Evangelical Christianity struggles with many idols. One of the biggest idols I would suggest is that of church growth. It is needlessly divisive and being done when people at the church are falling through the cracks. In the process authority is often used questionably as well. Today’s post deals with Fairfax Community Church launching a church plant in Clarksburg, Maryland without discussion in the church if this plant is wise. Then it launched a $16 million dollar expansion campaign called “A Better $tory” to grow further. Eagle has a question for Rod Stafford and the leadership of Fairfax Community Church…for whose glory are you doing this expansion for? Yourself and the empire of a church? Or is this being done for God?
“After all, the chief business of the American people is business…”
“Growth is never by mere chance; it is the result of forces working together.”
James Cash Penny
“This past weekend our parking team saw several cars come into the lot, not find a spot and drive away. Stories like that are heartbreaking!”
Rod Stafford – Senior Pastor of Fairfax Community Church
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?”
He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.”
John 21:17 NIV
Several months back I wrote about how Fairfax Community Church (FCC) responded to two tragedies that deeply affected the American psyche. The first one dealt with how FCC responded to the mass shooting by Adam Lanza in Newtown, Connecticut. The way a visiting pastor, Dan Turner, tackled the problem of evil deeply impressed an agnostic who was trying to figure out whether or not I should stay or go? If you want to read about my journey before I ended up at Fairfax Community Church you can read this post here on this blog. However, when a massacre happened right in FCC’s back yard of the Navy Yard the response by the church was to largely act like nothing happened. No grieving, no mourning, no pastor who lead the congregation in a time of grief. Instead the evangelical circus must continue. That Sunday morning the ringmaster for the circus was John Fawlke. Out of all the years I’ve been in differing churches the response by FCC to the Navy Yard shooting was an all time epic fail. You can read that post here. Today I am going to talk about another issue that I believe is important and threatening the health of evangelical Christianity – which I believe is a sick and diseased movement in many ways. I saw this issue affect Fairfax Community Church while I was there and then when I decided to leave it still remained an issue. That issue is an obsession with church growth.
Frustration…and a Church Plant in Clarksburg, Maryland
When I attended Fairfax Community Church there was one issue that I heard fairly regularly from others that was something that I dealt with myself. The church had been too focused on growth and that growth was working against it. In addition people were falling through the cracks and I was surprised to know people who suddenly disappeared. When I heard from them again they had left FCC just frustrated with the issue of the size of the church. Now when I moved here from Milwaukee in 2005 I attended briefly in the old building on Hunt Road. The building was small, cramped and parking was extremely difficult. The church was in a residential area so it was hard to find. When I was there I knew that the church needed to find a new location. So I want to be clear that I am not opposed to church growth. The old church at Hunt Road was suffocating. However, today the church has gone to the other extreme and has become enamored with growth. It reflects in two ways which I would like to write about. The first is a church plant in Maryland that was done with out any input from the congregation. The second one is a $16 million campaign called A Better $tory which I think has deep concerns and reveals how the leadership is out of touch and living in a bubble.
On September 28, 2014 Fairfax Community Church opened up a church plant in Montgomery County, Maryland called Clarksburg. It was another church formerly called Lakewood Church of God that decided to join Fairfax Community and voted to do so. You can read more about the merging here. On the Fairfax Community Church’s side leadership moved forward and decided to pursue a church plant apparently without seeking or letting the congregation give advice or even determine if this is indeed healthy for the church. Fairfax Community Church is part of the Church of God in Anderson Indiana denomination. Fairfax Community Church doesn’t have elders, what they have instead is called an Advisory Council. They fill the capacity of elders, and I would say are in fact defacto elders, though technically they are not. The Advisory Council of Fairfax Community are Bob Moss, David Black, Dennis Stotts, Jon Farmelo, Matt Anderson, and the Senior Pastor Rod Stafford.
A Better $tory and a $16 Million Giving Campaign
After launching Clarksburg Fairfax Community also unveiled a church growth campaign called A Better $tory. It would be a campaign that would involve both Clarksburg, and Fairfax churches. The goal is to raise $16 million dollars in 2 years. The plan was laid out in a series of 5 sermons that were given starting on February 8, 2015. The first sermon was called The Mission of a Better $tory. That was followed by More Than a Consumer which was given on February 15. Then there is Moving From Fear to Trust given on March 1, 2015. After that sermon the next one given was called All In. This all culminated in the final talk which closed out the A Better $tory campaign which was called All In Weekend. People at Fairfax Community were asked to give you can read the breakdown here. It includes a request for a one time gift, or one investment of a million dollars at one end of the spectrum. On the other side of the spectrum there are 250 gifts or 250 investments of $1200.00. In light of the church plant in Clarksburg and A Better $tory campaign there are several issues that I want to raise. The first is that authority and the misuse of authority has been on the rise in evangelicalism. You can deal with questionable authority in a seeker sensitive church that can be just as problematic and have authority issues as a Neo Calvinist/9 Marks church in the SBC. In the seeker sensitive world authority is often about power. When Fairfax Community Church moved forward on major decisions such as Clarksburg without letting the church body be able to participate in such decisions I would suggest that it is a highly questionable use of authority. When a church fails to use its authority properly I would suggest that its an insult to God. In my previous post I wondered why Fairfax Community Church really didn’t engage or respond appropriately to the Navy Yard shootings? After all what good is a church that is silent and doesn’t minister to pain in its own backyard? Why does Fairfax Community Church even exist if it goes on like business as usual amidst such pain? I privately wondered at the time if the leadership of FCC is in a bubble and the Clarksburg plant as well as the plan behind a “A Better $tory” only helps to confirm that point.
