A Counterfeit of True Community
"I would like to know more about your ministry to singles. Please send me some information concerning your singles retreats, singles groups, singles activities, singles fellowships. Oh, by the way, what is the age range in your group? I wouldn't be comfortable around younger singles. Are there a lot of divorced people in your group? Divorced people can be so bitter. Also, what is the male-to-female ratio? I'm seriously looking to find a nice Christian woman to share my life with. Finally, how many activities do you have throughout the month?"
Welcome to my ministry.
As a singles pastor in a large and growing church I regularly field questions from interested singles concerning my ministry. The questions above represent the most commonly asked questions. Of course, these questions are to be expected if one is a singles minister in charge of a singles ministry. Sadly, however, these are the only kind of questions I regularly receive regarding my ministry. Rarely does anyone ask about how they can serve God more effectively in and through my ministry. Seldom has anyone asked me what my church believes or about my particular doctrinal distinctives. To date, no inquirer has ever asked about my ministry's connection to evangelism or missions. After years of answering the same old questions, I now realize that the problem is not with the questions I do receive, but with the questions that are never asked but should be.
After almost seven years of this, I began to be disturbed. Why was there seemingly no interest in sacrificial service, aggressive evangelism, or world missions? Why was it that all questions were focused on the prospective parishioner's self-interests? Could it be that the very structure I had helped raise was preventing genuine Christian growth and maturity? Was it possible that a focus on singleness was taking the focus away from Christ and His cross? Questions like these led me to see that a subtle error had crept unknowingly into the church -- an error that on the surface had the appearance of promoting love and unity, but in reality, only promoted selfishness and division.
The Loss of True Unity
In spite of our best intentions, the church of Jesus Christ has lost something very precious -- true biblical unity. Ironically, our efforts to gain this treasure have resulted in its loss, for our efforts have been misdirected and misinformed. We have substituted the programs of man for the plan of God in our attempt to manufacture community. These programs contain a fundamental flaw that must be corrected before real unity can be achieved and maintained in our local churches.
The reason we have failed to achieve true biblical unity can be summed up in one statement: We have redefined unity as meaning homogeneity. As a result, our churches are organized more like social clubs or special-interest groups rather than according to the pattern found in the New Testament.
Unity in the early church centered around a common confession -- not around common circumstances, age range, sex, or marital status. The church was marked by interactive and harmonious relationships between diverse individuals. The union between Jew and Gentile, slaves and free, men and women, whether rich or poor, demonstrated the reconciling power of the Gospel.
The early church was not always comfortable, but its witness was unique, compelling, and contagious. The love displayed among its members was noticeably different than the love displayed among unbelievers. Unbelievers naturally loved and cared for those like themselves, or those with whom they had an obvious self-interest. In contrast, Christians supernaturally loved those unlike themselves for the sake of Christ. Christians stood out from the crowd because of their sacrificial and selfless love for one another.
Sadly, our expression of unity has subtly changed to accommodate our therapeutic culture. Unity is now understood as amicable relationships between similar people in similar circumstances in similar age ranges dealing with similar problems. This is not unity -- it is homogeneity. It is a collection of nearly identical individuals brought together due to a common self-interest. The end result looks more like a support group than a community of faith. This kind of unity demands no sacrifice from its participants -- no one is stretched, and no one is forced to love others unlike themselves. Everyone is comfortable in homogeneous conformity.
In removing the focus of unity from Christ to common circumstances, sex, race, or age range, we have effectively drained the very life-blood of the church. Our testimony to a common life in Christ amidst a diversity of individuals is lost in comfortable conformity. And it is our own programs that are to blame. Through them we have successfully pigeonholed countless factions into self-interest groups that center in self and situation rather than Christ and His cross.
How Did We Get Here?
Those of us in church leadership have brought this problem upon ourselves. We began viewing our parishioners as consumers rather than as disciples (after all, they do foot the bill). Moreover, we realized that the best consumer is a happy consumer. And a happy consumer is a comfortable consumer. Keeping the customer happy has always been the chief rule of the marketplace. Why? Because the customer will very quickly take his business elsewhere if he isn't satisfied with the product and performance supplied. Thus, we made it our goal to keep the customer comfortable and satisfied.
We did this by providing our people the opportunity to spend time with others just like themselves, in similar life situations, age brackets, financial positions, and social strata. We knew that this would greatly increase their comfort level. For lack of a better term, we called these groups "ministries" -- not because they focused on Christ and His Gospel, but because we couldn't very well justify spending our precious time on something that didn't appear to have Christ as the focus. In each "ministry" we labored hard to provide a secure, relaxing environment so that no one would feel abnormal or uncomfortable. Because the message of the cross rarely accomplishes this (indeed, it calls us to repentance, self-denial, and self-sacrifice -- hardly comfortable vocations), we had to shift the focus of our ministries to something else. We chose homogeneity. That is, we chose to center around things like age, weight, sex, life situations, marital status, and child-rearing.
And once we opened the door to age-segregation and circumstance-segregation, the self-centered, self-interested desires of our parishioners were not mortified, but rather, began to multiply at a rapid rate. Before we knew it we had a ministry for every life situation: children at every age, junior high groups, senior high groups, college and career, young marrieds, young marrieds with children, older marrieds with adolescents, empty-nesters, senior saints and more. Add to this mix a single's group for every season of life: twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings, forty-somethings, seasoned singles, divorce recovery, single parents, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.
