There was a Facebook post on November 1, 2014, that gave me a chuckle. It was the evening before Americans moved our clocks back one hour to implement Eastern Standard Time. A pastor in a neighboring state posted it. I didn't record the verbatim and cannot find it now. But, he wrote something like this---"Our church doesn't have a problem setting our clocks back an hour each fall. We set our clock back by fifty years along time ago. So, one hour is nothing". Such frankness caught me a little off-guard. Yet, later reflection reminded me just how profound it was, and how much frustration must have been under the surface of his post.
Reggie McNeal told me about consulting with a church group a few years ago. In one of their de-brief sessions they asked how they were doing. He told them, "You're organized for the 1950's. If the fifties come back again, you're ready." Again, it's another dose of ironic humor. We laugh because it's true. When we realize how true it is of us, we don't laugh as much.
Want to spend a day probing some of the facts about the instituional church in America? Copy this link and search it---http://www.churchleadership.org/apps/articles/default.asp?articleid=42346&columnid=4545 for mountains of data from the Francis Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development. The stats they've complied confirm the dismal state of the church in contemporary America. Some of them are astounding---comparisons to previous decades, 4,000 churches closing every year, 3,500 people leaving the church every single day, and more. They're not referenced here to denigrate Christ's church or propose another way to fulfill the assignment Jesus gave us. No, that 200,000 of the 250,000 evangelical churches in the USA are stagnant isn't proof that the church is faulty or the idea of the church is antiquated. It may, however, prove that we've co-opted ownership of the church and have, as a result, become irrelevant to the culture around us. You see, if Christ isn't head of his church, then the church has lost her power to influence every generation. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8) and therefore resonnates with every culture, creed, and time in human history. Without his headship, we're old news.
Everybody and his brother has an opinion about how this kind of situation could exist. The numbers could be skewed by an increase in non-reporting congregations. No, it's the old methodologies that characterize so many churches. We all know it's the worship wars, or the outdated programs, or racism, closed communities, internal focus, lack of biblical teaching, spiritual bankruptcy, lack of discipleship, secularism, creeping credalism, doctrinal error, loss of Christ's mind and spine, and thirty eleven other dysfunctions. Who knows? But, since you were wondering, here's my take. It's the ownership thing. Jesus said, "...I will build my church..." (Matthew 16:18). Somebody has wrested it from him. Tim Squire reminded me yesterday that they are often "family owned and operated".
Here's where it crosses my path. Most congregations blame their pastor for the demographics. And, going wide here, most of these servants are called of God, commissioned by Him to serve in a local setting, and are prepared to lead their church to connect with the world around them. For the most part, these spiritual leaders understand the dynamics of mission, the context into which he has strategically placed them, and what is happening in an ever-changing world. In a broad sense they are hard workers, imaginative, and plugged in. They are ready to change the world. But, the gate-keepers and local straw bosses won't let them function biblically in their church. They're taking the exit ramp out of ministry and the church in languishing in a decades old ministry vision.
So, all the numbers at the Schaeffer Insitutte are a wake up call. It's time, right now, for people of influence at every level of church life to announce a resurgence of his owenership over the church so that he can lead us to influence the world around us, again.