My thanks to Jared Wilson, not only for another thoughtful book, but for expressing many of the very things I would like to express. In his 2015 book, Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto Against the Status Quo, Wilson has written a book I wish I had written.
I have been mulling on something the late Francis Schaeffer said:
“There are four things which are absolutely necessary if we as Christians are going to meet the need of our age and the overwhelming pressure we are increasingly facing.”
No doubt that the church, in our culture as well as other cultures, faces increasing and overwhelming pressure. Pressure to cave. Pressure to capitulate. Pressure to compromise. These pressures come from both subtle and overt threats from the culture and from the government, as George Orwell predicted in his classic 1984. Perhaps even more devastating is the subversive seductive pressure. The craving of the church to be “relevant”, to fit in, to be liked, so people will come in great numbers, so we can be considered successful, has seemingly replaced a commitment to faithfulness and fruitfulness. This mindset seems in line with Aldous Huxley‘s “nightmarish vision of the future” in his opus Brave New World. And while there is certainly nothing wrong with a desire to be liked, nor to see our churches full, these consuming desires are antithetical to the teachings of Jesus, and consequently, I fear, resulting in an increasingly impotent Church.
So what are Schaeffer’s four things?
Schaeffer labeled them Two Contents and Two Realities.
There are times I feel somewhat like a sea captain who took charge of a ship that had experienced unprecedented prosperity under the direction of his predecessor, and then sprung a leak a few months into his tenure. Don’t get me wrong, I love the church where I serve, but some of the challenges came as a bit of a surprise. Chiefly a decline in attendance and a corresponding budgetary strain.
In some ways this was inevitable. In some ways this is circumstantial. And in other ways it is personal.
It was inevitable because nothing stays the same forever. No organization, or organism, experiences perpetual increase in prosperity. Sooner or later, changes, challenges, and a period of decline is certain.
It is circumstantial, if for no other reason, the nature of the community where our church is located is a very fluid, very transient community, Many who live here are in the military, and so they are only here for a short time. Others who live here have retired – often early – and come to enjoy the wealth of cultural, historical, and natural amenities. However, there seems to be a pattern – when one member of the marriage, husband or wife, experience injury or become ill, the couple moves away, back home, or somewhere near their children. Understandable. While Williamsburg is a beautiful place to settle, they have no roots here, so they move on.
It is personal in the sense that whenever a church changes pastors there is almost always some turnover among the members. No matter how capable the new minister is, his presence is a constant reminder that things have changed; that this is not exactly the church that they had joined anymore. And as American church culture becomes increasingly more consumeristic, the less likely folks are to stick around to get used to the changes. After all, if they have to adjust to change, why not use it as an opportunity to trade in for a new model that has some amenities that they had not been looking for a few years ago, but would provide a pleasant upgrade. Consequently new pastors are often not treated like people, who might have feelings, but rather as a commodity to be embraced or discarded at the whim of the customer. Or another aspect of the personal – some church members just don’t like the new pastor’s personality (or lack of it).
I suspect differing measures of all three of these played a part in our initial decline. Fortunately we remained stable. We have a good cohesive staff; wise and godly officers who work as a team, a band of brothers; and no panic or finger pointing from the congregation. So despite our leak our ship has remained in pretty good shape.
As we move forward it is essential to assess where we are, and to map out where we are headed.
At present we are in what Thom Rainer calls the Chrysalis Period. According to Rainer, during the Chrysalis Period a church or organization undergoes changes beneath the surface that are necessary to become what we will inevitably become.
The chrysalis is the pupa of a butterfly encased in a cocoon. It is the former caterpillar and the future butterfly. It is the stage when the worm-like, slow-moving caterpillar becomes a beautiful, free-flying butterfly.
I like the imagery. It seems apt. We are a work in process. And not all that is going on is evident to all who take a look.
As a pastor it is not only requisite to be a student of God’s Word, but it is also essential to be a student of the people to whom I preach and teach. This is true for any church or ministry leader. If we do not know the Bible, and sound doctrine, we have nothing to offer. But even if we have voluminous knowledge, if we do not know the people with whom we are called to share these truths, then we will not know how to apply these truths. It would be as ineffective as a medic possessing all the medicines but without enough biological understanding to make a valid diagnosis.
In a recent post, 9 Questions for Ministry Leaders, Paul Tripp identifies nine helpful questions to ask ourselves, and to discuss with the other leaders in our churches or ministries, as we attempt to become effective students and exegetes of our people:
- What are the cultural idols that are particularly attractive to my people?
