In a recent Associated Baptist Press article, the current President of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Frank Page, warned up to half of our SBC churches could be gone in the next 25 years. From the article:
Page said the problem “resided in the churches” that refuse to change to stop their inevitable demise. He said the SBC downturn is not the denomination’s fault – because of poor programming or lack of emphasis on the denominational level…
“Many Southern Baptist churches are small groups of white people who are holding on [until] the end,” he said. “Not only have we not reached out to younger generations, but we have failed to reach out to other ethnic minorities who are all around us.”
Rather than embracing a “whatever it takes” mentality to change and restore a local church to health, Page said, many pastors and churches have “chosen to die rather than change, and they are doing it.”
Interesting words from Dr. Page. The question is, however, is he right?
Certainly, there is truth in Page’s statements. There is no doubt there are issues in our churches and those issues are neither small or nor insignificant. The important question Page is asking is this: Will our churches change? That is an excellent question and it is the crux of the issue, but not in the way you think. I’ll explain:
SBC churches resist change like the French resistance resisting the Nazis. No SBC church takes to change easily and the most commonly heard refrain in our churches is not “Jesus Saves, Jesus Saves,” rather it is “We’ve never done it like that before.” Have our churches missed out because of stodgy attitudes and a reluctance to change? Absolutely. But the change that Page suggests–reaching out to minorities and younger generations–grossly misses the mark.
Absolutely, the church (especially! SBC churches) needs to reach to minorities and to younger generations. However, I think the form of that reaching out is far more important than just “reaching out.” For instance, most people seem to think that it is necessary to use contemporary music in a worship service in order that the younger generation is reached. This is deadly theology. Any time you structure a church-wide service for the express purpose of reaching a person or people you are neglecting God and committing idolatry. God is and must always be our audience of one. Everything in the corporate worship service must have Him as its beginning and end.
This illustrates an important point: It is more important to focus on the “what” of what we are doing than the “how.” Unfortunately, most SBC churches are concerned with reaching minorities and younger folks–and that is not bad–but the question persists: with what will they reach them? Will pastors preach and teach the Bible? Will they go the extra-mile and delve into the Greek and Hebrew to make sure they are preaching and teaching God’s thoughts? Or, like so many times before, will the church fail to examine the most important things–the Gospel and the Scriptures–just to repackage the same old anemic, lifeless, pseudo-gospel in which the Scripture is stunningly absent?
So then…what changes need to be made? Here are a few suggestions:
(1) Churches must seek to fulfill the Great Commission
The Problem: Many churches seem to operate under the assumption that getting someone “saved” is the point of the great commission. You know the scenario–someone prays the “sinner’s prayer” and they walk the aisle at the end of a morning service, bathed in the sound of “Just As I Am.” They make their profession of faith and one of the old stalwarts of the church exclaims a motion–“I move we accept _________ for membership.” A hearty “aye” ensues and voila!, a new church member is minted…pending baptism, of course.
The Solution: Churches must realize the Great Commission is about making disciples. Once someone gets saved, the battle has not ended–it has just begun! Every potential church member must be introduced to the church and the faith through a vibrant discipleship program.
First, every potential member must go through a new member’s class–before they are even considered for membership.
Second, a potential member must meet with the pastor so that the pastor, in private, can ask the important questions–tell me about your conversion, explain the gospel to me, tell me about your last church, etc.
Third, on the recommendation of the pastor, the potential members must be interviewed by a membership committee (for churches without elders). Obviously, the best strategy is for the elders to interview the potential member.
Fourth, after completing the new member’s class and upon a successful recommendation by the pastor and the elders (or membership committee) they can be brought to the congregation for a proper introduction and a vote for membership.
Fifth, the new member now must be instructed in the scriptures through a discipleship program which seeks, intentionally, to get into the deep things of the faith.
(2) Churches must practice biblical church discipline.
