Read an Excerpt
The Never Alone Church
By David Ferguson
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 1998 Intimate Life Ministries
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Need for Relevance
It was a balmy November evening in Titusville, Florida, and the Friday night service was nearing conclusion. I was speaking to about a thousand pastors and lay leaders gathered for one of our regional ministry training conferences. My text was Romans 12:15: "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn." During our time of worship we experienced the first part of that verse, rejoicing together in God's goodness and grace. Then I emphasized the testimony of love that results when we share our hurts and discouragements with one another and receive God's comfort from one another as the Bible instructs.
At the close of my message I encouraged everyone to turn to someone nearby-spouse, family member, or friend-and share a memory of personal pain. It could be as small or great a pain as they cared to disclose, something recent or from the past. As each individual spoke, his or her partner was to listen and express godly comfort.
As people shared their hurts and comforted one another, many exchanged spontaneous, tender embraces, and a few tears began to flow. I slipped away from the platform and circled behind the crowd near the main doors, rejoicing as I contemplated the Father's joy. His children were moving beyond hearing his Word to actually experiencing it.
While I stood there watching, the door opened behind me, and a man walked in. He was about thirty years old, nice looking, and casually dressed. I found out later that Ray, who was not a believer, lived in the neighborhood and was out for an evening walk. Curious about why the church parking lot was full on a Friday night, he had stepped inside to take a look.
He walked over near me and surveyed the sea of people. Obviously perplexed at the sight, he asked, "What are they doing?"
"They're comforting one another," I explained.
Ray continued to watch the people share their hurts and tenderly embrace-married couples, single adults, and entire families. Tears formed in his eyes, and there was a longing in his voice. "That's what I need."
Sensing a divine appointment, I said, "Are there stressful or painful things going on in your life right now?"
Ray nodded. He explained that his job at the nearby Kennedy Space Center was in jeopardy due to cutbacks. Furthermore, he had just gone through the pain of placing his mother in a nursing home. At about the same time, his fianc�e had broken up with him. This young man was in a world of hurt!
Others gathered around Ray and shared God's love with him by comforting him. The unexpected outpouring of love from total strangers lifted a great burden from Ray, and before the evening was over, he committed his life to Jesus Christ. Today he is involved in church and a singles ministry. Through new friends in the church, Ray found a better job. And the church's ministry to shut-ins is sharing the love of Christ with Ray's mother in the nursing home. The love and comfort Ray found that warm November evening continue to bless him. Ray is no longer alone.
Are We Relevant?
Isn't this what every one of us prays for? Don't we fervently desire to see people like Ray drawn to Christ by what they see in our lives? Don't we long for increasing numbers of hurting people to look to us and our churches for refuge, hope, and healing?
But are we providing this kind of place in the world today? In moments of honest reflection, many of us would probably respond, "Sadly, not as often as we want to be or should be." Unchurched friends and neighbors may attend services when we invite them for Christmas or Easter or "Friendship Sunday." But how many of them come back seeking answers for their troubled lives? And how many total strangers like Ray enter our Christian gatherings saying, "This is what I need"? Again, answering honestly, many of us would say, "First-time unchurched visitors are few and far between, and return visitors are even more rare." Or we may lament, "Whenever I try to share the gospel with unbelieving neighbors or coworkers, they're not interested."
Why is this so? Why do the people who need our message the most seem the least interested in it? Why aren't there more people like Ray coming through our doors? Why do so many of the unchurched walk away from us saying in effect, "I see what you have, and I don't need it"?
I believe I can answer these hard questions with one word: relevance. After more than fifteen years of ministry to Christian leaders who struggle with these questions, I am convinced that the body of Christ frequently fails at being relevant to the needy world around us. What does it mean to be relevant? According to Webster, something is relevant when it has "significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand." A relevant solution is clearly applicable and pertinent, significantly impacting the needs of the current situation. A solution that does not meet the obvious need is deemed irrelevant or extraneous.
People are not streaming to us or to our gatherings for answers because they do not perceive our message as relevant to the deep needs of their lives. To a vast number of the unchurched, we are answering questions they are not asking, we are providing solutions to problems they don't face, we are scratching where they don't itch. We are irrelevant to the people we most need to reach. They leave our gatherings feeling just as alone as when they came.
"But wait," you may object. "The gospel is the solution to human-kind's deepest needs. God and his Word are thoroughly relevant to our problem-plagued culture." And you are right. God and his eternal Word are relevant to the needs of every relationship, every culture, and every period of history-including the present. So to whatever extent we are irrelevant to the world around us, it is not God's fault. Something is getting lost in the translation. Somewhere between God's ultimate solution and the world's crying need, the message of hope is becoming garbled. The problem is not in the message; it's in the medium. The problem is not in the vision; it's in the vehicle.
Most people around us do not listen to our message because they do not see how God and his Word can solve their life struggles. What they need is a relevant solution to their problems modeled right in front of their eyes. Our neighbors are desperate to see the living Word of God applied to the real needs of real people in the real world. Once they see that what we have is real, they will want to know where it comes from. If we are going to reach a hurting world with biblical, Christ-centered solutions, we must be a showcase of God's relevance. We must be people who prompt the watching world to say with Ray, the wide-eyed young man in Florida, "That's what I need."
Bright Hope, Painful Irony
The world is full of hurting, needy people like Ray. If I had to characterize the general population in only a few words, I would say we are people who are alienated, disconnected, and alone. I believe the outward manifestations of crime, drugs, rebellion, abuse, addiction, and family breakup plaguing our culture spring from alienation at two levels. First, people are alienated from God and his Word. Second, people are alienated from one another, feeling empty, unloved, and alone. They rush through life at a helter-skelter pace, hardly noticing each other, feeling empty and alone.
