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By Jim Cymbala
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2014 Jim Cymbala
All rights reserved.
Warning Signs for the Church
I sat alone in our twenty-sixth-floor apartment the night a deadly visitor arrived. My wife, Carol, was in Nashville working on a new CD project for the choir. I might have been tempted to leave town with her earlier had I known how violent my unwelcomed guest would become.
Though I had been warned of her likely appearance for hours, I wasn't too alarmed as I awaited her arrival. How bad could it be? Despite the strong warnings, she was only passing through New York, a stopover on her way from the Caribbean to an unknown destination off the coast of eastern Canada. I hadn't yet fully grasped the wrath she would bring or the darkness she would leave behind.
Throughout that ominous day, I had watched the thick clouds churning in the sky as the smog-diffused gray light gave way to a full moon and a wet, shadowy night. Looking out the window, I could see that the stores had closed early due to the unusual weather forecast. Below me, Brooklyn was unusually deserted. The streets were devoid of both people and cars. It was jarring to be in such a large downtown area and not see another soul.
I was lonely and called Carol.
As the night wore on, I heard the wind. It whistled through the walls and rattled the double-plated glass windows. Fifteen months earlier, Carol and I had moved from a house to this apartment. I wasn't yet familiar with how this new high rise would hold, so as the storm outside intensified, so did my anxiety. Driving rain began to pelt the windows. Winds whipped around our building, and debris launched from the streets flew several stories high. The gloomy day became a frightening night. My thoughts raced: How would the building handle what was about to be unleashed?
She blew into Brooklyn with a force I had never experienced. New Yorkers are famously tough, but we were no match for this kind of power. The local television stations reported damage in New Jersey and along the coast. Trees fell in Long Island, taking down power lines. When Sandy's punch landed exactly at high tide, she served up murky water like a busted fire hydrant. Seawater rushed into power stations and subways in Lower Manhattan. Hospitals began to evacuate the sick, sending them home or transporting them by ambulance to hospitals farther inland.
The superstorm raged, and I had no idea how deadly she was or how much destruction she left in her path. I wouldn't discover those things until the light of morning. However, that night I saw something I had never seen before. Or rather, I didn't see something I'd always seen—Lower Manhattan disappeared into the night. The lights that always glowed from the financial district were gone! The power that physically and metaphorically lit the world had been cut off at the source.
To a Brooklynite who uses the skyline of Manhattan to navigate, the way a cowboy uses the North Star, it was unfathomable to think that parts of New York City could just suddenly dissolve into darkness. I thought of all the wealth and influence concentrated in the financial district alone. The people who lived and worked there swayed the entire world's economy with a few keystrokes.
But now, with their power cut, the great buildings where they worked were dark. And thousands of people who labored there during the week were powerless to do anything about it. It was startling to think how such vast influence could just disappear.
During the next few days, I saw more images of Sandy's deadly devastation. Boardwalks and amusement rides had been ripped from their foundations and tossed out to sea. Houses were torn to splintered shreds of plywood, and open gas lines fed flames, causing entire neighborhoods to burn. Coastlines disappeared, and maps would forever be redrawn.
I learned how our church was personally affected. Members lost homes and vehicles. One of our keyboard players had both of his cars washed away. Sadly, up and down the East Coast many people lost their lives.
But the image I kept returning to, the one that haunted me, was the absence of light and power in Lower Manhattan. It struck me that this could be the perfect metaphor for what is happening in the Christian church today.
Is the light of Jesus that we are to shine before people growing dark?
Has another kind of storm cut us off from our power source?
Is the church of Christ disappearing into a dark night?
POWERFUL AND DEADLY STORMS
Superstorm Sandy was bad, but deadlier storms have hit our shores.
In 2008, Hurricane Katrina sent ocean water rushing over the levees, destroying parts of New Orleans, displacing millions of residents, and killing more than 1,800 people. The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 took even more lives. When the storm came inland, approximately 8,000 people who chose to ignore the warnings were swept out to sea.
Had they understood what was coming, they would have chosen differently.
