Today we are going to look at the bigger picture as opposed to just focusing on our church.
“Revolution” ?? why use such a drastic term?
Partially because I recently read a book by George Barna called Revolution. Celebrates the work of the individual apart from the church. Pros/Cons
Wonderful that people are not allowing themselves to be defined by bad leadership or churches that are not interested in engaging the overall culture. Wonderful that they realize that God is not limited by whether or not a local body of believers can get their act together or not. It is wonderful that people are able to look around them in this world and ask Jesus to help them make a difference. They don’t wait for an invitation to do the right thing but rather set themselves to the task of doing something.
Barna points to Jesus as the ultimate revolutionary and he is absolutely right in doing so. No one has transformed the world the way Jesus has…not even close. Not Gandhi, not Churchill, not any pope, not any President…no one! But one of Barna’s continual points in this book it that small groups of people that are gathered around a single objective can make big waves. Again he is right!
Here’s where I have a problem. This kind of thinking is typical of the American celebration of individual and is always short-sighted. We have the Rambo mentality. If we look at the ministry of Jesus, he didn’t gather people around Him who were exactly like Him or each other. He gathered fishermen, tax collectors, a political zealot, a couple of momma’s boys. And it wasn’t to address one particular subset of problems in isolation from the rest, it was gathering and investing into all different kinds of people, connecting them not only to Himself but also to each other. This is what the church is and this is one reason why it has been so successful throughout the centuries. To focus on one particular problem area is great and can be incredibly effective, but only in the short term. I’m not saying don’t give yourself to causes, but don’t do it so exclusively so that when you are at a different place in life you all of a sudden find yourself with an identity crisis.
What if there was a church that sought to make room for and equip revolutionaries rather than stifle them as well connect them to health and ministry in all areas of life? There is no denying that we are more effective with larger cohesive numbers than we are as a bunch of individuals or small groups running around with separate and sometimes conflicting agendas.
State of the Church:
Church in the West is in trouble.
There is no doubt that church attendance is falling in virtually every Western country in the last few decades. It is really difficult to get accurate church attendance figures. There is no central clearing house for church attendance in North America or in Europe. There is no agency that does an actual census. Most polls of church attendance are notoriously inaccurate because most churches lie.
A lot of people are liars too. If you ask someone, “were you in church last week?” Many people would say “yes” even though the answer is “no” because it is still considered respectable to be a church attender.
So Gallup surveys of church attendance in the US wildly exaggerates the percentage of Americans who actually are sitting in a church on any given Sunday.
Gallup surveys say that 40% of our fellow citizens are in church this weekend. But when poll takers ask the question differently, and they do a “time study poll” where they say: “tell me what you did Friday during the day?” “Tell me what you did Friday night, Saturday morning, Saturday night, Sunday morning and Sunday night?,” they find that only 20% of Americans are in church on any given weekend. This was confirmed by a really accurate study done in Ashtabula County here in Ohio just a few years ago. Some social scientists actually physically counted every single adult in every single church in Ashtabula County. They discovered that whereas 40% of the adults in the country reported they were in church that weekend, only 20% actually were. 1 in 5 Americans this weekend are in church.
Now about half of that 20%, about 9-10% attend churches like this one – an evangelical church. The other 10% are split between Roman Catholic Church attendance which is about 6.5% and Mainline Protestant church which is about 3.5% of our fellow Americans. Now, Ohio is about average for the US. About 20% of Ohioans are in church on any particular weekend. And for those of you who are interested in these kinds of figures, the lowest church attendance in the US is found in the Northeast in New England and in the Northwest in Oregon and Washington. The highest church attendance is found in the Northern Plains states – the Dakotas, Iowa, Wisconsin, and the South – Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama.
But by almost every conceivable measure the church in the US is in trouble. 60 years ago 91% of Americans identified themselves as some kind of Christian. That number is down to 77%. It is still 3 out of 4, but the trend line is going down. And that is just people who say, “Well, I’m not Muslim; I’m not Jewish; I’m not Buddhist; I guess I’m Christian.” The fastest growing segment of religious opinion in the US is the 1 out of 8 Americans who now claim no official religion at all, but rather label themselves an atheist or agnostic.
