THINKING ABOUT THE DECLINING CHURCH
For two thousand years, the church has existed, survived, thrived in many forms. There have been periods when it looked as if the church would disappear. Many in the first three centuries of the church believed that the end was soon to come. How could they imagine a future when there was so much pressure on them? When Rome fell for the last time in 476 and the western empire was no more, did the church believe that the end was near for them? As the medieval church became corrupt, could any have imagined that a renewal called the reformation was about to take place? We are often like little children who are afraid of the great darkness that surrounds us because we forget that someone greater is there to scoop us up and cause us to thrive.
We live in such times. Writers of all kinds have been preparing the obituary for the western church. The decline of church attendance in western society is no secret. We are reminded almost daily that church attendance is down and that the fastest growing religious preference on surveys is none. It seems that much of culture goes out of its way to offend Christians and to celebrate the freedom from the tyranny of a God who seeks to control us.
All, who love Christ, ask the question why? Why is this happening? Many love to blame the cause of our decline on pastors.
I think it is easy to blame pastors. But since one’s spiritual life is both individualistic and corporate, I think there is far more to it than let’s blame the minister. The fact is, churches get the ministers they want. Seminaries produce the minister that churches want. Seminaries train the men and women that the churches send them.
While corporate worship is important that is not what makes you a daily follower of Christ. What you do daily is what ultimately determines what kind of Christian you are.
When I was younger, I heard the phrase, spiritual formation. It was a bit foreign to me, it was not something you heard in Baptist circles. But it is certainly biblical. The idea comes from Scripture as Paul expressed his work and concern to the Galatians, “My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Gal. 4:19 ESV) In the Baptist tradition, we call it discipleship. But, if you want to put a congregation to sleep, just preach on spiritual formation. Church members generally have an hour per week to give to God and resent any suggestion that there is some sort of maintenance of the soul for daily life.
The idea of discipleship died years ago in Southern Baptist life as it has in most denominations. I remember reading in college that if you want to kill a church, emphasize discipleship instead of evangelism. What that writer and many others forgets is, if you want a church that is evangelistic, you must have a body of people in whom Christ is formed, who bear the mind of Christ. We cannot do great works until the soul is fed and strengthened. We cannot live a meaningful Christian life until we lay down our old life and learn a new one. The church is given the responsibility to form Christ in the hearts of believers. It is worship, prayer, preaching, teaching and encouragement that God uses to form Christ in our hearts, in our minds, in our souls.
In some sense, we all need to be reconverted to Christ. We hide behind words but have no action. We blame others to avoid dealing with our own faults. We throw up theological “truths” to avoid attending to our own soul. Can you imagine what it’s like to be a pastor and preach, for some of us three times a week, to the spiritually inert who exit no better or worse than when the entered for worship? After a while pastors lose their youthful ideals and stop trying. Pastors forget that it is the Holy Spirit at work in us. Church members forget that it is the Holy Spirit who used the feeble efforts of the men and women who stand before the church to proclaim the Word of God or who empowers us to daily living. It begins each day when we turn ourselves to Christ.
I know there are bad pastoral leaders. Some are shameful and others are simply immature. But that is not the great problem with the church. The great problem is the quiet apostasy that is taking place among the people who only have a few minutes for God. It truly is a practical atheism that gives lip service to God with no action in daily life. And there is no one to blame but the individual who refuses to live the life of a disciple. And please no metaphor like the fish rots from the head down. It is time for Christians to take personal responsibility for how they live. It may mean that some, if not many, churches need to cease to exist if the membership refuses to turn to Christ and obey him.
For whatever reason, most of us think we are wiser than God and we should run the church like a business or a sales force or a nonprofit. When we fail to do things God’s way, we create a horrible sense of apathy toward godly things. Unbiblical views and practices of Christians will inevitably produce declining churches with apathetic members.
If you want to see a biblical example for this, look at the 7-8th BC prophets. Read Isaiah chapter one. See people who go through the motions of worship without heart, without a daily living faith. Here is just a portion of God’s complaint against his people.
11 “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.
12 “When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? (Isa. 1:11-12 ESV)
In this case, they still went to the temple and they worshiped! But there was no content to their faith. Sooner or later they would wake up and think that worship was pointless because they did not really believe what they were practicing. In fact, God asked them, why are you here? That is our situation in churches today.
We are never without hope. Church failure and decline can cause a remnant of a holy people to return to a living faith. Sometimes it takes a small group of faithful believers to start over and reestablish the living church of God. It may very well be that old forms of church need to die. When you compare today’s church to the New Testament church, you hardly see any resemblance. If we are truly concerned with the decline of the church, we need to return to God’s church, not our church.
It is God’s church after all and he establishes the rules. When we think we have a better way to “run” a church instead of using God’s plan, we need to turn to Scripture. God never called us to be successful, especially the way the world defines success. We are called to be faithful.
We need to rediscover these verses when we try to size up pastors or church members or pass blame on others as simpletons–those old fashioned enough to do things God’s way. I know it has brought me great comfort when my best effort was not good enough:
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”” 1 Corinthians 1:26-31 ESV
We need to remember that it is God’s church, not ours. The proper attitude for the Christian, as he stands before God and the world, is humility. Worship and church community demands from us humility, not pride or self-centeredness. There is no personal greatness in the Christian life. In words stolen from that great theological group, Pink Floyd, we are just bricks in the wall. The wall is the house God is building. Our names are not inscribed on the bricks but it is the name of Christ. It is his church.