A Real Discussion About Church
As I look at forums and discussion groups for the church, I am overwhelmed with the amount of idiotic and often UN-Christian conversations concerning the church. The hot button issues in many online forums seem to be homosexuality, women in ministry, Islam-a-phobia, homosexuality, how to protect current denominational structures, the inerrancy of Scripture… did I mention homosexuality. Now, in all fairness these are each important topics that deserve a robust and honest dialogue. The problem is that there is little real dialogue on any of these issues. By the time most clergy and ministerial staff go through college and even seminary, the lines in the sand have been drawn both theologically and in many cases (sad to say) politically. So I propose a new set of topics that may help evangelicals and main-line Christians move forward. After all, not one of the hot button issues addresses why many churches are hemorrhaging members and money. If Paul and Peter had sat on their laurels griping at each other in a Facebook forum then the church wouldn’t even be here today. So what needs to be added to our conversation?
1. Eyes (Vision):
Most denominations have not honestly evaluated their vision and mission in 50-100 years. Most local churches follow suit. I have been to numerous seminars on church vision and growth. At a recent seminar I attended one consultant advised us not to bother coming up with a good vision or overarching mission plan since pastors will probably be moved in a few years anyways. WHAT?!?!? SERIOUSLY?!?!? I couldn’t believe we had paid money to hear this guy. Having worked on staff at a church-start and in my current situation where I lead music and preach for a new worship service, this is a topic that is near and dear to my heart. I believe strongly that most churches either live on borrowed or murky vision. Neither is ideal.
I recently learned of a church that went to a conference at the mega “Church of the Resurrection” pastored by Rev. Adam Hamilton. Hamilton’s church clearly states that their journey toward fulfilling their purpose is “Knowing, Loving and Serving God.” This 3,000-member church took leaders to the conference to dream dreams and seek clarity of vision and purpose. They came back with a new mission statement: “Knowing, Loving, and Serving God.” Instead of doing the work to find what they were truly unique and gifted to do, they borrowed vision and language from another “more successful” church. Instead of the leadership of the church taking the time to initiate difficult discussions on local strategy and mission, they took their church’s potential shared identity and slapped another church’s bumper sticker on it. Every church needs to ask:
- “Is our vision borrowed from another church or from the denomination?” Be honest!
- “What is our shared identity as a congregation?” Get specific!
- “What rallying cries can we make based on who we are?” Be BOLD!
- “How can people catch the vision?” Get creative!
Let’s face it; we don’t live in a Christian society. By my best guestimates less than 10% of youth in our area are involved in a local church. That means 90% are lost, 90% have no relationship with their Savior, and depending on whether or not you agree with Rob Bell, 90% are going to hell. The church’s lack of urgency when it comes to evangelism is alarming. Now before you think that I’m suggesting we scare the hell out of people in order to win them to Christ, let me pause. I’m simply suggesting that we stop soft-selling the Gospel. Stop soft-selling the redeeming blood of the Lamb. Stop soft-selling eternal realities that we don’t fully understand. There was an urgency to spread the Gospel among the early apostles because the return of Christ was seen as eminent. Does Christ’s potential return inform anything we do? Any sermons we preach? Do we even believe He shall return?
The Southern Baptists adopted a strategy for evangelism in 1976 called Bold Mission Thrust. (I will not take time here to comment on the suspect nature of this initiative’s name.) Simply stated the goal was “that every person in the world shall have the opportunity to hear the gospel of Christ in the next 25 years … and can understand the claim Jesus Christ has on their lives.” Over the next 25 years the Southern Baptist Convention increased career missionary personnel by 85%, saw a 2430% increase in mission volunteers, and more than doubled the countries in which it had missionaries. This kind of vision changes lives and saves souls. The sad conclusion of this bold campaign however was that despite all the resources poured into evangelism, denominational infighting largely kept the SBC from reaching many of its stated goals for the initiative.[i] Also, the balance between evangelism and social justice became skewed as fundamentalists began to take over the demonination.
What if the mainline church’s vision and theology of evangelism was as robust as its understanding of baptism? They are closely related. Evangelism leads to conversion which leads to Christian baptism for unbaptized adults. The mainline churches even teach that adult and teenage conversion is necessary for those baptized as infants, because infant baptism is not alone salvific.[ii] With this in mind it’s odd that many ministers shy away from alter calls out of fear that a decision made at a moment in time won’t lead to true discipleship. One could go an entire week at some youth camps without hearing an altar call or invitation in worship. Also, the small retention rate of confirmands in most churches proves in many ways that confirmation is far from a perfect solution. Every church should look at its own grim numbers for adult/youth baptisms and adult/youth professions of faith, and ask itself honestly:
- “What is our strategy for evangelism?” – My church has an “Inviting” team (soft sell).
- “Are we equipping members to evangelize?” – Most churches fall short.
- “What is our goal for adult baptisms this year?” – Most churches don’t have one.
- “Do we incorrectly label social justice as evangelism?” – Many churches do.
