Ed Stetzer on Reversing Our Decline: The Cure, Part 1

downward_trend.jpgAny correct answer will blame us all — our institutions, our elders, our ministers, and our members. And while the members are hardly free from fault, I think those with the greatest influence get most of the blame — our schools and our elders. And, of those, I think the schools get most of the blame.

I mean, we provide very, very little support and training for elders, and we have schools that turn our preachers well schooled in division and discord.

And I don’t see even our best universities doing much to help train elders or compete head to head with the odious schools of preaching. That’s not to say that they aren’t working mightily to expand the Kingdom. Some are. It’s just that the way the Churches of Christ are organized, if anyone is going to deal with our biggest problems effectively, it has to come from the universities.

And our two biggest problems are poorly trained elders and preachers trained to be servants of a false, works-based gospel.

Is the culture getting worse? Sure it is. But we should be the ones giving a reason for our hope rather than hoping for a reason.

We are living in Romans 1 times. God is making the culture evil enough that people ought to be able to see the need to return to God. We just need to introduce people to a God who truly loves them — and who transforms people into something very attractive, you know, like us. And until we are attractive enough that people see God in us, evangelism isn’t going to happen.

Do we have chronically dysfunctional churches in our denomination? Sure, but everyone has the one crazy uncle that comes to the family reunion.

Actually, we have a lot of chronically dysfunctional churches, because we have a chronically dysfunctional theology. To overcome our legalism, we’re going to have to learn to think strategically — with a conscious, coordinated effort to take the evil of legalism down. And I don’t see a lot of strategic thinking among our leaders.

Are pastors shirking their responsibilities? Some, but I generally believe in the trustworthiness of those in vocational ministry. They get beat up by plenty of others and I will not join the pile on.

Uh, in the Churches of Christ, our pastors are also known as elders, and our elders, on the whole, need help. And many of our preachers are either part of the problem of legalism, or else they labor under the leadership of men with a legalistic theology.

Is it a lazy membership that is the root of the decline? The multitude who act more like spectators at a show than ambassadors of the kingdom certainly share the blame. But I genuinely love those in my own congregation and hope for the best in all believers.

What percentage of our members are active in church work on a regular basis? In most churches it’s 20% to 30%. We need to get to 50% to do very well, I think, and the goal ought to be 80% — leaving allowance for those with health problems, who have to care for an ill relative, or otherwise committed by God to another work.

Just look at the pews filled with Sunday-morning Christians who aren’t truly disciples — and tell me we do a great job of preaching the true gospel to our people. We don’t. If we did, we’d have members who’ve been changed by the gospel.

Those of us on the progressive side of the denomination don’t get off the hook either, because we’ve often traded legalism for a cheap grace, forgetting to teach (and show) our members the joy of service. We often have freedom without commitment, which is not really the gospel either.

… And, of course (and on cue), some will call for Southern Baptists to turn leftward theologically as the solution to our decline. And, I will wonder out loud– does anyone read statistics? As I have written before, a left turn does not stem decline, it accelerates it.

The last thing we need is a fight over inerrancy. Oh, please, please, let’s find something else to write about. Surely there are better ways to earn one’s salary as a professor.

The goal, of course, has to be to move our leaders and our churches toward a theology of grace that produces bountiful works that glorify God (more on this to come). But knowing where we want to get to is not even half the solution.

In WWII, the generals knew that the goal was to reach Berlin. The truly hard part was figuring out how to get there, and then — much harder — was paying the price to land on the beach and take on the opposing army.

For us, figuring the goal out seems pretty hard, because for so long we’ve chased the wrong goal. And we’ve made a few false starts toward a less than optimal goal, so getting the goal right is not easy. It’s just that it’s only the beginning of a long, tough fight.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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9 Responses to Ed Stetzer on Reversing Our Decline: The Cure, Part 1

  1. I put some blame on the members who despite what they say pro or con regarding inerrancy do not really care about the Bible and what it says. Else they would know more about it. They would know the vast range of interpretations, the full sweep of Christian history and the many expressions and interpretations their fellow human beings have sincerely believed, lived, and pursued. From these many stories of Christianity they would learn a great many things from other devout people.

  2. Bob says:


    Great comment. As members WE need to study at home with our spouse and children as well as pray with them. You are right we bare the brunt of blame. It is the members who chose elders as a projection of how they want it.


    Brother, you just get better. In my industry, petroleum, we continually trained folks who possessed leadership qualities on the skills of leadership and management..
    These were expensive and time consuming schools, but the rewards were tremendous. A happy and productive workforce that believed in the synergy of working together was more productive that working as individuals.

    Unfortunately, not all candidates made good leaders, but that was ok. we found a productive work slot for them anyway.

    Our process for choosing elders and deacons need to be slanted toward developing good spiritual managers who learn to delegate to others more qualified. .

