(Interacting with Dr. Miller’s poignant book).
Outgrowing the Ingrown Church was written a number of years ago by C. John Miller (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House; 1986). I’ve read it at least three times in order to give my own life a swift kick in the rump. This book is a call to assess and reassess the pastor’s and elders’ work in the local church. It’s also a call to the local congregation to assess and reassess where it is at, where it is going and what God says about it. It’s a call to humble repentance as well as a call to dynamic, vibrant faith for all parties involved in the church.
Miller said, Growth that is not inspired by faith in Christ’s power to transform lives is dangerous (p. 18). … So congregations and their leaders today are perilously close to losing the elementary principles of faith that motivate qualitative and quantitative church growth. I am thinking of regular and thorough meditation on the promises of God, ongoing repentance based on the intense study of Scripture, continual personal and corporate prayer, daring gospel communication and discipling, mobilizing every member’s gifts for Christ’s mission to the world, and each congregation working to plant daughter churches (p. 19).
Pastor Miller’s story, out of which this book came, is one of a man who was also a seminary pastor, faithfully involved in a local church. The church had been complacent, stagnant and ingrown. After a period of discomfort and personal restlessness, Miller began to seek ways to revitalize the church and to fulfill God’s call and vision for the church. In his times of prayer and study he learns,
I had rightly discerned that this promise of Christ’s fullness had a past reference to Pentecost and a future reference to the transformed world; but I had missed the emphasis in the Gospel of John on the present application of this promise to those who “are believing” or “keep believing.” I had missed the fact that God wishes to use such promises to awaken us daily from our dryness to claim the Spirit’s refreshing life (p. 24).
Pastor Arzurdia brings this same message out in his wonderful book on preaching. So much of the life of the church, and of my own ministry tends to fall back upon self-effort. How we ought to recall and fall upon those great and precious promises for a life filled and controlled by the Holy Spirit.
Pastor Miller pushes further: So let me call you and your congregation, not simply to survival for another week, but to radical commitment: to believe Christ’s promises and to do His will at all costs. That will is revealed in His command to the church to go with the gospel to the nations and make disciples… (p. 25).
Such a commitment cannot only come from the leaders or pastor. It must be held by others, especially those in leadership positions.
In his chapter, THE INGROWN CHURCH: God’s Call to Faith and Repentance, the author gives more than an apt description of so many churches. He says that ingrown churches are gripped by several, if not all, of these following characteristics:
1. Tunnel Vision
Members of the ingrown church body are characterized by tunnel vision that limits potential ministries of the church to those that can be accomplished by the visible, human resources at hand. These possibilities are often further limited by recollections of past negative experiences and perceptions of present obstacles. At bottom, this is unbelief based on a secularized ignorance of the Spirit’s power – His ability to supply us with God’s goals for the church and the supernatural means to reach them (p. 29).
2. Shared Sense of Group Superiority
He (C. Curry Mavis) observes that many smaller congregations and their leadership have become egocentric because of “their fear of extinction.” In his view, “struggling churches are likely to exaggerate points of superiority they actually possess as means of compensation for their limitations.” What they do is build an attitude of superiority over others by elevating a positive feature in the church life of tradition and then comparing this feature with groups which lack this quality (p. 30)
3. Extreme Sensitivity to Negative Human Opinion Whatever form the opposition takes, we will discover that an ingrown church has given in for so long to intimidation that its fears have obscured vital contact with the promises of God. As a result, fear casts out love for “a world that is falling apart,” a world that desperately needs a community of love (p. 31).
4. Niceness in Tone Indeed, each Christian should diligently seek to be all of that. But what is often wanted in the local church is unrelieved blandness: a “nice pastor” preaching “nice sermons” about a “nice Jesus” delivered in a “nice tone” of voice. What is twisted about all this is that “niceness” is being substituted for Christ’s holy love, a heroic quality that might not in some circumstances prove to be nice at all. What we really want is to be comfortable and undisturbed. “Nice” is just another way of being safe (p. 32).
5. Christian Soap Opera in Style. The niceness of the inward-looking church does not go deep enough to hinder the soap-opera style in which many a congregational life is lived. Soap operas are basically a series of endlessly repeated conversations, and gossip (for that is what it is) is often the only kind of “body life” an ingrown church knows (p. 33).
6. Confused Leadership Role.
7. A Misdirected Purpose. It is clear from the foregoing that the controlling purpose in the ingrown church has to do with survival – not with growth through the conversion of the lost….The unity is essentially that of the comfortable, private club determined to protect its institutional values and privileges (pp. 35-36).
Miller, a few pages later, characterizes the problem when he said that we can learn from the Pharisees. This truth brings us face to face with what appears to be a critical problem: If this awesome authority and invincible, inward power are Christ’s gifts to the church of God, why is so little evidence of all this to be found in the local congregation? …R.C. Sproul compares many local churches to the company of Pharisees active during Jesus’ time on earth. He writes, It was the Pharisees who developed the doctrine of “salvation by separation.” …To be sure, this is a familiar issue when we are dealing with the ingrown church, with its false separation…. Why is it so prevalent when the authority and the power of Christ are so sovereignly compelling? What is the church missing today? The answer is to be found largely in our lack of trust. The passive church member is a person weak in faith. (p. 57). How accurate a portrayal and evaluation he has made.
