This might be part 1 of a series, I don’t really know yet.
Recently, I’ve read several books which may help to shed a little bit of light on a phenomenon that has been occuring in American Christianity for a long time, declining and dying churches. I’ve read unchristian, by Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, a great book that opens up insight into what the secular world thinks about the church and why. Josh McDowell’s The Last Christian Generation is also very insightful and well researched. A couple of books by guys who pastor churches that are not dying have also helped shed some light on this subject for me, including Wild Goose Chase by Mark Batterson, who pastors the thriving and innovative National Community Church in Washington, D.C., and No Perfect People Allowed, by John Burke, who pastors another growing and innovative congregation, Gateway Community Church in Austin, Texas.
So, I’ve addressed this subject with my own church on Wednesday nights. Pastorless, and seemingly caught in a pattern of decline that began in the 1970’s, our inner city congregation is heading down the same path that so many of our sister congregations in inner city areas all over the US are heading. We’ve had some spurts and short periods of growth when a new pastor has introduced programs and emphases that are new to this particular congregation, but after the pastor is gone, a group of people leave the church, and it becomes smaller than it was before he came. Inevitably, if this pattern continues, the church will die.
“You read too many of those books,” I’ve been told. “The answers you are looking for are all found in one book.”
Yes, indeed. And that could well be the place where we need to start.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths.” Proverbs 3:5-6, ESV
The evidence that America’s Christian churches, ours included, are leaning on our own understanding when it comes to doing church is really everywhere, including in those four books I mentioned, along with others on the subject. We’re Americans, after all. We like to solve our own problems. What problem exists that can’t be resolved with good old Yankee ingenuity and elbow grease? For every problem that comes along, we can find a program designed to fix it. For that reason, I don’t think we are dying, at least not collectively, because we lack innovation or ingenuity, or because we are not working hard enough. In some cases, that might be true, but it is not the root of the problem.
In the past few years, several former students of mine from my Christian school teaching and administrative days have graduated from college and entered the job market. Most of those kids were pretty sharp, and those who put their nose to the grindstone in college have been rewarded with good jobs for reputable, well established companies, many in the energy sector. Several of them have been able to purchase or lease some of the prime residential property that exists in the historic area that surrounds our church. When I’ve bumped into them, in one place or another, and find out they live in the neighborhood, I automatically issue an invitation to them to attend our church’s contemporary worship service or visit one of our small groups. These are professing Christians, graduates of a Christian high school, so they should be easy prospects, right? Wrong. They have no interest in church whatsoever.
So how is it that these intelligent, young people who were raised in the church come to the point where they have no interest in it at all? I suspect it is because they never discovered the power that lies within. They never saw that spiritual power at work. As preschoolers, children, and especially as youth, they were the object of ministries that were aimed at keeping them engaged. They went to parties, they had all kinds of events, camps, trips and “fun stuff” available to keep them entertained so they would want to keep coming. They were separated out from the adults and from other age groups and ministered to as their own entity, not being exposed to the wisdom of elders, nor the opportunity to serve the younger. They never got that some day, they would be expected to be the ones who served, rather than those who were served. The attraction was all temporal, with very little that was spiritual. When you encounter the Holy Spirit, moving and working in your life, and you respond, you are transformed. Every time. When you give a cup of water in Jesus’ name, you are transformed. Every time. When you worship God in Spirit and truth, you are transformed. You hunger for more, you come back to the fountain time and time again, because you can’t get enough. These people are not only not coming back to the fountain, but they are going to great lengths to avoid contact with it. They never got anything of substance when they were in the church, and as a result, they see no need to be involved with it now.
Our efforts at change are perceived as more of the same kind of enticement they once got as children and teenagers. Contemporary worship, small groups, all appear designed to have the same kind of appeal that the balloons and banana splits did when they were teenagers. Been there. Done that. Already have the shirt. And it is a long, long way from there to Acts chapter 4.
“And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the Word of God with boldness.” Acts 4:31