By Neil Cole When I was a younger man, pundits often spoke about curtains that needed to be removed so that our societies could be open and influence one another, hopefully for the better. The bamboo curtain that kept communist China from interaction with the world eventually parted. The iron curtain that separated communist Russia was torn down with sledgehammers. There is one remaining curtain that needs to come down if the kingdom of heaven is to impact the rest of the world: the stained glass curtain.
Church, as we have known it, is mostly removed from influence in society. A misguided extractional approach to our world, where we extricate new adherents from their non-Christian web of relationships to join our separated community, has only succeeded in extracting us from any positive influence. The result is that we are most often isolated from our neighborhoods and have a reputation for doing little that is good for them. We shout at the world from a distance and are rarely heard. Instead we are the butt of late night jokes. We must face the truth that no matter what we think of ourselves, blessing the community around us is not the reputation we have with our neighbors.
There are exceptions (there is no reason to tell me so)––I’m sure your church is awesome! This perspective, however, must be sought outside the church; your own view within is not what I’m talking about. If they notice us at all it is usually not because we are providing something positive. We are supposed to be known for our unconditional love (John 13:35), but that has not been the case for quite some time.
Here is an observation about how our neighbors view us from my book, One Thing:
Most cities are openly hostile to churches and trying to prevent them from acquiring property. In many cases, the local Denny’s Restaurant does more for the community than the local church. At least Denny’s provides jobs, meals, and pays taxes for public services and city infrastructure. The typical church doesn’t do any of that. [One Thing: A Revolution to Change the World with Love, pp. 221-222]
I have recently been doing kingdom work in the community of Watts, which is a very volatile neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. Watts is two square miles with more churches within its’ boundaries than any other societal enterprise. More churches than schools. More churches than stores. More churches than government services…and it is one of the worst neighborhoods in America. Watts is ground zero for two racial riots in my lifetime. Poverty, drug addiction, teen pregnancy, single-parent homes, STDs, gang violence, vandalism, corruption, prostitution, theft...and churches are all rampant in this part of the City. Given this reality, it is hard to tell someone that these churches are really making a difference in a convincing fashion. In fact I have found that churches are usually prevalent in all of the worst neighborhoods in America. It is time for us to acknowledge this elephant in the room and ask some hard questions. Are we more a part of the problem than the solution and everyone sees it except us?
As I have traveled and examined our Western Christian enterprise I have been forced to conclude that our efforts are not making any significant headway in changing our society. We need to make a big change immediately, but what kind of change? That is what led me to write my recent book One Thing: A Revolution To Change The World With Love.
While every pastor is looking for the next 3-step solution to church growth, I concluded that our problem is spiritual more than strategic. We’ve tried so many strategies and ended with the same lack of significance. Yes, proximity is a challenge because of our lack of incarnational presence, but not the actual problem. The reason we are separated from true influence is not simply because of our address and “y’all come…and stay” posture in the world. There is indeed a more severe undercurrent that subverts all our efforts and mutes our message.
I believe we have forfeited a true gospel spirituality for a false one that depends on our own effort and displays our own strength (or lack thereof). Wanting to be appealing to the world we have become the opposite. If the real gospel was alive in us we could not contain it in our current structures, it would bust lose into its natural expression––movements of transformed lives. We would be unable and unwilling to remain as isolated and ineffectual as we currently are, occupied with our own self-interests.
We must realize that being incarnational is not just about being in the world; it is about letting the life of Christ in us infect the lives around us with His love and message of freedom and hope. Incarnational mission is about bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth now where it is needed most. Just getting out there with our current messed up spirituality will only cause more problems. Don’t do that. We must cease practicing a do-it-yourself, 3-step, pragmatic spirituality that endeavors to do works for God rather than letting God do the work in and through us.
As Tozer once said:
“God is looking for people through whom He can do the impossible. What a pity that we plan only the things that we can do by ourselves.”
It is possible to have the creed and not the deed. We don’t need a statement of faith; we need a real faith that makes a statement. We lose any hope of a good reputation in our neighborhoods by continuing to do what we have been doing. More of the same will only produce more of the same.
We are deceiving ourselves if we think that meeting on Sundays for songs and sermons is changing the world. We must do more and it must be done outside our walls, but first inside our souls. Break down the stained glass curtain and get out into the neighborhood to help people with genuine love rather than self-interest. Let’s stop being a people known as a voting block called “evangelicals” (Good News bearer) lets actually be good news. That's what Jesus did. I believe it is what He is calling us to do now.