So what does he propose as an answer? The first thing he recommends is to evaluate where the church is and measure it against where it ought to be. This requires knowledge of what God has to tell us about the vision, mission, purpose and direction for His Church. From that point we can gain a rather substantial view of where the church is currently at and where it ought to go.
Pastor Miller also suggests several things that is required of a local church, and makes worthwhile recommendations for change. The first is that the local church is to be a missionary church. The living, transcendent God came to claim Israel as His special possession, an act that prefigured the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost to make the church the new people of God, he writes. Peter squelches the idea that the church has a right to exist for its own egocentric interests and comforts. It exists for God, and He is His infinite majesty lives in it as a troubling, transforming, barrier-breaking presence (p. 43). It certainly has no right to live for itself. Yet this is where so many churches find themselves.
In this regard Miller lays out Four Steps to Renewal:
1 Develop an openness to God’s vision for the local church (p. 72).
2. Work to develop an honesty about your sins and weaknesses that lead to change (p. 73).
3. Personalize your relationship with Christ (p. 75)
4. Commit yourself to express God’s glory in every part of your life and service (p. 77).
Secondly, the local church must be a welcoming church. What does the commissioned church do that is different from what is done in the stagnated, passive congregation? he asks. The answer is essentially that the commissioned church is hospitable. It aggressively and joyfully seeks out the unchurched, laboring to welcome them into the church as members of the body of Christ. Its leaders self-consciously reject a “Christian clubhouse” atmosphere and devote themselves to developing in the congregation an open face to the community and the world beyond. The local leaders model a welcoming lifestyle and seek to mobilize others to do the same (p. 81).
But why do so few Christians today open their hearts and homes to the non-Christian community? The reason is that they are fearful of being hurt by involvement with others. They do not want the trouble and the risk, the exhaustion that hospitality brings, the struggles with sloth that it requires, and all the rest of the suffering that it entails (p. 87).
This statement was highlighted during a pastoral visit I made years ago. The couple have been members of the particular church to which I had just arrived, for many years. One of their complaints was the lack of hospitality that was going on among one another, especially among the elders. The husband protested that in all the years (if I recall it was around twenty years) he had been at the church he had only been invited to three other homes! While that was certainly a sad commentary on the state of affairs, it was not right for him to be so critical without examining his own heart and behaviors. So I asked, “Have you practiced hospitality?” “No!” was his abrupt and quick reply. And why not? The first answer was that it was too much trouble, but probing further, it became clear that they were fearful of being rejected for not providing adequate or acceptable hospitality. Truly sad.
The third area Miller sees as important for a local church to become is a praying church. There can be no doubt that this is so crucial for a church. So much of the life of the church hinges upon prayer. Miller then brings out something quite interesting when he poses for us just what kind of prayer time do we have? He titles this section, Two Kinds of Prayer Meetings: Maintenance or Frontline? This prayer meeting in Pennsylvania, he tells us, was intended to function as a frontline battle station. The earlier meeting in California was largely designed to maintain the existing life and ministry of our congregation. Believers came to the earlier meeting to be edified by a Bible study …and to pray for the internal needs of the church. Expectancy seemed to be at a low ebb among the attenders, evidenced by the fact that none of us bothered to keep a record of prayers offered and answered. I also do not think that Christians came to this prayer meeting expecting to meet God in a life-changing encounter (p. 98).
Miller tells us, By contrast,(to the maintenance-type church) people came to the frontline prayer meetings to be changed. They discovered what Augustine has emphasized, that man’s chief need is to fellowship with God, to find fulfillment in Him, and to experience the abiding presence of Jesus (Pss. 27:4; 36:7-9; John 14:18-23; 15:1-10) (p. 98). Herein is what we need at church – life changing times of prayer!
If there is one thing I would critique, it would be the fact that his focus is a slight bit unbalanced. It seems plain to me that the Bible indeed urges churches to fulfill the mandate to disciple people. But it is equally plain to me that the primary purpose is to have a passion for, and a love and desire to honor, worship and glorify God. In short, we are to have passion and compassion for God as well as for others. In loving God fully, we then would faithfully respond by loving others: other believers in His church, and loving others outside of the church.
The reason for going out to make disciples, as John puts it in his gospel, is to seek after those who will become worshipers of God. This emphasis would be more balanced, because it would be more biblical. This emphasis would more fully address the malady and sin of an introverted church.
Having said that, in my opinion, the author has done a splendid job helping us define and describe the conditions and symptoms of an ingrown church. He has offered many worthwhile remedies, and urged us toward biblical repentance and the need to think and act biblically. His concern for being outwardly focused is not only commendable, but biblical. As members in the kingdom of God, we are to serve others. His passion for making disciples through evangelism and missions is something we all need to catch. For this reason I highly commend this book.