How to Be Church
Mike Burnette explores church leadership lessons in Jesus’ parables
In 2018, Outreach magazine named LifePoint Church (Assemblies of God) in Clarksville, Tennessee, the fastest-growing church in America. Church leaders around the nation began calling Pastor Mike Burnette for advice.
“What three or four things did you do to experience such fast growth?” they asked.
Burnette prayed and searched Scripture and eventually concluded, “Jesus never told us how to ‘do church.’”
You read that right.
Jesus did not answer many of the questions that agitate church leaders. Pastors want answers about proper Sunday morning attire, budget priorities, effective outreach programs, corporate governance, organizational structure, and so on.
According to Burnette, the New Testament epistles sometimes touch on these matters, but their answers are “contextual and descriptive, not necessarily prescriptive.” How-to-do-church questions were not on Jesus’ radar, however.
Instead, Burnette argues in his new book, Parable Church, Jesus talked about “how to be his church.” The central tenet of Jesus’ teaching was the kingdom of God.
It was the gospel Jesus proclaimed (Mark 1:15) and the reality He taught His followers to seek above all else (Matthew 6:33). What most concerned Jesus was “how his church can and should reflect the culture of the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus did not teach about the Kingdom in a straightforward, expository manner, though. Instead, He chose to speak indirectly, through parables. Jesus often introduced parables with the phrase, “The kingdom of heaven is like ... ” (e.g., Matthew 13:24,31,33).
“Through the parables, Jesus chose … to conceptualize, to throw us off the scent of our endless checklists while still leaving us completely immersed in the aroma of his kingdom.”
— Mike Burnette
Why did Jesus teach indirectly by comparison?
“We tend to lean toward the technicalities of church rather than the One who breathed it into existence. In other words, we tend to legalize,” writes Burnette. “Through the parables, Jesus chose instead to conceptualize, to throw us off the scent of our endless checklists while still leaving us completely immersed in the aroma of his kingdom.”
Burnette focuses on three parables in particular because they illuminate important aspects of a church’s culture, defined as its “unique environment, language, vibe, DNA, value system, and the like.” These are the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32), the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:3–23), and the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14–30).
The Parable of the Prodigal Son, which Burnette renames the Parable of the Two Sons, reveals a culture of invitation. Burnette writes, “The bottom line is that our Father cares about lost people [i.e., the younger brother], and if we walk in the attitude of the older brother in Jesus’ story, we will only care about ourselves.”
The emphasis in the Parable of the Sower is a culture of discipleship. The parable has three elements: the gospel (seed), the evangelist (sower), and the evangelized (soil). Its central insight is that “the primary energy of a healthy and kingdom-growing church is spent on cultivating, turning, rehabbing, preparing, and keeping the soil of the hearts of people sustained.”
A culture of stewardship is the point in the Parable of the Talents. Pastors often feel discouragement and jealousy when they compare the churches they lead to others. But if a single talent represented 20 years’ wages, then even the one-talent servant was wealthy.
“No matter what God has entrusted to us, it’s his and we are incredibly well supplied because our Master backs his investment in us,” writes Burnette.
It’s easy to talk about these Kingdom values. Pastors talk about invitation, discipleship and stewardship all the time, after all. The words appear in the mission, vision and value statements of many churches. All too often, though, the words don’t accurately reflect congregational culture.
What Parable Church does well is help church leaders align their reality with the values Jesus’ teaching reveals.
Mike Burnette with John Driver, Parable Church: How the Teachings of Jesus Shape the Culture of Our Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Reflective, 2021).
This article appears in the April–June 2021 edition of Influence magazine.