The church is a lot like a school
Or, maybe the church is more like a corporation
articles of incorporation constitution
shareholders meetings & conventions business meetings & conventions
strive for market share church growth movement
emphasize customer service emphasize seeker sensitivity
search for CEO’s search for pastor’s in much the same way
giant corporations putting small mega-churches
businesses out of business with
greater selection and value
And while corporations are enjoying great prosperity, the story for the church is quite different:
A new study released by the Barna Research Group shows that while substantial changes have occurred in people’s values and lifestyles during the Nineties, commitment to Christianity has remained relatively unchanged during the decade. Although individual measures of Christian belief and practice have undergone significant change during the past nine years, the net effect has been one of stability.
Using a scale that evaluates the commitment of American adults to Christianity on the basis of 18 factors ñ eight faith practices and ten beliefs ñ the research shows that there has been relatively little change during this decade, and the limited change that has occurred indicates a deterioration of commitment. The data demonstrate that the bulk of the decline in Christian commitment has been in faith practices, not in beliefs. The largest drops in activity from 1991 to 1999 were experienced regarding worship service attendance, Bible reading and prayer. The only beliefs from among the ten tested that experienced similarly significant declines during the same period were the notion that the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches and people’s understanding of who God is.
The research shows that the population at-large rejects many beliefs that are embraced by evangelical Christians. For instance, most Americans do not believe in salvation by grace, alone; that the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches; that they have a personal responsibility for evangelism; that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life; or that Satan is a real being who can influence people’s lives.
In a similar vein, the data show that a minority of Americans engage in practices such as attending church services in a typical week; reading the Bible; attending a Sunday school class; participating in a small group or cell group; or volunteering to help their church.
George Barna, president of the research firm that released the study, pointed out some of the paradoxes highlighted by the statistics. "Sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of the true spiritual character of our nation. More than four out of five adults call themselves ’Christian,’ but these figures raise questions about what that term means for many people. Seven out of ten adults say they are ’religious,’ but that term covers a lot of territory. Clearly, being religious is not synonymous with being a committed Christian. Those who suggest that Americans are becoming more conservative, more traditional and more religious should recognize that these data describe a nation that is not becoming more biblically-informed, more spiritually mature or more authentically Christian."
The pastors of America’s 324,000 Protestant churches may have some doctrinal differences, but they share a common self-image when it comes to describing their churches. Most pastors say that their church can be accurately described as "evangelistic," "theologically conservative," "evangelical," "seeker-sensitive," and "consistently engaged in serving the needy." Gone are the days when most pastors would describe their church as liturgical or theologically moderate.
In spite of this portrait painted by pastors, it is a picture at odds with other measures of the faith and religious practices of the people who populate Protestant churches. If the true nature of a church is best reflected by the beliefs and religious activities of its adults, then the description of most churches would be substantially different than that conveyed by pastors. Specifically, America’s Protestant churches would best be described as theologically moderate, non-evangelical, believer-sensitive and isolated from the needy and disadvantaged.
And the view from the pulpit must somehow be reconciled with the fact that, even by pastors’ own report, in the past year the average number of adults attending Protestant churches has declined; church financial support has dropped; and self-reported attendance among adults is less frequent than in the past.
Religion continues to be a major topic of interest and involvement for most American adults. However, the annual national tracking study of religious behavior and beliefs conducted by the Barna Research Group reveals that the much discussed and anticipated spiritual revival is not discernible through common measures of spirituality.
The measures examined every year by Barna include church attendance, Bible reading, Sunday school attendance, involvement in small groups that meet for religious purposes, volunteering at a church, and whether the person can be defined as a born again Christian or evangelical Christian. For all seven of those measures, the responses from a national sample of 1006 adults were statistically identical to the responses from the 1997 survey. When compared to statistics for 1991, church attendance and Bible reading are at lower levels of involvement. The other five measures are essentially unchanged from their levels of seven years ago.
Barna suggests that the apparent plateau in the Christian faith is not likely to be overcome without stronger and more widespread leadership. "The Christian Church has stagnated, largely due to its comfort with routines and rituals that are neither challenging nor relevant for millions of people. The Christian body is seeking visionary leaders who will make the faith more vital and compelling.
Absent such leadership, the Church in America will continue to lose its influence in people’s lives and in our society. In times of great social change and instability, confident and creative leadership enables faith to become an attractive and logical response to the discomfort and instability of the evolving culture.
