Written by Bruce Halstead
The church is a cultural community of its own. The church is the bride of Christ and is on display for the world to see in its entire splendor. There is nothing that we (man) can do. It is what Christ can do for and through the church. The church will stand until Christ comes back for His bride. In the interim, the work and challenges of the 21st century church like questions of gay marriage, the influence of technology as it shapes and redefines community, the increased longevity of different generations (silent, boomers, generations x and y and millennials), poverty and global warming are issues changing the fabric of communities. Meanwhile unchurched people continue to increase, which suggests we are on untilled missional ground. From what I just stated many questions are raised. First, how do we stay fresh in a society that was once primarily Judeo-Christian, where pluralism is pervasive and challenges what we thought was once "safe grounds"? Secondly, if the vast majority of churches reach their peak in the first 25 years and then remain on a plateau or just "flat line" what are those ramifications? One startling statistic is that 3,500 to 4,000 churches are closing their doors per year. Where do the unchurched people go? Which way is our moral compass heading? How do we stay relative and formative in a culture where it is only about me? It is apparent that we have fallen off the track. We as a church community have lost our first love (Rev. 2:4) and must repent (Rev. 2:5) in order to get back on track.
It appears that our "webs of influence" has waned and there are several reasons why this has happened, which I will discuss in my paper. One overarching reason is that we are unintentional in meeting the mandate of the great commission. We are all familiar with the commission that Jesus gave to His disciples but it is worth reiterating here: and Jesus came and said to the, "All authority in Heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
I will begin the discussion by reflecting on my visits as a guest, then becoming a member and lastly as a minister, viewed through missional lenses at a local church. What do I mean by missional lenses? I did not go overseas to some foreign country seeking or discovering a lost tribe but I came to a church with this perspective. "Our mission means our committed participation as God's people, at God's invitation and command, in God's own mission within the history of God's world for the redemption of God's creation." Until now, i was not able to surmise and capture the essence of how I should view the church as Christopher Wright did in his book, The Mission of God. Essentially, the church is here for only one reason, which is to fulfill the great commission which Christ gave to us. But there are stumbling blocks or hurdles that every church encounters. Let us now look at them.
The first stumbling block is institutionalism. Ed Stetzer in his book Comeback Churches, defines this as a church that has regressed into a state of merely functioning as an institution. Their focus is on the forms and programs of ministry. It no longer sees the purpose for which the church was created, nor what the church is striving to produce. In an institutional church the good has become the enemy of the best and the activity has choked out productivity. Noted author, Dr. Steve Brown states that when two people get together you have an institution. By default institutions can be positive or negative whether they are doing what they should or not. what is more problematic is when they are admittedly (not vocally) wrong and they do not want to own up to it.
At the beginning of this paper I stated that the church has its own culture but what if their premise does not squarely line up with God's vision? Most churches are in this dilemma and should be questioning how do I get out of it? Intuitionalism is a part of stagnation. A good example of dysfunctional intuitionalism is when we are not equipped or do not see the need to properly greet visitors and treat them like guest or provide an area where they can ask questions. This is endemic of not having a missional mindset. What further exacerbates this is the mindset of indifference of "this is how we do it". This lends itself to a culture of people that are standoffish and indifferent.
Secondly, a church may become unintentional through complacency and lethargy. An unintentional church means well, they have good intentions but do not act on those intentions to reach community. They may even be willing but unlikely and they never do what they hope. Unintentional churches do not embrace an intentional process for making disciples of all nations. The churches naively believe that as long as they include the ingredients for making disciples- worship, nurture, teaching, and outreach- disciples will be produced.
Thirdly, a church may be so stuck in their traditions, that they become indifferent and are inward focus thus, obtuse. Ed Stetzer states that in effect you are a " time warp church". He defines this as: somehow these folks have presented not just the tenets of the faith, but the positions, practices and appearances of years gone by. They may still have an "Intermediate" or "Junior" department. They expect others to adapt and accept what they have grown comfortable with doing and they give no thought at all to change. The church does not seem to attract people like it did before, but "if it's good enough for me and my family it should be good enough for them". This church was probably once very effective, but community has experienced a major transition, leaving the church perplexed wondering what to do. What bothers me is that we allow traditions to overrule the Bible. Often we accept these traditions which are without merit only because we want to be accepted and dumb down for the sake of belonging.
