THE CHURCH OF IRRESISTIBLE INFLUENCE
By Robert Lewis
Although I would have preferred that the author choose a less triumphalistic-sounding title for this book, I wholeheartedly concur in his assessment of the breakdown in communication between the church and the world, between believers and unbelievers in this country at the dawn of the 21st century. The author is the pastor of Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, which was founded in 1977 by 18 people who had found Christ as university students at the University of Arkansas back in the 1960’s and who wanted a venue to keep their spiritual passion alive. Their original mission statement: “We exist to manifest the reality of Christ to the world by equipping Christians to live lifestyles of spiritual integrity” was fleshed out by six distinguishing characteristics:
a) Passionately committed to Jesus Christ (a heart for God)
b) Biblically measured (everything by the Book)
c) Morally pure (in a morally compromised age)
d) Family centered (healthy homes are priority)
e) Evangelistically bold (willing and confident in sharing one’s faith)
f) Socially responsible (the community around us is our business)
By most measures, the church was wildly successful, growing to have 2,000 in attendance. By 1989, however, “Members of the church, especially those committed to authentic spirituality and Christian lifestyles were feeling increasingly stagnant.” Lewis notes that “Many times a great achievement can begin to look like a terrible mistake” and they began to fear that the church would eventually become “a Christian club that exhausted itself trying to keep its members happy”.
William Strauss and Neil Howe, in their landmark book Generations, conclude that the Baby Boomer generation is an idealistic generation and that their coming-of-age years produced a spiritual awakening. If so, Robert Lewis and Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock could be Exhibit A for this thesis. Eighteen young 20-somethings starting a church to keep alive the fervent passion for Jesus Christ that they had known as college students are a perfect example of what happens when idealistic young adults are part of a spiritual awakening. By the late 1980’s, however, the thrill of all they had accomplished had begun to fade and they were beginning to stagnate. In addition, the world around them began to look at them with suspicion and distrust. Lewis concludes:
“The evangelical voice that fervently won so many into an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ also tended to degenerate publicly into a shrill shout: telling Americans how to live, think and vote. Evangelicals acted as if they possessed an exclusive understanding of what was right and who was right. And predictably, the cultural reaction to this being talked down to has been tragic and alienating.”
Lewis admits that he had assumed that any rational person would be swayed by an intellectually respectable presentation of Biblical truth. He writes:
“Like so many other similarly afflicted evangelicals, I thought by hurling verbal hand grenades concerning sin and wrongdoing into the world, the shrapnel would somehow rattle sinners back to their senses. To me, jabbing and stabbing the world with the sword of what I considered impeccable logic and reasoning, backed by God’s Word and a dash of holy anger, was the way to turn the world around. I was burning bridges rather than building them.”
By 1989, Robert Lewis and many of his key people had realized that this wasn’t working. They realized that “equipping Christians to live lifestyles of spiritual integrity” was well and good, but it was not enough. They decided to divide equipping into two phases:
a) Equipping for life
b) Equipping for service
Lewis found that there were three keys to equipping people for service:
a) Confession: Admitting that the church had not built bridges to the community
b) Vision for a church characterized by:
(1) Passionate commitment to Jesus Christ
(2) Winsome lifestyles, punctuated by high moral standards
(3) Radical and selfless good deeds that amaze the world around it.
c) Structure: Unleashing people with purpose.
He concluded that the church needs bridges that balance public proclamation with congregational incarnation. He writes:
“We would go beyond being seeker-sensitive, to a new frontier of being community admired. We would be known, not just by the corner we inhabit, but by the city with which we interact. And people would be drawn to God, not because of the weekly show in our churches, but by the irrefutable lifestyles we incarnate.”
Fellowship Bible Church has tried to go from being a “holding tank” to being a “launching pad”. To do this, they have three types of small groups:
a) Discovery: Groups: An 8-10 week group to become familiar with the church
b) Season of Life Groups: Small groups organized according to age and family situation that last for only three years
c) Common Cause: Small groups organized around spheres of service.
After three years in a Seasons of Life group, people are strongly encouraged to move into a Common Cause group. This is not easy and Lewis has identified four obstacles to moving from Seasons of Life groups (which are geared to meeting the needs of the members of the groups) to Common Cause groups (which are geared to serving others outside the church):
a) Fear: Lewis suggests three ways to overcome this obstacle: (1) stories, (2) an enlarged concept of ministry and (3) providing first-hand ministry exposures.
b) Confusion: “Every major transition in life needs a process to clear away the fog and create forward momentum.”
c) Lack of Direction: “Much of our present evangelical apathy is tied to a philosophical surrender of the hope for doing any good.”
d) Questions of impact: Rather than asking “what difference can I make?” we should ask “What stewardship has God called me to render?”
