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Thursday Is for Thinkers: Rick Howerton

Today I am excited to have my friend and colleague Rick Howerton here at the blog. Rick is a leader in the small group movement — he’s actually known around LifeWay as the “small group-ologist.” He has also been a successful church planter and pastor. In 2003 he planted a church built around healthy small groups in Spring Hill, Tennessee, called The Bridge. I’m grateful for his passion and insight.


Jesus as Concept or Jesus as Person… It Makes All the Difference


We have watched as the church has continued to decline. If we are honest, some have actually begun to grieve the loss of the church as they have known her. Those of us who are desperate to work alongside Christ to reinvigorate churches choosing the path of grief continue to ask the why question. “Why is the church declining?” The why question is haunting and daunting as it demands an evaluation which then requires a response. That response may come in the form of doing something unlike we have done before, the necessity of a different paradigm, or a re-engagement of something the church has set aside.

In most instances churches are looking for the magic bullet. They even hire professionals like us to tell them the “essentials” for church growth in this decade, or hire someone to help them build the biggest and best inside playground to draw moms and dads with kids, or they buy in to the latest assimilation process. The goal is always the same… get people to the church then slam “the back door” so they stick.

This is where it gets complex. We have to ask the question, Is it possible we have replaced that which will transform people with models, methods, and material stuff so that that darn door is clamped down, welded, and cannot be reopened? If so, has that strengthened or weakened the church?

There is one consistent over-riding essential in any church. Whether you’re an attractional model, a traditional model, or a seeker church, no matter if you’re a house church, a cell church, or an urban mega-church, no matter if you’re the guy who truly believes he’s creating a whole new way to do church, there is one essential that must trump all others… Jesus. That’s right, Jesus. But not just Jesus … Jesus as a Person, not just Jesus as a concept.

Many churches have embraced Jesus as a concept. The Encarta Dictionary defines a concept as “a broad principle affecting perception and behavior.” But Jesus as concept confuses the transformed heart. We were transformed by the person of Christ, not the concept of Christ. We long for someone relational but our church advances something conceptual.

We create a Jesus as concept environment then wonder why our people aren’t telling their friends about Christ. Keep this in mind… people talk about the heroes they know and love, not the concepts they are learning about.

How do you know if you’re promoting Jesus as concept environment rather than Jesus as a personal hero environment?

  • Most of your musical offerings are songs sung about Jesus, not to Him
  • When the church gathers, you don’t anticipate Jesus will accomplish those things He has the power to do and will do because of His presence there. You host services without expectation of Christ to heal the broken-hearted and set captives free. (Isaiah 61: 1 – 2)
  • When teaching your parishioners to bring people into a relationship with Christ you guide them to invite people to church gatherings rather than suggesting they tell others what Jesus has and is doing for them.
  • Your church members brag about the church’s band, the pastor’s sermons, and/or the church’s programs but are embarrassed to speak of Jesus to those in their circle of relationship.
  • When teaching and preaching you have no current stories to tell of your own interactions with Christ.
  • New converts, in their excitement, tell their friends and family members about the church, rather than telling what Jesus has done for them.
  • When the church prays, they don’t cry out for Christ to do something outrageous, they pray easily forgotten requests without anticipating anything from Him.
  • You and almost everyone in your congregation have no reason to believe and aren’t anticipating that someone will choose to become a follower of Christ at every large group gathering.

Over the last ten years of consulting churches I’ve seen churches with little or no strategy, churches with music that would make you beg for earplugs, churches whose small group approach was accomplishing nearly nothing, churches whose pastor’s preaching would be considered a grade F in almost any seminary, but all were experiencing the work of Christ because Christ was the primary personality they promoted and allowed to be at work. They truly had a Jesus as Person environment. And I’ve seen very large, growing churches excited about numeric growth who were experiencing little of Christ at work. If they had looked deeply into their own hearts, they would have known they were promoting the church, not Christ, and because of that they were simply welcoming the already convinced to join them, the already convinced, to do church together. They had created a Jesus as Concept environment and were experiencing what that offers… a silent Jesus.

We should all take a close look to ensure that our churches are teaching and living like Jesus is the heroic Person He claimed, showed, and proves Himself to be.

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is the Dean of Talbot School of Theology at Biola Univeristy and Scholar in Residence & Teaching Pastor at Mariners Church. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches; trained pastors and church planters on six continents; earned two master’s degrees and two doctorates; and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He is Regional Director for Lausanne North America, is the Editor-in-Chief of Outreach Magazine, and regularly writes for news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Dr. Stetzer is the host of "The Stetzer ChurchLeaders Podcast," and his national radio show, "Ed Stetzer Live," airs Saturdays on Moody Radio and affiliates.