If we stand back and take a birds eye view of the local church in America today we will see some interesting as well as disturbing patterns. First, we cannot ignore some 300 churches per month closing their doors. We will delve into this deeper in a moment. Second, we see some churches experiencing exponential growth even in the same cities or neighborhoods where churches have and are being shuttered. Why? Another phenomenon to explore closer. Third, much of our youth are leaving church after High School, and when the fun and activity of youth group is behind them, few are finding their way back, a serious problem for the future of our churches and communities that we will look at as well.
If we just say that the above problems are merely reflective of a society or church members that are malcontent and short on commitment and self-sacrifice, then we have only identified symptoms and not the illness, nor whom or what is actually sick. Let’s tackle the issue of churches closing at alarming rates. If I take my car to my local gas station and they are frequently out of the gas I use I will stop going and find another station. I almost always shop at the same market for food, but if suddenly they were out of most of the items I came for I would soon find another store. Most, but of course not all of our churches that are closing are doing so because of the basic fact that people are not finding what they need or came for. This may be difficult for a pastor or church staff to hear. Any retailer quickly finds that they will not be in business if they do not provide the goods. Parishioners come to church to find food for their souls. We may be tempted to “sell the sizzle” but the meat is what we feed on. Churches often settle for the ABC’s of the average church life, Activities( some substitute Attendance), Buildings and Cash as dietary supplements when there is no real nourishment.
Jesus could not have been clearer or more emphatic in His charge to Peter that as a shepherd he was responsible primarily for the feeding and care of His sheep. Many closed churches thought that Readers Digest sermons and multiple church activities or programs were an ok substitute for nourishing the souls of their sheep. Fed and content sheep do not wander, they rest and multiply. Coincidentally this also speaks to the second issue as well, churches experiencing incredible growth can often be traced primarily to attractional or transferral growth from other churches and not a direct result of disciple making. Verifiable studies show that as much as 85 percent of a local church’s growth stems from congregants transferring from one fellowship to another. The sheep who do not find food at one fellowship will soon be seen foraging at another. Many of these churches grow rapidly on the reputation of a great speaker or cool music, vibrant youth programs, etc. I wonder how many of these wanderers are actually undergoing real spiritual growth and fruit as a result of their new locales. Today’s must see church has often fallen to the middle and back of the “growth” pack when the newest and trendiest thing comes along. I challenge us to look at our own community fellowships to see that this is really happening.
The third problem of our young adults not returning to their childhood churches in some way is even more disconcerting than the first two. Our children have in effect said that this is not a place where I can bring my friends and know that they will be accepted and given every opportunity to see Jesus as simply the lover of their souls. Instead they have been told by their elders that Christians are an exclusive community with a set of rules designed to separate US from THEM. Many of these conversations with young adults starts with something like ” Our church doesn’t allow that” or our pastor says that anyone who does not believe this or that, or does this is sin. If he or she looks like that they do not belong here and may be on the way to Hell. Hmm, I hope that it will become obvious that they are choosing their friends over their church in many cases. If we are a house of judgement then we cannot be the house of God. How can we honestly classify this as loving our neighbor? “A book called unChristian described a survey that indicated 85 percent of unchurched young adults believe Christians to be hypocritical. Forty-seven percent of young adults inside the church say the same thing.” Excerpt From: Ortberg, John. “Who Is This Man?.” Zondervan, 2012. iBooks.
So where is the real problem? Our willingness to do church as we have always known it speaks directly to our unwillingness to undertake some serious thinking about what is before us. Pastor Mike Erre has some great insights into the fundamental questions we must consider if there is to be any real change thus hope for our local churches…in his well written book, “Death By Church” he states , “This is not to say that the church is unimportant to God’s plan. Not at all. The writings of Paul make that abundantly clear. I simply wish to point out that because we have lost sight of the kingdom, we have lost sight of the church also. We have made the church the point of God’s work and not the kingdom. And in doing so we have unintentionally substituted the gospel of the kingdom (“Repent, the kingdom is at hand”) for the gospel of the church (“come to church to meet Jesus and grow spiritually”). We have substituted the work of the Spirit ( transforming our inward character into the image of Jesus) for the work of the church (attending this Class, this program and this ministry). We have substituted the work of worship (which has always been the primary vocation of God’s people) for passive consumption of church services ( watching our paid professionals do their thing on stage). P.76. Wow, has Mike summed up much of the church in America profoundly! It cannot be overstated that clear and concise thinking about the above issues and a genuine desire to follow what Jesus actually says to do, despite what the church down the block is doing will actually save our church from becoming irrelevant to our culture and their need for the real Jesus. Dallas Willard would often state in his teachings that ” God is waiting for a people who can bear His power”. He goes on to explain that God’s power will not be unleashed in us without our being ready for it through growth in character, otherwise it could simply crush us under its weight.
