Recently, I got a mailing from another church saying they were "transforming Charlotte for Christ." I say "another" because it seems that I get something every other week from one Christian group or another planning to transform Charlotte for Christ. It would seem by now that one of them would have already transformed it. No matter, God bless their efforts--they are welcome to try.
Even so, I can't think of a single city, large or small in the developed world where it could be said that a single church or group of churches have transformed it for Christ. Overall, the churches today seem to have less impact on their cities than ever before. Crusades and programs come and go, yet the crime rate remains the same, unwed pregnancies continue to rise, abortion mills stay open, porn shops and night clubs continue to flourish, and the total number of churchgoers remain pretty much the same, shuffled between one megachurch or another.
I am not an expert on city transformation, but I can still speculate on some of the reasons why the churches' impact is so little felt.
First, there are preachers. Preachers are responsible for most church planning and promotion, and are usually the one declaring we should "transform Charlotte for Christ." But preachers (as everyone knows) are often notorious liars. They don't lie about the Bible or the Gospel, but they do stretch the truth quite a bit about their own personal importance and influence. We make one timid convers and count it as a hundred. We receive ten dissatisfied members from some other church which has just undergone a split, and tout it as if we had just broken the gates of hell. We forget that the world is impossibly big, and that one person or one church cannot win it alone, no matter how gifted or important we suppose ourselves to be. The only thing "city-wide" about most of us are our egos.
Second, we forget that when the church seeks to transform the city, the city in turn will begin to transform the church. It is a two way street. As we gain more influential perches from which to proclaim our message, the denizens of the city who are ever hungry for power and influence, will flock to us, hungry to use our influence for their own purposes. Politicians visit the big churches. Businessmen seek out networking opportunities, promoters of causes and providers of services will flatter our egos, worming their way onto church boards, promising money and influence. We kid ourselves into thinking we are exploiting these movers and shakers, but all the time they are exploiting us. As we grow in the city, we become like the city, indistinguishable in goals and standards from other institutions around us.
We preachers are susceptible to what Eugene Peterson likes to call "ecclesiastical pornography." The dream of some ideal, secure, and influential churches, which is smoothly transforming people around us with our slick programs, smooth preaching, and attractive members is just as sinful and misleading as the airbrushed babes of Playboy. We lust after this with an unholy lust that causes us to forget the real, ordinary parishioners around us. IN our quest for a city-transforming ministry, we look after the big and dishonor the small. For the sake of efficiency, we ignore the hurting in our own homes, thinking them less important than the hurting downtown. We speak prophetically to the big social issues, yet stay silent about the sins in our own house. We condemn homosexuality, but encourage pride, we condemn lust and leave gluttony alone, we fight abortion, but keep silent about prayerlessness. We become hollow, because we spend all our time on outer veneer, not inner transformation. We seek to transform the city, yet have forgotten to transform ourselves.
It's interesting to notice that while Paul--perhaps the greatest evangelist who ever lived--rarely mentioned evangelism in his letters to the churches. He did not berate the Ephesians, for example, to go out and transform Ephesus. Instead, he told them to seek Christ. When they sought to be like Christ, witnessing came with the package. Instead of making plans for world transformation, we should seek the transformation of our own souls. As we become like Jesus, we impact the world. On the other hand, if we try to become like the world in order to reach it, we will become less and less like Jesus.
Again, I don't want to berate churches who feel called to impact cities for Christ. I support their efforts. It's just that I often feel we are spreading grass seed when we should need to be planting oak trees. We are making converts who, like grass, fade with the slightest heat, when we should be establishing disciples with deep roots in the eternal Gospel, who will not fade in times of famine. It takes much longer, and is definitely less flashy to build a few praying Christians, but in the end, it is much more satisfying.