Leaving Fishbowl Christianity Behind

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A couple years ago I decided I wanted to do something special for our kids.

So on a whim I jumped into their room and announced we were going to get some fish. The girls screamed with excitement. We hopped in the car and headed to the pet store. Together we picked out some fish to adopt and a whole setup for them. We even splurged on a Sponge Bob motif equipped with miniature versions of Squidward’s house and the Krusty Krab for our fish to lounge in after a long day.

We got it all home and spent most of the evening getting the whole thing setup. Finally the moment came for the fish to enter their new habitat. The girls and I counted down from ten, “10, 9, 8, 7…” and then we plopped them in. The girls jumped up and down with anticipation as they watched the fish explore their new home. I gotta admit I was feeling pretty great as a dad in that moment.

To our horror, however, over the next twenty-four hours we watched as one-by-one the fish began to float a little funny. “What are they doing, dad?” “Uh, they’re back floating honey.” (Which technically was not a lie.)

Within two days all of them were dead. Every single one.

And so more than a little defeated, I made the trip back to the pet store to meet with the aquarium specialist. He explained to me that fishbowl environments are very temperamental. He had me bring in a sample of our fishbowl water to test. Then he gave me some directions, instructed me in how to clean the aquarium, gave me some additives to put in the water and sent me home with a new batch of aquatic life to destroy. And to the horror of our girls, destroy them I did.

After three tries, I gave up. We have since gotten rid of said aquarium.

I learned the hard way that it takes a lot of work to try to sustain life in a fishbowl. It is not a natural environment. There’s no natural filtering or feeding or cleaning system. In a natural environment all of this is already there. But fish weren’t created for fishbowls, nor have they evolved to be able to live there. The best you can do with a fishbowl is try to mimic the real thing.

As we in the Loy home experienced, this is easier said than done. It’s not cheap. It requires some equipment purchases on the front end and constant attention. Because of the stagnant nature of a fishbowl, it is recommended that 50-100% of the water be replaced every few days. If you don’t do this, the water turns toxic and everything inevitably dies.

I share this story because I think it serves as a pretty good illustration of what we in the American Church have largely done with the message and movement of Jesus. I fear we’ve taken the wild message of the gospel and domesticated it. We’ve removed the movement of Jesus from its natural environment and settled for an artificial one where vibrant spiritual life is nearly impossible to sustain. We’ve largely focused on playing church on the weekends rather than being the church during the week.

For some of us, the fishbowl is the only thing we’ve ever known. We’ve been raised in it. We’ve been trained in it. We’ve been swimming in it for years. We just don’t know it.

In fishbowl Christianity, things like faith and worship and mission are centralized in the fishbowl. Everything becomes focused on what happens here. Most of the church’s resources are spent on making that fishbowl as attractive as possible. And the goal of the church becomes attracting and keeping as many people in the fishbowl as possible. The bigger and fuller the fishbowl, the more successful the church is typically assumed to be.

Of course, we find evidence of this kind of thinking everywhere.

A couple years ago I graduated from seminary. I’ve had the privilege of taking classes at four different seminaries along the way and my experience was overall a very positive one. But I will say this, most traditional seminary programs over the last century have focused largely on simply equipping pastors to manage and grow the fishbowl without killing everything in the process.

I’ve also had the opportunity to attend a number of Christian conferences over the years. Large ones and small ones. Keynote messages and breakout sessions. And speaking generally, many of them have simply been about rearranging the fishbowl.

It’s Sunday morning centric. It’s church building centric. Just another day in the fishbowl.

And the problem is it seems to me to be one massive effort in missing the point.

Jesus didn’t say, “Go out and make attenders of all nations.”  But we sure act like it sometimes. We treat the Great Commission like little more than a good suggestion for us to take or leave at our leisure. Far too often it seems we church leaders spend the best of our time and energy on weekend planning and prep, as if attending the fishbowl is the main event of the Christian experience. Some of us even staff this way. When we planted Mosaic I was repeatedly told my first hire needed to be my music guy. Thankfully this is advice I repeatedly rejected. It simply made no sense to me to use our limited financial resources to staff for an hour on Sunday. But many churches do exactly that.

That said, it’s taken us a while to get there, but the Western church is slowly waking up to the reality that our focus on the fishbowl isn’t working.

Consider for a moment:

  • The U.S. is now one of the largest mission fields on earth.
  • We receive more Christian missionaries coming to us than most nations in the world.
  • Almost every major denomination is reporting consistent decline.
  • The “nones” are growing and the Millenials are largely disappearing from church.
  • We can’t plant enough churches to keep up with the number that have to close their doors each year.
  • The church in the West has largely lost its voice in the broader culture and in some cases for very good reason.

I think we can safely say that generally speaking, the church in the West is really struggling. It has all but come to a screeching halt in terms of reach and influence. Meanwhile in other parts of the world the church is flourishing and growing rapidly. In some places in the Southern and Eastern hemispheres the church is growing in biblical book-of-Acts kinds of proportions. Why is that? What are they doing that we’re missing?