While Barna looks to the leadership of the church for the answer to why America’s churches are in decline or plateaued, Jim Elliff of the Founders lays the blame elsewhere:
Out of Southern Baptist’s nearly 15.9 million members, only 5.2 million, or 32.8%, even bother to show up on a given Sunday morning, according to the Strategic Information and Planning department of the Sunday School Board (1997). If your church is anything like normal, and is not brand new, your statistics are probably similar. In the average church, one can cut that 32.8% by about two-thirds to find those interested in any additional aspect of church life, such as a Sunday evening service. In other words, only about a third of the 32.8% or slightly more than a tenth of the whole (12.3% in churches with evening services in 1996, the last year for which statistics are available) show more interest in the things of God than Sunday morning attenders in the liberal church down the street where the gospel is not even preached. These figures suggest that nearly 90% of Southern Baptist church members appear to be little different from the "cultural Christians" who populate mainline !
What do these figures, general as they are, suggest?
First, these figures reveal that most of the people on our rolls give little evidence that they love the brethrenóa clear sign of being unregenerate (1 Jn. 3:14). It is impossible to believe that anything like real familial love exists in the hearts of people who do not come or only nominally check in as a cultural exercise. Love is the greatest mark of a genuine believer (1 Jn. 3: 14ñ19).
Second, these numbers suggest that those who do not come or only come as morning attenders, are more interested in themselves than God. To put it in Paul’s words, they are "fleshly-minded" and not "spiritually-minded" (Rom. 8: 5ñ9). The atmosphere that most pleases them is that of the world and not God. They can stand as much of God as makes them feel better about themselves. But beyond that, they will politely refuse to get involved. For some that is an Easter service now and then; for others it is a Pharisaical and sterile trip to church every Sunday morning.
Though these people have "prayed the prayer" and "walked the aisle," and been told they are Christians, old things have not really passed away, and new things have not come. They are not new creatures in Christ (2 Cor. 5: 17). In too many cases obvious signs of an unregenerate heart can be found, such as long-term adultery, fornication, greed, divisiveness. These are "professing believers" which the Bible says are deceived. (See 1 Cor. 6: 9ñ11; Gal. 5: 19ñ21; 6: 7ñ8; Eph. 5: 5ñ6; Titus 1:16; 1 Jn. 3: 4ñ10; etc.)
Jesus indicated that there is a good soil which is receptive to the gospel seed so as to produce a fruit-bearing plant, but that the rocky ground believer only appears to be saved. The latter shows immediate joy, but soon withers away (Mt. 13: 6, 21). This temporary kind of faith (which is not saving faith, see 1 Cor. 15: 1ñ2) is rampant among Southern Baptists. But Baptists believe that saving faith is persistent to the end. We believe in the preservation and perseverance of the saints (once saved, always persevering). If a man’s faith does not persevere then what he possesses is something less than saving faith.
In John 2: 23ñ25 Jesus was the centerpiece for what turned out to be a mass evangelism experience in which a large number of people believed in Him. Yet he did not entrust Himself to even one of them because "he knew their hearts." Is it possible that we have taken in millions of such "unrepenting believers" whose hearts have not been changed? I say that we have. Our denomination, as much as we may love it, is on the main unregenerate.
Then there are others who think that the condition of our churches is due to the postmodern world view.
While all or none of these reasons for the condition of the church in America may be true, I think scripture is very plain about why the church is in decline.
Turn with me to I Corinthians 11:29-30.
I think that the condition of America’s churches is the result of the church losing its understanding of what it means to be the Body of Christ.
While the church may be like institutions such as schools or corporations in some respects, we are mistaken when we think of the Body of Christ like we think of these institutions. We are mistaken when we think of the Body of Christ like we think of a student body. We are mistaken when we think of the family of God like we think of a corporate family.
To put it another way - The Church is not where we go. The Church is who we are.
What does it mean to be the Body of Christ?
Amongst the Greek words translated into the English word "body" in scripture, there are two I want to look at briefly - Soma and Ptoma.
Soma means the instrument of life. The Church, the Body of Christ, is the instrument through which the life of Christ is manifested. And, because Christ is the way, the truth and the life, any body that doesn’t have Christ being manifested through it is ptoma - a lifeless body, a corpse.