Let us pause and reflect on the state of today's churches. I am always fascinated by why we feel it necessary to "culturally label things". The gift from God which goes back to when God told Adam to name the animals; we have never stopped labeling. We can address these conditions from four viewpoints, of which two are referenced. Namely, refocusing and re-energizing. I think the words themselves are self explanatory but it is the actions that are equated that are worth mentioning. A church needs to refocus if stagnant in size. Thus it needs to have a clearer focus on evangelism and outreach. This seems fairly intuitive. However, you should expect a lot of push back and awkwardness if the church does not buy in. That leads to the second viewpoint, re-energizing.
For a church to re-energize it means that it is declining in size and the prognosis is it needs to deal with some internal issues and begin to reach the community again. I would venture to say that many churches fall into a combination of both maladies; lack of evangelism, failure to engage community and a dispassionate administration about the lost leads to the need to refocus and re-energize. At this juncture the church has begun a slow implosion and is morphing into an inwardly focused church rather than remaining a beacon of light, a lamp-stand that is mandated by Christ where the Bible is our authority. I have addressed the issues, problems, and condition. What are we going to do about it? We must return to our first Love.
I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my Name's sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.
I have observed that in order for us to get back to our first love we have to reevaluate and survey what went wrong, take a hard look at where we veered off the track. It may be something as simple, as we did not know that the Book of authority, the Bible is actually missional intentional. Let us now explore some areas as to why we fell off track. Could it be contextualization?
In Time Keller's book Center City Church, he paints a strong picture, regardless of a church location. The church should be centered in three areas: first, Gospel-centered, that is the Gospel of grace in Jesus Christ changes everything, from our hearts to our community to the world. It completely reshapes the content, tone and strategy of all that we do. Secondly, we are city-centered, cities increasingly influence our global culture and affect the way we do ministry. With a positive approach toward our culture, we learn to affirm that cities are wonderful, strategic, and undeserved places for Gospel ministry. Third, movement-centered: Instead of building our own tribe, we seek the prosperity and peace of our community as we are led by the Holy Spirit. These three descriptors Gospel, City and Movement I believe starts with contextualization.
Contextualization is a necessary adaptation to the culture. It is not giving people what they want to hear. Rather, it is giving people the Bible's answers, which they may not at all want to hear, to questions about life that people in their particular time and place are asking, in language and forms they can comprehend and through appeals and arguments with force they can feel, even if they reject them. The problem that we face is whether we are courageous enough to translate and adapt the communication and ministry of the Gospel to a culture without compromising the essence and the particulars of the Gospel itself. The gist is that we have to be intentional in our contextualization. But we also have to be careful not to overdo it. In our effort to contextualize we should be mindful of four ministry fronts: 1) connecting people to God (through evangelism and worship), 2) connecting people to one another (through community and discipleship), 3) connecting people to the city (through mercy and justice) and 4) connecting people to the culture (through the integration of faith and work). Another area that we have to address is we must become deeper and widen our understand of the Bible.
So far I have argued that we as believers must be missional and that we are commissioned by Christ to do just that, with the Bible as authority. I would like to expound briefly on the authority of the Bible. Mission is what the Bible is all about. Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His Name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. I am in agreement with Christopher Wright's assessment that what Luke has written and is saying that the whole of the scripture (Old Testament) finds its focus and fulfillment both in the life and death and resurrection of Israel's Messiah and the mission to all nations, which flows out from that event. Jesus opened their minds so they could understand the scripture a missional hermeneutic if you will. Thus the proper way for disciples (including us) of the crucified and risen Jesus is to read their scriptures messianically and missionally. Let us pause for a moment and reflect on what was said.
