Hard questions for “traditional” congregations

As I have been studying church life and death, and observing different congregations, and pondering the future of the Church in a post-Christian culture; some thoughts and questions come to mind.
Let’s make one thing clear. The mission of the church has never changed nor should the message of the church change; but our presentation and strategies for accomplishing the mission and delivering the message needs to be polymorphic and adaptive! Don’t get me wrong, small congregations are not bad and large congregations are not good and vice versa… but, every congregation should be a vibrant reflection of our living God equipped and able to fulfill his mission and purpose. If church culture, big or small is holding back Kingdom growth, if a congregation is withering and dying because it is not tapped in to the True Vine and not producing fruit, that is a HUGE problem.
Most of these are not new or original, but I think every congregation needs to assess them.
1. If your pastor had a very limited skillset, would you prefer someone skilled in funerals or baptisms?
2. If you have a multigenerational church, does the primary financial support come from those 65 years and older, or younger?
3. If you have a multigenerational church where the older generation is the primary source of support…if the matriarch or patriarch dies, do you think their scions will stay, if nothing changes?
4. If the older generation passes away, how long will the church survive financially, especially if those younger generations leave because the church refuses to adapt to the 21st century?
5. For the older saints, if you could look down from heaven, would you prefer to watch the younger generation stay engaged in your congregation after you are gone, or would you prefer to not see your traditions change? Whether it be music style, order of service, the tradition, fill in the blank…
6. If you are in the older generation, would you rather be intentional about making changes to impact younger generations, or would you prefer to drive them away for the sake of maintaining the tradition? (Of course, they should stay and respect the time honored tradition because holding on to our tradition is more important than keeping people engaged in the church…)
7. If you are in one of these churches and struggling to find a pastor… are you looking for a caretaker to maintain the estate, then wrap up it’s affairs once it has passed away, or do you want someone to guide and lead you into the future (even if change is painful)?
8. If you keep records or can call to mind, how many visitors have come to your church in the last 2 years? How many came back a second time? How many are still there? If you could ask why they didn’t come back, what do you think the answers would be?
a. Not enough youth? Is it because all the young people and young families are going to a more contemporary church down the road?
b. Not enough programs? Is it because there are so few people left attending your church?
c. Music? I spoke to an older friend recently who had been church shopping for a while… in succession, he went to several churches that had not changed to contemporary praise styles. His comment, “my parents made me go to a church like this when I was a kid (60+ years ago), it was tiring then, it needs to just die already.” He said, “I loved the message, and the preaching was good, but I won’t go back.” This is a man who constantly says he should have been born a century ago, hates and doesn’t understand technology, doesn’t have a smartphone or computer, wishes phones still had live operators and party lines, and has a hard time with tv remotes…
9. If you keep records, how many baptisms has your church had in the past 5 years? How many were young adult/adult new believers? How many were children of existing families? If your church is only baptizing it’s own children, is it really fulling the Great Commission to make disciples of all nations? How many of the lost, irreligious, unchurched, disillusioned, spiritual, agnostic, or atheist people out there has your congregation made disciples of in the last 10 years?

To contrast two churches: both were founded in the 1800s. Both had attendance around 100-150 in the late 80s early 90s. Both have strong foundations in biblical truth. Both hold tight to biblical ideals, sin, salvation, and expectations of godliness. Both are multigenerational churches with ages birth through 90s+… two very different situations in 2019.
a. Determined after a period of decline 25 years ago, it would make adaptive changes the expectation and norm. Determined to be on the forward edge of worship, programs, outreach, teaching and technology. Average weekend attendance now is nearly over 1,000 plus viewers streaming online and listening/watching podcasts. Has a dynamic website, their own smartphone app, several worship teams, hundreds of volunteers, the list goes on… With a budget of millions per year going to Kingdom work around the world and impact in their community able to support many full-time staff. Easter weekend saw 5 services in two auditoriums plus a satellite congregation all packed, all with the same message of hope, and around a dozen baptisms.
b. Has held on to traditional worship with hymns and a piano. Has a rudimentary website. Has average weekend attendance around 50 with a budget well below $10k per month and can’t support one full-time pastor. Average attendance on Easter and no baptisms.
While I have never been a fan of the “dog and pony show” overshadowing strong biblical teaching and exceptional pastoral care, if not adapting to the trends in praise and worship, not adapting to changes in technology and delivery of the message, has crippled your congregation to the point of minimal impact and even death…
A pastor friend of mine sat next to a senior saint during a contemporary worship service. He asked her, do you like this music? She answered, “It’s okay. I loved the old hymns, but I really love watching my grandson praise God up there on the drums!”

