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The startup mentality: Why the church is better than the next big thing

Like most of us who came of age in a post-Microsoft world, I grew up on the nursery rhymes written in a culture that idolizes the almighty startup. Whether it was Steve Job’s genius forged in a garage, Bill Gate’s battle to create the perfect operating system, or Google’s unconventional work environment and Internet-eclipsing success, the moral behind the folklore was clear: It pays to be a part of the next big thing.

The giants that rose out of Silicon Valley made us all want to be entrepreneurs. We want to invent an idea or a product that goes viral. (If we can wear our Converse high tops to work while doing it, that’s even better). I’m grateful for the ways many startups have added convenience to my life. I’m typing this blog post on my MacBook Pro (Thank you, Apple). If I get stuck, I’ll quickly Google to find the right information or Bible verse. If I need office supplies, or toilet paper, or a gift for a coming baby shower, I’m thrilled to be able to drop my purchases in a virtual shopping cart and find them on my doorstep 48 hours later (Thank you, Amazon). But the tidal wave of startups has churned up something dangerous beneath the surface of our hearts. As I scan the horizon, I feel compelled to shoot up a warning flare.

Sticking with it over startup

I hear it most often among the young women I teach. They love Jesus. They love his Word, and somewhere along the line, the idea of a unique and individual “calling” has fallen on their shoulders like a ton of bricks. They want to do “big things” for the kingdom of God. They want to be a part of something new for God’s glory. (And if those “big things” come with an adorable office and a brand they can build, that’s even better.) The end result is often spiritual paralysis, they don’t use their gifts because they aren’t sure where they will have maximum impact.

The church doesn’t just need entrepreneurs, the church needs stick-with-iters.

Here’s the rub: The church doesn’t just need entrepreneurs, the church needs stick-with-iters. We don’t need more sharks in the Shark Tank. We need fishers of men, willing to do the ongoing and often unglamourous work of investing in the kingdom over the long haul.  

While God’s Word does call us to live surrendered lives and to adopt a willingness to go where God calls us and do whatever he asks, it also calls us to value small over big, faithfulness over distractibility, humility over building our own brand. Instead of grabbing market share, we give our time and talent away for the good of our fellow believers. There is tremendous kingdom value to be gained when we faithfully and anonymously give to our local church, though it’s unlikely to generate the buzz the startup culture can.

The original startup

The church is the original startup. Launched in an upper room, led by Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit, with a hodgepodge bunch of guys crazy enough to bet everything they had on the mission, the church is how the amazing idea that the gospel is for all mankind went viral. The disciples caught the world on fire with their message and this simple mission statement:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:19-20).

More than two thousands years later, the new may have rubbed off, but the mission has not changed. We are called to make disciples. We are called to teach the Word. We are called to cheer each other on as we strive to be a source of light in a very dark world. And we are called to do it primarily through the church. The local church may not be new news, but it is uniquely designed in these three ways.

1. Authority: As Paul traveled through Europe and Asia planting churches, he implemented a specific and effective leadership structure. Titus 1:5-9 describes the appointment of elders in the local church. These overseers are to be godly, self-controlled, and dedicated to the welfare of the local church. Matthew 18 gives church leadership permission to participate in discipline of the flock when needed. Ephesians 4:11-16 recognizes the role of shepherds in the Church and calls them “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

God has given church leaders authority in our individual and collective lives for our own spiritual health and the health of the Body. A board of directors or executive team are not good substitutes for the spiritual and practical leadership offered by the local church. Part of the allure of the startup mentality is the ability to buck the system to some degree, to forge our own path. Yet, we never outpace our need for elder and pastoral authority in our lives.

2. Funding: Not only is the church the original startup, she is also the original crowdsourcing forum. In the Old Testament, God instituted the tithe, calling his people to give a portion of their belongings back to kingdom work (Lev. 27:30, Num. 18:26, 2 Chron. 31:5). The New Testament church upped the ante, sharing all of their belongings with each other (Acts 4:32). Either way, the big idea is this: our resources are from the Lord and belong to the Lord. We gladly surrender them for kingdom gain.

Each time we drop money in the offering plate, we are loosening our grip on our individual purse strings. We don’t control the exact use of the funds we give, but trust the church leadership to use them to minister to the collective Body. In my own church, we need funds for several covert ministry efforts few know anything about. A few examples include:

  • Portable communion trays for delivering the Lord’s supper to shut-ins and the infirm.
  • Buying supplies for an anonymous volunteer who cooks chicken pot pies and stocks the church freezer to feed families in crisis.
  • Curriculum and supply needs for an anonymous recovery ministry we host and support but are unable to advertise due to the nature of their focus.

What about the individuals who clean the church toilets? That ministry is essential, yet not glamorous enough to generate donations. How about the individuals who are serving anonymously? Should they receive no financial support from the church simply because their profile is low? The local church takes the funds given by believers and spreads the love to many different ministry efforts, the seemingly big and significant and the seemingly small and insignificant, because we know God is using them all.

3. Impact: When we minister in the local church, our impact on the world around us is collective and progressive. You use your gifts to serve others. I do the same, and our efforts add another layer of brick and mortar to the foundation laid by Christ and built upon by the Christians who came before us. We are building something together through the ages that Christ has promised will stand through eternity (Matt. 16:18).

There is a higher good than something fresh and new. It is something old and unchangeable.

As I serve in my own church, I like to think of myself as a runner responsible for a single lap in a long and high stakes race. The baton that was passed from Christ to Peter to Paul to Jonathan Edwards to Charles Spurgeon to Billy Graham, has in some ways, been passed to me for a brief moment. I get to share the gospel, teach the Word, and equip the saints for this brief moment of time, and I don’t want to fumble. Instead of spending my time starting to build something new, I want to keep building the legacy of the church that’s been under construction for thousands of years.

The gospel is a message that never needs re-branded. The local church, though operated by flawed and broken people, will remain the epicenter of individual and cultural transformation until Christ returns. Instead of looking to only invest in the next big thing, may we be a people who faithfully invest in one of the best things Christ has already given us—the local church.

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