  3. Jim K says:


    Again this is "right on" with the problem we face in the church and as church leaders. My response to this – (and I pray you are already way ahead of me) is "what are we going to do about this? Since this is part one of the Cure, I look forward to still more, however it is not enough, and will not be enough until we can build a model to work from. Until we can help ourselves and others to see what it will look like to use strategic thinking in these areas in problem solving. Until we can see how we can get the members more involved. What would traininig programs for Elders look like? Content?
    I have worked in training and management development for years, and it is easy to be a "finder" to point out things that need to be done better, but it is much more to be a "fixer". That is the challenge in business, and in the church!
    I contend that we need to develop that model, but then where do we start? Do we put together a weekend seminar where we can come together to develop such a plan? I say yes, and I will step up and help do this. Will you consider this? Would others on this site attend?
    My mother is 83 and a great woman. She can talk, but she can't do much else. My question to you and to others is "are we just going to talk about this, vent our frustrations, and argue with those whose viewpoints we may not ever change, OR are we actually going to step up and do something.

    I say let's do something. What do you say, Jay, would you help facilitate a weekend event for this?


  4. Bob says:


    You are a great teacher. If I knew where to start I would have done it. Most elders and members are in denial to the problems and how to fix it. I am amazed that my experience in management and building things has not been a factor that the church recognizes. Most have a bunker mentality when it comes to fixing things.

    We need to be community, a ministry to the community and an example of Christ in us. Then we will soar.

    Keep up the work Jay. More recognize your thoughts and postings than you know.

  5. Jay Guin says:

    Entirely agree that elders should be trained as spiritual managers and to delegate — and that business has a lot to teach the church even though the church is not a business. Both — properly done — are about people.

  6. Jay Guin says:

    I entirely agree. Many of our most "conservative" leaders are the least respectful of God's word — ripping passages out of context, mis-defining words, ignoring inconvenient teachings. True respect for the scriptures begins with caring enough to read it responsibly.

  7. Jay Guin says:

    1 Cor 12 — the wise eldership sees God's hand in the gifts the members have and finds a place for them all. It's also a lot less work than doing it all yourself. 😀

  8. Joe Baggett says:

    People are tired of reading about inerrancy, and all the traditional issues. It means something to a generation but not to this one. It does not mean that they don't believe the Bible is true. It is just that the constant attempt to reconcile every biblical event with documented secular history or science to the exact date and so on is a never ending issue. Also the presupposed idea is that if you can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that everything in the bible is verifiable through other documented sources that people will believe it in and believe in God. But here is the problem just because the bible has a high degree of historical accuracy doesn't mean that one has to believe in God. There are other theological questions that people are asking that the "inerrancy of scriptures" can't answer.
    I am sick and tired of people excusing poor behavior on the part of old Christians. It is time to call a spade a spade. The biggest reason for the problems in our churches is the poor hermeneutic and subsequent fellowship issue of CENI. The church I grew up in is self destructing as we speak because of this. Elders were not reconfirmed because they did not believe IM was a salvation issue and so on. The cure will only come when people have the courage to rethink their method of looking at scripture. There is no other way.

  9. Born and raised in the CofC, I have a passionate love for those who taught me about God, the Bible, and the need to be saved. Ironically, it was the emphasis on studying Scripture that eventually made me leave. The disparity between what Scripture described and what I was seeing and hearing was too great for the title of "THE Church" to be applied anymore.

    I discovered I was not alone. I ended up with a group of (mostly) ex-CofC types who embraced everything the Bible described, and asked God for any and all gifts and rivers of life that He wanted to give us. Since then, there has been salvation, healing, prophecy, tongues, worship in the very tangible presence of God, and other life-giving events just as the Scripture describes.

    You will not find the terms "church work", "conservative", "progressive", or even "inerrancy" there. The terms you will hear are "Jesus", "life-giving", "praise God!", "love", "faith", "hope", "service", "salvation", "truth", "let's pray for that church down the street because they're having an outreach this week," and "it's God's story".

    The solution is twofold: "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up," and, "Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well."

    It is not true that people are running away from God. On the contrary, they go where there is life – where God is obvious, and where man does not think of himself more highly than he ought.

    This would be a great start, if at the next lectureship or gathering, have this as the opening prayer and topic for the entire thing:

    "Have mercy on us: sinners – all! We have shamed you with our good intentions. We have shut the door to the Kingdom in people's faces. We have tried to do your job, God. For this we repent!

    "We want to humble ourselves before you, please show us how. We want to seek you first, so please show us how. We want to be a part of your kingdom that is still coming to men's hearts. We are sorry we have tried to take leadership of your church away from you. Show us what to do."

    Then spend the rest of the time listening, and watch what God does. I have chills just thinking about it, because I've seen what God has done in those situations. It's life-changing!

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