- “Why are we afraid of evangelism?” – Most people can’t say.
A youth minister friend of mine was instructed by his senior pastor not to take the youth to an area wide youth revival because “The evangelist might be too evangelical.” If by “too evangelical” he means “share the gospel and give people a chance to respond to it” then we need to talk. The students chose to go anyway since there were 30+ churches in the area participating in the event and since it had free food, a BMX team, a NASCAR team, and a band. Only 3 middle school kids attended youth group that Wednesday after the others came and left when they realized their youth group wasn’t going to the event. Many say “we’re ecumenical” but don’t participate in community events and revivals. Many denominations and churches used to be known for revivals. We say we want to grow the youth ministry but fail to be attractional to that age group. In the past, Christians have been known for innovation. What are we afraid of?
Churches in the West likely have a better trained staff today than churches 100 years ago. There are specialists who have degrees and training in a litany of ministerial areas. You can get undergraduate, masters, and doctoral degrees in youth ministry, children’s ministry, church recreation, non-profit finance, religious education, family ministry, modern worship, hymnology, missiology, theology, “practical” theology, Christian counseling, pastoral care, Biblical studies, Christian ethics, Church history, preaching, and the list goes on! Those degree fields don’t even take into account the certificate programs offered online for second career ministers and folks that want continuing education. Count degrees, certificate programs, professional trade shows and conventions and you have an entire cottage industry of professional ministerial training.
The problem is this: many churches rely too heavily on a professionally educated staff and not enough on their most powerful resource- lay people. We all know this but few do anything about it. I’m probably among the worst. I rely on my own strength and don’t ask God OR church members for help nearly as often as I should, but I’m trying to get better. Pastors nationwide struggle to find time for writing a great sermon because of all the other demands of ministry. Our failure to equip church members drags down our worship. When a church reaches a certain size it is simply impractical for a senior pastor to visit every sick church member, do all marital counseling, and preach or be present at every funeral or wedding. Some churches are fortunate enough that they can hire full-time pastoral caregivers who are not the senior pastor. For the rest of us, the simple solution is to train and equip laity to help with pastoral care. “Oh we can’t do that!” most pastors say. “The people expect the senior pastor to visit them!” That may be true, but the underlying problem here is threefold:
1st: Many people including pastors have a weak view of their role in congregational life specifically when it comes to certain ministries because…
2nd: Many growing congregations and their pastors are clinging to smaller church models of ministry which means that…
3rd: Large churches often place the same expectations on senior pastors as smaller family-sized churches.
For head pastors the temptation to do it all is dangerously seductive. When it comes to visitations people smile and say “the pastor came to visit me!” which is a small boost to one’s ego. We know it’s false but we let people go on thinking that there is something a little more holy about a pastor’s presence, prayers and poise. When you go to visit someone in a hospital bed you are the presence of God to them. What if the laity was trained and freed to the same end? Expectations often placed on the pastor force him/her into a posture of fear when it comes to prophetically leading through the equipping laity to be the hands, feet, and listening ears of Christ.
This is simply one example of how equipping laity might empower Christians to be more faithful disciples. I am not trying to say that senior pastors should not do any pastoral care, but I am saying that as a church grows they can’t do it all. Instead of freeing people to DO ministry, we invite them to serve on a committee and come to countless meetings that take them away from time with family. Proof that hell does exist. Instead of inviting people to dream dreams and cast vision, we go to a conference and try and import another church’s uniqueness to the detriment of our own. Instead of training people to ministries of evangelism we simply make token appeals for them to invite a friend on high attendance Sundays or to a church-wide picnic where we give visitors a brochure with another church’s vision printed on it. Instead of asking a youth parent to be responsible for leading large group games or small group Bible studies we are content to do it ourselves. If ministry professionals DO all the ministry when will we have time to lead in ministry? Almost every protestant denomination says it believes in the priesthood of all believers, but the understanding is rarely as potent as it should be. Every church should ask these questions:
- “How can we better equip and free our laity for real ministry?” –Nothing is off the table.
- “What ministries in our church don’t utilize laity?” -Name specific ministerial tasks.
- “What is our concept of priesthood of the believer?” –Read 1 Peter 2:1-10, Hebrews 10:19-25
- “How should this understanding change the way we do church?” –Make a plan.
- “What fears might be present for ministers and laity in expecting more from laity?” –Name fears.
Eyes, Evangelism, and Equipping are my offerings for fresh conversation among people who are as concerned about the church’s future as I am. We must find ways to dialogue with each other in areas where common ground can be found. We must discuss together the future of the church and what the REAL reasons are for the decline of the church in America and around the world.
[i]http://www.baptiststandard.com/2001/6_25/pages/sbc_bold.html Article on the Bold Mission Thrust Initiative
[ii]http://www.gbod.org/site/c.nhLRJ2PMKsG/b.5714529/k.7A7E/By_Water__The_Spirit.htm The Church’s stance on Baptism