My buddy Zach just published a breathtaking book called The Light is Winning. These are his words, so if you like them, go get a copy of the book, or enter the giveaway below and win your very own copy!
Over time, I’ve come to believe that the American church cannot be its true self and will never accomplish its gospel mission unless it continually repents of its entanglement with the business of empire and gets back on the kingdom track. Repentance as an ongoing spiritual practice is one of the most beautiful fruits of an apocalypse in our lives, if we are willing to receive it. Will we participate in this necessary suffering leading us to a necessary ending and a new beginning? Or will we keep delaying the inevitable by holding on to that which is passing away?
The New Testament provides a powerful testimony against American consumerist metrics of spiritual achievement. It claims that not only did the Messiah suffer and die, but he did so as a pattern for his people: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). A necessary suffering leading to a necessary ending.
What a contrast to the rhetoric we’ve grown so accustomed to hearing in our American Christian culture. We talk endlessly about being “world changers” who have churches that grow “exponentially.” We are obsessed with triumphalist positivity. We hold conference after conference and workshop after workshop to unlock more material success. Our values are “the bigger, the better.” The shinier, the better. The more media coverage, the more likes and shares, the more sold-out shows and events, the better. We are a mess of consumerist obligations, desperately seeking identity in what the church can acquire. We are drowning in the metrics of spiritual achievement.
Like Don Draper in Mad Men, we are trying to sell happiness.
Even in the realm of church planting, we have bought into these metrics, convincing ourselves that an ever-evolving set of strategies will surely lead us to the promised land of a brand new megachurch/multichurch empire. The church I planted was small, but I still desperately wanted it to succeed, and to make a mark and “leave a legacy.” And I held it so tightly, allowing myself to drift into anxiety and frustration that skewed my perspective. But even when success is achieved, consumerist obligations still lead us off the kingdom course. They are no sign of health, no measure of mission. They are first-half-of-life exercises in idealism that barely scratch the surface of who the church really is, her true self.
In the words of theologian Stanley Hauerwas, “Church growth strategies are the death gurgle of a church that has lost its way.”
In one of my final sermons to our dwindling church plant, I talked a little bit about grace:
Grace is surrender.
Grace, really, is giving up.
It’s giving up on self, and it’s giving up on striving. It’s giving up plans and dreams and hopes. It’s giving up your vision. It’s giving up on the purpose and direction that you hold dear and precious, like Paul did when he experienced insults and hardships and persecutions that rudely interrupted his purpose and direction.
Grace is that kind of giving up.
Grace is often the death of what is most dear. Sometimes, grace is the death of your life’s work. The death of the thing that you have poured every waking moment into, for years. The thing that has caused you to stay awake for countless sleepless nights. The thing that you dedicated every ounce of who you are to build, every drop of blood in your heart expended until you have nothing left. Grace is watching that work fall apart, assailed and attacked until it comes crumbling down bit by bit, stone by stone.
Grace is the very soft place of defeat and death.
Our church plant had to die for deeper health to come to everyone involved, including myself and my little family. And while it took some darkness and deconstruction for my heart to accept the words I shared that day, I finally did, and I felt free.
And not a moment too soon. Rob Bell, the author who famously left the pastorate at his midwestern megachurch for a less institutional path, once said, “If the sitcom is funny for five seasons, they make seven. Most people stay too long. And what should be a graduation becomes a divorce.” While I never fully stopped going to church or serving the church in those few years after the church closure, deep down, I was done. My wife was done. Our family was done. And once I accepted that doneness, new perspectives burst wide open. And what had been a dark and churning cynicism, still wrestling with the eruption I’d experienced, at last settled into a calming realism, an acceptance of all that had happened, an openness to all that may lie ahead.
For just as the wilderness was temporary for the Israelites, who, liberated, yet found themselves wandering and waiting for what’s next, so the wilderness that you and I may have to traverse, for however long, is temporary. This deconstruction is not demolition. Not if we exit through the wilderness and to the place of promise.
As mentioned above, I've got a copy of Zach's book to give away, and I can't wait to send it you (yes you!) You can get one entry apiece for doing each of the following things:
1. Subscribe to Zach's newsletter at zhoag.com/newsletter
2. Follow Zach on Twitter at @zhoag
3. Leave a comment below about ways that you see the light winning in your own life
4. Order a copy of "The Light is Winning"
These are all on the honor system, so nobody is going to check to make sure you actually did them, but who would lie about something like this? Not you? Awesome. Comment below and let me know which of the 4 (or all of the 4) that you did, and please leave your email address.
The contest will run until 9PM Pacific time on Friday, June 16th. I'll contact the winner via email and get a book sent out on Monday, June 19th.
Best of luck!
Zach Hoag is an author, preacher, and creator from New England. Planting a church in one of the least churched cities in the U.S. (Burlington, Vermont), and pursuing ministry beyond that in a variety of spaces, Zach has learned a few things about the power of a deeply rooted life in Christ. Zach has found belonging in the Vermont countryside where he lives with his wife, Kalen, and their three girls. Find him writing at zhoag.com and follow him on Twitter @zhoag.