Evangelicals and Money/Manipulating Nehemiah
Before we continue lets consider the following, there are many people who live and work in the DC area who make a living working for the federal government or contracting. Due to budgetary issues the government is constricting and many contractor positions are being terminated or let go. I am hearing more and more of contractors being laid off or let go because of the federal budgetary situation. These are people with families, children, and loved ones to support. There is pain in this area as some people re-calibrate and try to move forward and figure out what to do. Plus there are others dealing with economic hardship. In these lean times many families are cutting back, learning to live within their means and create a tighter budget. So why did Fairfax Community Church move forward with a church plant and then a $16 million giving campaign amidst so much pain and unemployment in the DC area? Is Fairfax Community aware of the financial upheaval some families are in due to the federal budget situation? After all its the largest employer in the DC area. Isn’t it financially irresponsible to move ahead and plow forward and ask people to give against this economic uncertainty? Furthermore I would also suggest that it highlights a primary issue with pastors in evangelical Christianity today. There are many pastors who act with entitlement. They have long forgotten that taking care of the sheep is a privilege. The sheep are not a stepping stone to a middle class lifestyle, suburban ranch style house or a comfortable way of life. The pastor exists to take care of the sheep and serve all who attend the church. Each sheep that walks through the doors of Fairfax Community is precious in the eyes of God. In many evangelical churches the roles have reversed with the sheep being treated like ATM’s, told to pony up more and just trust blindly in authority. When trust is broken which is a major problem in evangelicalism these days…it is hard to restore if it can happen at all. With the rise of the “nones” and “dones” (Quick side note the leadership of Fairfax Community Church should read this post at The Wartburg Watch and the continuing conversation also church building and financial campaigns are one of the reasons why people are saying they are done with church) is it any coincidence that some of this is a result of reckless church growth where the leadership fails to listen to and know the needs of the sheep? Jesus commanded 3 times to feed the sheep. Today at Fairfax Community Church the sheep are falling through the cracks. When I was there it became harder to meet with a pastor, plus it has become more controlling, and against all this with people falling though the cracks as the church pursues growth the response by Fairfax Community Church leadership is to grow further!?! If the leadership of Fairfax can’t control or meet the needs of people who attend now at the Braddock Road location isn’t that going to get worse with more church growth? There is one other question I have…in many ways its become hard to listen to churches speak about sin because of how subjective they have often become. Is the reason why churches in evangelical Christianity today don’t speak about the sin of gluttony because churches likes Fairfax Community Church have to embrace it if they are going to grow recklessly and with little thought to how people are getting harmed as a result of needless and purposeless growth?
There is another issue I noticed as I listened to the sermon series that Rod Stafford led people though. In the fourth sermon he used the Book of Nehemiah to justify both the expansion and growth and $16 million dollar campaign. Before I continue let me explain what Nehemiah is about, Wikipedia has a good write up here. “Learning that the remnant in Judah were in distress and that the walls of Jerusalem were broken down, he asked the king for permission to return and rebuild the city. Artaxerxes sent him to Judah as governor of the province with a mission to rebuild, letters explaining his support for the venture, and provision for timber from the king’s forest. Once there, Nehemiah defied the opposition of Judah’s enemies on all sides—Samaritans, Ammonites, Arabs and Philistines—and rebuilt the walls within 52 days, from the Sheep Gate in the North, the Hananel Tower at the North West corner, the Fish Gate in the West, the Furnaces Tower at the Temple Mount’s South West corner, the Dung Gate in the South, the East Gate and the gate beneath the Golden Gate in the East. Appearing in the Queen’s presence (Neh 2:6) may indicate his being a eunuch, and in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, he is described as such: eunochos (eunuch), rather than oinochoos (wine-cup-bearer). If so the attempt by his enemy Shemaiah to trick him into entering the Temple is aimed at making him break Jewish law, rather than simply hide from assassins. He then took measures to repopulate the city and purify the Jewish community, enforcing the cancellation of debt, assisting Ezra to promulgate the law of Moses, and enforcing the divorce of Jewish men from their non-Jewish wives. After 12 years as governor, during which he ruled with justice and righteousness, he returned to the king in Susa. After some time in Susa he returned to Jerusalem, only to find that the people had fallen back into their evil ways. Non-Jews were permitted to conduct business inside Jerusalem on the Sabbath and to keep rooms in the Temple. Greatly angered, he purified the Temple and the priests and Levites and enforced the observance of the law of Moses.” Like many things in evangelical Christianity this issue needs perspective. Here are some problems with how Fairfax Community Church is using the Book of Nehemiah in “A Better $tory” campaign.
