Using the Wrong Business Model

When I was an undergraduate student there was much discussion and hand-wringing over the idea of churches using growth models created or perfected in the business world. Some thought it was the only way to go, as growth was growth was growth, and how it occurred should not be an issue. For others the very idea of using business strategies to grow the church was the moral equivalent of worshipping the the house of Baal, and even the thought of incorporating business models was met with the most vigorous gnashing of teeth.

Since I was not smart enough to know much about business, I guess I never really got that exorcised one way or the other.

However, I have now come to see at least one business model that should DEFINITELY NOT EVER be used by the Lord’s church for any purpose. Just for ease of identification, let’s call it the “high risk, high effort, low return” model of recruiting workers.

Because of our current financial situation, I am looking for a simple little part-time job that will help smooth out some little bumps over the next couple of years. I am not looking for an engineering position with NASA, just something for about 20 hours a week. What I have discovered is that many  industries CLAIM that they want seasoned workers, individuals who have a little experience and who know how to put in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, yet the very process they go about attracting said workers is diametrically opposed to the message they are trying to communicate.

Here is a “fer example.” A position opened up in a nearby school system. The pay would have been not much more than minimum wage, the work was basically menial work (the minimum education was an associate’s degree), but it would have allowed me to work with kids, and to get involved in the local community. I opened the process to apply.

It would have taken me close to an hour, if not more than an hour, to fill out the computerized application process. Ridiculously ineffective and counter-productive. I passed.

Consider the alternative: an ad is placed detailing the work and the requirements. At the bottom a simple little statement – if you think you are capable of filling this position, and would like to discuss the possibility further, please contact our office for a brief interview. Poof – all the glittery computer generated hoo-haw could still be completed at a later date, but the “human resources” person (a title that is increasingly becoming a profound contradiction in terms) could have a much better idea of how well the applicant could relate to children – and not just enter data on a computerized form. But, you see, that is not how business operates these days. Fill out the computer form. Let the computer do the analytics. Let the computer spit out the best candidate. Who needs people anymore? Especially in a “human resources” office??

Do we in the Lord’s church adhere to the same philosophy, if not the same technology?

Do we demand high investment, high effort, and high risk for people who are searching for a church home, and then only offer them low rewards for their interest?  Do we make them feel like they are barnacles on the cruise ship of our existence? Do we condescendingly suggest that if they prove themselves to be worthy of our love and attention, that maybe in five or ten years they might be able to assist in the children’s nursery?

I am not suggesting that every new convert who is baptized on the first Sunday of the month be given an adult class to teach on the second Sunday of the month. But, on the other hand, what if someone comes to the church with a lifetime of experience in education, in finance, in leadership, in volunteer organizations – and we still make them fulfill some “internship” or “catechism” before we surrender our precious power and allow them to exercise their strengths and abilities?

One of the simplest principles in all of Scripture to obey is the command to treat others the way we want, and would want, to be treated. Honestly, I don’t think some Christians treat their dogs with the same amount of disrespect and condescension that they treat visitors and new converts. They certainly do not treat those visitors and new members the way they would want their children to be treated – let alone how they would want to be treated.

Whether the church should learn from the business world or not is still a debate that I have not come to master. I guess it would have to depend on the tactic being discussed. I think many businesses use concepts that the church would do well to duplicate – but, my question would be did those concepts come from Scripture to begin with? My guess is, yes they did. Some obviously would not have originated with God’s word.

However, I do know there is one model that the church should run away from as fast as it can.

True growth in the kingdom begins at the bottom, and that is where we as the Lord’s disciples must be actively seeking to serve.

Making It Real

There is an old saying that has renewed relevance in today’s religious world. I grew up hearing of Christians who were “so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good.” It was a sharp comment; it needs to be pulled out and sharpened a little bit more. All across America, and indeed throughout the Western world, authentic biblical Christianity is taking a beating. Not only is the philosophy of humanistic atheism experiencing somewhat of a rebound, but people are leaving churches by the scores. What is occurring, and why it is occurring, are questions that occupy both sociologists and theologians. I think one answer that deserves some examination is the idea that for far too many people Christianity has simply become a concept to think about, a few doctrines and principles to believe. However, for real life, one must turn to philosophy, and increasingly that philosophy is rooted in the self. This is true of both secularists and Christians!

