I’ve observed a few things in my 17 years as an evangelist. I have seen strong churches and churches that need an overhaul. Without exception, I have met good Christian people in all the places I’ve visited. Occasionally someone will ask, “So how is the state of the church out there? Are things improving?” Yes, I have seen positive advances since I became a pastor back in the Stone Age. We are more aware that our primary mission is not building a better structure, but building better disciples. Still, I still see congregations making the same mistakes they were making over 30 years ago:
NOT BEING THE CHURCH
Yeah, I know, we hear that all the time. “We don’t go to church; we ARE the church!” But I still see some congregations not stepping up to what God has called them to be. Usually these are communities that are “pastor-centered.” They expect their preachers to singlehandedly grow worship attendance or attract younger families. When they do, these pastors are shown to a tall pedestal, but if they fail, they eventually earn demonic status.
Pastors come and go, but the church remains. And those within a local congregation have the responsibility of claiming and keeping their status as a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession…” (I Peter 2:9). This is not something a church does, it is something that a church is — or isn’t. It’s an identity issue or, to use a current buzzword, it’s in a congregation’s “DNA.” A strong pastoral leader can sprinkle fuel on the fire, but the fire has to be there to begin with.
Whenever I’m invited to preach, I always offer to present a children’s message during the service. It amazes me how often a pastor will tell me, “We don’t have many (or any) kids.” Often this church is in a small town, but not always. Sometimes the congregation has slowly aged. Their children and grandchildren have grown up and moved away, and their nurseries and classrooms stand depressingly empty.
The church has the God-given privilege of passing on the faith to the next generation. We either reach out and teach them how to be Christians, or the world will teach them how not to.
There are a lot of churches out there that have wedged a contemporary service into their Sunday morning routine. Quite often it feels like a “Hail Mary” attempt to gin up some excitement. Contemporary worship can be a viable magnet for people, but it must be executed after much study and preparation. It can’t be treated as a magic bullet to revitalize a dead church. Besides, traditional and ancient worship can be powerful, too, if done with thoughtfulness.
MONEY-MINDED, NOT MISSION-MINDED
Years ago, I was invited to a church that was on a downhill slide. Their most visible program, a thrift shop, was more of a fundraiser than a ministry. When I asked some church members if they had reached out to a public school within a stone’s-throw of their front door, they shrugged their shoulders as if that were the first time they had heard the question.
A church that is more focused on staying financially afloat than wading into the community to rescue the perishing is a church that doesn’t know it’s dead yet. The congregations that I see who are active in being “salt and light” are the ones who are thriving – even if they are in declining neighborhoods.
BLOWING OFF THE BIBLE
A lot of Sunday school classes I drop in on are about 90% social hour and 10% Bible study. I can’t tell you how many lifelong church members I’ve heard say, “I don’t know the Bible very well.” My response is always the same: “There’s a cure for that. Read it.”
If there’s not a Bible study at your church (and why not?), there’s one somewhere nearby. Get a readable Bible with study notes. Talk to your pastor about good commentaries. Visit websites like BibleGateway or BlueletterBible.
The Bible is not just a rulebook, but God’s living and active Word (Hebrews 4:12). To read it, ponder it and soak it in is to draw you closer to Jesus.
DENOMINATIONALLY-MINDED, NOT KINGDOM-MINDED
I still see a lot of denominational pride in my travels. Jokes, put-downs and competitive comments about other churches make it clear: “We’re better than those (insert another denomination) because of our theology/structure/worship/social consciousness.” We swell up a little bit when the new family in town joins our congregation instead of that one down the street. Slowly, imperceptibly, we develop a tunnel-vision, clubbish mentality of church.
Denominations are fracture-lines in the Body of Christ. I realize that we will probably have sectarian borders until the end of time, but we dare not entrench ourselves too deeply within our ecclesiastical comfort zones. If we do, we have become more worldly than we realize. The Kingdom of God is not of earth. It transcends buildings, jurisdictions, preferences and polity. It can’t be contained in this group or that sect. It is a cosmic Kingdom ruled by a gentle Shepherd who prays that we will be one; whose atoning death tore down the walls of hostility; who reminds us that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”
It is a Kingdom ruled by love – not suspicion or arrogance. Let’s cross our churchy, manmade borders and show the world that we are Kingdom people.