Many husbands and wives relate at a surface level but fall short of developing true intimacy. Many single adults feel ignored and unimportant in a world that seems to cater to couples and families. Parents talk to their children but not with them. They feel so alone. No wonder one teenager wrote, "I am so lonely I can hardly stand it. I want to be special to someone, but there's no one who cares about me. I can't remember anyone touching me, smiling at me, or wanting to be with me. I feel so empty inside."
This young person speaks for vast multitudes of lonely, alienated people in our world. The hurt is real. The pain is deep. Anxiety, emptiness, disconnectedness, and aloneness reign in the human heart as our culture tumbles from crisis to crisis.
The World Isn't Listening
Do we have an answer for pain-filled people in a crisis-filled culture? Absolutely! The bright hope gleaming in the darkness of a hurting generation is the person of Jesus Christ and his message of love and forgiveness. Christ is the answer. We believe it wholeheartedly. We preach it and teach it with conviction and passion.
But does the hurting world find our message relevant? By and large, no. Studies confirm that our words and actions fail to clearly communicate Christ's message of hope. The spiritually and relationally needy around us often dismiss the gospel as the solution to their troubled lives because they fail to see its relevance in us.
On the one hand, many unbelievers seem to be very God conscious. A recent national survey reveals that 57 percent of the unchurched consider religion very important to their lives. We find that many unbelievers look to God and the church for help in times of discouragement or trouble. From this data we might expect the world to beat a path to our door for the answers and solace they seek.
Ironically, another study shows that an astounding 91 percent of non-Christians feel that the church is not sensitive to their real needs. In other words, what they hear and see in us is largely not applicable or pertinent to their situation. They find us irrelevant. What a tragedy! Hurting people may come to the right place but far too often go away empty because the way we relate the answer does not apply to their glaring need.
Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, California, and author of The Purpose-Driven Church, made a similar discovery. Before he opened the doors at Saddleback Church, which now welcomes ten thousand in weekly worship attendance, Warren conducted a house-to-house survey in the community. He discovered four common complaints about churches:
* Church is boring, especially the sermons. The messages don't relate to my life.
* Church members are unfriendly to visitors. If I go to church, I want to feel welcomed without being embarrassed.
* The church is more interested in my money than in me.
* We worry about the quality of the church's child care.
Is the world coming to us for bread, only to be served a stone? That's what the unchurched seem to be saying. I am concerned that we may be losing the battle for truth in this generation because we are not relevant, vital models of God's solution to a hurting world. What's needed is for God to restore the relevance of his love in such a way that people need never be alone.
Missing the Mark among Our Own
You may be surprised to learn that recent evidence suggests we are failing the test of relevance inside the church as well as outside. A 1994 Josh McDowell Ministry study of 3,795 church-attending youth reveals:
* Fifty-three percent of our church-attending youth feel alone in trouble or crisis.
* Fifty-two percent say they don't want a marriage like their parents'.
* Fifty percent say they are stressed out.
* Fifty-five percent say they are confused.
* Forty-four percent do not believe their church is relevant to their lives.
If our church-attending youth find themselves lonely, stressed out, and confused, can it also be true that a comparable segment of adults are also lonely, stressed out, and confused? Research confirms it. A staggering 74 percent of today's Christian adults claim that the church is not sensitive to their needs.
There are obviously thousands of churches effectively sharing the message of God's love. But among a broader group of the approximately 350,000 churches in this country, something is significantly missing. When a majority of Christian adults claim that the church's message doesn't meet their needs, is it any wonder non-Christians find the church irrelevant? As God's people struggle with the pain of their own aloneness their ministry to others is greatly hindered.
Loneliness at the Top
Ministry leaders and their families are not immune to the painful alienation plaguing our culture, nor is the message of hope we proclaim always perceived as relevant to those who seem most deeply committed to it. According to a recent survey, 23 percent of Protestant pastors have been officially terminated or forced to resign at least once during their ministries. H. B. London and Neil Wiseman begin their book, Pastors at Risk, with the sobering words, "Contemporary pastors are caught in frightening spiritual and social tornadoes which are now raging through home, church, community and culture."
A study by Fuller Institute of Church Growth found that a staggering number of ministers are hurting and finding little relief among those they serve:
* Eighty percent of ministers believe that pastoral ministry negatively affects their families.
* Ninety percent feel they were inadequately trained to cope with ministry demands.
* Seventy percent do not have someone they consider to be a close friend.
* Thirty-seven percent confess to having been inappropriately involved sexually with someone in the church.
Another survey reveals that 41 percent of ministers struggle with anger toward their spouses. Forty-five percent of ministers' wives claim to have no close friends.
Something isn't working. When the message of Christ's love and forgiveness is not being applied to resolve the personal and relational pain of so many of those who proclaim it, we have a crisis of irrelevance in the ministry. When ministry leaders are just as alone in their own marriages, families, and relationships as those they seek to lead-aloneness is multiplied.
The Heart of the Issue
Where have we missed it? Weare the body of Christ, ordained by God to proclaim the Good News. So why do we seem to have so little impact on a hurting world, not to mention our own members and leaders?
I propose that our culture no longer sees us as a relevant solution to its needs because we have lost touch with the very heart of who we are. As the people of God, we may hold the "right" views on sin, embrace the "right" concepts of truth, and proclaim the "right" steps to salvation. But if we are out of touch with why we do what we do, our ministries will be irrelevant to the needy world. In my judgment, this is precisely why hurting people are not flocking to our churches today, where the solution to their deepest needs awaits them. And it is also the reason why so many church members are hurting and unfulfilled.
Excerpted from The Never Alone Church by David Ferguson Copyright © 1998 by Intimate Life Ministries
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.