Now that the floodgate is open, and the consumer-parishioners have realized they can basically have it any way they want it, the fragmenting and splintering continue to increase at an exponential rate. More and more programs and "ministries" are constantly being developed to meet the ever-increasing desires and ever-narrowing comfort level of the consumers. As our people focus more on their own life circumstances rather than the cross or a common confession, they demand an even narrower array of options so that they won't have to be uneasy among those who do not match their life situation and individual concerns. Leaders exhaust themselves attempting to satisfy the demand.
Meanwhile, the world goes to hell as our evangelism takes a backseat to our endless parade of new ministries. We pretend that we have achieved unity when all we have really achieved is self-centered, comfortable, consumer-oriented support groups. Claiming to stand up for the cause of Christ, we end up imitating the world. We have fueled the fires of consumerism only to look back on a conflagration out of control. We soothe our consciences by applauding our great organization and rising numbers, but true spiritual life is not found in orderliness or statistics. It is found in repentance, self-denial, and self-sacrificial love.
Refusing to believe that our programs could be so misguided, many attempt to defend homogeneous conformity by claiming that Christ is the foundation for all the various "ministries." If this is truly the case, why is it that the focus of each group does not center around Christ, but rather, around a common life situation or special-interest? If Christ is the foundation, He deserves to be the focus! In too many cases, the cross becomes just another mascot for each special-interest group to feel like they are doing something religious. Meanwhile, they steadfastly pursue their own selfish interests. Oh, Christ is there somewhere, but He is not important enough to form a group around!
The Loss of Our Witness
It is time to recognize that our attempts to foster unity through homogeneity have backfired. Our programs actually encourage our people to have little or no interest in anyone outside of their comfort zone. In spite of this, we still are amazed at the "carnality" of those under our ministries who want their own particular self-interests to be served. We wonder why they don't love others unlike themselves. They do not forbear with one another because there is no need to forbear. All they need to do is find a group with whom they are comfortable and pray that no outsiders ruin the balance by introducing difficult (read, different) people into the group.
Homogeneity is destroying the witness of the church. Rather than viewing the local church as a community of faith devoted to a common mission, willing to sacrifice for the cause of Christ and suffer inconvenience, irritations, and even loss for the sake of the Kingdom, we view the church as a dispenser of religious goods and services. Instead of appealing to the lost through a lived-out, God-centered, others-oriented, self-denying faith, we appeal to their self-absorption and consumer-mindset by calling them to a cushioned, self-absorbed, self-help Christianity. We invite them to our assembly and then we attempt to conquer and divide, pretending to demonstrate true unity. Instead, we display copious self-interested groups of comfortable homogeneity.
We need to be reminded that it is the diversity of the body that proclaims the reality of the Kingdom in the covenant community. It was the diversity of the body that led others to the Lord in the Corinthian church. It was love between a zealot, a fisherman, a rabbi, and a tax collector that proved people truly were Jesus' disciples. The early church considered one another as family (see 1 Tim. 5:1-2). This cemented their relationship together, spurring them toward unity. They had no choice; they were family!
We do not see this kind of unity in our congregations. We see a lot of self-serving homogeneity, but very little unity. Why is it that singles think they have nothing in common with young marrieds? Young marrieds with singles? Young adults with senior saints? Seniors with children? Why such radical separation? The reason is simple: We have promoted it, sustained it, maintained it, and encouraged it. We have divided, separated, and sub-divided to the point of lunacy. We have created the monster. We have fueled the selfishness. We have increased the alienation. Our programs have sapped the life away from the church and made it a building consisting of separate self-interest groups unable to see beyond their own needs and interests. The common bond is no longer Jesus Christ. Rather, it is parenting, marriage, politics, singleness, divorce, or any of a countless number of other items.
None of these things -- no matter how good -- are a sufficient center for true gospel ministry. Singleness cannot be what we have in common. Nor can child-rearing, marriage, old age, a commitment to losing weight, better health, or pro-life issues. Ultimately, there is only one thing believers have in common -- Christ. Their commitment to Him is expressed in a common faith and held together by a common confession. Everything else is a faulty center for unity and community.
God save us from ourselves, our programs, our inventions, our devices, our attempts to tear asunder what You have put together. We have manipulated Your grace by giving people a cushion in order that they may come to a cross. In so doing, we have revealed our misunderstanding of the cross and our idolatry of the cushion. Forgive us for claiming Christ is central and then focusing our attention around selfish interests and temporary circumstances. Forgive us for claiming to stand for unity, when all the while we have been practicing division. Forgive us for fueling our people's already overblown self-importance by appealing to their comfort rather than calling them to a cross. Great God of peace, unite what has been divided. And disperse that which is merely a decoy -- the homogeneity we have created to promote comfort and convenience in our churches. Call us back to cross-bearing and a common care for all, that we might glorify You with the precious and sweet unity created by Your Spirit and centered on Your Son. Amen.
Afterword: Although I completely affirm the truths expressed in the article above, I also realize that the remedy it calls for is drastic and would be difficult to incorporate into the presently accepted structures of the church. In light of this, I hope to follow up this article with some practical suggestions concerning how a greater emphasis on unity beyond comfortable groups of age and circumstance conformity may be accomplished even within the present structures.
© Richard J. Vincent, November 20, 2000