E Pluribus Uno

8213370111_0d46387fac_oIt’s not a typo. It’s a tool.

(Actually, it’s my implausible attempt at Latin phraseology, but bear with me…)

Up until 1956, “e pluribus unum” served as the United States’ unofficial motto. Now, it accompanies our official motto, “In God We Trust,” on our coins, seals, and other national icons. It means, “Out of many, One.”

Fitting for a country forged from thirteen original colonies.

Fitting for a nation comprising people from distinct cultures from around the world.

Fitting for the Church. Sort of.

Wait. What?

The Church of Jesus Christ, which is his Body, is composed of people of all nationalities, languages, and cultures. (Revelation 5:9) Scriptures like 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 2 tell how Jesus, by his death and resurrection, broke down the old racial barriers that segregate humanity and created a new people. His people. His church. It’s a great truth, and one that many churches could practice better.

But if “e pluribus unum” describes a church’s life, it may also at the same time point to a church’s death.

Here’s What I Mean

Thom Rainer has spent a lot of time researching churches and their successes and failures. (See his excellent book, Autopsy of a Deceased Church for an example of the latter.) In a recent blog post, he named what he sees as the single greatest factor in declining churches: an inward focus.

A church will fail when it focuses too much on the church. And that’s exactly what “e pluribus unum” does – focuses everything on the church.

Now, an inward focus is not wrong. Churches need to be discipling their members, using their small-groups for interpersonal biblical ministry, praying together for one another’s needs. Jesus said that our testimony would be marked by our love for one another.

But not to the exclusion of those on the outside.

An Outward Focus

Like many church leaders, I have struggled to encourage others to witness. God knows – I’ve struggled to share the Gospel myself! And so I find myself reaching, grasping for tools to help. Here’s what I’ve found:

The dominant thinking in church growth today – and it’s not a new idea by any means! – is that the members of the church should be bringing people…to church! Entire industries have been built upon creating an attractional model of ministry that seeks to draw unbelievers inside, where they will hear the Gospel and be saved.

We will send out flyers to invite them. We’ll host concerts to draw them. We’ll launch week-long summer programs to educate and entertain them. Some of us will even send out buses and vans to drive them. We’ll raffle off cars and PlayStations, and we’ll award restaurant gift cards and mountain retreats. We’ll even swallow goldfish if it means we can get these people to church!

None of this is wrong. (Okay, some of it’s wacky…)

But can we truly call this an outward focus? I’m not sure. It seems like we’re still focused on getting people in.

A Different Focus

That’s where the church found itself in Acts 8. Everything up to that point had been focused on bringing people in. To be fair, most of the Christians were Jewish, and that had been God’s program for centuries: attract people to Himself by displaying his glory in Israel.

But in Acts, everything changed; Jesus sent his Spirit to his people, who would spread the Gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth. Only it wasn’t happening. If you wanted to hear about Jesus, you still had to go to Israel.

Until Israel became too dangerous for Christians. Then the church started spreading out, and everywhere people went they preached the Gospel. That’s what God intended: keep the Gospel moving outward.

It worked so well that when Phillip got to Samaria, tons of people trusted Christ. So many, in fact, that it threatened to become just one more place to draw people in. But God wouldn’t let the Gospel stall in Samaria, so he did something else. He moved Phillip.

He took Phillip away from the multitudes, from the great rallies and worship concerts and revival meetings, and he sent him to one man driving down a desert highway. (Acts8:26-40)

A Different Motto

God took Phillip away from the many and sent him to the one.

It was E pluribus uno. “From the many to the one.”

Why? To keep the Gospel going out. To maintain an outward focus.

Today, we’ve created a hybrid. We know we can’t focus on our churches exclusively, so we reach out. But in reaching out, we tell people that they’ve got to come to us – to our building, our preacher – to hear about Jesus.

Whatever happened to us taking him to them?

I’m not denouncing the attractional model; I’m going to keep using it. If it helps win people to Christ, and it doesn’t contradict Scripture, I’m willing to use it. (Not so sure about the goldfish, but…)

But I want to encourage something different. Not something easy; maybe not even something natural. But something authentic: Christians going about their lives, loving their neighbors, and introducing them to the Lord.

Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work? Like Mrs. Tweedy’s machine, where chickens go in and pies come out, isn’t the church supposed to be a place where disciples come in and witnesses go out?

I’m no expert. I’m not good at this. I only know that I want to be available for God to use.

Not to win the “lost” or “the unbelievers” or “the world.”

But to speak lovingly of Christ to Jim or Brad or Keshawn. To Quanesha or Abby or Liz.

I love my church. We are an example of “e pluribus unum.”

But if we are to have a future, we must stop thinking of our witness merely as inviting our neighbors to the party, as great as it may be.

Instead, let’s take some cake over to our neighbor’s house and invite them to share in the goodness of our God.

What do you think? Am I overcorrecting? What is the church doing well? What could we do better?

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