The Problem: I’m sure many of us know someone who is not living in accordance with the scripture. Yet, we say nothing. You know the thought-process–“Who am I to say anything…?” “Well, they’re so nice, I don’t want to upset them.” “I love them too much to say anything.”
Unfortunately, scripture requires restorative church discipline. The lack thereof shows a complete breakdown in the understanding of what a church should be–a covenant community of believers committed to helping one another walk a proper Christian walk.
The Solution: Churches simply have to do discipline. Now, I’m not suggesting crucifixions of offending members–and scripture doesn’t suggest that either! Rather, restorative church discipline is lovingly pointing out a brother or sister’s error according to scripture.
Scripture, not our personal tastes, must govern what is considered grounds for discipline. In this way we hold ourselves and the offending party to scripture. This avoids all hypocrisies since both parties are under the same scripture.
Restorative church discipline seeks to set someone straight so that they can regain the joy of their salvation, avoid a false assurance of salvation, and keep the Bride of Christ pure.
(3) Church members must demonstrate their love to each other.
The Problem: Churches are clique-ish. There are groups in the church, perhaps your Sunday school class or other small group, with which you feel quite comfortable. So, for the people in these groups, you will do anything. But for someone outside of your clique-circle, you wouldn’t lift a finger. This is simply not biblical!
The Solution: All members of the covenant community must demonstrate love to each other. It is not enough to say you have love for your fellow church members, you must show it. Love is a verb; it requires action. Talk is cheap. Let your actions do your talking.
We must go out of our way to discover and meet the needs of our fellow church members.
This all comes down to a matter of discipleship. The necessary changes revolve around discipleship. Again, from the article:
“I see no more courageous call for any pastor than to lead their people to leave behind unbiblical methods of ministry and embrace news ways of accomplishing biblical goals,” said Rick Hughes, the state convention’s senior consultant for discipleship. “We must face the fact that much of the American church is declining for a very biblical reason: We have failed to be and make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
In a recent questionnaire, I was asked to describe the ideal church. Here’s my answer:
I would describe an “ideal church” as a Romans 12:1-2 church. In Romans, Paul says: I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (ESV)
I believe the ideal church would be a covenant community of believers who, intentionally, on a daily basis, offer the entirety of themselves to God as a “living sacrifice.” True Christianity has no room for the Sunday-only Christian. The Christian life involves a daily re-commitment to be a follower of Christ (not that salvation is lost) so that you daily remind yourself that you are to live His way, not our way—that we are to seek, demonstrate, and proclaim His glory, not our own. The ideal church has members who daily seek to worship God with every part of themselves and in every aspect of their lives.
The ideal church will have members, then, who think it more important to glorify God than to steal from their jobs or cheat on their wives or be absentee fathers to their children. As Romans shows, this is not done in our own strength; this is done by and through the mercies of God. The members of the ideal church will seek to do everything by the mercies of God—presenting their bodies to him as a living sacrifice of worship—so that they do not look like the world. The ideal church should look different from the world; the church must look different and be different from the world.
In the ideal church, there is no room for superficiality. In the ideal church, church members will seek to help each other by sharing burdens, bearing burdens, and sharing and partaking in each other’s joys and sorrows. Also, the ideal church members will care enough about their fellow church members to encourage them to live in the manner worthy of a Christian, even engaging in restorative church discipline (using the Matthew 18 model) when someone stumbles in their walk.
Ultimately, the members of the ideal church will seek to serve and worship God with the entirety of their heart, mind, soul, body, and strength and they will seek out ways to serve each other as an act of worship to God, even if that service is difficult or heartbreaking (in the case of restorative discipline).
If the church gets this one thing right (which is a big and difficult task), the church will not have any problems with its tithes and offerings, giving to missions, going on missions (short-term and long-term), sharing the gospel with our neighbors, or maintaining the unity of the Body. Romans 12:1-2 is the umbrella under which all these other important and necessary items fall.