Like Button

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Plugged In

There are long and loud complaints and concerns these days about declining church numbers. Millenials (whatever that means) are staying away in droves. There is a sharp rise in what is termed "the Nones", people who identify as spiritual but not religious -- no affiliation with organized religions. And, of course, there is the constant and sizable leak of kids raised in church but departing once they hit college age. And then there's the problem of "church growth". They tell us that most of what is called "church growth" is actually just transplants from "church decline", where someone leaves Church A (decline) and goes to Church B (growth) -- a net zero.

It's not good. We're trying to figure out solutions. Maybe if we appeal to their sense of emotion. Maybe if we account for their lowered attention spans and heightened need for entertainment. Certainly we need to "dumb down" the sermons; people don't want all that doctrine and stuff. Yes, that's what we need to do -- give them what they want. So people like Rick Warren go into the neighborhoods and do a standard market analysis -- "What keeps you from church? What would you like to see at church?" -- and then gives it to them ... and makes a megachurch. Others, like many of the mainline churches, just ease up on all that "Bible" stuff and go to a more "let's all just get along" model. "Embrace them all, and they'll all come in." Neither appear to be working. While numbers are high (the definition of "megachurch"), studies show that numbers don't equate to spiritual growth or maturity. In other words, this strategy is failing.

What works? Turns out that the biggest factors that people give for attending church are not good worship, social activities, or outreach, but sermons that teach you about Scripture and how to connect God's Word to your life. Now, that's odd, isn't it? The actual preaching of the Word has power where other "church growth" ideas don't seen to work. But, then, that's biblical, isn't it? The "attractional model" is today's marketing philosophy, but God's Word tells us to look intently into God's Word (James 1:23-25), to preach doctrine (1 Tim 4:13; 1 Tim 5:17), to "preach the Word" (2 Tim 4:2). The early church model was to continue "steadfastly in the Apostles' doctrine and fellowship and in breaking of bread and in prayers." (Acts 2:42).

And, perhaps, in that early church model there is another component that we've neglected. Today's local churches are largely "event driven". That is, church is "Sunday morning" or "worship service" or, if you're really spiritual, you're part of a "small group", but it's primarily events. You go, you take part, you leave, end of story. In the early church model, they "devoted themselves" (ESV) to this -- "day by day" (Acts 2:46). I'm not suggesting a "day by day" literal thing, but more of a "church lifestyle". I'm suggesting that local churches would be better served in preaching the Word extensively and creating a "plugged in" atmosphere rather than an "event" atmosphere. This is where your friends are. This is where your family is. These are you closest connections, your deepest interactions. You aren't attending church; you're personally invested in it -- spiritually, socially, financially, emotionally, etc.

The Bible is full of this kind of language for Christians. It is full of "one anothers." Christianity is not a "You and me, God" idea, but an interactive structure that requires both vertical (me and God) and horizontal (me and other believers) relationships. Indeed, Scripture is so thick with this idea that it would suggest that the decline of churches are simply an indication of John's comments in his first epistle. He speaks of those who "went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us." (1 John 2:19) If people who call themselves Christians are not part of the "us" that is Christians, then it begs the question: Are they leaving because they are not of us? I am not saying it is so; I am not saying it is not. (That is, don't point to your closest Christian friend who isn't part of a church and scream, "Unbeliever!") I'm saying it bears consideration.

Church is designed by God for believers. It is "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." (Eph 4:12-13) It works by the preaching of the Word and by fellowship -- shared lives. We need to avoid cliques, where small gaggles interlink to the exclusion of others. We need to avoid "openness" where "whatever you want to do" is the accepted path. "You want to come and go as you please? No problem." We need to be willing to invest our lives. Ah! And therein lies the problem. It gets expensive in terms of time, effort, money, even emotions. So the question is, what do you believe? Is Christ truly all-important? Or is there something else? Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." (Luke 12:34) Our investment in the Body of Christ tells us something about our hearts.


Craig said...

One of the things I noticed in my series about millennial sad well as in conversation with my 21 year old ministry major son is that there is a strain in that age group that wants more from church than what they get now. In short, it's possibly a swing back from the permissiveness of progressive Christianity and the self help stuff towards a more Biblical/scripture driven model. While I'm not sure what this looks like, I do have some hope.

Stan said...

While I have real confidence (since Christ said, "I will build My church."), I hope that the churches in America will wake up. Sometimes it takes a crisis. Given the state of the church in America and the state of America's waning tolerance of the church, that crisis could be right around the corner.