Well Church, What are we going to do in 2021?

Our Mission is to make disciples… Our Purpose, individually, is to be conformed to the image of Christ… The Gospel is still relevant today, but we may need to change our communication regarding the message. Some congregations embrace change, some resist change. Some hold tight to keeping the presentation of the message of Christ relevant to the culture, some hold tight to tradition… In other words, some embrace what is new, and some want to stay old. I am never saying the Gospel or the message itself needs to change to match the culture. I am saying how we communicate the message does. Some congregations have five generations filling the auditorium or sanctuary every week. Some congregations are mainly two eldest generations and all their scions have moved on…either to no church at all, or to a church that is going to embrace their youth.

HOW do we complete our mission to make disciples in 2021? During a global pandemic? Once the pandemic passes and the new normal takes over?

When Louis and Clark left St. Louis on their mission to find a land route to the Pacific coast, they had a plan… they also had their canoes… however, along the route, they ran into one huge obstacle. The Rocky Mountains. I lived on the front range as a teen, and have spent a lot of time in those mountains; hiking, climbing, camping, fishing, skiing… I will tell you something. Those mountains are not good for portaging canoes. It is virtually impossible.

Louis and Clark had to make a very tough decision. They chose to abandon their canoes in order to complete the mission before them. As a result, they succeeded!

Peter, during the time of the early church ran into a similar problem when the Holy Spirit lead him to minister to the Gentiles. He was called to account for it in Acts 11. After being questioned by the council in Jerusalem about his time with the Gentiles and eating “unclean” food that had been sacrificed to idols, Peter told them…

9 But the voice replied a second time from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not consider ritually unclean!’ 12 The Spirit told me to accompany them without hesitation. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 17 Therefore if God gave them the same gift as he also gave us after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to hinder God?” Acts 11:9, 12, 17 NET

The Holy Spirit lead Peter to abandon his canoe, his fixation on the Jewish expectations and traditions, and because of Peter’s willingness to change, the Holy Spirit came to the Gentiles.

Statistics are funny things, because depending on who you ask and how you ask, the numbers change, but regardless of who you ask, a minimum of 4,000 US congregations are closing their doors permanently every year, but some stats say up to 10,000. Compared to only around 1,000 church plants, that may or may not survive each year… How many churches have died out and won’t ever come back because of this pandemic? Because they weren’t prepared and didn’t prepare their congregations for a virtual world…

This is a hard truth, consider this:

Jesus said He would build His Church. Matthew 16:18.

If our congregations are shrinking or buildings are closing, it isn’t because he isn’t doing his job…

It must be something, we did or didn’t do, are or aren’t doing; has hindered the congregation’s development and taken us out of obedience to Christ. Therefore, he is not bringing more people into our buildings, he is sending them elsewhere…

His Church has grown for 2,000 years and although our culture has changed, experts still say we need more congregations, not less.

We, as his Church, need to take a hard inventory of what we are doing to bring our congregations into a right fellowship with him. Or, he will allow the doors of our building to close and send his Church elsewhere…

There are lots of areas in ministry where we absolutely will not compromise, but if it is not a salvation issue or a sinful disobedience issue, we as churches and individuals need to be ready to embrace change if we are going to succeed in our Impossible mission to make disciples of all peoples.

We know that God does not change, we know his Word does not change, we see this clearly in Scripture…

All generous giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or the slightest hint of change. James 1:17 NET

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever! Hebrews 13:8 NET

However, sometimes our approach to ministry must change.

Paul says,

So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Do not give offense to Jews or Greeks or to the church of God, just as I also try to please everyone in all things. I do not seek my own benefit, but the benefit of many, so that they may be saved. 1 Corinthians 10:31-33 NET

I would like to give you a real-life illustration of this, a tale of two congregations… now, remember, nationally in 2016, 46% of churchgoers attend a congregation of 100 or less.

Both congregations were founded in the 1800s in the same town. Both have a similar statement of beliefs, conservative theology, extremely loving and welcoming people. Both had similar attendance and budget 35 years ago.

One congregation decided, 26 years or so ago, to embrace change…

They decided to stay on the leading edge. Follow trends in outreach, trends in worship, advancement in technology. It has not always been easy, people come and go, but their willingness to push forward has led to Kingdom growth. In 2019, here are some of their stats from January to June…

Average weekly attendance: 1,155 about 6x’s 35 years ago, and 800 more that attend at least once per month.

