Someone once said that in the life of every problem there’s a time when it’s big enough to see, yet small enough to solve.
This is a pretty accurate view, I believe, of the internal mandate of the church -that of building up the body to full maturity, to a global “unity of the Faith”, and away from infantile doctrines (Ephesians 4:13-14).
This is what I call “up-river thinking” - solving problems when they become visible, but are still small.
We have, however, developed a down-river appetite for social change. We have become convinced that we must solve prejudice, climate, drugs, sex deviation, and all our social ills way down-river.
It’s so much more attractive to think down-river. We can make charts and take easy measurements, and plead the case so much more effectively when we think down-stream. It’s so much easier to activate people down-stream where the victims are as easy to identify as the villains are to target, where ideologies abound and funding flows.
There are, however, significant problems with down-river thinking, especially for believers.
The main one is that the Church was not called to solve social issues directly, certainly not as a sole response to social ills. The strategy of Christ in His church is to affect social change by causing the church to change, to grow and to mature and then to pour out its excess love onto the broken and hurting world around it, out of an abundance of it. “If my people called by my name...” God says in 2 Chronicles 7:14.
Jesus did not instruct the Church to sit around waiting for the world to change (as John Mayer suggested), or even to change the world. He instructed the Church to make disciples inside the church; to grow Christian individuals to maturity by teaching them to obey everything He instructed (Matthew 28:20). Christians are called to change fundamentally and that change is what will affect the world. And the history of the Church over 2,000 years has been one of affecting long-term positive social change from the inside out.
Another problem with down-river thinking is that it makes the local church look and feel somewhat redundant; busy discipling individual people while the sea level continues rising and racial tension continues to exist and the gender pay gap remains. The answer is not to update the Church but to renew our post-modern minds back to Christ’s factory settings (Romans 12:2). Christ’s plan, the Church, works when we go according to his design.
Then the problem with the down-river mindset is that it is both woefully ineffective and very expensive. It gets people hitting ‘like’ buttons, pouring ice buckets over their heads, and funding marketing campaigns, but it does very little to solve the problem. It makes people feel like they’re doing something significant for people they will never meet (without the mess and humility of having to change much of their behavior toward those close to them). That is the exact inverse of the gospel message. The gospel instructs the saved to take logs out of their own eyes first (Matthew 7:5).
Lastly, down-river thinking in the church impoverishes the Church, preventing it from tackling the up-river problems that it was designed to fix.
This last issue is, arguably, the worst of them. The local church was designed to be fully funded by the local church and then some. It is to fully support those whose job is preaching and teaching (1 Corinthians 9:14), with the Ephesians 4 goal in mind of the growth and discipleship of those in the local church.
The local church is also to have reserves to help those inside the church who are in need and to reach out to those outside the church who are in need.
It is to fund its own replication in regular church plants. It is also to fund apostolic (or missionary) endeavors into hard-to-reach people groups, cities, and nations.
But we have so many extremely narrow-focused para-church, down-river endeavors, each taking their turn at the pulpit of the local church. They are well meaning for the most part but effectively they are expecting the local church to defund its biblical, up-river discipleship mandate in order to fund each of their down-river social programs. Many local church members are easily motivated emotionally, not necessarily biblically, to fund these endeavors at the expense of their support of the local church. The vast majority of those funds go to the marketing arms of these down-river social programs. And there are many of them, with new ones coming online all the time as the culture of social idealism grows.
Christians are saved with character flaws and selfish propensities which are to be corrected in the local church with time and grace. Christians are also saved with gifts that are to be developed and Kingdom callings to be achieved. This takes time, skill, resources, and intentional discipleship. Without intentional and patient discipleship in the local church we perpetuate and even contribute to the down-river social ills that we were so moved to try and solve with our donations. In many cases we unwittingly sacrifice the calling of our own children and their children in the process. We need to remember that the mandate of the Church is to make believers and then to disciple them!
Without intentional and patient discipleship in the local church we perpetuate and even contribute to the down-river social ills that we were so moved to try and solve with our donations.
I’ll give you one fundamental example: marriage. When we divide the tithe of the local church between drug rehabs, unwanted pregnancy programs, and other down-river Christian–or Bible–based social ideas, then we hamper the effective discipleship of husbands and wives. This has enormous local and multi-generational, social ramifications. The local church stops calling individual men and women, to overcome their specific character flaws and to unite against the social dysfunctions around them; to be true to their calling from Christ, and to raise up and envision a new godly generation (Malachi 2:15). We end up with teens surviving unnecessary divorce or overbearing parenting with no godly vision of their own and with little discipline in their lives. At the first chance they get they leave family and church and so become part of the very problem we were so moved to solve.
Your local church was designed and built by Jesus to work steadily and consistently on up-stream, individual Christian discipleship - one believer at a time. That is its mandate and calling. Far from redundant, this strategy was Jesus’ idea to being His Church spotless to her Groom.
The gates of Hell will not stand against it; but we, the Church, must see its vital importance and empower it. It is not the para-church organization that keeps watch over us as those who must give an account To Christ. It’s not the para-church organization to which we are called to submit; and it’s not the para-church organization to whom God gives authority (Hebrews 13:17). When God writes letters to planet earth He doesn’t address the government or the non-profit, He addresses the leaders of His Church because God is interested in long-term change which comes from the up-river labor of the Church.
It’s a lot harder hard to solve up-river problems, by orders of magnitude. It’s expensive and emotionally taxing. It takes a lot of wisdom, discernment, and time, it relies on deep and committed relationships and good, well-prepared preaching and copious amounts of prayer, it needs called, skilled, and gifted people leading it. Many local church pastors do it on shoe-string budgets while holding down second or third jobs because so much financial resource is being diverted to down-stream Christian programs. But up-river is where the church is called to be.
So get involved, belong to a local church, with all its imperfections. Devote your volunteer time and efforts to your local church. Get behind her vision, pray for her and her leaders. Did you know that Christians cut off half of the biblical conflict resolution options when they neglect being part of a local church? Not to mention the support, fellowship, encouragement, and, of course, discipleship.
So fund your local church well, start at a 10% of your pre-tax income (Proverbs 3:9), that seems like a good place to start; and grow from there. If you are passionate about down-stream social problems like drugs or poverty or pollution or adoption, then, by all means, fund them too; but not at the expense of your local up-stream problem solving machine... your local church. Fund her well. Then be discipled yourself. Get vulnerable with the calling God has given you and with your sin and character propensities. Disciple someone else, volunteer your abilities and service at your local church.
This is the vehicle that God uses to bring truth, freedom, and salvation to our fallen world!