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Why We Love the Church
In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion
By Kevin DeYoung, Ted Kluck, Jim Vincent
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2009 Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck
All rights reserved.
THE MISSIOLOGICAL: JESUS AMONG THE CHICKEN LITTLES (KEVIN)
The word on the street is that the American church is gasping its last breath. To cite just one example, popular church consultant and conference speaker Reggie McNeal argues that while the situation in North America is not hopeless, things are worse than we think and the problems are more far gone than we imagined. Unless the church in North America makes big changes (and fast), we are facing "sure death." Even more strikingly, McNeal suggests that the new realities addressed in The Present Future "represent tectonic shifts in the ethos of the spiritual quest of humanity." It doesn't get much more serious than that.
The church, according McNeal and many others, has lost its way, its influence, and its entire purpose. Without massive transformation, the church in North America will soon go the way of the dodo bird. In short, "the institutional church in North America is in deep trouble—and it should be, because it has lost its mission." The church, then, has two choices: change or die.
McNeal is not the only voice crying in the wilderness. David Olson begins his helpful book, The American Church in Crisis, with this clear, if unsurprising, assessment: "The American church is in crisis." Similarly, Neil Cole opines that "American Christianity is dying. Our future is in serious jeopardy. We are deathly ill and don't even know it." "It's the institution of the church that's in its death throes," says another. Not to be outdone, George Barna, who has grown increasingly disillusioned with what he has seen and measured among Christians in the last twenty-plus years, concludes very matter-of-factly based on his "research data" that "if the local church is the hope of the world, then the world has no hope."
THE SKY IS FALLING (SORT OF, MAYBE)
Among those who feel like the church is almost or completely broken, two pieces of evidence are usually offered: (1) The church is losing people; and (2) the church has lost its mission. Let's start by looking at number one, the church's missing members.
The church in America, it is said, is dying a death of attrition. Our most faithful members, who also happen to be the most generous, are dying off. Young people are leaving the faith and not coming back. And the lost are harder to reach than ever. Ironically, as the mainstream media fears an impending Christian theocracy, Christians in America fear their own extinction, or at least their irrelevance.
Yet, the news is not all bad. In February 1939, pollster George Gallup started asking Americans "Did you happen to go to church last Sunday?" In that year 41 percent said yes. The wording has been altered slightly over the years, but basically the same question has been asked every year since. And the percentage responding "yes" has barely changed. From 2000 to 2005 the "yeses" in Gallup's church poll ranged from 40 to 44 percent. In terms of actual attendance, we find that in 1990 on any given weekend 52 million people in America attended a church. In 2005, the number still stood at 52 million. The wheels haven't fallen off yet.
But the news is not all good either. For starters, far fewer people actually go to church than the numbers suggest. It's called the "halo effect"—people give better answers to pollsters than they live out in real life. By one estimate, only 17.5 percent of the American public actually attend church on any given weekend, even though more than twice as many report that they do. Furthermore, while the number of people in church has stayed the same over the past fifteen years (about 52 million), the percentage of churchgoers has decreased. Simply put, church growth has not kept pace with population growth. The same number of people may go to church, but since there are more people in the country, the number of churchgoers as a percentage of the whole goes down. So, according to Olson, while 20.4 percent of Americans went to church on any given weekend in 1990, only 17.5 percent went in 2005, and, by his estimates, only 14.7 percent will be in church on any given weekend by 2020.
This is not a good trajectory. Anyone who loves Jesus Christ wants to see His church grow. But keep in mind that these numbers do not represent declining overall membership, but rather church membership that is not growing on pace with the increased population. This too is a problem. Believe me, I am not advocating an indifference to the lack of church growth in America. I want to see the percentage line going up, not down. And the fact that it is going down is worth our prayers and reflection (more on that shortly). But the claims of the church's imminent demise are grossly exaggerated. Even though only 17.5 percent of Americans attend on any given weekend (assuming this lower percentage is accurate), 37 percent still attend at least once a month, and 52 percent report belonging to some church tradition. Again, I wish more people believed in Christ and that the people who claim church affiliation actually showed up in church every Sunday, but when over a hundred million people in this country attend church at least once a month, it seems a bit of a hyperbole to suggest that the church in America is about to disappear into thin air.