- Christians have not been disbursed from their place of worship and sacrifice since we no longer have a temple where God resides in the Holy of Holies.
- We are no longer a discrete, chosen people (genetically speaking.)
- We have not been in exile due to disobedience and our land has not been attacked by pagans (at least the last I heard…has FCC been attacked by pagans?). We have no land. God’s people are spread throughout the world.
- We do not need a Temple because the sacrifice has been completed by Jesus.
- To compare rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and repairing the Temple to Nehemiah is comparing apples to oranges. It is a misuse of the intent of that book.
- Nehemiah was one of the last gasps of the chosen people who demonstrated consistent disobedience to God. It was evident, even in Nehemiah, that the people were going to continue to be disobedient. It was evident that a Savior was needed. To say they needed an expansion of a new building, more programs, etc… is outrageous and cannot be read into the text. They are using the text and not allowing the text to speak for itself.
After all the book of Nehemiah is about re-building the walls and people returning to Jerusalem after being in captivity. So while I agree with the sense that the Washington, D.C. area is a capital city just like Jerusalem that is where the similarities stop. In the case of Jerusalem their walls were in disrepair and needed to be fixed. In stark contrast the physical aspect of Fairfax Community Church is not in disrepair. It already has more than many other churches in the DC area or other parts of the world. Can you imagine what $16 million could do instead in places like Africa? South America or a homeless mission in urban Washington, D.C. itself? Does a church that exists in one of the richest counties in the United States (according to Forbes Magazine) really need a building campaign to grow bigger? In emails out to the church Rod Stafford who proclaims himself a numbers guy likes to state the following quite often, “This past weekend our parking team saw several cars come into the lot, not find a spot and drive away. Stories like that are heartbreaking!” When the church is growing too big and pursuing further growth do the people who wash out because they can’t be ministered to or helped count? Do they matter? Or is the only thing that matters is people who can’t find a parking spot who drive away? Where is the concern for people who wash out of Fairfax Community Church because of their obsession with church growth? Are they not valuable to? It amazes me as to how manipulated the Book of Nehemiah is by many churches. There are many churches who have used Nehemiah to launch growth campaigns or vision to force people onboard, while raising the issue of dissenters being Sanballat. I believe the most horrific use of the book of Nehemiah happened in Mars Hill Seattle when Mark Driscoll spiritually abused Paul Petry and Bent Meyer and boasted about the body count under the bus. In the end Nehemiah is a story of rebuilding. Fairfax Community Church doesn’t need to rebuild they have more than enough with what they have now. One more point and this is directed at the leadership of Fairfax Community lest you claim I am Sanballat, I am just a person wondering about the wisdom of what I would say is a questionable financial campaign.
The Idol of Church Growth/Are People Being Manipulated to Give?
It is for reasons like “A Better $tory” that I am suspicious of tithing and giving my money to the church. Trust me I wish that were not that case but with the way money is treated in evangelical Christianity today I find it hard to believe that the Lord is indeed pleased with what is often transpiring. Money is hard to work for, and earned. It is for that reason after seeing how churches respond or needlessly pursue growth that I have decided not to give money to a church. Its for this reason that I give generously instead to non-profits or certain evangelical ministries where I at least know and approve of where the money is going. I want to remind the leadership of Fairfax Community Church that a church is not supposed to operate as a business or corporation. The lines between a church and a business have indeed become blurred today. Growth is not always good, and if a place can grow…well should they? The world may be infatuated by growth and numbers but the premise of “too big too fail” can also apply to churches as well. Rod Stafford for whose glory are you pursuing the growth of Fairfax Community Church? Are you pursuing it for the Lord or are you pursuing it for yourself? There is another issue that I have to raise as well as you grow and grow there is another issue that is looming on the horizon. The foreclosure rate and financial problems of churches has grown significantly as well to the point where its being reported by the media and warnings are being issued by the banking industry. Are financial problems by a church a witness to the Lord?
In the third sermon (Moving From Fear to Trust) which I listened to Rod Stafford speaks about how generous giving breaks idolatry. What was deeply disturbing was to listen to a 24 year old person, in this case Aleathea Hensley, talk about how they are going to empty out her savings account for “A Better $tory” campaign. Its at the 31 minute mark, roughly. There are two problems that disturb me. One like many young people she probably has a lot of college loans, and debts as education in the United States is not cheap. To ask young people to give when they may have family or parents helping them out from time to time is irresponsible and wrong. Plus promoting Aleathea Hensley to the congregation as a means to give is highly suggestive and guilting people into giving which is one of the things I believe makes this highly questionable. People should never be manipulated to give money. People should be able to give money without any pressure at all. In Sovereign Grace people were also guilted into giving, so much so that they were eating oatmeal for dinner while the Pastors and leadership embarked on building campaigns and lived high on the hog at the same time. Rod Stafford I would suggest that many evangelical pastors have forgotten, or will not admit that church growth has often become an idol for evangelical Christianity. At this rate I have one recommendation for Rod Stafford and the leadership of Fairfax Community Church. Due to the direction you have been moving in regards to church growth while people fall through the cracks can I recommend you allow Fairfax Community Church to be traded on the New York Stock Exchange?