Years of declining membership, shrinking missional giving, political infighting, and growing irrelevance in society, are ample evidence of a major crisis. Denial of the crises and responding defensively to questions about the crisis will not help the situation or accomplish God’s mission.
Let’s be real for a moment. Let’s face the issue honestly. This is not a short term problem and the long term solutions are going to be hard to come by but we must be willing to take risks. We need bold leadership. Choosing to maintain is the same as deciding to die. Assuming that the programs of the past – only more and better – will not solve the situation: nor will complaining and lamenting. We should be singing doxologies of defiance but instead we are singing hymns of defeat.
If we are ever to see the church grow again and the gospel gain greater share of the culture we must lead the church out of its current captivity. If we desire society to become more like the church, the church must first decide to be less like society.
The ongoing struggle is how can the church become relevant to society without being like society? It is a question that goes all the way back to the early church fathers, even the Apostle Paul. How do we transform the world without being conformed by it?
According to several surveys, there are many reasons our neighbors are not attending church these days. They're the same reasons so many people in the church are deciding to leave. But of the many and varied reasons given, there appears to be only four common major causes. I’m certain no one will be surprised by them.
2. They don’t want to be lectured.
3. Christians are a bunch of hypocrites.
4. They don’t see the God that is being presented in church as relevant to their lives.
If we step back and think about it, all four of those rationales are interrelated. Relevance is the buzzword. The mantra we consistently hear from church growth gurus is that “'The church isn't relevant today'... 'The music must be relevant'...' We must provide activities for the youth that are relevant'…” the ministries we offer to the community must be relevant”...and so on and so on it goes.
Now, here’s the million dollar question (actually to be relevant in today’s debt ridden society, I should say here’s the trillion dollar question) how do we, as the church, stay relevant (truly relevant) in an ever moving, ever changing, ever demanding society, while at the same time upholding God's UNCHANGING Word and timeless principles?
To me, something is relevant if it’s what I am seeking. If I go to the store to buy a hammer and someone is shouting over the intercom that dresses are on sale, that information is wasted on me...it’s simply not relevant to me, it’s not what I want, it’s not what I am seeking.
But isn't that the crux of the issue. Church isn't about what I am seeking, it’s about what God is seeking. It’s God who is seeking me. In the end I’m just seeking my own fallen desires.
Here’s how I see it.
The church is a special place - a sacred space. What makes it a special place and sacred space is because it is the intersection between God and man. It’s where fallen humanity seeking to fill their emptiness, encounters the living God who seeks to fill their emptiness with His fullness. I believe, if we can restore and maintain the integrity of that intersection, the church will experience a real and powerful spiritual awakening. Wouldn't that be the solution to all that afflicts us?
So then, don't we need to begin to change what society is seeking? From the crib, it seems that today's children are indoctrinated into entertainment-based living...toys, TV, video games, movies, technology, etc. Why are we surprised then that the church is now giving in to the mindset of who can provide the biggest, wildest, most exciting forms of entertainment to attract youth (youth first, and then their parents)... it continues to feed the lie of entertainment.
But here is something cool. The word entertain comes from the roots of enter (to come inside of) and tain (from the word contain). So the autopsy of entertainment is this: what we choose or allow to 'come inside and contain our minds...and unknowingly, our hearts. "Above all else,” the Bible says, “guard your HEART, for out of it flow all the issues of life". Isn’t this the core of the matter?
The entire problem comes down to that, the local church has lost knowledge of its biblical purpose. Now, let me clarify something here. I said purpose, not function. There's a difference.
Biblically speaking, there are five or maybe six functions of the church depending on how you count them: 1. worship, 2. practice and promotion of the spiritual disciplines, 3. discipleship - helping believers be more like Christ, (it could be argued that discipleship and the spiritual disciplines are the same thing making it five rather than six functions) 4. fellowship, 5. service and 6. evangelism.
A lot of churches have lost their relevance because they have focused on one of the church’s functions to the near exclusion of the others. They have become unbalanced.
According to the Global Christian Center there are five kinds of unbalanced churches.
There is the Experiencing God church. The passion of this church is for worship and experiencing God. The emphasis is on sensing the presence and power of God. Key terms for this church are praise, prayer, worship, music, spiritual gifts. The worship service is the heartbeat of this type of church.
There is the Family Reunion church that focuses primarily on fellowship. They are highly relational, loves people, and spends most time caring for members. Key terms in this church are love, fellowship, belonging, small groups and potlucks.
By the way, 80% of churches have less than 200 members and probably fall into this category. These churches are almost indestructible. They can survive poor preaching, limited finances, no growth and even scandal because relationships is the glue that holds it together.
Then there is the Classroom church. Here the major emphasis is on teaching and discipleship. In these churches you will get expository preaching, lots of Bible Study and even a good dose of the biblical languages. Key words in this kind of church are doctrine, theology, knowledge, and truth.
The Social Conscience church is another type of church that has become unbalanced toward one function. This church consists of the “doers of the Word.” This type comes in both liberal and conservative versions. Both feel they should be involved in the political process. There’s always some cause or crusade they fighting. Key words for this church are needs, serve, change, take a stand, and do something.
The fifth type is the Soul Winning Church. This church is all about evangelism, missions, and reaching the lost. The keys words here are witnessing, salvation, baptisms, visitation, altar calls, and decisions for Christ. And like the other unbalanced churches, they focus their attention on these things to the neglect of the other functions.
These churches are not healthy. They’re not healthy because they are unbalanced. They’re unbalanced because they focus too much on one function of the church while neglecting the others functions. They have chosen to do that because they have confused function with purpose. All the energy of theses church is dedicated to chasing after a particular function rather than chasing after their distinct mission. They mistakenly believe that one certain function is their purpose, their mission.
In reality, their missional purpose can only be fulfilled when maintaining a proper balance and understanding that the five or six functions of the church exist only in order to fulfill it’s grand purpose. When the church gets all these in proper alignment, it will be relevant. It will be relevant because it will meet all the needs of a lost and dying world.
Far too many churches (and nonprofits for that matter) exist today that serve a model of service instead of a mission to service. They exist to serve a program instead of a purpose. The irony is that their purpose has, over time, actually morphed into keeping a certain program or methodology or function alive.
Actions betray words as institutions quote the mission but often serve a model instead. What’s the difference? The model is the method the organization’s founders decided was the most effective way to accomplish their mission. Problems, however, manifest years later when the model no longer works. Confusing model with mission, the current leadership works harder, tries to do more, twists and turns in every direction trying to get the model to work again. They fail to understand that models have expiration dates. But the mission, the purpose, doesn't.
Dear Pastors and Denominational Leaders.
The current crisis we are witnessing in the church demands strong leadership. But, first we must learn a crucial principle. It’s alright to be infatuated with models of ministry but the leader must be unconditionally in love with the mission of the ministry. They must be 110% sold-out to the purpose of the ministry.
We have a lot of hard work ahead of us. We must be willing to do the difficult labor of leading (of shepherding) our congregations away from the ideas and activities that have gradually become false idols and we must resolutely guide them back to a proper balance and to their foundational purpose.
There will be resistance to be sure. There may even be loss. But isn't there already resistance. Isn't there already loss. I’m firmly convinced that anything short of renewing the church's divine mission will only result in more empty pews and more dead churches.