Classic JM: Subversive Math

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : December 23, 2007

Editor’s Note: Jesus Manifesto is going on holiday. We won’t be posting new content until Wednesday, December 26th. However, we thought you might enjoy some classic Jesus Manifesto articles. The first is from March 3, 2006:

IF we define the church simply as:

  • “Where the word of God is preached and the sacraments rightly administered.”


  • “A weekly event where I hear biblical preaching and join with others in musical worship.”

And if our our primary concerns are:

  • converting as many people to a gospel that can be communicated within a half hour


  • having Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, which will in turn, make them better disciples

Then, there is no reason why we shouldn’t have things like satellite churches. There also isn’t any reason why we shouldn’t try to grow as large as possible. If one agrees with the above, and believes that their church is doing a good job, why not try to gather as large a crowd as possible? Sure, there may be some things that condition how we understand the above…we might want to do it in a multicultural way, if that is a value of ours. Or we may wish to do it in a liturgical way, if that is a value of ours.

I think many churches see things the way I’ve laid out. That is why we have so many churches that are intentionally trying to “grow” their Sunday services and are trying to find ways of making things even bigger. They are being consistent with their ecclesiology. In their ecclesiology, numbers are very important. But so is biblical truth. But these two things are kept in tension. Some churches that want to attract a larger crowd will avoid the more provocative or heady parts of our faith. They will address is down the road in their small group programming or adult education programming. These folks may be accused of neglecting “biblical preaching” but they merely temper it a bit their desire for conversion. Other folks may have stronger preaching, believing that true seekers will still come, and that the congregation will be better equipped to go out and share their faith. They may be accused of neglecting seekers, but they merely temper their heart for seekers with a passion for biblical preaching. Other groups may hold these in tension with a commitment to the liturgy, or to some other core value, but it still makes sense to try to gather as big of a crowd as possible and perhaps even do such things as launching satellite congregations or building bigger sanctuaries. Such a move is faithful to their ecclesiology, which focuses a great deal on the worship service and the sermon. Most of the church budget for most churches is tied up in the weekly event–cost of a building for worship services, the cost of production each week, the pastor’s salary (who spends much, if not most, of his/her time preparing for the sermon), etc.

We shouldn’t get mad at people because their church is bigger or because they are starting satellite services or if they are building a larger building, or if they are always sending out mailers to reach out to more and more people. We shouldn’t be frustrated about how much these churches focus on numbers as a sign of success. If we define church the same way they do, then we have no reason to be upset. Everything is in keeping with their ecclesiology…

But I think their ecclesiology is wrong. I don’t simply think it is wrong for our postmodern times…as though it were good in the 80s but the wrong strategy for today. I think it is bad ecclesiology today…and I suspect that it was bad in the 80s. It has always been bad ecclesiology. Church shouldn’t be centered around an event.

Worship is a way of life, not just a 30 minute music set. The Gospel can’t be adequately communicated in 30 minutes (unless, perhaps, the person already understands a lot about Christianity). And, while preaching is important, it lacks the fundamental “one-another-ness” that we read about throughout the New Testament.

Many Christians will agree with what I am saying, but at the same time will do the “church as event” approach. If you think church isn’t about numbers, then stop counting.

If you think worship is about lifestyle, then don’t overvalue singing.

If you think church is a place to explore truth, then start discussing, rather than spend so much of your time listening to a sanctified lecture each week.

If you think church is a family of faith, then spend time in relationship rather than treating church as a 2 hour long weekly commitment.

If you agree that church is people, not a building, then stop saying “I’m GOING to church.”

We spend so much time attracting people to hear the “gospel” when we need to spend more much more energy in understanding how we can best embody and articulate the Gospel. We need, more than ever, to start developing the QUALITY of the church, and stop paying so much attention to QUANTITY. We need to use subversive math. Where we stop counting, and figure out what counts.

for further reading . . .

  • None Found


6 Responses to “Classic JM: Subversive Math”

  1. Rick on March 3rd, 2006 4:50 pm

    Great thoughts, really appreciate them.

    My kids are still quite young (all under 8 years old) and they have ALREADY got the habit of saying, ‘At CHURCH we did this’…despite my best intentions to always talk in a way that lifts up the body of Christ AS BODY.

    Of course, I forget too and default back way too much :)

  2. JVD on March 4th, 2006 2:14 pm

    Mark -

    Your new look is somewhat blinding - just some free feedback for you.


  3. blorge on March 4th, 2006 2:51 pm

    I found your post to be very insightful. I have had a hard time with people who say that church is all of the things you’ve said above, but then still go to megachurches or even traditional churches.

    We all have dichotomies between what we say we believe and what we live out, but shouldn’t the goal be to heal the disconnect as we’re sanctified in Christ?

  4. espiritu paz on March 5th, 2006 10:53 pm

    Okay, taking the pure theory of being church instead of going to church. I assume practical application is necessary. So my question is, how does one start being church when one?s experience has only been to mimic a parent?s “going to church”. How does one “change his mind” from being a church goer to a church liver. Does that conversion also take place in the mind, in the same way the church goer has been converted, in his hand raising decision to follow Christ? What marks a church liver from a church goer?

  5. Kristine Socall on March 11th, 2006 1:13 am

    Thanks for expressing so succinctly what I want to proclaim so often!

  6. Maria Kirby on December 24th, 2007 9:22 pm

    I have very mixed feelings on this. I agree that the focus shouldn’t be on the numbers. (I think this is almost impossible to do when the pastor’s salary is dependent on how many people give.) But I value very much spending time singing with other Christians, reading God’s word together, and practicing the Lord’s supper together. My beliefs get challenged through teaching or preaching times and that keeps me from getting too arrogant, and helps me to focus on things I could improve in my life. Not a bad ecclesiology.

    I know a number of people who do the traditional church thing that live their faith through out the week. I really am not convinced that the program is what’s at fault. If I were going to change anything, I would stop paying the pastors. I think its too hard to be honest, truthful, say the uncomfortable things that need to be said, when you’re getting paid by those whom you need to counsel or correct. Also, it’s too easy to discount someone’s concern for you when they’re getting paid to care for you.

    I think everyone has a story to tell about God’s working in their life. If I did pay a pastor, I would want him/her to help each person tell the story God has given them. I would want the pastor to shepherd each sheep into the community that could care for that sheep. I would not expect the pastor to do the care himself/herself.

Got something to say?