Notes on a Godless Church: Part 2, Mission Drift

One of the ways churches become functionally atheistic is when they start to see and describe themselves as a non-profit, as an agent of good works in the community.

This is a tough criticism to make as I'm a huge believer that churches must be involved in doing good works in their communities. And yet, churches engaged in community work can unwittingly come to reduce their vision of the kingdom of God to the doing of good works. Which, again, isn't the worst thing the the world. But narrowing the focus on human agency can lead the church into a functional atheism. You don't need God to do good works. Non-profits also do good works. 

Let me use my own church as an example. Our church is a part of the American Restoration Movement. So the word "restoration" is deeply resonant with us. Leaning into those resonances, my church frames its mission as restoring our church, our city and the world: "Restore Highland. Restore Abilene. Restore the world." Under the three parts of that "Restoration Movement" mission we do things to help our church, our city, and with partners outside of the US. 

Beyond that mission statement, we also talk a lot about being "good neighbors" in our community. And again, this is exactly right.

However, if we're not careful, how we describe the mission of the church can come to so highlight what we are doing, rather than what God is doing, that we start to sound like a community non-profit. You see how easy it is to say, week after week and month after month, "As a part of our Restore Abilene initiatives, we are doing X, Y, and Z." Or, "Wanting to be good neighbors, we are doing X, Y, and Z." To be sure, when we are careful we'll make sure to describe these things as a partnership with God's mission. We say, "As a part of God's mission to restore all things, in our Restore Abilene initiatives we doing X, Y, and Z."

This is an illustration of what I was talking about in Part 1. There are two sides to our partnership with God. Divine and human agency mingle together. When we have good habits of speech and imagination, both agencies are highlighted. But sometimes we can experience mission drift, bad habits of describing the church as a non-profit, as a collection of social initiatives.    

As I always say, "to be clear," a church-as-non-profit is a wonderful thing. Would that there were more of such churches. But if that's so, why meddle here? 

I'm meddling because as the culture slides deeper into post-Christianity, and as the church struggles to hold the attention of the younger generations, the more the church drifts into describing itself as a non-profit the more it contributes to its own disenchantment. All that is spooky, strange, supernatural and weird about the church is stripped away and all that is left behind is a collection of social initiatives. And many of those community needs being met by the church are often already being addressed by local non-profits, and frequently more effectively. I know many pastors, for example, who have left the church to join a non-profit. This switch is often justified as doing something more "effective" and "impactful" than working for a church. The church is viewed as a crappy non-profit, so why mess with it? 

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