Western Europe is far more secular than the US. Unlike in the US European politics are generally entirely devoid of religion. There are no prayer breakfasts; leaders rarely, if ever, invoke God in any of their official statements. They rarely, if ever quote the Bible. The ravages of WWII and the communist takeover of Eastern Europe left many Europeans cynical about God and cynical about larger truths. Many Europeans are quite cynical about anyone who comes along claiming that they have “the truth” because of their experience of totalitarianism and total explanations for life.
And certainly a part of the decline in Europe and to some degree here in the US springs from the massively publicized child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church involving priests and to a large extent teenage boys. This past spring fallout from the Roman Catholic sex abuse scandal spread across Europe and made front-page news day after day and week after week in most European newspapers. It would be impossible to exaggerate the negative impact of the sex abuse scandal on the credibility of Christianity in the church in Europe. Just to take one example, Ireland was seen as a stronghold of Roman Catholicism for 1500 years. Well into the 1980’s Irish church attendance was many times that of western secularized Europe. And because of Irish devotion to the Catholic faith many Irish young men grew up to become priests. And there was a pipeline of Irish priests coming to the US. That pipeline has been cut. Some people estimate that Irish church attendance has been cut in half in the last 10 years - one of the most massive de-churchings of any nation in church history.
Bias Against Truth
When we look closer to home and do surveys of American churchgoers like the ones that Barna’s organization does, there is a growing percentage of American churchgoers that do not believe that the Bible is God’s infallible Word. Surveys tell us a growing percentage of American churchgoers don’t believe that Christ alone saves. Many American churchgoers believe that there are many paths to God apart from Christ. There is a growing percentage of churchgoers who do not practice Christian moral teaching regarding sex, regarding divorce and remarriage, regarding abortion. The church is seen increasingly as out of step and out of touch especially about gay rights.
Gay activists have actually attacked churches in New York and San Francisco and Michigan (Susi’s old church). There is no doubt that the church in the west has fallen on hard times.
Bias Against Authority
And totally apart from the particular problems facing the church there are the larger concerns of secular society which suggests a negative trend for the Western church. And the growing secular trend lines communicate a bias against institutions of all kinds. There is no institution that fares well in the contemporary West. People are cynical about government. They are cynical about the Presidency. They are cynical about Congress. They are cynical about the media. They are cynical about big business. They are cynical about unions. There isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t hear someone complaining about government or the president, and no one has any hope for change with new elections. Every election seems like a choice of the lesser evil. Every institution is seen as corrupt and self-interested. And this anti-institutional bias affects the way people approach church.
There is also a bias against truth. There is a bias against authority. And I haven’t even begun to talk about attacks on our Christian brothers and sisters around the world in places like India, Pakistan, the Sudan, and Egypt. In the midst of all the obstacles facing the church in the 21st century, we are attacked from without and we are corrupt from within…it is time for a revolution. A revolution that restores honor and glory to Jesus Christ in the church again. A revolution that empowers ordinary people, not just the professional Christians, to be empowered ministers of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A revolution against the normal, because normal is broken.
But this isn’t new information to most of us.
Why hasn’t the necessary changes happened?
Why do some Christians make the choice regarding attending church or giving to the Kingdom of God based on how they feel that particular Sunday?
Why do some pastors and leaders demand that people fit their particular mold before accepting them?
Why do some churches feel like you’ve walked into a time warp to the 1960’s?
You know, sometimes we get so locked into a way of doing something. Do you know why the US Standard Railroad gauge (the distance between the rails) is 4 feet, 8.5 inches? Why are railroads all 4 feet, 8.5 inches wide- an exceedingly odd number. Why was the gauge used? Because that’s the way they built them in England. And many of the early lines were built to fit the standard gauge locomotives that were manufactured in England. And why did the English build them that way? Because the first rail lines were built by the same people who built the pre-railroad tramways and that’s the gauge they used. So why did they use that gauge? Because the people who built the tramways used the same jigs and tools that they used for building wagons, which used that wheel spacing. Well why did wagons have this odd spacing of 4 feet, 8.5 inches? Well, if they tried any others spacing the wagons would break on some of the old long distance roads because that’s the spacing of the old wheel ruts. And who built these old rutted roads?
The first long distance roads in Europe were built by Imperial Rome for the benefit of its legions. These roads were used ever since and the ruts? Roman war chariots made the initial ruts which everyone else had to match for fear of destroying their wagons.