I want to illustrate my argument with a common scene – one that I encounter quite frequently but one that I am sure any of my readers have experienced as well. Maybe even you are guilty. But picture a class or discussion where the teacher is really getting personal – really getting down to “brass tacks” and laying things out “where the rubber meets the road.” He, or she, can begin to see some light bulbs come on, and there are some signs that the class is beginning to formulate some honest-to-goodness concrete applications for the lesson. Then, just as some real work is about to take place, the resident Pharisee blows the entire discussion up with a comment that, on the surface appears to be a profound addition to the conversation, but in reality shifts the entire focus off of a concrete (and therefore possibly costly) application and places it in the realm of a “spiritual” application that is utterly worthless.

You see, the Pharisees (or perhaps to be fair, at least a sizable majority of them) had no problem with spiritual application of the biblical text of their day. The Pharisee that came to test Jesus knew the greatest command of the law, and the second as well. It was no problem to assert that one was to love God, and to love one’s neighbor. The Pharisee just could not get his mind wrapped around the idea that a Samaritan, of all people, might actually be the example of biblical love that God was commanding, and that waylaid, half-dead travelers might actually be the necessary recipient of  such love.

What is going on that so many people are leaving the church, and why so many people are hesitant to consider becoming a part of the church? Another “preacher’s story” might help. A little boy and his father were discussing the sermon they had just heard. The little boy asked his father, “Daddy, what is a Christian?” The father went into great detail about how a Christian is one who has dedicated his life to Jesus, who lives according to God’s word, who tries in many ways to make the world a better place, and who realizes he is not perfect but still tries to be the kind of person that God wants him or her to be. The little boy was quiet for a while and then said, “Wow, daddy – do we know any Christians?”

I have to confess that for far too long I have been a part of the problem and not a part of the solution. It is far too easy for me to retreat into the “spiritual” so that the “real” does not cost me anything. Also, when someone attempts to blow up my classes with a “Sunday School Answer” that is meant to spiritualize the application instead of making it explicit and verifiable, I acquiesce far too easily.

Let’s be honest here – I want the Pharisee’s answer, not Jesus’s.

One of the things I have learned from reading the Old Testament carefully and meditatively (my “spiritual” side) is that God was really, seriously concerned that hungry people be fed, that naked people be clothed, that poor people be given the chance to earn their keep, that issues of justice be administered fairly without any fear of bribery or other manipulation. I am utterly convinced that Jesus, the twelve apostles, Paul, Luke, and the Holy Spirit who inspired the New Testament authors are just as vitally concerned about those issues.

A man cannot hear the gospel if his stomach is growling.

What we call “spirituality” and the concrete issues of social, racial, economic, and environmental justice are not polar opposites. The church has been duped into thinking that we either focus on “saving someone’s soul” or making sure they have a decent job, adequate clothing and enough food on the table. Why should anyone pay any attention to our pleas that they be baptized if they know we steadfastly support efforts to deny them basic God-given rights?

I have been asked what is the greatest problem facing the church today. I have been asked what my thoughts are as to how we can reverse the trend of people leaving the church. I honestly do not have the perfect answer, but I think I have a clue: If we want people to fall in love with Jesus to the point that they will commit their lives to him and become active, productive members of his body, maybe, just maybe, his body needs to start caring about what God cares about and behaving like Jesus behaved.

Philippians 2:1-17, anyone?

The “Age of Accountability” [Uncertain Inferences Series]

Logic and illogic have a certain symbiotic relationship. Often we think very carefully and long about something, and then act in such a way that is laughably illogical. Yet, when confronted with our illogical behavior, we argue that it was the most logical thing to do that we could possibly imagine.

I think of that conundrum when I ponder one of the most difficult questions a minister is ever asked – how old should a person be before he or she is baptized? I guess I should say this is only a difficult question for a minister who serves a church that rejects infant baptism. A “pedo-baptist” does not have to worry about that question – just bring the infant to the font whenever all the family can be together. But for “credo-baptists” (those who withhold baptism until there is a measure of faith), the question gets significantly more sticky.

The answer for many “credo-baptists” is, “when the person has reached the age of accountability.” That answer, I am becoming more and more convinced, is as clear as mud. It really does not solve any question, and even raises more, at least in my mind.