Just before his ascension, Christ said:
Have faith in me when I say that the Father is one with me and that I am one with the Father. Or else have faith in me simply because of the things I do. I tell you for certain that if you have faith in me, you will do the same things that I am doing. You will do even greater things, now that I am going back to the Father. Ask me, and I will do whatever you ask. This way the Son will bring honor to the Father. I will do whatever you ask me to do. If you love me, you will do as I command. Then I will ask the Father to send you the Holy Spirit who will help you and always be with you.
Jesus was telling his disciples that even as he was filled with the Spirit, he was sending the Holy Spirit to fill them, his church-his body, and enable them to fulfill his purpose in the world.
God sent His spirit to the Body of Christ so that the truth that sets this world free from the bondage of sin might be proclaimed through it.
God didn’t send his Spirit to fill an institution. Christ didn’t die on a cross to save any institutions. It was the leadership of the religious and political institutions of his day that put him on that cross. Christ died to save individuals. He rose again and he ascended into heaven and he sent the Holy Spirit to enable us to fulfill our purpose.
The only authority we, as the Body of Christ, have is derived from our proclamation of God’s message through word and deed. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers have as their single focus the proclamation of God’s message. Their authority does not derive from their position in an institution. It derives from God’s message. When we proclaim God’s message accurately through word and deed we are backed by God’s authority. When we proclaim a message other than the message God has sent, we are no longer backed by God’s authority. Christ sent the Holy Spirity to us to enable the Body of Christ to continue proclaiming God’s message through word and deed. When we don’t allow the Holy Spirit to work in, with and through us to proclaim God’s message we no longer have authority. This is why many in our society say the the Church is irrelevant. This is why there are members of the Body of Christ who are "weak and sick, and a number...have fallen asleep."
When the kidneys cease to function, what happens to the rest of the body? When the spirit of God is no longer working in, with and through an individual member of the body of Christ, that member is dead and brings disease and death to the rest of the body. That is the truth of I Corinthians 11:29-30.
What are some of the diseases in the Body of Christ?
ADHD - occurs when the body is easily distracted from attending to important (to God) matters and, instead, flitters from one activity to another with no apparent purpose.
Autism - occurs when the body shuts itself off from the real world and, instead, lives in a fantasy world. Long time members are most susceptible to this disease.
Allergies - unhealthy reactions occurring as a result of the body trying to rid itself of irritants such as pastors who point out sin in the body.
Arthritis - occurs when a few of the members are inflamed with themselves and hinder the body from going where the head (Christ) directs.
Starvation - occurs when the body is fed entertainment and/or mush. Nourishing spiritual food will make hunger pangs go away.
Frostbite - occurs when rituals replace relationships. Seeking the Holy Spirit’s warmth will cure it.
Also - sterility (no evangelistic fervor), obesity (only hearers of the Word), and cataracts (blurred vision) which can lead to death, "Where there is no vision, the people perish."
Christ came to give us life and that more abundantly. It’s time for the church, the Body of Christ, to realize that his spirit is the very air we breathe, without which we will die, and to allow his spirit to work in, with and through us to bring us back to abundant life, and to bring his life to a world that is dead in sin.
I have lived in the high desert of Southern California for 13 years. We enjoy some of the cleanest air in the nation. But, some mornings you can look out to the west and see an ugly gray-brown curtain on the horizon. The smog comes from the citizens of Los Angeles replacing their good, clean air with toxins.
What are the toxins the Body of Christ has substituted for the spirit of God?
>From Mikros, a newsletter for small church leaders
While the fellowship made possible by our unity in Christ remains at the core of church ministry, the church can easily confuse social interaction and personal friendship with in-depth spiritual community and involvement. When a church substitutes social and personal relationships for genuine spiritual fellowship it becomes a closed community where the people are looking only for their own needs to be met rather than a dynamic force for the kingdom of God. Genuine fellowship occurs when we move beyond the superficial emotional and social level and progress towards in-depth spiritual communion, where people challenge and exhort one another to spiritual maturity. Fellowship that is merely social and relational finds commonality in social norms and cultural values rather than spiritual unity. Genuine spiritual community, on the other hand, continually challenges independency. It strives to break down the walls of self-absorption. It confronts those who desire to remain unconnected.
When we experience the regeneration of the Holy Spirit we are called out of the world and into the community of believers. Our baptismal confession is more than just a testimony of Christ’s death and resurrection applied to our life, it is a testimony that we have joined to the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). As we gather together we experience greater spiritual growth, more dynamic testimony, and a more potent spiritual power than we would have experienced if we remained isolated from the rest of the Christian community. When we come together in fellowship we not only experience the full presence of Christ (Matthew 18:20), but we are doing what pleases God (Malachi 3:16). This fellowship involves mutual acceptance and a desire to benefit the other individual.
