What is the premiere picture of a successful church? Jesus must be our most emphatic, and most-highly esteemed, paradigm of success. That means, the MOST SUCCESSFUL, MOST WORTHY OF ESTEEM AND EMULATION, CHURCH looks like Jesus and the apostles. The apostles, bear in mind, were blue-collar uneducated fisherman and former tax-collectors and zealots. Eventually, Jesus DID recruit a highly-educated fella named Saul of Tarsus, but in short order Jesus renamed him “Smalls” (i.e. Paul), and sent him on missions all over the world wherein Paul suffered, served, got himself imprisoned, shipwrecked, and chased around by angry mobs (see Acts 9:16). The DREAM scenario for PhD followers of Jesus these days is to teach in an accredited seminary – which is fine, but it CANNOT be the MOST EMPHATIC/HIGHLY ESTEEMED picture of success.
We are given a glimpse of our DREAM CHURCH in The Gospel of Mark chapter 7, and we are also offered a scathing critique of our fantasy:
Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,
“‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’
You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”
And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God) then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do.”Mark 7:1-3
The religious establishment of Jesus’ day looked just like our dream church in 2023 (e.g. lots of religious rules promising us lies of elitism and accommodating our craving for status; a superficial feeling of ‘political relevance’ [see Acts 24:27]; attractive facilities/impressive campuses; and prestigious programs; etc.). Meanwhile, in addition to denouncing our ‘dream church’, Jesus was a wandering, outdoorsy, vagabond preacher; touring in undesirable places (like Samaria [see John 4]), telling short stories like Flannery O’Connor [see Luke 10:25ff], and being most emphatically received by the lest popular people [see Mark 5:18].
And believe or not, Jesus didn’t just decry our most lusted after fantasy of ‘a successful church’, He also took physical action to display His disagreement with our “dream church.” For instance, in the Gospel of John chapter 2 it says,
“The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”John 2:13-17
The big biz and affluence we see on display in the temple is our view of success! This is how we “know” God is at work. We pursue the vision of something that rivals the scale, social status, and assumed relevance of a bustling mall – that’s our understanding of a church hitting the big-time!
But this cannot be true. Big, prosperous, church buildings and programs could perhaps be an option, but they CANNOT be the most ESTEEMED & IMITATION-WORTHY paradigms of a successful church. The most esteemed and imitation-worthy paradigm is Jesus of Nazareth, and those who actually follow The Way of Jesus (e.g. Paul/Smalls).