Here in the first world, we live in an interesting time in church history. I can’t drive a few miles without passing a number of churches. Even if I narrow the list to Christian churches, there are still dozens and dozens of Christian churches within a 30 minute drive of my home. These include both denominational and non-denominational churches.
Many of these churches only differ in superficial ways. Perhaps its their style of music, their informal atmosphere, or allegiance to a denomination. Some sing traditional worship music while others prefer contemporary. Yet we all preach from the same Bible and share the same fundamentals of the faith.
Having many churches is not bad. It does help keep the body sizes smaller and more intimate than having fewer larger churches. It also makes gathering together easier with less time spent driving. You might actually go to church with neighbors. Yet there are downsides to all these choices.
For one thing, there is a lot of money tied up in the many facilities of all these churches. Facilities that often sit empty and lightly used six days of the week. How many churches are in debt paying off building loans while other churches meet in school gymnasiums waiting to have enough money to buy land and build? How many pastors hold back in their preaching for fear of offending someone and seeing donations decline where the budget will no longer support the payments on the debt? One thing I will say for the Mormons (who I do not consider Christian), is their sharing of facilities. Often 3 wards, what we might call a church, share a single facility. Of course some churches have multiple services and use their facility quite a bit, but there are many small churches that have but one service per Sunday and could easily share with another church. Think of the money that could be saved and spent helping those in need or supporting missionaries?
Another downside, is the fracturing of the body. When we keep starting new churches around some non-essential doctrine or preference, it can lead to a judgmental attitude and a lack of unity among Christians. I know of churches, for example, who are opposed to age segregated classes. Parents keep their children with them in the service. After awhile it is tempting for families in such a church to think that their way is THE way and age segregation is anti-family and anti-Biblical. I’ve seen churches that will only sing Psalms and Hymns and only allow a piano or organ. I’ve heard comments like “That church sings contemporary music!” as though that marks them as a carnal church. Our distinctives start to become essentials of the faith. We become fractured and often look down upon Christians who worship in a different way than ourselves.
One thing that concerns me about the modern church is what I consider a confusion about it’s mission. A saying I heard many years ago sums up my feelings nicely:
The purpose of the church gathered, is to worship God and edify the saints.
The purpose of the church scattered, is to seek and save the lost.
In other words, the local body meets to worship and equip. It is our time to gather as a community of believers for worship, equipping, and to love and serve each other. The rest of the week, when the church is scattered, we are to be evangelists to our family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. We still worship privately and we still seek edification but we are no longer surrounded by our church family. We are being living witnesses in our jobs, our schooling, in our neighborhoods, at soccer games and Little League. We are all called to be evangelists in both word and deed.
Yet we live in a post-Christian society with declining church attendance. To combat this, many churches have tried to be more “seeker sensitive” and break away from what they see as traditional church to something more contemporary and relevant. The thought is that most people today don’t want that traditional, stuffy, boring, old time Christianity. They want something contemporary, alive, relevant, exciting… So we serve coffee, inject our services with drama, video clips, and large worship teams. We try to keep the preaching upbeat and practical. We want the unchurched (be they non-believers or those who gave up on church) to come.
I have one problem with that. While I agree the church should strive to be “all things to all men”, and adapt to the culture where Biblically permissible, it should not lose sight of it’s mission which when gathered is to “worship God and edify the saints.” Too often such churches serve only milk (i.e. elementary teaching) and never serve meat. The body never grows beyond adolescence. In seeking to keep the teaching upbeat and relevant, the pastor(s) pick and choose topics and never preach the “whole counsel of God.” Topics that might be taken negatively are passed over. Nothing potentially controversial or convicting is spoken of. Yet is not “all scripture” valuable for edification and reproof (2 Timothy 3:16-17)? Some such churches will explain that they have small weekday groups where more meaty topics can be discussed yet Sunday is the one day most people can attend and the number one teaching opportunity of the church. If we gear our messages to the unbelievers attending, we fail to equip the saints.
Everyone should be welcome and made to feel welcome yet the goal is to worship and edify from the whole counsel of God. That is why I personally prefer teaching that is verse-by-verse, and book-by-book. It is the only way to ensure you preach the whole counsel of God. It also has the added benefit of teaching everything in context as God’s Word was given to us as books and letters and not topically arranged. Such teaching helps you to understand the author, his audience, and the context of the passages. Such teaching though is difficult to find anymore. Topical teaching has all but taken over and having catchy titles for topical series is all the rage now. I’ve even seen churches advertise a series with a title like “How to have great sex!” The series was actually about how to have a good and loving marriage which in turn is the best recipe for great sex, but the title was chosen to be eye grabbing and elicit curiosity. Whose eyes are they trying to catch? I would think the saints would not need such eye glitter which is clearly aimed at those outside the church.
This also leads to the abdication of evangelism to the “professionals.” Many modern Christians think evangelism is inviting someone to church where the professionals can take over. Granted, it’s a lot easier to invite someone to church than share the gospel with them. Yet many will not come to church with you until and unless they see something different in your life that attracts them. Your actions and your words might be the greatest chance for them to believe. There is nothing wrong with altar calls or other forms of invitation at church services, but the primary purpose of our services should be corporate worship and edification, not evangelism. If we get to the point where everything about our church is catering to non-believers, we have missed the mark.
We’ve become too preoccupied with church growth as the measure of success. I would suggest that the true measure of success is the maturing of the body and that growth will be a natural outcome of such maturing. As the saints deepen in their faith, holiness, and are fully equipped, they will be busy seeking and saving the lost and we will see growth. Even if we don’t, that does not mean we are doing something wrong. If we are truly living in the End Times, as some believe, we may not see growth. We live in a post-Christian society that is growing increasingly secular. Our job is to find those whom the Lord has gifted with faith to bring into the fold knowing that the number may be dwindling. If we measure success by the maturing of the body, the numbers will not matter. If there is no turnover and the body just keeps aging, then we should re-examine that maturity and make sure the body is sharing it’s faith.
For me there is rest in the sovereignty of God. If we are doing our jobs and sharing our faith, and watering it with our prayers, then God will bring the harvest but according to His plan and will. We cannot make anyone believe. We can only share the Good News and pray. If growth comes, praise God! If growth is small, praise God! As long as we are being faithful we need not worry over numbers.
My fear is that many of these seek-sensitive churches are full of baby believers and non-believers. There is little maturing going on. We’ve made it so comfortable to be there and not change that there is little reason to change and little opportunity to do so. I appreciate those times I walk away from a sermon deeply convicted, even remorseful. I know the Holy Spirit is working on me. Churches that try to keep everything upbeat and positive and fail to teach the convicting things, are not doing their jobs.
We live in an age where opportunities to share the Gospel are like never before in human history. We have churches on every street corner, the Internet, TV, radio, books, magazines, … Yet I see a weakening church with members with little grounding. Christianity has become too easy, too comfortable at least here. There are places in the world where being a Christian costs a lot. Just to be able to gather to worship is huge in some places. Worrying about the style of music or age segregated classes are not even concerns. Perhaps we could learn from them.