And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.Luke 9:22-24
The invitation of the gospel is to come and die. It is to surrender our way of living so that we can enter into an eternal kind of living. The gospel declares that our sin was damaging enough that Jesus had to go to the cross to redeem what we had destroyed. The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him and by His wounds we were healed. Now, as those who have been made new, we are invited to a cross of our own.
This invitation seems to be missing in most church growth strategies that I read and listen to. There is a lot of advice going around about how to reach out to the next generation. There’s a lot of podcasts, blog posts, and YouTube seminars about how to get people to come to church in our post-Christian culture. The problem is that most of them sound like advice found in a teen magazine to insecure adolescents.
“7 Ways to Make People Like You.” “How to Capture His Attention in 10 Easy Steps.” “Get Popular By Using Social Media.” “How To Act Like A Brand Instead of A Human Being.” “Why You Have To Put Yourself Out There On A Personal Vlog to Make Friends.” “The 5 Best Make-Ups To Get People to Notice You.”
You get the idea. The advice to pastors these days sounds a lot like a teen magazine website’s advice to insecure girls who just want to be popular and liked by the boys. Much of it revolves around the idea that Gen Z lives an entirely online life, viewing themselves more like a brand than a person. Much of the advice is about how to capture their distracted and divided attention and get them to join the church.
What seems to be missing is the gospel. The gospel message is not, “You are the center of the universe. We will go out of our way to try to get you to subscribe to our YouTube channel because we desperately need you to like us.” The gospel message is, “Your life is broken. You broke it. Come and die. Come and give up that life if you really want to find abundant life. Jesus is the center of everything, not you. He is absolutely worth it!”
In other words, being invited to be a follower of Jesus is the greatest honor of my life. It is a privilege to be a part of the Body of Christ, not a burden. Jesus is the most captivating person I’ve ever met. His love, kindness, and grace has completely transformed my life. Whatever He asks me to give up are only things that are destructive to me anyway.
The church is full of imperfect, sinful people all trying to follow Jesus together as a community. But we’re not there because people are awesome; we’re there because Jesus is awesome. And along the way we learn to love people even in their imperfections. We stop playing the victim as if we are the only one hurt in this world, and we realize that we’ve been doing the hurting as well. We live by grace, both for ourselves and for others.
I don’t come to church because they have the best marketing. I don’t come because I can be guaranteed that no one will offend or hurt me. I don’t come for their social media platform. I come because of Jesus. I experience His Presence in unique ways in Christian community that don’t happen anywhere else. In Christian community, the parts of me that are not like Jesus get exposed and dealt with so that I might be more like Him and less like my old self. I come to church to die, that I might truly live. That’s the invitation. I come to exalt Jesus, not my brand. He alone is worthy!
What follows is Jesus’s church growth message. We might call it, “The One Step Method of Killing Consumer Christianity.” Notice how Jesus doesn’t sound like an insecure teenager longing to be liked. Notice that He offers people so much more but many just weren’t ready for it:
I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you…
Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you?
From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.John 6:48-53, 61, 66
Instead of trying to make church more palatable to our human self-absorption, we need to invite people to more. The gospel invites us to so much more! There is an abundant life of freedom and power that awaits all who are willing to receive it. But we step into this new life on the other side of taking up our cross and following Jesus. We find full life only when we fully surrender to Jesus.
The church is not an insecure teenage girl desperately wanting to be liked. She is the beloved and cherished Bride of Christ, dressed in robes of righteousness, washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. It is an absolute honor to be counted as a part of her.