However, the intensity of a storm isn't always visible at its birth. Sandy wasn't more than a blip on the radar in the Caribbean, but the right conditions quickly fueled her growth. Likewise, on December 26, 2004, sailors either didn't see or didn't pay attention to the small bulges on the water's surface. The one-foot swells were barely perceptible in the enormous Indian Ocean. But as waves reached the shallow coastlines, the sea began to rise dramatically, eventually unleashing fifty-foot waves and killing about 200,000 people. The energy released by the Indian Ocean Tsunami was estimated to be the equivalent of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs. What started out as a one-foot wave grew to become one of the deadliest natural disasters in history.
I believe we are in the early stages of a storm that has the potential to damage our churches, our families, and ultimately the cause of Christ in the nation.
I believe followers of Jesus in America are on the cusp of something horrible. I, and many others, see the early warning signs all around. You may see them too. I want you to consider three specifically.
WARNING NO. 1 – WE'RE NOT AS BIG AS WE THINK
A quick Google search will reveal some surprising statistics about Christians in America. For example, one website says that 246,780,000 people (79.5 percent of the population) in the United States are Christians. That's a huge percentage of Americans who claim to be followers of Christ!
But is it true or a bogus number?
If nearly 80 percent of the population were Christian, wouldn't we see the effects of that in culture?
Let me ask the question in a different way. Are eight out of ten people in your school, office, or community Bible-believing, churchgoing followers of Jesus? That's not the case in Brooklyn, where I live and work. My guess is that's not the case where you live either.
In the book The Great Evangelical Recession, author John S. Dickerson takes a closer look at these often exaggerated statistics and the data behind them and finds that the numbers don't add up. He points out that the vast majority of those claiming to be "Christian" rarely attend any church, nor do they trust in Christ alone for their salvation, nor do they value God's Word as the only rule for faith and practice.
You've run into this before, right?
You're in a conversation with someone who said they were a "Christian," but as the conversation moves deeper, you find their thinking plainly non-Christian. They don't value the Bible as God's Word. Or they maintain that there are multiple ways to receive salvation and Jesus is just one of those. What they describe is so different from what you know the Bible teaches, it is hard to imagine how they could call themselves believers in Jesus.
Jenny, a friend from church, recently had a conversation with a woman who identified herself as a Christian. Yet as the conversation developed, the woman also told Jenny that she believed that everyone should make up their own religion. Perhaps they should also make up a name for that religion, because it is not Christianity!
To get an accurate count of Bible-believing Christians in America, Dickerson looked at four studies by four different researchers who had four different motivations and used four different methodologies to calculate the number. Their unanimous conclusion was that "the actual number of evangelical Christians is shockingly between 7 to 8.9 percent of the United States population, not 40 percent and certainly not 70 percent." That's right, only 7 to 8.9 percent of America.
The truth is that the number of real believers in Jesus is in a massive decline, and that decline is happening much more rapidly than we have thought. While many boast of America being a "Christian nation," Dickerson's researchers say it's fewer than one out of ten. And it gets worse. He predicts that within thirty years, the number of evangelical Christians will drop to one in every twenty-five Americans!
These numbers are a clear warning that the lights are going out.
WARNING NO. 2 – PERSONAL TRANSFORMATION IS RARE
Over the last decade, leaders from several denominations have told me that new members, average attendance, baptisms, and giving have all declined in their churches. The largest evangelical denomination sadly reports that new converts as measured by baptisms in 2012 was the lowest since 1948!
Talking with pastors throughout the country, I know these trends aren't limited to any one denomination. Recently, while in Louisiana, I prayed at an altar with a pastor who was distraught over the lack of spiritual results in his ministry. This man had been a pastor for nearly thirty years and had weathered many of the typical ups and downs pastors experience. He had a passion for ministry, and all he wanted to do was lead people to Jesus. With a heavy heart and tears in his eyes, he said, "Listen, Jim, I love God, but I haven't baptized ten new converts in two years! There are people all around who need Jesus, but I can't seem to reach them. I don't know what to do." Then he broke down sobbing.
