How do the Churches of Christ overcome their decline?
I’ve written lots of posts on this in the past, so this is going to be a particularly short series: one post — not because it’s unimportant but because we need to focus on the essentials.
1. The first priority is to overcome our legalism. So long as we define “the gospel” as “Jesus plus a cappella music” or “Jesus plus the right name on the building,” we have no hope of reversing the decline in our numbers.
I would not even consider talking to a church trapped in legalism about marketing or better worship services or greeters or whatever other cosmetic change there might be. That’s like giving a manicure to someone having a heart attack. Dealing with the heart attack comes first. Everything else has to wait.
If we overcome legalism, we’ll simultaneously overcome our divisiveness, as our penchant for division is driven by our bad theology of grace.
We must come to recognize that God keeps us saved on the same terms on which we are first saved — repentance and faith, only.
2. Churches that have overcome legalism need to focus on three things. These should be somewhere from 90% to 100% of what the staff and leadership spend their time on. Anything else gets delegated or dropped altogether.
A. Spiritual formation, that is, working with God’s Holy Spirit to transform Christians into ever-closer approximations of Jesus. This includes helping members discover their gifts and talents and equipping them to use them in God’s service. Obviously, learning to study the scriptures is a large part of this, but Bible study alone doesn’t get it done.
B. Community formation, that is, working with God in building the congregation into a temple in which Jesus lives through the Holy Spirit. The plan is laid out in numerous passages, but I’d take special note of Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 13, and the Sermon on the Mount. It’s learning how to forgive and not hold grudges, how to confront sin in love, how to hold each other accountable, how to help each other make it as one of God’s people.
C. Mission, that is, being impelled by the Spirit to work with God in showing Jesus to the world, through teaching our friends about the gospel of Jesus, through good works done for those outside the church, and by showing the world a people formed into the body of Jesus — individually and as community.
That’s it. Everything else is commentary. But let’s indulge in a bit of commentary.
First, notice the importance of leadership — leadership to help us overcome legalism and leadership to help God transform us individually, in community, and in mission. Leadership is critical.
Leadership is a gift from God. But even leadership that’s a gift from God requires training and equipping. Therefore, the wise eldership and the wise minister and the wise congregation should appreciate the importance of careful selection of leaders and of diligent training of leaders.
We desperately need to do a better job of this. Elders struggle to find good materials, and much of what they find is whatever’s new at the local Bible bookstore — which may be good or may be awful. We really need to help our elders and elders to be (and our preachers) get a solid foundation in Bible study and in what church is all about.
Kudos to Abilene Christian for its ElderLink program, which travels the country to do elder training. Kudos to our more progressive universities for their excellent annual lectureships (I’ve attended and recommend especially Pepperdine, Abilene Christian, and Lipscomb‘s lectureships). Kudos to the Tulsa Workshop.
And shame on our elders and deacons and budget committees who don’t insist that our elders and ministers travel to these events regularly. It’s more important than the teen beach trip. It’s more important than VBS. Insist that your elders make the trips and attend the conferences. Make it a high priority in your budgeting (somewhere right behind Welch’s grape juice and Matzos bread).
Second, it’s the nature of language that I have to express myself linearly. I can’t say “spiritual formation,” “community formation,” and “mission” all at once. Our minds don’t work that way. But don’t think that the order is chronological or even the order of causation. All three are mutually synergistic.
Mission helps us become more like Jesus. We don’t wait until we’re one day sufficiently like Jesus to do mission. It won’t happen. No, mission changes us to be formed to do mission.
Mission also changes us as a community. Our worship becomes a celebration of victories given us by God, or a time of prayer for people who need to know Jesus or who need jobs or who need healing. Mission changes who we are as a people.
But community changes who we are individually, as we see examples to follow, as we’re held accountable, and as we’re equipped. And community surrounds us with people with whom to go into mission, to work and cooperate with. Community keeps mission from being lonely.
And, of course, personal spiritual formation helps us contribute to our community by giving us something to offer, by making us a contributor rather than a taker. And personal spiritual formation prepares us for the rigors of mission.
It’s all-at-once together. I separate them in language to help the reader understand and to help leaders remember to lead in all three areas. But we rarely do just one a time. Like bananas, vanilla wafers, and pudding, they are best served together.
Here’s the last point (for now). If we do these things well, we’ll be effective. But the better we are at knowing our community, its needs, its culture, and its language, the better we’ll be at mission. One danger in Christianity is to let our Christianity become our only community and so to become isolated, turning our churches into cloisters.
Paul was quite clear that we cannot do this —
(1 Cor 5:9-13) I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people– 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat. 12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked man from among you.”
Paul made it quite clear that he expects us to associate with the sexually immoral, the greedy, swindlers, and idolaters. For him, to do otherwise would be to leave the world. And some of us wish to leave the world and associate only with the pleasant, polite, and holy. But Paul says no. You see, we aren’t to judge those outside the church — other than to judge that they are outside the church and so lost and in need of Jesus.
Ignore the fads. Don’t fight over methods. Borrow good ideas wherever you find them, but never become the good ideas.
Don’t be a house church because you read a book or attended a seminar. Be a house church if that’s the best way to accomplish what God wants — in your time and place. And if it’s not, be something else.
Don’t ever let your identity be a method. Don’t found a church to be the first Saddleback-model church in your town. Serve in God’s mission, and if the Saddleback model is what God needs, then be like Saddleback.
Study lots of methods and lots of ideas, study your community and your people, pick a method and go with it. Ultimately, it’s about whether your potential converts see Jesus in you, and that doesn’t have that much to do with methods anyway.
If a method you try fails, try another method. There are lots of approaches to spiritual formation, community formation, and mission — from baseball diamonds to selling all you have. And all have worked well at some place.
Don’t give up. Call on God often, listen to God, and wait on God when necessary.
If we plant and water, God will give the increase. I’ve been a gardener. When the plants didn’t grow to produce new seeds, the problem was always in me. It was never in the seeds.
The only exception, of course, is when the soil is bad. And solution for bad dirt is to sow lots of seeds in lots of places. You see, one point of Jesus’ parable that we often overlook is that the farmer was a profligate sower — he sowed in good soil and bad.
Sow like crazy.