Six Tough Questions for the Church


Reggie McNeal

Jossey-Bass, 2003, 151 pp.   ISBN 0-7870-6568-5


McNeal is the director of leadership development for the South Carolina Baptist Convention.  His challenge is to get out of the clubhouse (church) and into the world (community).  “This is not a how-to book.  I am writing this book as a polemical galvanize church leaders to action.”  Most church leaders are preoccupied with the wrong questions.  I want to create a new mental landscape, to help the church rediscover its mission. (Introduction)


Very thought provoking.  I applaud his call to get the church out into the world.  I also have a number of questions and some commentary.


McNeal speaks often of missionaries and the Great Commission.  He wants Kingdom growth and Christians to use missionary methods to understand and address the non-Christian culture, but he doesn’t get involved with the “all nations.”  Of course getting Christians into the community would be a step.


New Reality Number One – The Collapse of the Church Culture

The current church culture in North America is on life support.  It is living off the work, money and energy of previous generations from a previous world order.” (1)


The number of Americans who have “no religious preference” has doubled from 1990 to 2001, reaching 14 percent of the population.  Only 1 percent claim to be atheists.  The unchurched has grown from 24 to 34 percent in just one decade. (3)


“The values of classic Christianity no longer dominate the way Americans believe or behave.” (5)


“Not only do we not need God to explain the universe, we don’t need God to operate the church.  Many operate like giant machines, with church leaders serving as mechanics.  God doesn’t have to show up to get done what’s being done.  The culture does not want the powerless God of the modern church.” (6)


Wrong Question: How Do We Do Church Better?

“Church activity is a poor substitute for genuine spiritual vitality.” (7)


“You can build the perfect church—and they still won’t come.  People are not looking for a great church.”  “People outside the church think church is for church people, not for them.”  “The need of the North American church is not a methodological fix.  It is much more profound.  The church needs a mission fix.” (10)


Tough Question: How Do We Deconvert from Churchianity to Christianity?

“People may be turned off to the church, but they are not turned off to Jesus.  Jesus is popular.” (12)


“We need to recapture the mission of the church.”  God is on “a redemptive mission in the world.” (12)  “God revealed to Moses his heart for his people.  It involved a purpose and a mission.” (13)


“The church was never intended to exist for itself.  It was and is the chosen instrument of God to expand his kingdom.”  “We do not need to be mistaken about this: if the church refuses its missional assignment, God will do it another way.” (15-16)


“The movement Jesus initiated had power because it had at its core a personal life-transforming experience.’’ This is the dynamic of genuine Christianity.” (17)


“The appropriate response to the emerging world is a rebooting of the mission, a radical obedience to an ancient command, a loss of self rather than self-preoccupation, concern about service and sacrifice rather than concern about style.” (18)


“That’s the church’s mission: to join God in his redemptive efforts to save the world.” (19)


New Reality Number Two – The Shift from Church Growth to Kingdom Growth


“I would argue that the church growth movement is a transition in the North American church between the old church culture and the emerging culture.” (23)


Wrong Question: How Do We Grow This Church? (How Do We Get Them to Come to Us?)

“A Lilly study released in 2002 found that one-half of church goers attended churches in the top 10 percent of church size.”  (24)


“Churches have jumped headlong into the customer service revolution.” (24)


The focus was on methodology – human psychology, management issues, strategic planning, massive financial campaigns, communication skills, etc.

“The focus of the church is on itself, on what it takes to succeed.” (25)


“The transfer of Christians from the dinghies to the cruise ships is pretty well complete.” (25)


Tough Question: How Do We Transform Our Community? (How Do We Hit the Streets with the Gospel?)


“If they aren’t going to come to us, then we’ve got to go to them.” (26)  “They need what people always need: God in their lives.”  (27)


“The North American church is not spiritual enough to reach our culture.” “I’m talking about missional spirituality.”  (27)


“It is the expectation of Pharisees that people should adopt the church culture, including its lifestyle, if they want admittance.” (31) [Lifestyle can mean many things, but in a very real sense, being a Christian is a whole lot about lifestyle.  Becoming a Christian certainly should bring change to a sinful lifestyle.  We should expect lifestyle changes. Dlm]


“How many church activities for the already-saved are justified when there are people who have never been touched with Jesus’ love?” (32)


“One clear generational distinction of the millennials (born 1983-2000) is a renewed civic consciousness.” (33)


New Reality Number Three – A new Reformation: Releasing God’s People


People do not have to rely on denominations to structure their giving or ministry focus.  “Increasingly, these are individual choices, driven by a sense of personal mission, not mere underwriting of the church or denominational program by faithful loyalists.” (44) [A sense of personal mission is good but sometimes individualism is a much higher value among Christians than is good for us. Dlm]


Wrong Question: How Do We Turn Members into Ministers (i.e. get them to do church work)? (45)


“Church ministry is an add-on activity to an already crowded life.”  [This may be a symptom of a secular lifestyle. Dlm]


Tough Question: How Do We Turn Members into Missionaries?