First, let me say that it does offer some form of assurance – we withhold baptism until a person is “accountable” for either their sins or their confession of faith. But which is it? When does a person become “accountable” for their sin? Or, when does a person really become “accountable” for their confession of faith? If we answer with a specific “age,” then it appears to me that we have answered the question for everyone, for all time and eternity. Let’s just put an age here – say, 12 or 16, or 20 or even 30. Before that age no accountability, after that age, accountability.

But that is not how we work the game. We immediately shift to the person’s (and I suggest here it is usually a young person) state of mind. So, we say age of accountability, but we invariably end up arguing level of maturity. Now here is where it really gets interesting for me.

As a culture we are in the process of raising the age of assumed maturity, while in many churches we are in the process of lowering it – even to the point of virtually erasing it. Consider the following:

  • The age of consent for consensual sex is no lower, and often above, age 16.
  • Most states require drivers to have reached their 16th birthday before unrestricted driving privileges are granted, some even older.
  • The minimum age for voting is 18. This is also the age for a person to volunteer for the armed services without parental permission.
  • The minimum age to legally purchase and consume alcohol in most jurisdictions is 21.
  • Many jurisdictions will not impose the maximum penalty for certain crimes committed by those under 18 because, and underline this, the brain of a juvenile is simply not capable of understanding the consequences of their actions.

And, yet, preachers are routinely baptizing children as young as 8 or 7 or even 6 because “they are just so mature.”

Am I the only one who doesn’t get this?

Would we allow such a “mature” child to make his or her decisions regarding sexual activity? Would we give allow such a child to vote? Would we hand them the keys to our new SUV? Would we give them a $20 bill and tell them to go buy some suds for their birthday party? Would we incarcerate a 10 year old in an adult correctional facility if they had a pound of marijuana they were attempting to sell?

The answer to any of these questions is an incredulous NO! We recognize that an 8 or 7  or 6 year old could never be expected to make such decisions – that is why they are safely protected in our homes by (at least supposedly) mature adults.

But we give a child a Bible and a chart of little arrows or a chain reference of the “gospel plan of salvation” and if they can answer a few perfunctory questions we whisk them off to the church and dunk them in the baptistry as fast as we can (we dare not allow them to die in-between the decision and the dunking!)

Is it possible to teach that we are stressing the importance of baptism when in reality we are doing everything in our power to minimize it?

One of the most difficult conversations I have had the misfortune of having is the one where an adult comes to me and tells me that they do not believe their baptism was “effective.” They were baptized, they know, but have come to recognize that the real motivation for their baptism was peer pressure (girlfriends can be really effective preachers!), parental pressure (dad really wanted to be an elder!) or my favorite – communion pressure (who doesn’t want to have crackers and grape juice at half-time!) It is an agonizing question. Six months or so earlier there was no doubt, but now the questions and the fear are palpable. If I answer, “you need to be baptized” I am invalidating what scores of people would have argued was certifiable rock solid truth – a young person was a baptized believer because he/she answered the questions correctly and said the right words. If I tell the person “no, you have no need to be baptized” I am invalidating their fears and doubts, thus calling into question the very maturity they were supposed to have demonstrated at their baptism. So, I never answer the question – I make them answer it. Almost always the person ends up saying, “In truth I was never baptized because of my faith and to acknowledge my sins, and I want to make that confession now.”

I want to add here that I believe every Christian at some point questions the reason why they were baptized. I know I have – and it troubles me. I have talked to scores of Christians who have confessed the same fear. We cannot always dwell on the peak of Mt. Assurance. My wife taught me a very solid practice to share with those I baptize – immediately go home and write a letter to yourself, detailing what, and why, and when you decided to become a Christian. Then, when these doubts surface, you can read your letter to yourself and decide anew whether the decision was one of faith – or of surrendering to some ghastly emotional blackmail. I wish I had that advice when I made the decision. At my age, it is really hard to crawl back into my struggling, adolescent mind.

Never-the-less, I have come to regard the issue of the “age of accountability” (a profoundly uncertain inference) as a red herring. There just is no such animal in the Bible. A person should be baptized when he or she can act with enough maturity that they, as well as the entire believing community, can be assured that they are aware of the seriousness of the commitment of baptism, and that there are no other illegitimate pressures being placed on their decision.

