energized by what they oppose, instead of getting excited by, as you say, “being the blessing”.

      As always, we need “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Lead with grace, but tell us what grace is saving us from, so we see its true value and want to share it with others.

  3. You want real radical change? No need to create something new. Find your way to checking out Orthodox Christianity. What your looking for has always been there.

    1. Hi Will. I completely agree that there’s no need to create something new. And I appreciate your enthusiasm for the Orthodox church. But I don’t think a true spiritual renewal will be led by or confined to any church tradition, old or new, big or small.

      What Jesus wants to do in and through his church is bigger than than your traditions, my traditions or all of them combined.

  4. Pingback: purpose of gathering for church? Part 2 | kingdom travelin'

  5. Karl,
    I really like your website. I love your approach. You have such a passion to encourage small church ministries and for that I praise the Lord.

    This article, like the vast majority of them, is spot on in my opinion. A supreme concern on maintaining status quo and measuring success by nickles and noses is SO prevalent. Church health rather than church growth (for the sake of growth) is what we are to be pursuing.

    However, in this article there are a couple of issues that I’m afraid that we have to agree to disagree, vigorously. Though true followers of Jesus MAY make an impact, MAY make a difference, and MAY change the world, your article, I believe, has substituted faithfulness to Jesus as the most important thing, regardless of overt “success”, for becoming a world changer as that which is most important. And to make matters worse, in my opinion, you seem to gauge our faithfulness to Christ by how deeply we have transformed society and changed the world. I believe that you have allowed our American, 21st century culture to unduly influence your view on discipleship. As we know, truth is transferrable to all cultures, throughout all time.

    When it comes to changing the world and transforming our culture: if that is axiomatic to faithful discipleship of Christ, then what about our brothers and sisters in North Korea, among many examples? I guarantee you they are not changing their world. They are not transforming their society. Faithful followers of Jesus are probably making those in their immediate society a lot more difficult. It’s my understanding that those who proclaim Jesus (or pledges allegiance to anything or anyone other than “dear leader”) there not only find themselves in prison camp, but their parents and kids get thrown there as well. I don’t think they they are making an overt, society transformation. I don’t believe they can be classified as change agents in their world. And I would venture to say, if we were to hear their stories, they are not boring. I have personal experience with persecuted brothers and sisters in oppressed countries. Their stories are incredible. But they have not transformed their culture. They have not made a difference where they live in the way you describe. Their society has actually gotten more oppressive. And by the way, since when did the Lord ever tell us to “inspire non believers” like Martin Luther King did? The truth is, and we know this, the gospel is offensive. Truth is salt, and when it’s rubbed into a gaping wound, it is not very well received. We know that the truth has never been popular. And the true gospel has never been about changing society. It’s about demonstrating God’s kingdom, which sometimes violently confronts this one. Not a popular message in the least.

    On the other hand, Rick Warren (I mention him because you did) is actively partnering with Muslims for his PEACE plan. He was the keynote speaker in at least two Islamic conventions promoting this. He really believes that Christians and Muslims can work together to change the world. On the horizontal level, (attacking poverty, illiteracy, etc), that is absolutely true. Christians and Muslims can change the world. Make a difference. Surely not boring! This PEACE plan is really cutting edge. I cannot deny that. Imagine! Christians and Muslims working together to attack the 5 Goliaths outlined in this plan.

    But is an overtly Christian / Muslim partnership pleasing to the Lord Jesus, when the Great Commission was to go into the world and make disciples of Christ, regardless of how it transforms society, even the world? For all the good the PEACE plan will, and probably is doing, I believe that Jesus will reject this. Not because, the PEACE plan, in and of itself is is a bad thing. But if He were to accept this Christian / Muslim partnership to accomplish this plan, then He would have to deny the Holy Spirit inspired words of 2 Corinthians 6:14-18: Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.” Why can’t Rick Warren recruit Christians to accomplish his PEACE plan? Why can’t he evangelize Muslims as a way to demonstrate God’s love to them?

    My brother, I still love your posts. I will continue to read them. The vast majority of them are awesome and they are SUCH an encouragement to me–beyond words. The Lord has truly blessed me through your ministry. Thank you. But for this one, we will definitely agree to disagree.

  6. Hi Glenn, Thanks for your passionate response. I appreciate that you have been kind to me and this website while stating your disagreements about this post. I wish everyone could express their disagreements the way you have.

    I think on one of your points we don’t disagree as much as you think we do. But on another, we do.