[Missionaries are by definition workers sent across cultures.  McNeal is referring to reaching from the church sub-culture to the non-church or post-modern subculture within a shifting U.S. culture.  That’s what an evangelist does, but ‘missionary’ is more euphonic and expresses his focus on contextualization. Dlm]


“How do we deploy more missionaries into community transformation?”  “This will require that we not only release ministry but that we also release church members.” (48) [How does McNeal understand community transformation?  Is he thinking of changing the community’s corporate culture?  It would seem we must work with individuals. Dlm]


Life in the church bubble can shrink-wrap your vision down to the size of the church.” (49)


“I am proposing that missiology come into prominence, both as a theological pursuit and as a guiding operational paradigm.” (51)


“North America is the largest English-speaking mission field in the world.  It is the fifth or sixth largest mission field of any stripe.  If we are not focusing on missiology, we are being disobedient to the Great Commission.” (51)  [Using the term mission field and missionary for the U.S. has the unfortunate effect of diluting the meaning of missionary and discounting the overwhelming missionary activity needed elsewhere in the world.  A mission field is a place that has little access to the Gospel and few Bible-believing churches or Christians in its language and culture, something that cannot be said about the U.S., no matter how many people stay home from church.  France, Spain, Japan, and Saudi Arabia are mission fields.  The U.S. is an evangelism field. According to Patrick Johnstone, the U.S. has one fifth of the world’s evangelicals—read evangelists—but they are bound in a hyper-busy secular lifestyle (so we don’t even meet our neighbors, let alone love them) and gagged by a sensitivity to culture that says not to invade someone’s private space with religious talk.  Dlm]


“Only people without a missiology disdain attempts at being culturally relevant.  The point is not to adopt the culture and lose the message; the point is to understand the culture so we can build bridges to it for the sake of gaining a hearing for the gospel of Jesus.” (51) [Of course.  But this is exactly where we have gone wrong.  We have adopted the culture so completely we can’t even see it.  We are “of the world” but not “in it!” dlm]


“When people hear me talk about learning the language of people outside the church, they sometimes resist on the basis that this is pandering to the culture.  How absurd!  We don’t think that missionaries to Russia...became Communists when learning Russian.”  [This is correct.  But we must be aware that any number of missionaries have gradually adopted not only the language but the culture and the religion of those they went to reach.  This is one reason why most mission organizations require significant Bible study, so they know clearly enough what they believe that they don’t get seduced by the lifestyle and beliefs of others.  Our culture is very attractive and seductive.  We have become practicing secularists.  Dlm]


“The church in North American is thoroughly modern.”  It has reduced its understanding of spirituality to numbers that can be reported (the triumph of materialism over spirit).” (54)  [My point above.  And the next church generation may be thoroughly post-modern.  We need to understand it, but we must not fall into it! Dlm]


“Room for God is growing in the postmodern world.”  Postmoderns are wildly spiritual, which reflects a hunger for meaning and connectedness. (57)


“We have a church in North America that is more secular than the culture.  Just when the church adopted a business model, the culture went looking for God.  Just when the church began building recreation centers, the culture began a search for sacred space.” (59) [Does this indicate that trying too hard to be relevant inevitably leads to irrelevance?  Os Guinness speaks to this in A Prophetic Untimeliness.Dlm]


McNeal gives some suggestions for creating a missiological culture, including build for the community, adopt a school, invest in the community, have local missions projects. (63) [I question whether buildings and occasional projects provide a context for community or personal transformation.  It seems that personal relationships are required. Dlm]


Go first.  If you are a pastor or staff member of a local congregation, you must model missionary behavior for the church to see.” (64)


“Church scorecards currently reflect member values: how many show up, pay up, and participate in club member activities.”  “A missionary church culture will need to begin keeping score on things different from what we measure now.” (67)


“I pleaded with them to consider doing less church stuff and doing more ministry aimed at the pre-Christian culture.”  Who is this for? May be a good way for you to begin your own journey from member to missionary. (68)


New Reality Number Four – The Return to Spiritual Formation


Wrong Question: How Do We Develop Church Members?