I must add here that I wish a plague of biblical proportions be inflicted on every summer Bible camp and every minister that views “camp conversions” as anything other than group hysteria. Let’s see – let’s place a bunch of hormonally driven, sleep deprived pre-teens in a remote destination and in an exceedingly artificial situation and then preach the fire of hell so hot it singes their eyebrows and see what happens. What could possibly go wrong?

Answering a few academic questions doesn’t cut it. Being able to draw a little diagram with a few arrows and some squiggly lines doesn’t cut it. Being cut to the heart because of a reality of separation from God does count.  Counting the cost of surrendering our life to Christ does count. We are not told that anyone in the New Testament was baptized for any other reason. We should not be guilty of promoting anything less.

If we teach that the baptism of an infant is without meaning, for heaven’s sake let’s stop baptizing infants!

The Study of History – Facts are Stubborn Things

(Second in a series of three)

In addition to being a minister by vocation, I consider myself an amateur history buff. One thing I learned recently was the role of the United States and her allies in starting WWII. “Wait!” you said. “Adolf Hitler started WWII and the United States did not enter the war until 1941.”

Well, that is mostly true. Hitler did strike the match that started the fire. But the US, England, and France poured out all the gunpowder that Hitler used to burn Europe to the ground when they forged the Treaty of Versailles. That document blamed Germany for WWI, and made Germany pay reparations that it could never pay; it ultimately drove Germany into a depression the likes of which have never been equaled. All that was necessary was for a master manipulator like Hitler to come along and strike that match. Had the Allies reframed the treaty that ended WWI, Hitler would never have had the leverage he needed to turn the population of Germany against the world a second time. We smugly blame Hitler, and self-righteously overlook our own nation’s role in starting the war. Facts are stubborn, and often inconvenient, things.

What in the world does this have to do with theology, and the Restoration Movement in particular? Only this – very often we only focus on the end result of a very long and complicated process. When we get back to the beginning, and ask the question “why,” we tend to get very different, and sometimes surprising, answers.

Barton W. Stone, and Thomas and Alexander Campbell, were disaffected Presbyterians. This means that their religious thought world was primarily influenced by the teachings of John Calvin. In their day that Calvinism was  further refined by the Westminster Confession of Faith. Much as only the tip of an iceberg is visible on the surface, Stone and the Campbells were only partially aware of this influence. They wrote clearly and passionately against creedalism and the dangers of denominationalism, but a significant amount of their invective was focused against the legacy of Calvin.

One such teaching of Calvin is that a person can never really be sure of his or her salvation, as feelings can ultimately be misleading (this point is even endlessly debated by Calvinists). If God elects certain people to heaven, and others to hell, there is nothing that you can do to join the first group and avoid the second. More to the point: When exactly could a person be assured of their salvation? If the doctrine of original sin was true, there had to be a point at which God revealed to a person that sin was removed – but what was that point?

The solution (at least in the late 1700s and early 1800s America) was the “mourners bench.” This was where penitents could attend church, listen to sermons, and await the filling of the Holy Spirit that would reveal the gift of salvation. Many would sit on the mourners bench for months, some no doubt for years, before this warming was felt.

As they sought to unify the Christian church, and as they worked to restore that church to the purity of New Testament teachings, Alexander Campbell and his disciple Walter Scott hit upon a masterful observation. Stated most simply and elegantly, sinners could respond to the gospel with three observable steps – they could believe the gospel message, repent of their sins, and receive the washing of baptism. In turn, God made three great promises – the forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the gift of eternal life.

It was a stroke of theological genius! First, it was sound biblical teaching. Anyone could open their Bibles and verify such was true. But, more to the point, it answered an existential question in a profound and dramatic fashion. I cannot emphasize this enough. It was brilliant theology, although Campbell himself would have vehemently denied the use of the term. Gone was the mourners bench! How could you know if you were a Christian, that your sins were forgiven, that you had the gift of the Holy Spirit and that heaven awaited? By the observable steps of making a confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and by submitting to baptism. Thousands responded to this “new” teaching and the Restoration plea spread “like fire in dry stubble.”

