As you know, I have been thinking a great deal lately about the problem of the declining church in America and what the solution is. Just the other night KFVS news aired a short report about the decline of Christianity in America. They reported that here in Illinois, the average church attendance is down 8% from what it was ten years ago. Nearly every denomination is experiencing decline. For years, this decline was limited to the liberal mainline denominations but now the trend has carried over to the more conservative groups, including our own Southern Baptist Convention, which has reported three straight years of decline. So what is the problem and how do we fix it?
At least part of the problem stems from the fact that most churches in America are living in a by-gone era and are simply not equipped to reach their communities. In a recent article that appeared in The Tennesean, Ed Stetzer, points out that many denominations simply grew complacent thinking that what they had always been doing would continue to work. In the past churches faced little competition and could count on a culture that was still marginally Christian. He states, “We had home-field advantage. We had gotten used to being the place where people went when they had spiritual needs. And now we are like bears fed by tourists, and the tourists are gone.” I like his analogy of bears that have been consistently fed by tourists. I remember as a kid driving through the Smoky Mountains and seeing all kinds of bears standing around the trash bins and pull offs along the road. A couple of years ago, we took a vacation to the mountains and I was surprised that I did not see one single bear. I remember asking a part ranger why that was and he told me that the bears had forgotten how to fend for themselves because the tourists kept feeding them. This reminds me of the church. The church is declining in America by-and-large because we have forgotten how to go out and reach people with the gospel. Gone are the days when a church can simply hang up a sign or hand out some flyers and draw a crowd. The culture that we live in, even in Metropolis, has lost its Christian grounding and memory. The church cannot sit and wait for people to come to us, we must go to them. We must regain a missional world view.
A missional world view believes that God is on a mission to redeem a people for Himself out of very tribe, nation and tongue (Rev. 5:9). We see this mission unfold from the beginning of the Bible all the way to the end. Throughout the Old Testament God prepared the way for the coming of His Son. In the Gospels we see God accomplishing the work of redemption through the life and death of His Son, Jesus. In Acts and the Epistles, we see that God has invited every believer and every local church to be a part of that mission. This missional view of the world should fundamentally change the way we think about ourselves and the church.
First, God’s invitation to be on mission should cause us to change the way we think about the church. A missional world view sees the church as being God’s instrument for reaching the world. In other words, the local church has a missional purpose. Most Christian agree with that statement in principle but fail to carry it out in practice. The old saying says “the church is the only institution that exists entirely for the benefit of those outside its membership” yet in practice most churches have lost this focus. Far too often we are more concerned about keeping things the way they have always been than adjusting them in order to reach the lost. Obviously, you all know that I am not talking about compromising on the gospel or on the fundamental doctrines of the faith. Churches usually do not divide over those issues anyways, but they will divide when personal preferences become more important than the mission of reaching the lost. Some would divide the church over the style of architecture, or dress, or music, or order of service, or programs. They would rather hold on to what they have always done than to adjust in order to reach the lost. A church that adopts a missional world view, however, will be willing to change how it does things in order to reach people for Jesus. It will be willing to sacrifice personal preference for the purpose of reaching the lost.
Second, God’s invitation to be on mission should cause us to change the way we think about ourselves. A missional world view sees every local church as a missionary in its community and every Christian as a missionary to his or her sphere of influence. The New Testament shows us that the gospel moves along relational lines. For instance, when James was converted he went and told Peter (John 1:35-42) and the woman at the well went and told the men in her village (John 4:27-38). Everyone has a sphere of influence, a group of friends, family members, co-workers, and acquaintances that they influence. To be missional means to see yourself as a missionary to that group of people. You are God’s ambassador to your friends, co-workers, neighbors, and family. This means it is your responsibility to live like Jesus in front of them and to find opportunities to share the good news with them.
The decline of the American church cannot be stopped in a day nor will it be easy. The 1950’s are not coming back and the church, like it has always done, will adapt to the new cultural climate we find ourselves in. Churches that refuse to become missional in their thinking in ministry will slowly die and disappear. Churches that accept the missional mandate laid out in the New Testament will engage their culture and reach their communities with gospel. As your Pastor, my prayer is that we will become a missional church. The only way for that to happen, however, is for each of you to adopt a missional way of looking at and engaging the world.