To the tune of A Mighty Fortress is Our God, with apologies to Martin Luther:
A mighty fortress is our church,
a bulwark uninviting.
It is a shelter ‘gainst our foes.
Will we reach out? Unlikely.
We’ll keep them all outside!
That mongreled, vexing tide!
Our bodies they may kill,
or raid our coffers ’til
our good name has surely died.
Few things invoke more sadness for this writer than a church pining for a return to former glory. Halcyon days pined for wistfully, the present fearful, and the future seems hopeless. Every new pastor is measured against pastors long-dead, the departed remembered in the land of the living while consigning living ministry to the graveyard.
Many such churches are found in areas that have transitioned demographically. Formerly Caucasian areas are now black, brown, or other hues not white. Ministry styles are exactly the same as they have been for 40 or more years. A bulletin (“worship guide”) from the 1970s could be used today without even name changes to protect the innocent. Strategy for reaching the community—if indeed there ever was an actual strategy—is no longer effective. The main concern is how to keep the doors open another week.
The Fortress Church is marked by “hunkering down.” Inward focus and protectionism is what the people know. Members who die are mourned for more than a loss of relationship—it means one fewer in attendance and fewer dollars to pay the bills. It’s sadness squared.
Root causes can be racism, classism, or a family that owns and operates the church like it’s their general store. No matter; the fortress is unassailable.
In these churches the surrounding community is actively ignored and passively condemned, church members shaking their heads and wagging their tongues that “all these people won’t get out of bed and come to church.” Never mind the church has done little beyond turning on the lights every week that gives any indication of life. Love—if it exists in any real way—doesn’t extend beyond the property line.
No outreach into the community—or no culturally appropriate outreach, anyway. No relationships in the community, and often no desire to have them. Parking lots are chained off at the street. In some instances building security seems just short of requiring a retinal scan. The campus does not look friendly, in fact, it says to those outside, “You don’t belong here.”
As a result, the congregation does not reflect the community; it’s an island within it. Members “boat” in on Sundays—often from the suburbs—confident they have enough fuel to get back home after the final amen.
The mindset of a Fortress Church is 100% antithetical to a New Testament church which is comprised of disciples who are seeking to make other disciples. Making disciples does not happen behind fortress walls and can’t. The gospel has to be taken to the community, to those who are not yet redeemed. Those who do know Christ have the responsibility to take the gospel to those who do not, baptizing them, and teaching them to observe all the things Christ taught us.
Every church in every era no matter where it is located is tasked with a Great Commission. Fulfilling the Great Commission is dependent on message and movement: we have a message to take as we go. Jesus said “Do business until I come.” He never said, “Hold down the fort.”
Members of Fortress Churches have an option before their churches die: they can decide to follow Jesus and be on mission. They can engage the people in the community. They can make friends with the people they’ve driven past for years. They can open the church building to community events. They can love because they are loved. They can follow the Great Commandment. They can stop living in fear.
They can get someone from outside to come and and help them think differently about what it means to be a church. They can pray for God to change their hearts toward their community. They can repent of their self-centeredness and self-sufficiency. They can partner with another church that has decided to stop being a fortress and start being on mission. They can live as ambassadors for Christ.
Although I am a free man and not anyone’s slave, I have made myself a slave to everyone, in order to win more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law—though I myself am not under the law—to win those under the law. To those who are without that law, like one without the law—not being without God’s law but within Christ’s law—to win those without the law. To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, so I may become a partner in its benefits. (1 Corinthians 9:19-23, HCSB)
Christians in Fortress Churches do not have this “whoever, whatever, whenever, however” mentality—but they need it, because all Christians need it. We don’t make disciples without it.