Buzz vs. substance

fraudIn a totally different segment of my life, I’m a partner in a new coffee and donut shop in Lexington. We’ve been open just over six months. In the past couple months, sales have started taking off.

We had one particular Saturday when sales crushed all previous highs. I texted a partner who manages the store, “What in the world happened today?” There must have been a $500 order, I figured. Or some big news story about us had run, and I didn’t know about it. Or they ran a promotion that I wasn’t aware of.

His response: “We make really good coffee and donuts.” (It’s true. They’re really good. You should come try if you’re anywhere near Lexington.)

His was the perfect response. Our total advertising budget so far has been $200 — the cost of two banners to hang outside the store. From the beginning, making good donuts and coffee and providing a friendly face at the counter has been the primary focus. And thanks to social media, perhaps now more than ever, if you give people good substance, they’ll create the buzz for you. I’ve come to love searching for the shop on Twitter to see what people are telling their friends about us.

Now for what it’s worth, at least in my opinion, it does have a pretty good atmosphere. And we have done a lot to invite people. It’s not like we just made good donuts in a decrepit building and hoped people would show up. A nice atmosphere is important. Inviting people is crucially important. But a quick look at the reviews shows what’s of most importance — “Are they selling something good?”

Yes, some self-promotion there, but nearly all of our early success is my partners’ doing, so I don’t feel too bad giving us a public pat on the back.

Buzz

A friend told me this weekend about an opposite experience. A new brewery opened where he lives about a year ago. He explained that the owners had started with a ton of money and not much brewery knowledge. They invested the majority of their time, energy and money into creating an exciting atmosphere and a lot of buzz.

For the first three months,” he said, “it was the hottest place in town. Everyone had heard about it. They were waiting for it. And the whole place just looked impressive. You had to go. But there was a problem…

The beer was terrible. Really. Terrible. They spent all their time and money creating a cool place, but you can only live on that for so long.”

He went on to explain that they sought help (fortunately for them, they had a lot of money — a rich uncle or something), got better with the beer, and survived, but not after going dead and nearly having to close.

Buzz vs. Substance

Most of us only have enough energy and money to do one well. You can create a big buzz, or you can work on having great substance. Would it be good to have a little of both? Of course! But only a very few can invest big-time in both.

Invest in buzz, and you can turn out a big crowd initially. But how long will it last before they realize the sizzle was better than the steak? Given the advent of social media and today’s increase in options, frauds can get exposed and abandoned quickly.

Invest in substance, and the growth curve may be slower initially, but I believe you have good reason to expect increasing momentum.

This gets at some of what I was suggesting in “The Christian Bubble.” Beware of focusing more on buzz (i.e. exciting programs, events, and spectacles) than substance (i.e. Offer the Gospel! and make disciples that become apostles and pastors). All the way back in the 1930’s, Deitrich Bonhoeffer was pointing toward this as a major problem in Germany. It looked a bit different, but I think it was the same issue at root.

In some of our situations, the “buzz” may last for more than a few months — perhaps several years or even decades. But eventually, when substance is lacking, the fraud gets exposed.

On the other hand, focus on substance, and the initial build may be slow. But I hope it gives us opportunity to ask, in the middle of a great movement of faith across the land, “What in the world is happening?” and to hear in return, “We make really good disciples (who make disciples, who make disciples…)”

And of course, a real movement of that sort comes only with the movement of the Spirit. We plant seeds. God makes them grow. Are we invested in planting good seeds?

Where does discipleship lead?” or “The disciples became apostles”

sending disciplesDiscipleship is often treated today as an end in itself. And to a certain extent, I’ll agree with that. When we worship, pray, study Scripture, fast, do works of mercy and works of piety, etc., these activities are the point. They’re means of God’s grace and ways we honor God, so we do them.

But it’s also important to note that the disciples became apostles! The primary designation for this bunch throughout the gospels is disciples. Once we get to the book of Acts, though, their primary designation becomes apostles. [There are no hard lines here. We see “apostles” in the gospels and “disciples” in Acts.]

That shouldn’t be surprising. When Jesus calls the disciples, he says, “Come, follow me, and I will send you out to fish for people.” At Jesus’ discipleship call, he tells them their roles will change. He will send them. They will end up going out to make disciples.

It’s not just that the disciples will be inwardly transformed — becoming people who know God differently, who pray and read Scripture and do good deeds and avoid evil. They will be sent to reproduce themselves with more disciples!

When we call people to discipleship today, do we tell them we are calling them to send them? My experience is that we too often simply call people to be disciples. We say something to the effect of, “Come, follow Jesus… so that you can keep following… and keep following… and keep following.” And keep following we must! But that isn’t all.

If this is all we call people to, many will imagine themselves going to Bible studies and learning new interesting things, and perhaps applying small bits of those in their lives from now until they die.

But do they understand that they are called to be sent? Do they understand that a call to discipleship inherently includes preparation to become apostles and pastors?

By “apostles and pastors,” I don’t mean to suggest here that all Christians must become career ministers, who draw a paycheck from a church or missions organization. Quite the opposite. Many of the early Christians remained as carpenters, fishermen, and tent-makers, yet spread this radical revolution across the land. Many of the unheralded heroes of the early Methodist movement continued on as plant workers, yet served as the pillars and backbone of local churches as class leaders (see my post “Re-evangelizing America…”)

What I mean to suggest is that Christian engineers and landscapers and business(wo)men must see themselves as people sent to be apostles and pastors. That these people see themselves as the pillars and backbone of the Christian movement today. That these invest themselves as seriously as they can in their own discipleship, because they know it leads to a sending.