We have heard that we are in the “church age” over and again from the pulpit. We are told that the church is God’s plan to save the world. Really? No one was being “saved” before the church came along? The church is no doubt an important element in what God is doing today but Jesus made it clear that he would steadily build His Church, (capital C) but maybe not yours if it is not aligned with His way. He was already “doing” His will throughout history expanding His Kingdom by His chosen ones, who were learning to do His will here as it is done in heaven. God has shown thru the ages that He will accomplish what He wants done with those prepared to do it His way, even if it is where just two or three are gathered in His name, connected by heart and mind to His purposes. This is the genuine body of Christ Paul details in Ephesians. Jesus said He only acted as He saw what His Father was up to. The question before our church leaders is, ” what are we really seeing God do in our midst that we have hitched our wagon to?” If it is truly His work then we don’t need to manufacture the ABC’s.
In order to move along any further than just identifying symptoms, we must think deeper if we are to isolate the sickness and offer help to the patient. Peter Galbraith succinctly states that “The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking”. He was speaking about economics but could easily have been addressing a pastor’s conference. Our churches are locked into doing the same thing the group down the street does and calling it revolutionary or a new movement of God, even though it produces nothing different or life changing.
Imagine for a moment that someone has delivered a package to you and attached to the package is a card addressed to you. The card contains a note offering something amazing and potentially life changing if you open the package and unbundle the many gifts inside. If we take the card as the Gospel but never unwrap the gifts inside then we have cheated ourselves from enjoying the very gifts He meant for us to unwrap. Let me be very clear in that the message of the gospel is clearly about the gift of a new transformed life inside that we are to unpack and follow the instruction manual. What we have settled for in today’s version of the gospel is a message without the gift of the new life. The “good news” is not a “positional” proposition in theological terms unless it includes taking hold of the transforming goodness of Jesus himself. When we examine this expressly in Jesus’ own words we can see how we have arrived at a message today that does not require us to change as a fundamental part of the offer of good news. When we are told over and again that we get the whole “package” (forgiveness, grace & eternal life) just by reading and accepting the terms of the deal written on the card we are misinformed and have robbed the recipient of the real gift. Instead what remains is a message that we are told we must circulate to the ends of the earth: however, the message without the testimony & witness of our new life is a powerless one. This becomes apparent as the life we are promised does not seem to develop on its own and we eventually reconcile ourselves to a life of frustration and ineffective living; substituting the fruit of the Spirit for grace and forgiveness. As the disconnect from the Life Paul describes, one of power, joy, and peace degenerates, (as a spiritual sage states “we are misinformed about our part in eternal living”) our message dissolves into simply telling others how to get into heaven when they die because we have not been able to access the reality of Jesus ourselves and so tell them that Jesus has forever changed me and His life continues to do so. 1Pet. 3:15. Yes, stated clearly “the fruit of the Spirit in Gal. 5:22-3 is what we are to become. This is the process of actually following Christ in our everyday life in manner and practice. This will not happen to us as we merely just believe in Him and accept all of these things as true. Without opening the gifts and following the instructions we cannot live the abundant life that Jesus said was available to his followers. Christianity is not for spectators nor is it simply intellectual assent to all the right doctrines, no matter how much we say we believe them. Our real lives are lived in deep water, if we do not learn how to swim we will surely sink and end up tragically taking others down, sometimes those closest to us. Our present life is the one Jesus came to save. Teaching people how to live their lives is saving it.
