Travis Johnson, over at The Edge Church Think Tank, posted an article bemoaning the incredible shrinking church: “The Great Shrinking Church. What Gives?!?!” First, he cites some statistics from The American Church:
- 18.7%: Americans in church in 2000
- 18.0%: Americans in church in 2003
- 11.7%: Americans projected to be in church by 2050
- 4,600: New churches from 1990–2000
- 38,802: How many new churches there should have been in order to keep pace with American population.
That America is becoming an increasingly secular nation is no surprise. That traditional church style seems increasingly irrelevant in the “naughties” and that church numbers are in decline—again—no surprise.
So, taking an unflinching look at the numbers (there was more cited), Travis concludes:
“In my mind, those statistics absolutely prove that we MUST move every single priority to the side burner. Establishing new churches and transitioning declining churches needs to be our primary focus. The question is how. How do we re-ignite passion for the Great Commission among our churches, both locally and denominationally?” (Emphasis is Travis’.)
So far, the comments, especially from Mike Dyer, indicate that church organizational structures are lacking, the clergy are worldly, and innovation is rejected. In short, the church is broken. Mike writes:
“The church needs to become self-aware and realize that the church is a failure. It is not flawed. It doesn’t need a tune-up. It is broken. It takes courage to face the fact we are not successful Christians going to successful churches with a successful clergy. We have failed our young children, our teenagers, our divorced members, and our friends. The clergy has failed in leadership and the laity has failed as church members. Christians need to be honest and discuss our failures, analyze our failures and document our failures. The Church does not need to be more self-confidant, they need to become losers.”
It’s the usual Emergent critique: reinvent the church. (See my post, “It’s okay … I’m Emergent. I’m here to help.”) Travis, to his credit asserts that the church is victorious, but he still wonders what’s wrong.
I respectfully submit that both Travis and Mike are looking in the wrong direction. Of course, my viewpoint is just as subjective—and just as likely wrong—but I think that it’s neither a matter of re-prioritizing and “re-igniting passion for the Great Commission,” nor is it a matter of declaring the church DOA, and moving on.
Of the two strategies, perhaps Travis’ is closer to what I see as the most fruitful direction. But rather than ask, “how do we reignite passion for the Great Commission?” I believe the question should be: “Have I met Christ and been transformed?” And, “How do we introduce others to Christ?”
Christ always had a galvanizing, polarizing effect on those he met. When you met Christ, you either lashed out, or followed him. I don’t think there was much of a middle road, not when I read the Gospels. Christ was a catalyst. And I submit that if we have people in our pews who do not know Christ, if we have Sunday School teachers and preachers in our pulpits who are not transformed, if we are not longing to see Christ in Heaven, perhaps we have never truly met Christ?
And even for those who have met Christ, and responded, why are they not continuing in their transformation? Have they abandoned their first love?
I suspect the key problem here is not church structures, forms, or worldliness, per se. The problem is not the Great Commission. The problem is the Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, strength, and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.” Church growth is essentially a question of evangelism. And evangelism is essentially a reflection of our love for God and fellow man. Where there is no evangelism, love is the key missing ingredient.
We who claim to be Christians: Are we keeping this commandment? Are we learning to love the Lord with everything we have? Are we passionate about bringing others to Christ? Are we truly being transformed by the renewing of our minds? If not, maybe we haven’t truly encountered Christ yet. This is what the church needs, what the pulpits need, what our Sunday School teachers need. It’s what I need: Genuine, life-changing, personal encounters with Christ.
And the way that happens is first through you and me. As I become transformed (Romans 12) and as I grow to have the mind of Christ (see Philippians 2) I will reflect Christ to those around me. Through me and the love I have for others, those around me will encounter Christ and come to their own saving faith (or rejection). As I mentor and disciple others, they will, in turn, reflect Christ to the world around them, and they, too, will begin to love, God, love others, evangelize, mentor, and disciple.
As a gauge of your incarnational, transformational life, consider this: are you mentoring somebody? Are you being mentored? Are you meditating on the Word, as well as studying and memorizing it? Are you the master of your thought-life, or are they your master (Philippians 4)? (These questions are for me, too.)
The church is not broken. It’s just small, and shrouded by multitudes who have yet to meet Christ to follow him. They’re following a pastor, a movement, a doctrine—but they’re not following Christ.
Emergent philosophies and ideas, alone, won’t produce this church. Traditional philosophies and techniques won’t either. This is all about being genuine disciples first. The doing comes out of that.
Other, loosely related articles:
» “It’s okay … I’m Emergent. I’m here to help.” Or, deconstructing the helpful deconstruction.
» Spiritual formation is not discipleship
» Why so much growth and decline?
» Diversity, the Global South, and the Assemblies of God
From the blogosphere:
- Delilah Boyd, blogging from “A Scrivener’s Lament,” compares Olson’s numbers to other survey reports, and concludes that Christians are big-fat liars.
- Riffing off the Scrivener, Bucky at the Brown Bag Blog wonders, “Do Guilt-ridden Liars Outnumber Church-goers?” He concludes that even if the survey respondents and the entire Church crowd are liars, it’s Olson who’s not to be trusted: “Mr Olson, I have to suspect, is being driven by an agenda and is therefore not to be fully trusted.” Ted Olson, the man himself, responds.
Tim Challies wrote an interesting thought-piece, asking, “Evangelism — The Chief End of Man?” It’s worth reading, in light of the discussion here. Tim starts with the presupposition of the Westminister Shorter Catechism which states that the chief end of man (mankind’s end-purpose for existence) is “to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” If that is true, and I believe it is, it has bearing on whether our primary emphasis should be evangelism or loving and knowing God. This only affirms my position that loving God with all our heart, mind, strength, body, and soul should have the highest priority and that the transformation resulting from such a divine encounter will naturally result in loving our neighbors as a result, and evangelism ensues as a byproduct of that kind of love. Not only is outward love a natural byproduct of transformation, but the transformation makes possible intentional love–which involves sharing the Good News of the Kingdom that is here, now.
[tags]BlogRodent, Tim-Challies, Pentecostal, Church-of-God-in-Christ, Assemblies-of-God, Assembly-of-God, church-growth, church-decline, evangelism, The-Great-Commission, The-Great-Commandment, Jesus, Christ, Jesus-Christ, spiritual-transformation, spiritual-renewal, witnessing, missions, Emergent-church, Emerging-church, revival[/tags]