His story isn't unique or surprising.
In 2012 the Barna Group found that 46 percent of churchgoers said "their life had not changed at all as a result of churchgoing." On top of that, "three out of five church attenders (61 percent) said they could not remember a significant new insight gained by attending church services." What is even more bothersome is that "one-third of those who have attended a church in the past have never felt God's presence while in a congregational setting" (emphasis added).
Think of it: More than half of churchgoers don't remember even one significant new insight gained by going to God's house!
Something strange is going on here.
It is obvious the overwhelming majority of our ministries are not producing much fruit in the form of converted, changed lives. And people are not experiencing God in our churches. This would have been unthinkable in the early days of the Christian church as described in the New Testament. This is a critical warning sign that something is terribly wrong.
WARNING NO. 3 – BIBLICAL LITERACY IS DECLINING
Not only are the majority not getting spiritual insight from their church experience, but a growing number aren't getting it from the Bible either. According to the American Bible Society's "State of the Bible 2013" report, the number of Americans who are antagonistic toward the Bible has increased from 10 percent to 17 percent from 2011 to 2013. Where will we be in five or ten years if this trend continues?
To counter that statistic, at first glance it might seem positive that two out of three Americans believe the Bible contains everything a person needs to live a meaningful life. But only one out of five (21 percent) actively read the Bible at least four times a week. Even among churchgoers who believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God, only 20 percent say they think about it during the day. God has spoken to us through his Word, but fewer are taking the time to listen.
Surveys also show that there is barely any difference between the lifestyles of Christian churchgoers and the behavior of those who don't believe in God at all. Yet the Scriptures define believers in Jesus as "saints," a people who have been separated from the world and belong exclusively to Jesus.
Fewer people inside the church believe in the truth and power found in Scripture. An even smaller percentage actively read and apply its truth to their lives. This turning away from Scripture is another calamitous sign.
THE CHURCH IS LOSING ITS LIGHT AND POWER
We have seen this picture, right?
Adults drag themselves out of bed to attend church from a sense of duty or obligation. There is little joy in their worship or power in their prayers. Teens and young adults profess to be believers, but half of those born into the church leave it, and those who remain don't generally seem too excited about Jesus of Nazareth. The young blame the older people running the church, and the older people running the church blame the young for running away from it. Young and old can't agree on the style of music and use that as an excuse not to participate. Thankfully, there are many exceptions, but the handwriting remains on the wall.
If there are decreasing signs of spiritual life—conversions to Christ through the preaching of the gospel, growing congregations, services filled with Bible teaching, prayer, and love for one another—something must be terribly wrong. While politicians are experts at spinning uncomfortable facts, as Christians we can't afford to explain away the obvious. Our light in the world is flickering, and we must face that reality.
Some Christian leaders have sadly confessed to me that the decline is so severe among their ranks that unless something turns around, unless God visits them in a fresh way, their denomination will probably barely exist in a decade or two.
Many Christians are bewildered, disheartened, and concerned by what they see—a culture that has become increasingly hostile to biblical Christianity and a church whose vital signs are rapidly waning.
It is easier to deny these statistics than to embrace them. But calling something not true that is true doesn't change the truth. Maybe we are tempted to dismiss these warnings with empty platitudes or "faith talk" that repeatedly denies reality or declares that "God is on the throne" and "God is good all the time," as if repeating those slogans will stop the storm from sweeping across the American church.
But the decline is even worse elsewhere. For example, Scotland was once home to some of the greatest revivals, most gifted pastors, best religious writers, and strongest churches in history. Yet I recently read that the Christian church in Scotland has so declined that at the current rate the church will basically cease to exist by the year 2047.
How could this happen in Scotland? Some of the greatest missionaries in the history of Christianity were sent out into the world from there. Nevertheless, in a few years Scotland may be almost devoid of Christian witness.
Excerpted from Storm by Jim Cymbala. Copyright © 2014 Jim Cymbala. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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