Not one to leave well enough alone, Scott further tweaked this plan into his “five finger exercise.” He would ride into a town, gather some children together, and teach them the “five steps of salvation” on the fingers of their hand. They  were taught the importance of faith, repentance, baptism, the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and then sent home to repeat the message and to invite their parents to attend a protracted “gospel meeting” (an event that sometimes lasted weeks). Once again the results were astounding. Thousands were converted using this simple method of evangelism. But, notice – everything post baptism was excluded.

Through the decades that followed another subtle but critically important change occurred in this “gospel plan.” It was further reduced to the five steps to be accomplished by humans. From the original six steps which balanced human responses to God’s promises, the “plan” was now “hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized.” Gone was any reference to God’s promises, or God’s grace. Notice also the total silence regarding an obedient, faithful life. The focus was on baptism alone, a point that was not missed by the multitudes of opponents of these “Campbellites”.

Now we can step back and see how the process where a brilliant theological move has been co-opted into an idol. Stone, Campbell and Scott were responding to a crisis – a crisis that was keenly felt in the churches to which they were speaking. They took the gospel message and formulated an answer that was both biblical and culturally relevant. Over time, however, that answer has become a mantra that is largely devoid of its original context. Worse, by failing to see why the early Restoration leaders formulated this teaching method, we have elevated the method to the status of Scripture itself.

I write this not to disavow the Scriptural necessity to hear the gospel of Christ, to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that one must repent of a sinful past and that one must be baptized into Christ. Such is taught from Matthew through the New Testament. My point in writing this essay is to illustrate out how we as humans can turn a process into a goal, a method into an idol. Just as Calvinists had turned the “mourners bench” into an institutionalized exercise, so many in the Restoration Movement have “creedalized” the “gospel plan of salvation” and have turned it into something it was never intended to become.

The result, I fear, is now becoming painfully obvious. The Christian Chronicle is producing a series of articles detailing how the Churches of Christ are shrinking at an alarming rate. True, all “Christian” churches are experiencing losses, but this is particularly troubling to me because we, who proclaim that we are not a denomination and that we are only baptizing to create disciples of Christ, should not be experiencing losses in the numbers  that are being reported. It is one thing to leave a church. But, if we discipled people to be followers of Jesus, and then they leave, they are rejecting Jesus.

Our response to this crisis needs to be as theologically astute and culturally relevant as was Campbell’s and Scott’s in their day. But we are not living in post-Revolutionary America. We are living in post-Modern America, with a whole host of new and different questions. We must be true first to Scripture, and we must also be educated enough about our own history to learn not to turn human methods into church creeds.

I believe that it is very sad that in many ways we have become what Stone, Campbell, and Scott were fighting against. We have become as creedal and divided as the Christian world in general. We have turned the momentary successes of a generation into a permanent temple of worship. More on that in the next installment.

A Genuine, Heartfelt Question

My daily Bible reading this morning resulted in a genuine, heartfelt question. I pose the question because I honestly do not know the answer (although I may have some ideas). I am also not trying to cause a ruckus.

Before I pose the question, I have to provide the standard disclaimer: I know that regardless of how generally true a statement is, there is always an exception. And, invariably, it is a representative of the exception that screams the loudest – “your assumption is invalid because I do not agree with it.” Okay – I am asking the question as a general truth, not an absolute truth, so just as with just about everything else, your mileage may vary.

So, my question is this: Why is it that most socially active churches tend to be theologically liberal congregations, whereas most theologically conservative congregations tend to be the least interested, and therefore virtually inactive, on social issues?

There appears to be a tremendous chasm between those who view social activism as the major, if not the exclusive, part of the gospel, and those who view spiritual (read personal, “soul”) salvation as the entirety of the gospel. I suppose it should be fairly obvious, but I believe this is an unfortunate, and indefensible division.

You cannot read the prophets (and especially the minor prophets) and overlook the emphasis they place on social issues (hunger, legal justice, care for the poor, etc.). Mary’s song in Luke 1 fairly screams out social justice. Jesus’s entire life revolved around attending to people’s social needs. James makes the point crystal clear in his biting ironic questions in chapter 2:11-6 of his letter. The point is so obvious I just do not understand how congregation who claim to follow the Bible the most strictly cannot see it – you cannot preach the gospel and deny, overlook, or minimize the social ills that plague our culture.