Average weekly online church attendance from March 9, 2019 to May 26, 2019: 131, yet 46% of churchgoers in 2016 attended a church of 100 or less. Once this pandemic hit, within a week, they went to totally online services for 3 months. Now, they are meeting both streaming online and in-person, 3 services every weekend.

Over 820 volunteers service in 1,500 ministry positions all over their congregation and community making an impact for Christ and showing the love of God. Missionary teams all over the world. Plus they have a website, a smartphone app, audio and video message archives, a radio program, many grow together and serve together discipleship groups, thriving children’s, teen, young adult ministries, many full-time and part-time staff to help equip the congregation to do the work of ministry.

It is not about size, but it is about effectiveness… they have been effective in using the resources the Lord has given them, and their footprint in the community for Christ is large now, because they have consistently identified and abandoned the canoes that hindered their mission to make devoted followers of Jesus Christ.

One day the pastor sat next to a senior saint and asked, do you enjoy the contemporary worship (although they do occasionally perform hymns and also have a choir), however, her response was, “I don’t really like the music, but I really love watching my grandson worship God and play the drums…”

Now, I will tell you what the status of the other congregation is:

The other congregation has resisted change. They have resisted technology. They played the same music, from the same book, as 35 years ago. They have a single page website and an individual account Facebook page, not even an organization page. They had resisted change and made excuses why they couldn’t change, shouldn’t change, or wouldn’t need change…

Pre-pandemic they had an average weekly attendance of 50 or so. Which is about ¼ of what they had 35 years ago. No full-time staff to equip the saints. Much of the community didn’t know they exist. Thousands of congregations are in this same canoe, it isn’t because Christ has given up on his mission… During the worst part of the pandemic, the Gospel wasn’t being shared at all. They weren’t prepared.

Again, not about size, but effectiveness…  these congregations are both full of loving people.

One congregation, visitors come and keep coming back, they are excited to join a thriving community of believers that are impacting their world. The other congregation, they come once, if they come at all…

We all have our comfort zone. Following Christ and glorifying God in all we do is about breaking down barriers and pushing through them.

Paul says,

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and exhorting one another with all wisdom, singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, all with grace in your hearts to God. And whatever you do in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Colossians 3:16-17 NET

It is absolutely true that different areas, different cultures, different people need to be addressed in different ways. The 95% African American congregation I served in was very different in preaching and worship style than this church or the larger church I described, but they met people where they were and encouraged growth and change.

Paul also says,

So then, let us pursue what makes for peace and for building up one another. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. For although all things are clean, it is wrong to cause anyone to stumble by what you eat. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything that causes your brother to stumble. Romans 14:19-21 NET

One couple of senior saints came to visit my old church in South Bend. They came in wearing their Sunday best and when I greeted them, it was apparent they didn’t approve of the young man next to me wearing jeans. No matter how warmly they were greeted and treated, when they walked into the sanctuary and saw the chairs and particularly the instruments on stage, they turned around and left before the service even started.

On the flipside, an older guy I know who is nearing 70, was looking for a church, he sat through a service, and told me later, he really enjoyed the sermon, but they were singing the same hymns he was forced to listen to when he was a kid in the 50s, he didn’t like them then, and by gosh, he wasn’t going to listen to them now…

Everyone has a preference, and for some who have done church the same way for a long time, trying to change is hard.

But, Paul says,

So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Do not give offense to Jews or Greeks or to the church of God, just as I also try to please everyone in all things. I do not seek my own benefit, but the benefit of many, so that they may be saved. 1 Corinthians 10:31-33 NET

As congregations and individuals, we need to ask ourselves hard questions.

Are we churching the way we have always churched because we have always churched this way? Were we able to church during the worst of the pandemic? When visitors come, do they come back? If not, why? If the unchurched, the irreligious, the disillusioned, agnostic, or atheist came into our church, would they find hope or feel disconnected and uncomfortable in some way by how we are doing church? Are we in the church seeking our own benefit by doing what’s most comfortable or are we trying to be all things to all people so they might be saved?

I want to encourage us that God and Christ are the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I want to encourage us to ask hard questions. I want to encourage us to take a look at what is helping us, others, and the Body of Christ grow and develop and to encourage us to consider change if we deem, through the discernment of the Holy Spirit, that change is necessary. Do we have some canoes we need to abandon to fulfill the mission before us?

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