“We aim at the head.  We don’t deal in relationship.” (70)


Tough Question: How Do We Develop Followers of Jesus?

“What percentage of your congregants feel they grew to be more like Jesus this past year?”  What if church leaders asked each other, ‘How is God at work in your people?’ or ‘Where do you see Jesus bustin’ out?’” (740


“I am recommending that churches provide life coaching for people.  We need to view this as spiritual formation.”  (77)  [This is a great idea but Christians with the qualities to be coaches may be rare. Dlm]


“We have assumed that if people come to church often enough they will grow.” (80)


“Our approach to biblical study must not stop short of applying to life.”  (81)


“Love changes people’s behavior.” (83)  “Evangelism that will introduce Jesus to this culture will flow from people who are deeply in love with Jesus.”  (82)


“The issue now is learning, how to make sense out of the information that is available.  The agenda is more and more being set by the learner.”  [This can be taken too far.  The learner brings his circumstances but the learning must be informed from Scripture.  Dlm]


“Jesus facilitated spiritual formation in his disciples by introducing them to life situations and then helping them debrief their experiences.”   “He talked about the kingdom of God, but mostly he lived the kingdom of God, practicing a life in front of his followers that modeled very different core values....” (85)  [Ah, we are in desperate need of such modeling, both for our leaders to model for us and for us to model for those around us.  This seems like the most important point so far.  Dlm]


“Curriculum-driven is artificial; life-driven is organic.”  “I am a proponent of small groups.”  However, groups can move from one curriculum piece to another and never experience any real growth.  Effective groups where people grow allow people to declare to each other what is going on in their lives, what they’d like to see going on in their lives, and what kind of help and accountability they need to move toward their hopes and away from their frustrations.  This brings life to the table, not a book!” (86)  [Book studies can be irrelevant.  However, sharing life can also be unproductive unless individuals seek growth, accept accountability, and weigh actions and life circumstances against Scripture.  Too many curriculum-less small groups degenerate into mutual commiseration or “Well I think...” sessions. Dlm]


The home was and is the center for spiritual formation. (87)


“The spiritual formation process should be customized and shaped to the learner for intentional outcomes.”  “The person development process is highly labor intensive.”  (91) [This is one good reason why God has assigned first-line responsibility for spiritual formation to parents.  Otherwise such intensive life-on-life opportunities are very rare. Dlm]


New Reality Number Five – The Shift from Planning to Preparation

Wrong Question: How Do We Plan for the Future?

Tough Question: How Do We Prepare for the Future?


[McNeal wants us to get beyond planning, management and marketing and prepare ourselves for what God plans.  Good.  However, some of his recommendations—vision, values, and results, for example—sound a lot like what we read in business management books.] 


New Reality Number Six – The Rise of Apostolic Leadership


Wrong Question: How Do We Develop Leaders for Church Work?

The new breed of church leaders is missional, visionary, entrepreneurial, a team-worker, a releaser of ministry, anti-bureaucracy, spiritual, and culturally relevant. (126)  They are focused on kingdom growth.


They often view seminary as supplemental, not essential. (128)  [Seminary may not be the only answer but I wonder if we are getting more “preaching light.”  Preaching out of Brian McLaren or Rick Warren or another popular writer is not the same as preaching from the Scripture.  I wonder how such leaders learn to exegete the Scriptures. Dlm]  


Tough Question: How Do We Develop Leaders for the Christian Movement?

Church teachers are usually trained in using curriculum, leading discussions, and employing teaching techniques.  It is interesting that few are intentionally trained in how to study the Bible....”  (130)


Leadership development that supports apostolic leadership and a missional renewal in the church pays attention to four arenas of learning: paradigm issues, microskill development (dozens), resource development, and personal growth. (130)


“A word to pastors.  Over time there is no substitute for your leadership inner circle to be in some small group setting with you where your heart for the kingdom can have an impact on theirs.” (138)


“The reason to get in touch with the culture is not to adopt it but to engage it for the same reasons a missionary does—in order to gain a hearing for the gospel.” (141)


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