A Dying Church?

Part 3 – Numerical Growth

In her book  The Sewing Room, Episcopal priest Barbara Cawthorne Crafton described her reaction to seeing the ruins of the churches of Cappadocia.  She was on a hiking tour of the countryside when she says she found herself standing in a space that had once been the nave of an ancient church.  There were a group of boys in there playing soccer where Christians had once worshipped, and Barbara says that at first she was startled, and then she was saddened by the sight.

At one time Cappadocia – Central Turkey- was the epicenter of Christianity.   First evangelized by the Apostle Paul (Acts 13-14;16), in early church history Cappadocia was where some of the church’s most important early leaders came from, and where some of Christianity’s most critical developments occurred.  It was a group of churchmen known as the Cappadocian Fathers – St. Basil the Great, his brother St. Gregory of  Nyssa, and their friend St. Gregory of Nazianzus that gave the church’s doctrine of the Trinity some of its most decisive shaping.  They had a big hand in defining what we mean today when we say that we believe in one God in three persons:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And today their churches are in ruins.  There are no Christians left in Cappadocia.

How this happened had many causes, not the least of which was the way that Christianity came out as the big loser in its first head-to-head contest with Islam. But behind even this explanation is the fact that at some point the church in Cappadocia lost its evangelistic edge and fervor.  To borrow E. Stanley Jones’ helpful language, there came a moment when it became possible, even easy, for people to get “outwardly in the church” without getting “inwardly in Christ,” and this doomed Christianity in Cappadocia. When church membership becomes a functional substitute for genuine discipleship, the problem of “cultural Christianity” emerges, and this is a problem that the church, especially a “mainline” or “oldline” church like Northway, battles today.  In one of his books, Calvin Miller describes how it happens –

The church, which should produce meaning, sometimes produces only a sterile, institutional business.  Crying out for meaning, disappointed seekers are offered only a committee presidency or a chance to usher. (A Hunger for Meaning 33) 

New converts are first drawn to the church by the love of Christ.  Many, however, soon develop a love for church politics.  Church, which is at first a place to meet God, becomes a place to socialize. …New converts soon learn the art of linking Christ with softball leagues and potluck dinners. (A Hunger for Meaning 54)

Cultural Christianity is a religion of custom, convenience and conformity, not conviction. Soren Kierkegaard was perhaps cultural Christianity’s most incisive critic.  He was unrelenting in his condemnation of a Christianity that was just a religious reflection of what society already valued and promoted, a veneer lightly applied to the prevailing social construct.  He wanted nothing to do with a church that merely blessed the status quo for the sake of social stability and self-preservation.

Nowadays we can become or live as Christians in the most pleasant way and without ever risking the slightest possibility of offence. All we have to do is start with the status quo and observe good virtues (good-better-best). We can continue to make ourselves comfortable by scraping together the world’s goods, as long as we stir into the pot what is Christian as a seasoning, an ingredient that almost serves to refine our enjoyment of life. This kind of Christianity is but a religious variation of the world’s unbelief, a movement without budging from the spot. That is to say, it is a simulated motion.

To be a Christian has become a nothing, a silly game, something that everyone is as a matter of course, something one slips into more easily than one slips into the most trifling accomplishment

For this to happen, a church has to sell her soul.  She has to silence Christ and lose the Gospel.  And when this happens, the ministry of evangelism loses its content.  It gets reduced to a message of “come join our club because we are nice people who do fun and helpful things,” instead of “you need to be part of this community of faith because we know Christ and Him crucified, and we are serious about making Him known by both what we do and what we say.”  It boils down to a pretty simple question: “What is the good news that we have to offer?”  If your answer is – “Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, both Lord and Savior,” then the ministry of evangelism follows as the spiritually logical next step. You will want to let people know all about Him, who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ does, because nothing is more important in this life and the life to come.  But if your answer is Northway Christian Church, then a program of membership recruitment and retention is the institutionally logical next step. What you’ll want is an effective marketing strategy that will attract consumers to your product.  You want to get your market share, and so you become responsive to what the consumers say they want.

 John MacArthur on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Master’s Seminary out in Southern California addressed the state of the contemporary church in this age of consumer-driven ministry.

It has been obvious to me that we’re in a period of time now where churches are in a horrendous state of chaos. What dominates churches and has for the last twenty years is personality. When I went through seminary, you could just go by a church – a Bible church, a Baptist church, and independent church, an Evangelical Free church – and you could go there at any one of them at random and it would feel like just about any other one of them.  They would have the same songs, same anthems, the sermon would be the same, there would be a gospel invitation, there would be a Sunday School, blah, blah, etc. etc. etc. But entrepreneurial efforts have taken over the church now, and uh, you couldn’t possibly even guess what goes on inside a church just because it has the name church on the outside. They’re all personality driven. It is not about content at all, content has been replaced with style. And when the current personality driving the church – when the current entrepreneur, you know, gets unsatisfied or runs off with the church organist – if there is an organ, or whatever – [the big question becomes] “the next guy – who is the next guy?” They’re in a state of complete confusion. They don’t know what they’re doing. And you can watch churches go down the drain from a few thousand people to a couple hundred people or even less as they try to find the next personality. The churches are at the worst possible point to select a pastor because they don’t have a spiritual leader. So they appoint a committee of people who have been subjected the last parade of personalities to try to pick a pastor. The [biblical] criteria [for pastoral qualifications] is not even there. It’s not even there. So it’s just chaotic.

If a church doesn’t add new members it will die.  That’s a fact beyond dispute.  And the “biological” growth of a church – the number of babies born and then raised in a congregation – while one of the sustaining streams of a church’s growth, in this age of diminishing birthrates is not going to be enough to keep a church alive.  If a church is going to survive it is going to have to add new members at the same rate, and if it is going to grow, at a rate even higher than the number of members it loses through death and departure (estimated by some church statisticians as being 20% of a church’s participating membership – average Sunday morning attendance – each year).  For Northway, this would mean 50 to 70 new members a year just to stay even.  The fact that we have not even come close to this goal for a while now tells you that we have some work to do.  The question is how shall we go about it?  And this brings us back to that “pretty simple question” that I posed earlier: “What is the good news that we have to offer?”  If the answer is “Northway,” then I can tell you what we need to do to achieve numerical growth.  And if the answer is “Jesus Christ,” then I can tell you what we need to do to make Him known, which may or may not result in numerical growth, but will make us “faithful” by New Testament standards.  So, let’s take a look at each of these approaches.




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  1. Pingback: A Dying Church (Final) | Northway Christian Church Blog

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