Five Threats to Genuine Spiritual Fellowship
1. Consumerism (What’s in it for me).
Because consumerism is the product of our materialistic culture, people often come to church with the same attitude they have regarding a department store, "This place exists to serve me, if they fail to do so, I will take my business elsewhere." The result is people church hopping because the present church "doesn’t minister to my needs." This contradicts the biblical mandate that we are to come to church to serve rather than be served. Paul challenges the church at Corinth, "But just as you excel in everything-in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us-see that you excel in this grace of giving" (2 Corinthians 8:7). While the focus is upon financial giving, the implications relate to one’s whole attitude towards others. This is further explained in Philippians 2:4, "Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others." We are called to serve rather than be served.
2. Divisions (I want it done my way).
Often congregations are torn apart by people who are unwilling to set aside their own personal agendas and submit to the wishes of others. In their mind there is only one way to do things (whether that way is based on past traditions or their own opinions) and they will not compromise. Sadly, most church conflicts are not over doctrinal issues, but differences of opinions. Yet, some of the strongest words in scripture are directed towards those who cause internal conflicts. Anyone who destroys the intrinsic unity and love within the church through dissension is not only to be avoid (Romans 16:17-18), but is in danger of coming under the direct judgment of God (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). Instead people are to be encouraged to resolve their differences and to be united in Christ (Philippians 4:2).
3.Independency (I don’t need others).
Often people who attend small churches are fiercely independent, who do not want or see the need for the assistance of others. When they come into the church they regard themselves to be spiritually self-sufficient people who not only will not admit to any weakness, but also refuse the input of others even when those weaknesses are apparent. The New Testament paints a different picture. We not only need one another (1 Corinthians 12:21-22), but only when the congregation is united in mutual support are people’s needs truly met (Acts 4:32-35).
4.Pretense (I will put up a front).
It is always difficult for people to be transparent. By nature we want to hide our problems, struggles and weaknesses. Yet genuine fellowship is based upon the openness and honesty that is to characterize the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:25). For the congregation to develop the intimate bonds that Christ desires there needs to be the openness to admit our failures, temptations and problems. Only then can there be true support and encouragement.
5.Judgementalism (I will judge others by my standard).
The small church often develops an external code of conduct that corresponds to the homogeneous nature of the group. This results in spirituality being measured by external cultural standards rather than the inward reality that results in character development. Conduct is evaluated, not by the standards of Scripture, but by the standards of the particular sub-culture. Paul warns against this when he writes, "Let us stop passing judgment on one another" (Romans 14:13). Genuine love looks beyond the differences or even the failures (1 Corinthians 13:5-7) and sees the progress that each person is making.
from Letters Jesus Might Write - Christianity Today
A message from the Son of God, Jesus, whom you call Master and who calls you to follow him.
My churches are one of the wonders of the world--there has never been anything quite like them. What energy, enthusiasm, generosity!
But I do have this against you: you’re far too impressed with Size and Power and Influence. You are impatient with the small and the slow. You exercise little discernment between the ways of the world and my ways. It distresses me that you so uncritically copy the attitudes and methods that make your life in the world work so well. You grab onto anything that works and looks good. You do so many good things, but too often you do them in the world’s way instead of mine, and so seriously compromise your obedience.
I understand why, for most of you have gotten along pretty well in the world--you’re well-educated, well-housed, well-paid, well-thought-of; it’s only natural that you should put the institutional values and methods that have worked so well for you into service for me. But don’t you realize that however successful these attitudes and methods have been in achieving American benefits, it has come at a terrible price: depersonalizing people into functions; turning virtually everything into a cause or commodity to be used or fixed or consumed, doing everything you can to keep suffering at arm’s length? The church has a lot of people in it, it functions very well, you can make almost anything happen. But honestly, now, do you think that this is what I had in mind when I said, "Follow me," and then headed for Golgotha in Jerusalem?
To the church that not only believes what I say but follows me in the way I do it, I’ll give a simple, uncluttered life that is hospitable to the wanderers and misguided, the hurried and harried men and women of this world. I want to use you to give them a taste of Sabbath and heaven.
Are you listening? Really listening?