Foreword: Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation

Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation, by Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken. InterVarsity Press, 2011.

A 2012 Christianity Today Book Award winner!

“How do you present the radical message of Christ in a church that catered to the religious demands of the nominally committed?” This book confronts that question and answers it. In other words, if we have gathered people into congregations by appeasing their appetites and desires, how can we help them deal with the fact that their problems in life and character—even “in church”—are primarily caused by living to get what they want?  How can the cross and self-denial become the central fact in a prosperous, consumer culture? How can discipleship to Jesus—in a sense recognizable from the Bible, with the spiritual transformation it brings—be the mode of operation in a thriving North American congregation.

Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken, pastors of Oak Hills Church near Sacramento, California, answer this question—the single most important question in the church culture of North America today.  They do that by telling the story of how they interacted with God, along with loving and courageous members of their congregation, to actually do it.  It is first of all a story of how they personally came to grips with the dynamics of a large “attractional” congregation, widely viewed as very successful. They found that “we (in the dominant form of church life today) have trained Christians to be demanding consumers, not disciples.” “It was the issue of consumerism that brought the conflicting values of external success and those of authentic spiritual formation into sharp contrast.”

But the dynamics of outward success in a church are rooted in the motivational forces of the pastors and leaders. These have to change before anything else does.  The pastors must themselves become disciples (in the New Testament sense), genuinely becoming in their concrete existence, their life and relationships, what one sees repeatedly depicted in well-known biblical passages. It is personal ambition that drives the machinery of ‘success’ in the church context, which is what comes out in the many dimensions of character failure that now are all too familiar. Often church members are caught up in their desire to be associated with a ‘successful’ church. Among the treasures expressed in this book is: “Christian leaders are more ready to be candid about sexual lust than ambition.” But lust fulfilled is only one dimension of the deeper drive to have my way.  The deeper root of consumerism in the church context is sensuality.

When that root has been cut in the individual life, then genuine ambition for God, and pride in the cross, can flourish. (Gal. 6:14)  The power of God can then flow out through transformed character to a world desperate for it.  Success is redefined by the spread of Kingdom presence throughout the community. Church growth is not just more Christians, but bigger Christians, flush with Christ’s character.

The co-pastors of Oak Hills Church came to know this through their own personal growth together—often in the travail and tumult of congregational processes and the pain of radical authenticity between them.  They came very practically to know and to rest in what it means for Christ to be in charge—not abstractly and in theory, but concretely, with real people and events, “warts and all.”  Another amazing insight is that “It is spiritually formative to be dissatisfied and unable to resolve it.” That is the prime location of faith and grace, building character.

The authors came to grips with major issues for practice—for what you actually must do if you intend to make the “Great Commission” of Matthew 28:18-20 into the “mission statement” for your group. First, you must intend to do that, and must lead your people into that intention. And your central message—your “gospel”—must be one that has a natural tendency to produce disciples of Jesus, not just avid consumers of religious goods and services. Disciples are self-starters in kingdom living, on the road with Jesus day in and day out. The gospel of life now in the present kingdom of the heavens (Matthew 4:17 etc.) will produce disciples. And then you organize your “meetings,” of whatever kind, around that intention and that message. You set the meetings up in a way that intelligently develops disciples and fosters their progressive transformation into christlikeness “from the insides.” Careful attention to the Spirit, the Bible, and how experience actually moves in individuals and groups will enable you to do this. It has been done, repeatedly in Christian history, and can be done now. Outwardly, in fact, your operation may not look much different than it does now. But its content, its goal, and its outcome will most assuredly bring the people involved into a path of contemporary holiness that looks at Matthew chapters 5-7, 1 Corinthians 13, and Colossians 3:1-17, and says: “Of course. That’s us.” Grace with training in fellowship will bring you there.

The authors would be the first to tell you that they have not “arrived” or have it all worked out. Indeed, as they clearly indicate, it just is not that kind of thing. But they understand the glory and goodness of Paul’s practice: “I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14) They know this is not inspirational verbiage, or only for spiritual oddities, but a statement of realism for church life. Anyone can carry this out, because God certainly will enable those who intend it. They will learn how as they go, because they have a Teacher who is faithful. Who is “with you always.” Really.

Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken love the church—not an abstract one, but the one that meets: here and there, down on the corner, or in a warehouse. They love their church. They know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with “the church”—those that meet—which discipleship and intelligent intention toward Christlikeness cannot more than fix.  Anyone who is concerned to break the grip of unchristlike Christianity on the “church visible” today, or on themselves, has only to “follow their example as they follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). Please read this book and creatively apply it to your situation, with The Teacher beside you. You don’t need more money or new facilities. Just begin where you are and all else will take care of itself. No, God will take care of it.


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