Conversely – what possible good does it do to crusade for social justice and overlook the one, basic, fundamental social disease that is the cause of all others – namely, the sin that resides so deeply within the hearts of all people? To put a bandage on a gangrenous leg might appear to be compassionate, but if the dead skin be not removed, the death of the patient is certain. Did not Jesus proclaim that his body and blood were shed for the forgiveness of sins? (Matthew 26:28) To feed a family and yet overlook their spiritual needs appears to me to be the worst kind of condescension. Is their eternal destiny not more valuable than a loaf of bread?

In other words, there cannot be a dualistic approach to eliminating those things that afflict the human race. Sin must be confronted – both individually and systemically. Just as certain, social ills such as poverty, injustice, health care, education, employment, and all related issues must be addressed. The Lord’s church cannot focus on one while pretending the other does not exist, or worse, mocking one or the other as unworthy of the gospel of Jesus.

So, my question remains – why do we (and I must admit guilt here too) – try so hard to make this an either/or situation?

Evangelism – to What?

I have been struggling for some time to find a way to express some impressions I have regarding the status of the church of Christ and its role in American society today. What I see happening in the United States today in terms of the disintegration of morals has been equaled only by the period of 1860-1900 and the years 1914-1945. What differentiates those epochs from today is the crushing circumstance of three wars (the “Civil” war, and World Wars I and II). The rapid and, I would argue, unparalleled evaporation of Christian ethics today is unique in that we are not being faced with a military enemy (foreign or domestic); we are being destroyed by our innate human capacity for self-destruction. As Pogo so famously observed, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Enough of the political and economic lecture – what of the church? Is the church not focused on the kingdom of God, of setting things right, on the most basic Christian duty of evangelism? I think in some convoluted kind of way the answer is yes, and therein lies the problem. I simply do not have any confidence that the church knows what it is evangelizing for.

Over the past few months I have been been trying to come to grips with the concept of evangelism. I am not by nature an evangelist. I am hoping that by nurture I could possibly be made one. But I have been utterly unable to discover a source that addresses the twenty-first century situation on the one hand and the message of the New Testament on the other. In other words, what I find is either a complete sell-out to contemporary culture on the one hand, or a hackneyed, right-wing, reactionary, escapist Pharisaism on the other. As I see the New Testament, neither is healthy, sound, or Biblical – however you want to describe it. If followed to their logical conclusions, both will kill the church.

If I can summarize my understanding of evangelism it would be this: the word itself means “sharing the good news.” If you see the gospel as “good news,” that means by definition that the gospel is confronting, or overcoming, “bad news.” The bad news is that, even though God created the world good, through man’s rebellion it (and mankind) has become evil. Thus the gospel is the good news that overcomes the evil. The key word that both the left (cultural accommodationists) and the right (reactionaries) want to avoid is the word sin. The cultural accommodationists want to deny the word outright, and the reactionaries see it everywhere but in themselves.

To understand evangelism aright, we must all, every single one of us, admit to ourselves and confess to others that we are utterly incapable of good in-and-of ourselves. “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” (Romans 3:10-11) “For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:22-23). This is the admission that neither the far left nor the far right can make. The left dismisses it as absurd, the right cannot take it upon themselves. Therefore neither the church of cultural accommodation nor the church of the self-righteous can properly evangelize. 

It is at this point that I turn, once again, to the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I know, I know. Some of you probably have to grit your teeth when I mention Bonhoeffer. I cannot help it though – I am drawn like a magnet to the clarity of his vision and the honesty of his writings. Born in 1906 he was old enough to be aware of the events of WWI (one of his older brothers was killed in action) and he died just weeks before WWII ended. Therefore, few men have had a more “up front and center” position from which to observe, and critique, the world and the church’s reaction to it.

One aspect of Bonhoeffer’s response was that he relentlessly attempted to get the church to confront the sin of both the eroding German culture, and the complete refusal of the church to oppose the Nazis. Modern readers love to quote Bonhoeffer as he stood up to Hitler (yea, Dietrich!). But how many sermons have you heard, or how many memes have you seen on Facebook, that repeat Bonhoeffer’s blistering attacks on a naive, complacent, and even complicit German church (boo, Dietrich!). Too many people want to turn Bonhoeffer into some 19th century American evangelical. To be sure, Bonhoeffer would not be welcome in many American church buildings today. He knew well the meaning of the word, SIN.