   Well I’ll tell you what they’re not doing. They’re not primarily focused on tending the fishbowl. In places like China where the movement of Jesus has gone viral, meeting together with hundreds of other Christians on Sunday morning isn’t even possible. In places like Africa the church doesn’t often have the resources to get caught up in things like having just the right sound system, or the perfect amount of fog in the auditorium, or branding the next teaching series well, or getting those mailers out on time.

God can certainly use those things and I believe he sometimes does, but if what we’re seeing right now is any indication, not only are they not nearly as important as we have often treated them, but maybe just maybe they can actually get in the way of us focusing on what we’ve actually been called to do: make disciples.

And one of the hard truth about making disciples is it cannot and does not happen in an hour on Sunday. I still believe Sundays are valuable and an important part of the life of a church, but I just don’t think it is nearly as valuable as many of our church budgets would suggest it is. The real action happens Monday through Saturday in the stuff of every day life. That’s where disciples are made.

So, why do I write this? If I’m really honest, I’ve reached a point where I’m kind of over the fishbowl. It just no longer interests me all that much. There was a time when I was happy to keep counting Sunday attendance as if that was actually a good indicator of what God was doing in our midst. And truthfully, I’ve found it’s actually relatively easy to play that game, especially when you feel like you’re winning. But really studying Jesus, his kingdom and his call has a way of expanding one’s vision beyond simply what’s happening in the fishbowl. And when that happens, some of the fishbowl stuff begins to lose some of its sweetness. Again, it’s not that there’s no value to it. It’s just that it’s far less valuable than I have often treated it.

So here are a few things I’m doing in this next season:

I. Thinking Smaller

For years educators have been dialed into the fact that learning is accomplished better in small groups. The bigger the room, the bigger the challenge. It’s rather funny then how much effort we pastors often put into what has been proven to be a rather ineffective learning environment. Jesus spoke to the crowds, but he invested most of his time and energy into a few. It seems he was well aware that was where the real fruit would be. So in this next season I’m trying to be more faithful in following his lead. This means focusing less on getting everyone in the room at the same time and focusing more on helping as many people as possible get connected in smaller disciple-making environments.

II. Moving Slower

Eugene Peterson has been saying for years that “busyness is the enemy of spirituality.” The older I get, the more convinced I am that he’s exactly right. For years I bragged about how busy I was. I wore it like a badge of honor as if my exhaustion was just one of the crosses I had to bear. What an idiot I was. It took me a long time realize what others have learned before me, namely that “I was so busy doing God’s work that it was killing the work of God in me.” I’m not willing to do that anymore. Life is too short and God is too good to fail to enjoy all that is available to us in Jesus. So in this next season I am slowing down with my Savior, with my family and with our church.

III. Measuring Differently

Most of us pastors were trained to pay close attention to things like Sunday giving and attendance. It’s not that those things are bad, it’s just that I don’t see anything in the life of Jesus that would lead me to believe either are on his scorecard for measuring our church’s effectiveness. After all, Jesus didn’t call us to gather a crowd. He called each of us to be a disciple who makes disciples. And it’s very possible to have a big church with a big budget and a lights-out show in the fishbowl every Sunday while at the same time be making relatively few disciples. I don’t want to be that church. And I hope you don’t either. For us this means changing both what we measure and what we give the best of our time and energy to. For me part of this has meant dialing back preaching to just 50% of the time. Personally, I’m no longer convinced we ought to always strive for excellence in our worship gatherings. If we have to choose, I’d rather see us strive for excellence in our disciple-making environments and settle for good enough on the weekends. One is simply more important than the other.

IV. Watering the grass where it’s green

I once heard Alan Hirsch use this illustration. He compared navigating change to caring for your lawn. He said if most of the grass in your lawn is dead but you’ve got one small green patch left, you don’t fix your lawn by repeatedly dumping gallons of water on the dead stuff. You fix your lawn by caring for the green stuff and helping it multiply. That is an illustration that has stuck with me. The truth is I know there are a lot of people in the American Church (mine included) who are perfectly content to attend, manage and periodically rearrange the fishbowl. It’s all they’ve ever known and they aren’t interested in changing. That’s the brown stuff. But then there are those who are hungry to really know Jesus and the life he offers. They’re teachable. They’re moldable. They want to be a disciple who makes disciples. That’s the green stuff. That’s a person who is positioned to grow and multiply. These are the kinds of people who I want to give the best of our time and attention in this next season. Indeed, these are the ones I believe will lead us into the future.

So all that to say, I’m not giving up on Jesus’ church. Not even close. If anything, I’m pressing deeper. I’m just not willing to keep investing my best in the fishbowl. Not when there’s a big blue ocean to be explored and all kinds of places the church has yet to go. In this next season I more interested in helping our church scatter than gather, in increasing our sending capacity over our seating capacity, in making disciples who are living on mission rather than simply talking to attenders about what mission might look like.

So how about you? Have you experienced this tension? How have you seen the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the church focusing almost entirely on the fishbowl? I'd love to hear from you in the comments.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.