- Where do they tend to buy into an unbiblical worldview with its accompanying hopes and dreams?
- Are there themes of spiritual struggle that I need to speak to?
- Where do they tend to get discouraged and need the hope of the gospel?
- What is the level of their biblical literacy and theological knowledge?
- How many of them are actively involved in service, and how many are “ecclesiastical consumers”?
- What do they tend to struggle with in the workplace?
- What do they wrestle with at home?
- What are they reading, watching, and listening to, and how are they influenced by it?
Thom Rainer recently noted that there has been a marked change in the measure of comitment the average Christian had to his or her church. At least there has been a change in one measurable detail:
An active church member 15 years ago attended church three times a week. Now it’s three times a month
I do not know if this is an accurate assessment from some of Rainer’s research, or if this is more of an anecdotal hyberbole reflecting an evident trend. Regardless, I suspect that it is not far off base.
I also suspect there are some reasons. Among them would seem:
- Baby Boomers Reaching Retirment Age
- Rise of Churchless Christianity
No matter how much I have grown to despise the discussion, it seems I cannot avoid it entirely. Almost any conversation about church, it seems, inevitably gravitates in some form toward the Bigger is Better or Great Things Come in Small Packages debate.
It is not always an actual debate. In fact it is probably more often than not simply an expression of personal preference. But I have come to loathe the whole subject, having come to believe that the comparisons are largely irrelevant. There are some great large churches, and there are some great small churches; There are some horrendous large churches, and there are some pathetic small churches. And there are good and bad churches of all sizes in between. The issue is not which size is best, but rather: Is your particular church – and my particular church – healthy, God-honoring, and fruitful?
That said, and with no desire to encourage debate, I found an observation by Neil Cole to be interesting:
There are millions of people in smaller congregations across the country who live with a feeling that they are failures because their church isn’t as big as the megaplex congregation down the street. This is sad and should not be the case.
A global survey conducted by Christian Schwartz found that smaller churches consistently scored higher than large churches in seven out of eight qualitative characteristics of a healthy church. A more recent study of churches in America, conducted by Ed Stetzer and Life Way Research, revealed that churches of two hundred or less are four times more likely to plant a daughter church than churches of one thousand or more. The research seems to even indicate that the pattern continues—the smaller the size of the church the more fertile they are in planting churches.
It pains me that so many churches and leaders suffer from an inferiority complex when in fact they could very well be more healthy and fruitful than the big-box church down the street.
I am not suggesting that the mega church is something we need to end, I am simply saying that we need other kinds of churches to truly transform our world. I also do not want people in huge churches to think that just because they have more people and more money that they are more blessed by God. The stats tell us that ten smaller churches of 100 people will accomplish much more than one church of 1000.
Read the rest of Cole’s article: Is Bigger Really Better?
And again, while not wanting to prompt debate, I do welcome any comments about Cole’s observations.
We don’t just go to church, we ARE the church …sent out by the power of the Spirit to BE the church.
This illustration above represents two aspects of being a faithful church:
Attractional – those elements of a particular congregation that draw people into the church community. Among these would be the quality of music, the substance and winsomeness of the teaching, the variety and sufficiency of programs offered, and the friendliness of the members.
Missional – this is the sending of the church members into the community, and to the Nations, in order to make a positive and kingdom impact. While this is often neglected, missional is not optional.
- The mission of the church, and her members, is rooted in the nature of God who seeks and sends. (Isaiah 55.5; Isaiah 60.3; John 4.23; John 20.21)
- Intentionally serving the community is faithfulness to the Covenant God cut with Abraham. (i.e. Genesis 12.2) If you look carefully at the Covenants of Scripture you will notice that there are always two dimensions, what I call a Top Line and Bottom Line. the top line is God’s promise to bless those with whom he has entered into Covenant, evidenced by such promises as “I will be your God and you will be my people”. The Bottom Line is is consistent with such expectant promises as “You will be a blessing”. Both dimensions are reflected in every covenant. Therefore, intentional mission to our community and world is not optional, or part of some deluxe package of being a Christian. If one follows Jesus, he or she does not have the option to choose the arrangement that does not require mission.
- Mission is a is a clear mandate. (Matthew 28.18-20; Luke 24.46-49; John 20.21; Acts 1.8; Jeremiah 29.7)
BOTH Attractional and Missional are necessary to be a healthy church. If we are not going, we are not faithful. And if no one is coming, well… the implications are pretty obvious.