Disciples, are you treating your discipleship as if you’re being prepared to be pastors and apostles, leading others to the Christian faith and/or discipling them in that faith? We need you!

Career pastors and preachers, when you call people to discipleship, do you say, “And I will send you out to fish for people.” Is that your expectation of disciples? And are you investing enough in them to make that a reality?

[I want to be careful here not to contradict my post “When ‘missional church’ gets too outwardly focused.” I think there’s a place for what I said there and what I say here. I was addressing one problem in that post, and a problem on the opposite side in this. If you think I’m just contradicting myself, call me on it.]

When “Missional Church” gets too outwardly focused

Missional church” has been a big movement and buzz word in recent years. The thrust of the movement is to recall the Church’s identity as a sent community, one that reaches out to those around them. It serves as a critique of the “attractional church” that attempts to attract people with great product offerings and marketing. (Less corporate words may be used, but the idea is the same.) Want a helpful 2-minute video primer on “missional church”? Try this.

I’ll start with this. I think the missional church’s critique of the attractional mindset is good and needed. See my posts, “Attracting with Buildings” and “Offer the Gospel!” And I think the missional church folk have generally had a good message for us: the church must get outside the walls of its own buildings and its programs for members.

But I’m also concerned that some of those influenced by missional church ideas have gone too far and are misunderstanding the church. An example comes in this blog post that was just sent to me. The post is actually very good. A helpful assessment with some great points. You should read it. But this statement in it made me cringe:

Theologically, I’m convinced that the Church is in the business of putting itself out of business. The mission of the Church, after all, is not the Church but the coming reign of God (emphasis mine).

This statement comes from an understanding of the Church that has an entirely outward focus. It calls on the Church to go into the world in outreach and witness until no more outreach and witness are necessary. If those goals were accomplished, the author reasons, there would no longer be a need for the Church.

Some use this mindset to say that the Church can and should bring the kingdom of God on earth by ridding the earth of all social evils. We’ve seen that before. In one of its most popular and recent manifestations, it was called the Social Gospel movement.

Others have rightly said that the kingdom of God and the defeat of evil will only come at Christ’s return. Still, they have argued that the Church’s sole purpose should be to work toward those goals. Even if we can’t “put ourselves out of business,” we should still work as if that’s the goal.

But for the Church to try and put itself out of business tragically misunderstands the nature of the Church. This kind of understanding assumes that the Church’s only calling is outward in witness and outreach. That understanding forgets that the Church is the bride of Christ, that Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her (see Ephesians 5:22–33). That understanding likely assumes that corporate worship is only for equipping people to go back out into the world in mission. It would see the only purpose of Christian fellowship as a form of preparation for the mission.

This article by John MacArthur — “Inward, Upward, or Outward?” — illustrates that mindset well.* I saw the article’s title and thought someone else was making my point. Instead, I found MacArthur proving the problem. In the article, he makes it clear that the Church’s “inward” and “upward” activities are fine and good, but the Church’s real purpose is “outward.” His concluding words:

Fellowship, teaching, and praise are not the mission of the church but are rather the preparation of the church to fulfill its mission of winning the lost. And just as in athletics, training should never be confused with or substituted for actually competing in the game, which is the reason for all the training.

I think MacArthur is totally wrong. I was excited to see his title, thinking he was going to argue that the central calling of the Church is inward, outward, and upward. They can’t be teased apart. One can’t be favored. And all three are essential. I was disappointed to find him making the opposite point.

Fellowship, teaching, and praise are not training — they are the very being of the Church! If we call our worship, our fellowship, our prayer, our sharing in communion, and our study of Scripture simply training, we take the typical pragmatic, man-centered turn that seems to plague most of the American Church’s thinking today. We make all of these into pragmatic steps toward accomplishing the mission and miss the deeper point of these actions.

The Westminster Catechism famously asks, “What is the chief end of man?” and famously answers, “To glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” In all, I’m concerned that some influenced by the “missional church” movement have a new response to that question. They want to answer that the chief end of man is to glorify God by outreach and witness. All else is just training.

Why do we worship? Not primarily to be equipped for mission, but primarily because we are the people of God. 

The central purpose of our worship is to worship God — to praise and enjoy him. And that’s enough! I hope it prepares us for mission, but that’s a secondary purpose.

The central purpose of our prayer is to pray to God. And that’s enough!

The central purpose of our fellowship is to share deeply with each other as the Body of Christ. And that’s enough!

And the central purpose of our outreach and witness? To show compassion, to fight for justice, to advocate for the oppressed, and to testify to the gospel. And that’s enough!

All of these works are an end unto themselves. They don’t need to lead to another point. They are the point. Or if we insist, we may say they all lead to glorifying and enjoying God. But let’s make sure we keep that as the chief end of man and the Church — inward, upward, and outward. The business of the Church isn’t to put itself out of business. It’s to glorify and enjoy God, to be prepared as a radiant bride for Christ, to live in fellowship and mission as the body of Christ.

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* Note: MacArthur is no figurehead for the “missional church” movement. But I find his statement here reflective of the mentality that I see often coming from that movement.