How does this relate to the condition of our churches today? First we must see that becoming like Jesus is the real goal. This is what the balance of the New Testament is about. When we honestly take stock of our sheep we find countless who are no further along the road to spiritual maturity then they were 10 or20,even 30 years ago when they joined their local fellowship. This is evidenced by the number of divorces, suicides, moral failures, emotional breakdowns, etc. that occur in our congregations on a daily basis. Lives gripped in fear, anger and lust are commonplace. A number of studies have shown that these statistics closely mirror those who do not attend church. As was posted before, people go to church to find food for their souls. They desperately want to know how to live this life and solve their problems that they know deep down they are the root cause of. They instinctively realize that a life in slavery to fear or anger or lust is not going to get “healed” nor is it just going to go away. Jesus teaches us that our hearts are the problem and messages only about grace and forgiveness will not go far enough to change our basic character.
This is where pastors and teachers must stand in the gap. There is no one else. Those who say they know, must be the model for those they are telling others to follow. We learn from Hosea 4:9 that “like people, like priest” is an ancient problem. The life of Jesus must be caught from us before it can be taught. There is no other way, unless we are content to broadcast a lifeless and powerless message. We simply then become the arbiters of others sin. Paul warns, “you who teach others, do you not preach to yourselves, you who say do not steal, do you steal?” Rom. 2:19-24. Jesus was clear that focusing on cleaning the inside of the cup is what is important. Would it not be a good idea that those who teach are a model of love, patience, goodness and self-control? This is what Paul had in mind for Timothy in his exhortation to be a pure vessel, useful for good. 2tim.2:21. No one is saying that the model has to be perfect, rather he or she is concerned most with being filled with His life and learning His way. We are wholly involved in the process of being a disciple first. If Paul lays out such high standards for elders, then pastors and teachers should have at least a modicum of scrutiny before teaching others. Our own absorption of the new life is our light to the those we preach to. We have NO business admonishing others on how to live their life unless we are an “example of conduct, love faith and purity”…1tim. 4:11-12 & 6:11. We are to teach others to follow us AS WE follow Christ. 1Cor. 11:1, 1Pet. 5:3. We must never separate the message from the messenger, the latter giving life to the former. The history of the church tells us this is so.
Those who have truly intertwined His life into theirs have something worth following and a message with power to change hearts. If we substitute this life altering combination and settle for messages that work our way thru the Bible, we misunderstand the Great Commission. Telling our parishioners that we must take the message over there has reduced our people to “goers” and “senders”. We have in effect said “your life is not what counts, your job in life is to spread the message”. Instead of cultivating the souls before us we have said they are mere worker bees for “the message “, even if the worker has failed to grasp it himself. This irony is not lost on many outside recipients of of our “message” who correctly point out the hypocrisy in our words. Our failure to teach Jesus’ instructions in the Sermon On The Mount and practice them have produced disastrous results amongst those who claim to know God and be acquainted with Him. Instead of teaching on the new life we get sermons on moral platitudes and “do better” lessons where there is little to do. When teachers have boiled their messages down to mere forgiveness of sins you can be assured they are preaching a different gospel than the one Jesus Himself proclaimed and taught His disciples. Matt. 12:33ff.
Now, what does this mean for you and me? This is the crucial step of “now what?” in any proposition. Taking Jesus at His word is where we must go if we intend to change anything for good. Our world runs on ideas, both good and bad. If our present ideas about church are producing the kind of healthy, fruit bearing disciples that Jesus had in mind then let’s stay the course. If however, the present ideas seem seriously flawed and we seek real and lasting change then doing what He actually said to do is worth a shot.
So what is the local church good for you ask? Nothing less than an amazing experience of the presence of God in our midst if we invite Him in. If it is engaged in the way of Jesus we will not fail to see His primary work as the care & feeding of the souls God has placed in their midst. This is what good shepherding does. This is the work that Jesus saw the Father doing and set about Himself. We must provide the sheep resources for their very lives and expect that they will in turn, naturally, by touching the lives around them, carry the message of “new life in Christ” to the ends of the earth as they follow the leading of the. Ask yourself if your fellowship is steeped in learning this life from Him? Do the goals, resources & activities you do surround grasping the abundant life? I hope so, and if so, the good news of Jesus will transfer from person to person to all nations and peoples by His power. It cannot be stopped. Then and only then will the local church be a place where people flock to for what they desire and Jesus will gladly be welcomed in. Rev. 3:20.
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BA. Biola University, MDiv. Talbot school of theology many moons ago...really does not matter....school just provided tools to keep digging, asking, seeking, knocking. I see thinking as a daily excercise. Albert Einstein said, " I have no special talent, I am only passionately curious". I am no Einstein but my little brain still buzzes around at the speed of light :)