Unfortunately, there are congregations and even entire denominations, that will refuse to hear this message. They will blame everyone and everything for the death of the portion of Christ’s Body they are stewards over… Christ said, the gates of hell will not overcome his Church, but we allow our insistence on not adapting to kill our congregations while the faithful are left to find somewhere else to attend a worship service…

The deepest sadness is these congregations are full of friendly, loving, devout believers in Jesus Christ. However, the only way one congregation grows, is when another congregation dies, and those who want to hold on to tradition consolidate… these people need dedicated pastors and staff to equip them for ministry, but as the congregations dwindle and funds dry up, only bi-vocational pastors, who inherently have their attention split (serving two masters), or pastors who have an independent source of income, usually retirees (who have already put their time in and are looking for someone to take the mantle of leadership) are able to serve in these congregations because of simple economic demands on their families.

Unfortunately, time and again, once the older generation who resisted adapting for so long pass away, the church is in critical condition and on life support, and it is too late to breath new life in; leaving both the pastoral team and members with no way to keep the doors open, even if the mortgage was paid off 50 years ago…

The facts and statistics do not lie. This is the sad reality facing churches that do not adapt.

Vibrant Faith

When we love God, we should want to do things to glorify him. Not to earn his love, but out of gratitude for his love for us. Our motive in all we do should be to glorify God. When we turn to live in God’s will, both as individuals and congregations, there is no amount of hurt that God will not heal, there is no transgression that God will not forgive. There is always hope when we rest on God and live according to his will.

