In a private moment, a large church pastor complained to me that he was at his wit’s end with leading his church because they were a church of studying rather than doing. He said that the church was full of comfortable Christians who could knock down a Bible study with the best of them but refused to fully surrender their lives to God’s leadership. Hundreds of believers had waded as deep as they could go without getting splashes of water on their face or having to actually swim.
I understand his frustration.
At various points in my career I’ve gotten discouraged at the pervasiveness of church people who just want to play. People become Christian insiders. They moan about their preferences. They complain when things aren’t to their liking. They want things their way. I’ve seen it in blue collar churches and rich churches, northern churches and southern churches, Arminian churches and Reformed churches.
No matter where I go, there are many people comfortable on the shoreline and far fewer compelled to swim deeper in the waters of faith. There are an especially large number of stage four people who have waded as deep as they can go without letting their feet off the ground.
Many of my creative friends questioned my return to the local church precisely for this reason – they asked me why I would want to subject my art and my sanity to the whims and injunctions of people comfortable with telling others things such as what point size to make the text in a bulletin and especially accustomed to doing so with a random, trifling church worker.
If it seems on some – perhaps most – days that our messages do very little changing of hearts and lives, then how do we continue to fight the good fight?
There’s a Percentage to Conversion.
As I noted earlier, it’s interesting to me that the word church people use for coming to faith is the same word marketing people use for making a new customer: conversion. And in neither case do we ever see a 100% rate.
Most of us have unreasonably high expectations for conversion.
There’s a little gem of a story in the middle of Luke that offers clues about the relationship of crowd and disciple, and the mathematics of moving people down the shoreline.
As Luke’s story goes, Jesus traveled along the border from Samaria and Galilee.
(You don’t think the Bible can be read as literature? A border is a beautiful device to describe the line he straddled in his ministry between the religious insiders of his faith and the larger secular world in which he worked. This doesn’t make the text true or false, but it elevates it to a level of truth that is more than a statement of fact, but is a description of his mission.)
As he got near a town, ten lepers come to him for healing. He healed them – or more precisely and significantly, he told them what to do next, and as they obeyed they discovered that they were healed.
What comes next is even more interesting. Only one returns to praise God at Jesus’ feet. One. And the one who returned was not a religious insider, like the others – he was a Samaritan, a religious outsider.
Jesus experienced the mathematics of ministry. Using the leper story, we can derive a rough formula:
[CROWD] / 10 = DISCIPLES
We don’t know the level of Jesus’ surprise at this turn in the story, but we do know that he recognized the irony. He says, “Weren’t ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? No one returned to praise God except this foreigner?”
Our Job Isn’t to Move People Forward Five Steps at Once.
There will always be a heckuva lot more people on the shore than in the water than those wading in the shallow water, and there will always be a lot more people walking in the deep water than actually swimming in the deep. Jesus demonstrates it in this biblical story, and anyone in ministry knows it to be true.
Our job in ministry is not to focus on those back on the shore who refuse to get wet. In fact, the more we look at them, the more frustrated we get at their stubbornness, and the more we lose focus on those actually engaging and wrestling with Jesus.
Our job in ministry is to help those coming down the shore by engaging them, building intrigue and presenting them the call that changes their hearts and lives.
The story of the 10 lepers shows us that 90% of the people who cross our path won’t ever return to heed the fullness of the call of discipleship. It’s too counter-cultural. Yet we heal them anyway, pray for baby steps in the sand, and celebrate the ones who dive deep.
In Marketing Language, 10% is a Great Conversion Rate.
The story of the ten lepers shows us that we will reach ten times as many people with the gospel as will heed the fullness of the call to discipleship. A lot more people stay on the shore, or barely move into the waters of faith, as will wade into the deep, and even leave their feet. This is not a problem in the church to criticize, but simply the way it works.
Some churches that focus on the early stage of faith get criticized for “attractional” practices. When you consider the mathematics of discipleship, and the scope of Jesus Marketer, such criticisms are ridiculous and makes no sense. Sure, a large church with a charismatic pastor may seem like a cult of personality, it may pander to people’s needs rather than the prophetic calling of the church, and it may struggle with a clear path to discipleship. But it is just operating on an economy of scale, and in the big picture doing a good job with its 10% goal.
We may never get above 10% in our work, but 10% is actually a fabulous conversion rate and perhaps cause for celebration.
If we can hit 10%, then we’re doing a good job of implementing Jesus Marketer.