The book includes many true stories of the “diversified many who have been faithful bridge builders in our own church – people who have often faced real fears, deep feelings of inadequacy, problems and difficulties – and yet, because of courage and persistence have run unexpectedly into success.” There is the story of Chuck and Susan, whom Lewis describes as “wounded healers”. They had both been previously divorced, and when they married and blended their families, it was not easy by any stretch of the imagination (Chuck called their blended family “The Brady Bunch from Hell”). When they got involved in a ministry to single parents, however, they found a measure of healing themselves. Susan says: “We needed to focus on somebody else besides ourselves.” Says Chuck, “I could wallow in my self-pity and self-circumstances forever and never get any better, or I could go out and try to serve someone, however lamely I might do that.”
There is the story of Bud Finley, who was raised in a racist home in Little Rock during the 1950’s, when uproar over the forced integration of Central High School made it necessary for the governor to call out the National Guard. Bud was transformed by mentoring an eight-year-old black boy.
Lewis begins each chapter with the story of the building of a literal bridge (the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, etc.). He notes that many bridges built in the 19th century collapsed because of the isolation, competition and pursuit of reputation among the pioneer bridge builders, an apt metaphor for the evangelical church today. More than that, however, bridge-building is what the church needs to do. There has been a breakdown in communication between believers and unbelievers, and the church needs to bridge that gap. Lewis writes:
“Unless the church rediscovers its primary role as a bridge builder, the incarnational power of the gospel will remain hidden and the credibility necessary to reach a culture of cynical, experiential and spiritually hungry souls will be lost. Even worse, the church’s incomparable message of eternal and abundant life, despite relentless weekly proclamation, will continue to be largely ignored…But such bridges (of influence) cannot be built without leaders. Progressive leaders. Select individuals whose vision extends beyond that of an inwardly ‘successful’ church….It’s not that good ideas and new innovations don’t matter. They do. It’s just that good leaders matter more….Leadership is more about a gathering of wisdom than a collection of facts.”
Fellowship Bible Church committed itself to serving the community as the means of building that bridge, but it really did its homework before launching out. Applying the advice of Michael Regele, Lewis worked to “…develop the skills of walking into a community setting…and analyzing that setting to figure out what is going on here. Contextual analysis includes demographics, understanding the power structures of a community, understanding the economic base and understanding what gives the particular ethos of that community.”
The church conducted extensive community research (even hiring outside consultants), got feedback from focus groups and then did a survey of churches in the area. They didn’t try to tackle it alone but enlisted as many partnering churches as they could. This research yielded five surprising results;
a) The popular perception that central Arkansas is a highly “churched” community is wrong.
b) Race and education are still dominant issues in our community.
c) There is presently a wide gap between the major needs of the community and the availability of programs in churches to meet them.
d) Central Arkansas churches invest very little money in local ministry programs.
e) The community welcomes church involvement.
Ultimately, the planning team came up with five recommendations:
a) Reassess ministry programs in light of needs (i.e. see if existing or proposed programs corresponded to actual needs in the community)
b) Focus on successful existing programs first.
c) Look for strategic ways to work together to serve the community.
d) Look for opportunities to partner with other organizations in the community that are effective, and consistent with the church’s mission.
e) Pursue racial reconciliation.
Lewis believes that the two “big ideas” driving many churches are (1) meeting the needs of its members and (2) success as measured by size. “A church might be recognized internationally (by other evangelicals) but a stranger to its very own community.” Having what Lewis calls “irresistible influence” requires three things:
1. Redefining “success”: “When ‘success’ becomes ‘size’…compromise inevitably occurs.”
2. Redesigning structure from “holding tanks” to “launching pads”.
3. Encouraging laypeople to reconnect with a lifestyle of specific spiritual standards and service. “The boredom and restlessness seen everywhere in the church, I believe, is due primarily to the smallness of our purpose.”
This is an excellent book on bridging the growing gap between the church and the world by serving the community where it has real and felt needs. Some might be made uneasy by fears that this is suggesting an emphasis on “the social gospel”, but Lewis points out that it has only been in the last century that Christians have separated the evangelistic and the social service aspects of the Gospel. He cites the work of John Stott, who “asserts that evangelicals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were a more unified group than their twentieth-century counterparts, investing themselves vigorously in both evangelism and social involvement”. Stott has identified five reasons why evangelicals pulled back from social involvement in the twentieth century:
1. The evangelical reaction against theological liberalism.
2. The division of the Gospel into “social” and “spiritual” categories.
3. Evangelicals’ disillusionment with earthly life after World War I
4. The spread of premillenialism.
5. The spread of evangelical Christianity among the upper and middle classes, who tended to equate it more and more with their own personal well-being.
John Ed Robertson
June 19, 2006
Lewis, Robert; The Church of Irresistible Influence; Zondervan; Grand Rapids, Michigan; 2001; ISBN 0-310-25015-3