More than 20 years ago, a dear friend gave me four short phrases that when put together remind me how to glorify God and how to have a vibrant, living, and growing faith.
Your first phrase is “HAVE FAITH”. Why have faith? Because without faith it is impossible to please God. Hebrews 11:6 says, “Now without faith it is impossible to please him, for the one who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” We cannot glorify God unless first we have faith. But, have faith in what?
The Bible makes this very simple for us. Have faith in Jesus, who he is and what he did. Jesus, the Son of the Living God, himself God, lived, died, was buried, and rose again on the third day to make us right with God by taking the punishment for our sin, making it possible for us to have a relationship with God as our Father.
Why Jesus? Who is this Jesus guy anyway? The historical accounts written in the Gospels, which are confirmed by the letters of the New Testament, and outside historical sources confirm that Jesus really did exist. Jesus is the Son of God.
John 3:16 says, “For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
God himself confirms that Jesus is his Son at Jesus’s baptism. We read in Matthew 3:17, “And, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my one dear Son; in him I take great delight.’” If Jesus really is the Son of God as the Scriptures state, then he is the only one that has any authority and he says so, in Matthew 28:18. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” And, he says in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
I could go on and on, but I think you get the point… Jesus is the only way to the Father, and it is through belief and faith in him, his saving work on the cross, and his resurrection that we are saved from an eternity without God.
Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast.” Remember, grace is the unearned, unmerited, gift of God, it is free and available to everyone. Romans 10:9-10 puts it in simple terms, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and thus has righteousness and with the mouth one confesses and thus has salvation.” Salvation is available to each of us. It is available to you. You can take this vital step, right now, where you sit. In your heart, have faith in Jesus, who he is and what he did.
Once we “have faith” and have started our journey toward a vibrant, living, and growing relationship with our creator; we now have some work to do. Your second phrase is “DO GOOD”. Whoa, wait…, you just told me that I have to do something?! YES! In James 2:26, in a section on living a godly lifestyle, it says, “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.” We work, not to earn God’s love. Not to earn salvation, because that is a gift of grace… Remember, we just looked at Ephesians 2:8-9, yet Paul tells us in the very next verse, verse 10 “For we are his workmanship, having been created in Christ Jesus for good works that God prepared beforehand so we may do them.” This word, workmanship, in Greek means, handiwork or masterpiece. It is also where we get our English word, poem. We are built to be his poem, his masterpiece, and do his work. We also have a purpose, a purpose that he planned out for us. When we love God, our response to his love and grace should be that we want to glorify him. We glorify him through good works. We glorify God by showing others the same kind of grace that God has shown us. By being his Body at work here on Earth. The writer of Hebrews tells us “And let us take thought of how to spur one another on to love and good works,” (Hebrews 10:24) Here it is again, work. One more time, Paul told Titus, “showing yourself to be an example of good works in every way.”(Titus 2:7), as we boil this down, we are to “have faith”, we are also to “do good”. There are many, many practical ways we can “do good” congregationally, individually, both for the Church and in outreach to the rest of the world. Brainstorm, you’ll easily come up with something…Make a habit of trying to do something good for someone else without being caught in the act and don’t tell anyone about it, pay it forward at every opportunity…
Our next phrase is, “SHOW LOVE”. When the religious people of Jesus’s day tried to trap him with a question, Matthew 22:36-40, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” They asked this because in the law of Moses, all 613 commandments were to have equal weight, not just the big 10 at the beginning… Jesus instead answered in a way they could not dispute. He said, “Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Have faith, do good, show love. Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment – to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples – if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35) Here, Jesus is speaking specifically to his disciples, speaking directly to the Church. Telling them the first place that they should show love is between one another. So, for those of us who are disciples of Christ, where is the first place that we should show love? The first place that we show love is right here. Right here, in our local church, then to other believers outside of this local church in the global Church, then to the world at large. The command to love is repeated throughout the New Testament. John tells us that we love because God loved us first. This is agape love, unconditional love, love that surpasses understanding, Fruit of the Spirit love. If a member of our congregation is starving, but we take meals to the poor, what kind of people are we? It is very true; the millennials and Gen Z are very socially conscious generations and want to know what the church is doing for the oppressed and the heavy laden. They are also very conscious of when we don’t walk the talk coming out of our mouths. We need to work on building unity and promoting healing, inside our families, our congregations, our denominations, and the global Church.
Make no mistake though, love does NOT mean approval! Our culture has this point very confused… I can love you, I can show you the same love that Jesus has for you, I can show you mercy, forgiveness, love, and grace; but I do NOT have to approve of your behavior in order to do so. After all, God doesn’t approve of our behavior at times, but he offers us forgiveness and restoration because of his loving kindness.
So far, we’ve got “have faith, do good, show love”, now we add “DO THE NEXT RIGHT THING”. But how do we know what the next right thing is??? In Scripture. Paul tells Timothy “Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) Here it is again, equipped for every good work. We have work to do. It is through knowledge of God’s word that we can discern what the next right thing is. We don’t all need to be Greek and Hebrew scholars of the original biblical text because God has used those people to give his Word to us in our own language, in many different translations, so that we can understand it. However, we do need to know the Word, if we are going to live according to God’s will for our lives. Many people say, “I don’t need all that religious stuff, I don’t need to attend a worship service, I just need to follow the Ten Commandments.” Okay, can you name all ten? Do you realize those ten are the tip of the ice burg and that there are 613 commands in Exodus and Deuteronomy? Others may say, “Okay then, I try to live by the Golden Rule, treat others the way I want to be treated…” That’s a good start. However, doing what is right in our own eyes, is not the same as living according to God’s will. As humans, we always miss the mark.
The point is we learn to live a life of obedience. Oops, if I lost a quarter of you with my joke earlier, I lost another half of you right there with the word obedience. Well, even Jesus was obedient to the will of his Father, why should we be an exception?
There are a few places in Scripture where it comes right out and says, “This is the will of God.” For instance, 1 Thessalonians 4:3 and 5:17-18; other times it comes as a simple imperative command: Philippians 4:3, Ephesians 4:2, or Romans 12:16; other times it gives us a list of guidelines, what is beneficial and what isn’t: Galatians 5:19-26, 1 Corinthians 6. Sometimes, doing the next right thing is to do nothing at all, sometimes, it is to pray over a situation, but it is always a step of obedience to God’s will over our own will, especially when the Scriptures are clear on an issue. JW von Goethe once said, “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.” What in our lives have we known without applying and what have we said we have been willing to do without acting?

My challenge for all of us is to reflect on this question and make the necessary changes:
If someone came undercover… into our house, into our work place, followed us at the store, or in our car; if they were to ask those we run into or associate with on a regular basis, is there something different about us or are we just like everyone else? If they ask, could we be identified as a Christian by the way we act toward others and the things we do? What would the answers be?
Remember, this is time for a hard look in the mirror, not a chance to compare ourselves to others.
We all are works in progress… The question is: are we making progress through the power of the Holy Spirit? We can trust God to keep his promise in Philippians 1:6, “the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”