For the last several years I have notice a trend. Just because I noticed it over the last few years doesn't necessarily mean it's started this recently. Actually the trend has gone on for many years. The trend is disturbing and alarming for it poses some deep questions and the consequences are dire. I challenge the contemporary Christian to refute it after seeing the evidence. So what is this trend and more importantly, what are the consequences of it?
The trend in North American Christianity is to lure non-believers into a church service and utilize presentation and mulit-media (none of which are evil or bad) in hopes to boost attendance and gain adherents. The mark of success of such an event is, of course, how many people showed up.
How do I know this? Look and listen to blogs, instant messages or facebook statuses and read what people are saying. It's things like, "God was good, we had a packed house this Easter weekend." Or, We had a great Easter, all three services were jammed!" etc. etc. As if God wasn't good if the house was empty or Easter wouldn't be great if only a few showed up. I am of the persuasion that words mean things and if we take what people are saying, we are seeing revealed what is really valued. Don't misunderstand me, I am delighted to know that people are assembling in great numbers at any given church. However, the FACT remains that these people, for the most part, do not come back. If they indeed stay and participate in such an assembly, they are often succeptible to an experience-driven spectacle which is focussed upon a once-a-week gathering. This gathering is a resource-rich endeavor which, many times is about the presentation and not the message of the gospel. Some may differ with my viewpoint, however, the FACT remains that the masses of North American church goers remain biblically illiterate.
George Barna, a Christian pollster based in California has tracked Americans' beliefs of Christian faith and practice for decades. While showing great opportunities for evangelism among the population, his research has astoundingly shown a decline in the embracing of biblical Christianity. Churches are planted, outreaches are conducted, thousands of dollars are spent while Christmas and Easter productions abound but in the end do people really understand what biblical Christianity is all about? Sadly, if we look at the evidence, the answer is no!
(George Barna, the author of nearly four dozen books analyzing research concerning America’s faith, suggested that Americans are constantly trying to figure out how to make sense of biblical teachings in light of their daily experiences. For a full article, go to the following link, www.barna.org.)
Why is it that North Americans are still trying to figure out how to make sense of biblical teachings? I have an opinion. As a sinner, saved by grace, in need of God's word alive in my life, I humbly offer what that opinion is.
1. Our proof texting sermons do not work.
I implore preachers everywhere to stop taking one Bible verse and base-jumping off into what they want it to say. Not only is it risky doctrinally but it leaves the hearer misguided on what the Bible is really saying most of the time. There are too many examples of God's word being mishandled on a weekly basis to list. It's one thing to use creativity to illustrate what God's word is saying. It's entirely different, and I believe erroneous, to use one's creativity to bolster what one thinks God's word could be saying based on one verse.
While some are obsessed with being creative, catchy and cute, congregations leave every Sunday morning malnourished spiritually. In some cases it's like going to the fair and having a good time and leaving with a mound of cotton candy on a stick. The experience is fast forgotten and nothing gained.
2. Reading a book and getting a sermon from it is short-changing our congregations.
There I said it. Not only that, I have been guilty of it. Instead of doing the work of reading the Bible, poring over the contents of the text, studying the context and knowing what it all means, many, including myself, have taken the broad road, the easy route. We've busied ourselves with other things, deemed them more important than studying the word and then picked up a great book. This book provided an outline, an illustration, a pat anwer and a way to save time so we could conjure up something we call 'relevant' for our congregation on Sunday morning.
Remember "The Prayer of Jabez"? There were books and devotionals and sermons and videos and on and on and on. All of the sudden God promised almost everything to everyone. People couldn't get enough of it. Was the prayer of Jabez really about God increasing our stuff? Who was Jabez? Does anyone know and does his prayer apply to everyone? We should find that out.
What about "Wild at Heart"? Remember that book? Pastors preached sermons on that for weeks all over North America. Was that book even biblical in all points? If we look at it in totality we must admit that the book alludes to, to some degree, an impossible force of male human nature that is not subject to the obedience of scripture. Do we really want to buy into that?
What about Jeremiah's "I know the plans I have for you..." That was God's answer to everyone who had a problem at one point. Was Jeremiah talking to all God-fearers of all time or was he talking to a select group of people? Do we forget that Jeremiah was the one who prophesied that God would bring Israel into captivity? Do we forget that God had plans to almost obliterate Israel in their rebellion?
Read chapter 4 of Jeremiah's prophecy and you'll see in the language that God was angered and he was about to throw down some serious punishment for Isreal's rebellion. There was a lot of punishment and anger language LONG BEFORE there was any word of "plans for a future and a hope" from Jeremiah.
It's sad to say but it looks like, in many cases, we want to offer people a real hope without the right heart.
3. Realize that it's not about Sunday morning shows or even small groups. It's about the health of a community of believers with Jesus Christ as the common denominator.
This is hard because, unfairly, many pastors are evaluated as successful or not based upon weekly attendance. They are judged on displays of creativity on Sunday mornings and marketing. Sadly, the job of the pastor has changed from spiritual shepherd of the flock of God to paid professional clergy. I know of one pastor in Illinois who got the word from his board that, because attendance hadn't grown as quickly as they would have liked by a certain time, he would have to resign as pastor of that church. How biblical. I might remind people that "church attendance" during certain times of the Roman Empire during persecution were quite low, but the numbers of the Church increased dramatically! Why? They were in desperate need of relationship with each other.
In the book of John, Jesus prayed a prayer before he was taken to be crucified. It is absolutely amazing what he said because it really boiled down what it's all about. It's absolutely amazing what Jesus said to his father. Among the things he said were, a) I told them YOUR message, b) YOUR word is truth, c) I want all of them to be one with each other.
The gospel is about people hearing the truth of God's word and becoming interconnected with the family of faith that has done the same. Why? Because we do not belong to this world. We are separate from it, hated by it and will experience pain and suffering while in it. Instead of focusing resources on presenting a media-rich message to experience one day a week, we should be promoting a connectedness among the community of faith throughout the week as well. We do this so that we are encouraged, that our needs are met and the gospel goes forward.
So, pastors, teachers, evangelists, let's make sure that together, we are doing the hard work of teaching and promoting the kingdom of God as disciples of Christ, not just church attenders. Pews might not be packed like we would want them but we'd be wise to make sure people get the right message.