Moreover, when we look more closely at recent church decline we see that the decline has not happened uniformly across the board. Recall that from 1990 to 2005, the percentage of Americans in church on any given weekend fell from 20.4 percent to 17.5 percent. During the same time period the percentage of those attending the establishment mainline churches fell from 3.9 to 3.0 percent, while those attending a Roman Catholic church declined from 7.2 percent to 5.3 percent. But the percentage in evangelical churches was almost identical, going from 9.2 percent in 1990 to 9.1 percent in 2005. Keep in mind these are percentages of the total population. This means the actual number of people attending an evangelical church on any weekend rose by several million over the last decade and a half. Almost all of the net loss in percentage of church attendance came from Catholic and more liberal Protestant churches. For example, in raw numbers, the mainline churches declined 21 percent in membership (from 29 million to 22 million) from 1960 to 2000, while at the same time overall church membership in the United States rose by 33 percent.
So the story of declining church attendance percentage is not the story of a newfound dissatisfaction with the church at large, as much as it is the continuing story of Catholics and mainline Protestants losing their young (to evangelical churches or to no church), parents in mainline and Catholic pews not having as many children as evangelicals, and the old (who are found disproportionately among mainline churches) dying off.
QUESTIONS FROM QUESTIONS
But for the sake of argument, let's look at the glass as half empty. Most of our churches are not growing. Even with all our megachurches, the evangelical community is not quite keeping up with population growth in the country at large. So how should we respond? Or to hit a little closer to home, how should you respond if your denomination or your church is shrinking, not only as a percentage of the whole but in real numbers?
Questions like these ought to prompt more questions. And the question the "disgruntled-with-church-as-we-know-it" books always seem to ask is the same: "What are we doing wrong?" In other words, the fix-the-church books almost always figure that declining church attendance, even as a percentage of the total population, means the church has messed something up. Even though the new crop of church books decry the old church-growth models, they still operate with the same basic assumption: namely, that churches should be growing and something is wrong with the church that isn't.
This assumption, however, is alien to the New Testament. Didn't Jesus say tell us that "the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few" (Matt. 7:14)? Wasn't the early church of Philadelphia commended by the Lord Jesus even though they were facing opposition and had "little power" (Rev. 3:7-13)? There is simply no biblical teaching to indicate that church size is the measure of success. The renowned missiologist Lesslie Newbigin offers a wise summary:
Reviewing, then, the teaching of the New Testament, one would have to say that, on the one hand, there is joy in the rapid growth of the church in the earliest days, but that, on the other, there is no evidence that the numerical growth of the church is a matter of primary concern. There is no shred of evidence in Paul's letters to suggest that he judged the churches by the measure of their success in rapid numerical growth, nor is there anything comparable to the strident cries of some contemporary evangelists that the salvation of the world depends upon the multiplication of believers. There is an incomparable sense of seriousness and urgency as the apostle contemplates the fact that he and all people "must appear before the judgment seat of Christ" and as he acknowledges the constraint of Jesus' love and the ministry of reconciliation that he has received (2 Cor. 5:10-21). But this nowhere appears as either an anxiety or an enthusiasm about the numerical growth of the church.
In short, the church does not succeed or fail based on the ebb and flow of its membership rolls.
"ARE WE GETTING IN THE WAY OF THE GOSPEL?"
Having said that, I still think the question "What are we doing wrong?"—or to put it more theologically, "Are we getting in the way of the gospel?"—is a good one (for "successful" churches too I might add). As much as the verse as been abused, we don't want to ignore Paul's injunction that we be all things to all people in order that we might save some (1 Cor. 9:22). There are conservative churches who wear smallness as a badge of honor. Because they sense the real danger of measuring success by numerical growth, they think tiny churches are a sign of faithfulness and big churches are all sellouts. Their pastors at times sound as though they're channeling John Owen, and their engagement with culture consists in explaining how modern-day Armenians differ from theological Arminians. They talk in the cadences of another century and specialize in preaching to the choir. There are churches out there that not only don't grow, they are frankly proud that they don't. The church in America can shrink until it shrivels and dies as far as they are concerned. They are interested in truth not results.
There is much I admire about this attitude. It is refreshingly nonfaddish and unconcerned about worldly success. But those who hold this attitude are often blind to the ways in which they make it unnecessarily hard for people to feel at home in their churches. They can be inflexible about the wrong things and unable to see how the unbeliever is not always entirely to blame for disliking the church. So, "Are we getting in the way of the gospel?" is a worthwhile question to ask.
OTHER QUESTIONS WORTH ASKING
It's just not the only question worth asking. That's my complaint with so many of the "church is lame" books, both those from the church growth vein and those from the emergent/missional approach. They assume that every decline in attendance, every negative perception of the church, every unsolved societal problem, and every unbeliever still wandering outside our doors, is an indictment on the "way we do church." If people aren't coming to know the Lord in droves and our communities aren't transformed into a multicultural city on a hill, then there must be something dreadfully wrong with church as we know it. "Surely, it's time to change. If not everything, then most everything," they argue.