Thus the standard US Railroad gauge of 4 feet, 8.5 inches that we use in today in the 21st century derives from the specifications for Imperial Roman army war chariots. Gives the phrase “being stuck in a rut” a whole new meaning!
Now I say this with all affections, but most churches run like this. They are just repeating the same pattern of life year after year without ever asking, “Does this structure, does this pattern, does this behavior or practice continue to have any relevance in meeting the needs that we’re trying to meet today?”
What that means to me is that church leaders who are trying to lead in a rapidly changing cultural context need to know what to hold onto with a death grip and what to hold with a loose hand. Biblical doctrine, you know who is God? Who is Jesus? How do we come to know God? What does it look like to walk with God? Issues of integrity, that your word is your word, how we handle money, how we handle sex, faithfulness in keeping our marital vows, giving to promote the Kingdom of God, these are
things that we hold onto with a death grip. Why? Because these are the things laid out for us in God’s Word. But how the church is structured, and the kind of building we meet in and what our worship style is and even how you give. You know whether in the past you used give by putting cash in an offering plate, and then we gave by writing a check, and now more and more people give by giving online. All of that we can just hold with a loose hand. Because the “method” is not sacred, the “message” is. The problem today friends I’ll tell you is this: people have a loose hand on things that we ought to have a death grip on and we fight like the devil on things that we can be absolutely flexible about. Folks fight over worship style, are we going to sing Gospel or Contemporary worship songs, or hymns, or what you’re supposed to wear to church. The Apostles were incredibly flexible when it came to administration and figuring out how to meet people’s needs. They were inflexible when it came to the Gospel.
What do we do with this information?
We realize that Jesus said “I will build my house and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” The problem is not God, the problem is us.
We know that as we exalt and lift up Jesus, He will draw people to Himself. It’s about Jesus first and foremost…always! That’s why in our mission statement it is “we exist for Jesus and for others,” with Jesus listed first. If it was a church that just existed for others without Christ as pre-eminent in all things then we could take the Bible as a bunch of suggestions. We would let go of the things that Jesus says is important, but our culture does not value. We would begin to create church in our own image and that is the pathway to death in a church. We would only do the things that are comfortable and never put ourselves in the awkward situations like preaching a counter-cultural message. Jesus first. Always.
As many people choose to walk away from churches for a variety of reasons whether it be irrelevance of the church, being hurt in the church, self-centeredness. We live out the difference:
We serve the people around us in our neighborhood.
We give of our time to help others whether or not it benefits us directly (Angelfood)
We Live the Answer
We live out a model of what church should be by attending, serving and giving regularly not out of guilt, not because “that’s the rules,” not because there’s a fear of getting rejected or spurned if we don’t.
No, because church is a place where we dedicate specific time each week to worship Jesus together with one another, to receive God’s word together, to serve our guests as they come to check us or God out, to minister to one another as well as our children.
We come not because we happen to feel like it that particular Sunday or because we’ve had a particularly bad (or good) week.
We come because together we can accomplish so much more than we could apart.
We come because we were created for community and as difficult and challenging as that can be at times, we begin to die without it.
We come together so that collectively we can give of our finances toward the work of the Kingdom of God both locally and around the world.
We gather faithfully because we are greater together than we ever possibly could be apart.
Every single person, every single week matters. Whether you’ve had the kind of week where you are barely dragging your backside through the door, or you are marching in here ready to share about what God’s been doing in your life, you matter.
It’s a revolution centered on Jesus and His love for people…all people. It’s the kind of revolution where we are showing up like shoppers at the mall, but showing up to worship, serve, grow and connect. I think if we remember that church is about those things rather than what we have mistakenly turned it into.
You see here’s the good news. Even though some could look at those stats and think all is lost, God is still drawing people to Himself. The church all over the world is exploding, particularly the Spirit-filled or Pentecostal stream of the Church. Many fellowships and denominations including the A/G and particularly our own local body here are pushing forward and trusting God through these difficult times and are still reaching people, still seeing the Gospel transform and set people free.
Difficult times have a way of purifying and brining clarity to the things that really matter. Even though we are facing an increasingly hostile culture and some challenges, it gets me excited. It makes me grit my teeth and press through. It makes me focused on what Jesus is getting ready to do as He prepares to return.
When Jesus comes back will he find you sitting idle whimpering about how tough things are, or will He find you scouring the streets to invite them to the King’s Banqueting table?