I just wonder today, as I ponder what it means to be an evangelist in the year 2017, if the church is not killing itself by trying to do something it totally misunderstands? My main question is this, “What does it matter if people are being baptized into a church that no longer believes in its core message?” What good is evangelism if there is no sin, if there is no “bad news” to destroy? And what good is a church that cannot admit to, that cannot confess, its own sin? If we say there is no sin, or if we say that we are not sinners, do we not make God out to be a liar? (1 John 1:10)

It seems that everyone today is mourning the decline of the church in America (and, indeed, in most of the industrial “West”). This, I believe, is good. We cannot change something that we do not recognize is wrong. But we cannot change something by mindlessly repeating the mistakes that got us here. We must go back to the core message of the New Testament – of the Bible even. We are, every one of us, miserable offenders. Only if we begin here can we move toward evangelism.

“Almighty and most merciful Father; We have erred and strayed from thy wais like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults. Restore thou them that are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesu our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter life a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy Holy Name. Amen.” (A general Confession to be said by the whole congregation, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 1662, emphasis mine, PAS)

Why the Church is not Growing

Okay, I hope the above title is not just click bait. I really do have an idea. It may not be the most pleasant of ideas, but until someone else has a better one, I’m sticking with it.

My proposed answer as to why the church is not growing: the preachers. There are two halves to that indictment – the pressure put on preachers, and the self-inflicted wounds made by preachers.

First, a little back story. Every church wants an evangelistic preacher. Just check out the “preacher wanted” lists on any college, university, or associated web site. Way up at the top of the list you will see evangelism or “proven evangelistic success” as a major requirement.

I only have one question: where are these evangelistic success stories?

Read any survey, take note of church growth reports in virtually any report and the answer is the same: the church is shrinking. In my own experience the only congregations I know of that are growing are the recipients of members who are leaving other congregations for a variety of reasons. I am aware of congregations who list a number of baptisms, but these are all too frequently just “family” baptisms in which children or relatives of members are being baptized. These are wonderful events, and should not be downplayed – but they do not speak of the kingdom growing.

So – once again – where are the congregations growing that would produce the “proven evangelistic success” that every congregation is searching for?

Which leads me to point number one of my answer. Congregations do not want to participate in evangelism, they want to watch it. Hire the right man and sit back and watch the converts come streaming in. “We pay the preacher to evangelize, so get out and evangelize.” I think I have tipped my hand, but I just do not see this happening much, so I wonder where these blossoming evangelists really are. But, regardless, this is an illegitimate model. It puts (a) too much pressure on the preacher/minister and (b) it puts him in a position to pat himself on the back with far more enthusiasm should he be successful. What was it that the apostle Paul said regarding this very question? Oh, yea, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…” (1 Cor. 1:17)

But, second, in perhaps a more nefarious situation, preachers promote this “I’m the professional evangelist, so get out of my way” mentality much more to the detriment of the church. The goal of ministry is not to make people think like the preacher, or even to act like the preacher. The goal of ministry is to draw people to Christ, and therefore to believe and to act as Christ has empowered them to believe and to act.

I do not want people to follow in my footsteps. They are too small and too frequently fall off of the path. I want people to follow in the footsteps of Christ. If the goal of preaching (and therefore evangelism in every sense) is to lead people to Christ, then the proof of that preaching (and therefore evangelism) is that those who are converted then become participants in the congregation’s further evangelistic efforts. They may not become personal evangelists, but each member supports those efforts to the extent they are gifted/empowered. (See Ephesians 4:11-13, 1 Cor. 12:4-11, Romans 12:3-8)

So, why is the church not growing? Because individual congregations have placed an unbiblical and impossible burden upon a “paid professional evangelist;” and because all too frequently the “paid professionals” are too condescending to expect, and believe in, the members to whom they preach to actually want and be capable of sharing their faith.

I believe there are congregations that are healthy and growing – even though I may not know where they are located. But it is NOT because of some evangelistic “wunderkind.” It is because the congregation has accepted, and promotes, the New Testament pattern of congregational responsibility in evangelism and overall congregational health.

Congregations will grow when they ascend lower – when they seek to serve and count others better than themselves, and to lift up Jesus so he can draw people to himself. That should be our goal in evangelism.