But there are other questions we need to ask when we don't see the results we desire. Questions like:
Are we believing the gospel? People won't be convinced of Christianity if they don't sense we are convinced of it. This is especially true when doubt and disbelief come from the pulpit. As Richard Baxter (1615-91) noted in his own day, some of our churches are pastored by unregenerate men. Even more have preachers who are either confused about the gospel or simply cold to it. Just a century later (in 1740), George Whitefield concluded that "the generality of preachers [in New England] talk of an unknown and unfelt Christ. The reason why congregations have been so dead is because they have had dead men preach to them."
Are we relying on the power of the gospel? If the gospel is "the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes" (Rom. 1:16), why don't our services and our evangelism focus more explicitly on the good news of Christ's death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins? Likewise, if our churches are shrinking, perhaps it is because the role of the Word has shrunk in our preaching and witness. Do we really trust God to build His church through His Word, or do we rely on tricks and gimmicks?
Are we getting the gospel out? It sounds simple to some, and hopelessly fundamentalist to others, but if we want to see the church grow, we need to actually get out and tell people about the good news of Jesus. Church growth will not keep pace with population growth unless we actively share the gospel with nonChristians and winsomely plead with them to be reconciled to God.
Are we getting the gospel right? In an age where many Christians assume that doctrinal precision gets in the way of mission, we would do well to remember that Paul damned to hell anyone, including himself, who messed with the content of the gospel (Gal. 1:8). God blesses churches that remain faithful to His Word. "We will repeatedly suggest," write sociologists Roger Finke and Rodney Stark in beginning their survey of the churching of America from 1776-2005, "that as denominations have modernized their doctrines and embraced temporal values, they have gone into decline." When it comes to doctrinal boundaries and moral demands, the history of the church in this country demonstrates that stricter is stronger. We cannot expect the church to grow when she proclaims a false gospel.
Are we adorning the gospel with good works? We must watch closely our doctrine and our life (1 Tim. 4:16). As we'll see in the coming chapters, people will not listen to our message or be attracted to our churches if they see hypocritical Christians and churches unconcerned about the problems of the world. Our good works are not the gospel, but they can adorn it and make it more attractive (Titus 2:10).
Are we praying for the work of the gospel? We must pray for more workers, pray for soft hearts, pray for God's Spirit to supernaturally bring about new birth. If we truly believed in God's sovereignty, discouraging trends and statistics would cause us first to pray. Every bit of hopelessness is a reminder to hope in God and an impetus to prayer.
Are we training up our children in the gospel? A good portion of the decline in church attendance comes from the failure to retain our own children. What will it profit a man if he transforms the world but loses his own children? We should also consider that church growth is covenantal as well as evangelistic. If we want the church in America to grow, we should consider how God might be calling some of us (but not all) to grow our own families.
THE QUESTION OF A SOVEREIGN GOD
To all these questions, I could add one more: "Are we trusting God's sovereignty in the gospel?" God causes the deaf to hear and the blind to see. He melts hearts of stone and hardens others. Paul did not always see a favorable response to the gospel. Neither will we. God may send a season of blessing and revival or He may use us, like so many of the prophets, to give one last warning of the judgment to come. Some will plant, some will water, and some will reap a harvest.
Our part is to do our part. Church decline or stagnation can lead us to evaluate ourselves in all of the above categories. But only God saves. It is right to plan and pray for "results" and plead with others to know Christ, but no one can change the number of God's elect.
Remember that on that "great gettin' up morning," God will not reward churchgoers, or His churches for that matter, for being big and influential, or hip and culturally with-it, but for being good and faithful (Matt. 25:23). That's all God asks of us—be good and faithful, which is right, because that's the best we can do.
THE MISSION OF GOD
The second piece of evidence that critics offer of the church's alleged failure is its lack of purpose and mission. Missional churches are "in" these days. Social action is hot. Evangelism is regarded as too aggressive (just a sales pitch), modern (cold, logical argumentation), and condescending ("my God is better than yours"). Service and justice ought to be the church's chief concerns. As one author has said, "Your job is to bless people; that's the covenant. Don't have an evangelism strategy—have a blessing strategy." A generation raised on seeker-sensitive churches where all the energy and value seemed to be on getting the unchurched into our worship services has reacted against an all-or-nothing commitment to getting people saved. So gone are the days where churches put all their focus on unchurched Harry and Mary. Now the emphasis is on human trafficking, AIDS, poverty, the homeless, and the environment. To bring Christ's kingdom of peace, justice, and blessing to the world is the mission of God (missio dei) for the church.
Excerpted from Why We Love the Church by Kevin DeYoung, Ted Kluck, Jim Vincent. Copyright © 2009 Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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