My post today was going to be something different, but once I read about the tragic suicidal death of Andrew Stoeckline, the lead pastor of Indian Hills Church in Chino, California, I knew I had to write about something that has long been a deep concern. The American Church is on the wrong path and has been for a long time.
We have strayed from our mission of making disciples for Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20) to seeking to build bigger and bigger congregations. We have gone from desiring our pastors to lead us into deeper spiritual maturity to wanting them to be entertainers on stage where later at lunch we can applaud how good he or she was. We have wondered away from wanting to invite people into a relationship with Jesus to merely wanting people to gather with us in our comfortable and non-threatening communities.
The article cites Stoeckline’s struggle with depression as the cause of his death by his own hand. I have no doubt that is the case, just as I understand this is the same reason so many college students die each year on campus. Anxiety and depression on campuses and throughout our country have spiked to historical numbers. While doctors, counselors, and medical researchers desperately attempt to deal with this problem, there is no doubt this is a symptom of something terribly wrong in our society. According to the Center for Disease Control, suicide in the US has increased dramatically in the last 20 years. Anxiety levels, too, are spiking at an alarming rate. The number one presenting problem at university counseling centers across the country is anxiety.
In straying from its core mission of making disciples of Jesus, the American Church has little distinguishing qualities from the rest of our society. It blends in really well. America is obsessed with celebrities and we increasingly want our pastors to be the same. The country thinks, by and large, that bigger is better. Success is defined by numbers—number of stores, amount of profit, etc. In the church, it is defined similarly. Think about Christian magazines and journals that focus on leaders and up and coming ones. What is the main criterion? Is it faithfulness to walking with Jesus? No, it is how large their congregations are or how popular they are on the speaker circuit, or how many books they author. No small church pastor is ever going to grace the cover of one of these publications. Yet, numbers and size have very little to do with spiritual success according to a thorough reading of the Scriptures. God is much more concerned with our faithfulness to Him.
But the American Church has allowed itself to be co-opted by the culture. It has chosen to pursue success rather than faithfulness and has been reaping the bitter fruit of it. It has the exact same problems as does the rest of the culture and is avoiding offering the one, true solution—Jesus. As the pastor of our church likes to say, the answer is always Jesus and He is found in the Scriptures.
I know the Scriptures are usually taught in most churches, but how many people in these congregations are taught the discipline of reading the Scriptures daily for themselves? How many are scripturally literate? And how many are taught, as Jesus commanded His disciples and us, to obey the Scriptures? In other words, how many churches in America are truly committed to making disciples?
This is a passion for me because I have worked with college students for over three decades, most of whom were raised in a church. The lives of these students when they first arrive on campus convince me that the church is not making very many disciples. Only a very tiny percentage of these students arrive even modestly scripturally literate. They are uncomfortable with prayer, have no experience with other spiritual disciplines, and their lives vary little from their unbelieving peers, except that they attend church and are part of a campus ministry.
The bitter fruit of which I spoke earlier is the overall cost of pursuing worldly success with all of its pressures and stress, while at the same time having very little eternal impact. Think of the stress on church leaders when building and maintaining a multi-million-dollar facility and the amount of money that needs to come in every week to pay the mortgage. Think of the stress on the pastor who has to be “on” every week with his or her sermon lest he or she not live up to the expectations given him or her. Think of the amount of programming that goes into a typical church and the dollars and energy that must accompany it. For what?
Indeed, across the country there are growing churches and mega-churches, but the question must be asked: Are these churches producing true disciples of Jesus that are impacting their circles of influence for the Kingdom? Or are they merely producing converts and morally better people. What I experience year in and year out on campus—what I like to refer to as downstream from the local churches— is converted young people who have a fairly shallow view of what it means to follow Jesus and are spiritually ill-prepared for the challenges of the University culture.
Which brings me back to the tragic death of Pastor Stoeckline. Like so many of his generation, he followed the models set by two generations before him—Jerry Falwell, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Louis Giglio, Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, etc.—where pastors became de facto heads of their mega-churches with little accountability or nurturing and large expectations. And in my years working with pastors, I have seen many with their sights set on such “success.” Yet, as with the celebrity culture at large, celebrity pastors are prone to struggle, whether morally, emotionally, or theologically. Pastor Stoeckline’s death is another warning sign that the American church needs to return to what every church is called to do—make disciples of Jesus and stop trying to use the same markers for success as does the world.
Kingdom success is not about the number of people we can attract to our churches, but rather the number of lives that are transformed by an ongoing relationship with Jesus. Kingdom success is not about the size of our buildings or programs, but about the impact our churches are having on individual lives. In the same way Jesus did, we should focus our energies on producing true disciples rather than attempting to draw the biggest crowds. It is far less stressful and far more productive in doing what we are commissioned by our Lord to do.
© Jim Musser 2018