The Bible is missional meaning that we are in simple terms to go and tell somebody about the Gospel. The Bible also tells us how. Thus, we have all been commissioned individually to tell someone the Gospel Story. For some strange reason we quickly lose sight of this and we keep Christ a secret. That reminds me of a verse where Christ states: so everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father Who Is in Heaven, but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father Who Is in Heaven. What is the Bible's authority on mission? By now we understand that The Great Commission implies an imperative, a mandate. But it also presupposes an authority behind that imperative. Many understand authority of the Bible to be military. Authority is what gives the officer the right to issue commands. Commands are to be obeyed. The Bible is our authority. It issues the commands and tells us what to do or not to do. The Bible is our authority. It issues the commands and tells us what to do or not to do. Authority then is simply a matter of orders on the one hand and obedience on the other . The problem with this perspective is that we limit the emphasis of the Great Commission to contextualize mean abroad and thus miss the entire mark of the verse; ignorance and arrogance pervades the church. Why are we not missional in our local environment?
So how do we get there? By being deep, we must go further an deeper in our faith to points where we are uncomfortable and expose ourselves so we can be like Paul, a drink offering for Christ or be like Abraham and those described in Hebrew's 11. I believe this is accomplished by being "deep" through evangelism. Author Jim Belcher expounds on "deep evangelism," that there is a thrid and more balanced way then what emerging or traditional churches have done. He proclaims that there is a third perspective that is "deep" where the focus is Christ. Trends or past experiences (emerging) or holding onto customs that are more culturally imbued than Biblical (traditional) are not focused on Christ.
Deep Evangelism is not just inviting people into the community (emerging) or pushing them to have a 'decisional conversation' (traditional) which have been the conventional ways to belonging and believing. It understands that we must draw people to the well of Living Water (Christ) and then ask for the commitment. The commitment should naturally occur; not be intrusive or non-committal. Deep evangelism draws from both insights of the traditional church (the need for boundaries) and the teaching of the emerging church (the need to belong before believing). Thus, in deep evangelism we are moving people closer and closer to Jesus. They go from the outer circle of belonging to the community to the inner circle of committing to Christ.
I have provided these observations and viable solutions to stave off stagnation of the local church. I would be remiss if I did not include a system that could facilitate what I have expounded. In the book Simple church by Thom Rainer & Eric Geiger they have developed a methodology I believe would bear much fruit. They coined the term simple church which they define as a congregation designed around a straight-forward and strategic process that moves people through the stages of spiritual growth. There are four elements that construct the ministry process for a simple but vibrant church: clarity is the ability of the process to be communicated and understood by the people. A clear process has ability to be easily communicated and understood. Clarity involves certainty, an eliminates confusion. Movement is the sequential steps in the process that cause people to move to greater areas of commitment. Movement is about flow. It is about assimilation. It is about handoffs. Alignment is the arrangement of all ministries and staff around the same simple process. It ensures the entire church body is moving in the same direction, and in the same manner. Lastly, there is focus. Focus is the commitment to abandon everything that falls outside of he simple ministry process. Focus most often means saying "no." Focus requires saying "yes" to the best and "no" to everything else. I have given you definitions in order to foster what a simple church looks and should feel like. Often we are so quick to just put it out there without going through the hard work of how we get there? So, just how do we get there?
In the book of Habakkuk 2:2, we see how this will be accomplished. Then, the LORD replied: "Write down the revelation and make it plain on tablets so that a herald may run with it." Leadership has to take full responsibility for the bitter and the sweet. We must collectively accept what we have done that is wrong, ask for forgiveness and repent. Then and only then can the Holy Spirit come and work a miracle.
At the beginning I started with the statement; the church is a cultural community of its own and it is the Bride of Christ. The church has webs of influence that should be intentional, contextual and missional. Without it we are just another business hawking our goods and services and that is not His Bride. Yes ministry is a struggle and that will never change, but strong spiritual leadership is more important than ever! The American church is dying from a lack of strong spiritual leadership. In this time of unprecedented opportunity and plentiful resources the church is actually losing influence. The primary reason is the lack of spiritual leadership, steeped in authority of the Bible and Christ's Command. Nothing else is more important.