    First, the minor disagreement is on the plight and the faithfulness of persecuted believers. You are right to staunchly defend them and point out that faithfulness is more important than (recognizable) impact. My minor disagreement is when you wrote “I don’t believe they can be classified as change agents in their world.” I absolutely believe they can. We just haven’t seen evidence of it yet. Perhaps no people in history have had a more profound impact upon the world as persecuted saints, from the first to the 21st century. It’s just that it sometimes takes generations for their impact to be felt. For instance, one of the under-told stories of the 20th century is how the prayers and subversive work of the church in countries like the USSR & Romania were responsible for the overturn of communism. My post was focused more on comfortable believers in open countries than on suffering believers, but those persecuted saints are absolutely great, shining examples of being the kind of subversive world-changers we should be. It was my oversight not to have given them that credit in the post.

    Second, the point on which we’ll likely stay in large disagreement is over Rick Warren. My only reason for bringing him up is that he is well-known outside church circles. But, since you’ve mentioned it, I believe he has been unfairly criticized for an alliance with Muslims that doesn’t exist. A couple years ago, Rick did an extensive interview to refute the claims that have been made about his supposed partnership with Muslims, but the news about his non-existent partnership always seems to travel faster than his refutation of it. I’ll put the link at then end of this comment, but for now, here are a few quotes direct from Warren about it.

    “Christians have a fundamentally different view of God than Muslims. We worship Jesus as God. Muslims don’t. Our God is Jesus, not Allah.”

    “As both an Evangelical and as an evangelist, anyone who knows me and my 40 year track record of ministry that I would never agree to “not evangelizing” anyone! I am commanded by my Savior to share the Good News with all people everywhere, all the time, in every way possible!”

    “…our church has never had any partnership with a mosque.”

    “It was the writer’s mistake. He got two different stories confused. Our recently opened PEACE Center, on the Saddleback Church campus has NOTHING …zero… to do with our Muslim friends.”

    Here’s the link to the post with his interview:

    Thanks again for disagreeing so agreeably. I really do appreciate it.

  7. Karl,
    Thanks much for writing back. Point very well taken re: persecuted Christians–and your “calling out” of the comfortable believers.

    Re: Rick Warren. I’m not into pastor bashing–there’s too much of that. My heart is deeply troubled when a pastor falls out (the most recent example is Mark Driscoll). But I have a hard time when I see him addressing two Islamic conventions–and at one of them he was the keynote speaker. And in both of his addresses Warren invited them to join him in partnering with the PEACE plan. I read several articles of him denouncing the attacks others have made. It sounds like in those articles has no dealings with Islam. When I wrote my post, I went back online and found the videos to make absolutely sure that I had my facts straight. And yes, when he was with the ISNA (Islamic Society of North America) conference 2009 as an invited speaker (admittedly pretty big feat), he said “How can we work together, maintaining our separate traditions, maintaining our convictions without compromise”. He continued to speak about Christians and Muslims working together for the common good in the world. “We have to model what it means to work together” were his words. When he introduced his PEACE plan, he said, “it is possible for Muslims and Christians to work together for the greater good and the common good around us, without compromising my convictions or your convictions.” “I believe (in reference to his PEACE plan), we can do this together.” He also gave a couple of examples and finished up his talk. This is a direct appeal to them (ISNA) and Christians to implement this plan. To create a coalition of Muslims and Christians for the “common good”. If this is not an appeal for this, then please let me know where I’m missing it. In all sincerity. As I mentioned, I don’t want to think ill of a pastor. And absolutely, Rick Warren has done some really big things. But unless Rick Warren has changed his views in the last 6 years to exclude Muslims from implementing his PEACE plan, then there is something seriously amiss.

    As we know, Islam is the enemy. And all true Muslims have totally embraced Sharia (though they may not have embraced violent jihad–but many have embraced cultural jihad), and have vehemently denied the cardinal doctrines of the Faith. They are, as John said, “antiChrist.” I firmly believe that Rick Warren (again, unless he has changed since 2009), and those who want to “work together” with Muslims are compromising with the enemy. Christians are never called to work for the common good with those who in the core of their being, absolutely reject Jesus and true salvation. I realize this is not politically correct. But if we listen closely to what Jesus often said, as recorded in Scripture, the stands He took often were at odds with, well, everybody. As we know, He was not nice. He was compassionate, and forgiving, and full of mercy. But He never promoted, unless I’m totally missing it, a “just get along” approach to life. He was radical in every sense of the word. Because His agenda was what the Father wanted.

    On the brighter side, I believe the Lord blesses faithfulness of His people. And as we are faithful, He often does work through us to make a difference–though, I do believe that making a difference it not the goal we are to have as His followers. The congregation I’m privileged to pastor has about 55 on a really good day. The foundation of our ministry is prayer–a no brainer. And we are doing everything we can to get everybody involved in laying the foundation. We’re seeing the Lord move in the lives of a number of people. And those on the leadership team are starting to get it–and are beginning to understand that laying the foundation takes time. Thankfully they are on board for the long haul. And, humanly speaking, much of the reason for their long view is what I feed them, and a lot of what I feed them comes from what you have shared. So, again, thank you, fellow laborer in His field!

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