First, let me be quick to say that churches of Christ are not the only brand
that is in steady decline. The largest evangelical denomination, Southern Baptists, are too in decline with a several year drop in baptisms year after year. However, there is little comfort in the fact we are not alone. I doubt that a person just diagnosed with cancer is comforted when he finds that several others have it too.
In the past several months there have been dozens of blogs and other articles addressing the decline of evangelical church membership and several have been particularly focused on churches of Christ. So I’ll add one more voice to the chorus of voices concerning the downward spiral of our churches and the people who attend them.
The volume of blog posts, magazine articles, books and lectures that suggest reasons and solutions is huge. Should our churches be more user-friendly? Is allowing parishioners to “dress down” on Sunday morning one of the pieces of the puzzle. Maybe a better, more attractive website will help. Will a praise team, or even a band position us to better appeal to young people? Is our lack of community service the missing link? If we begin in earnest to “serve” our community, will that attract more members? And of course, a slick Power Point presentation must accompany every Sunday sermon. Everyone knows that! Maybe we should find what unchurched people find appealing and provide that. After all isn’t our mission to address their needs?
In the last few weeks I have surveyed hundreds of church websites to try to get a feel for what Sunday sermons are focused on. And, just last night I scanned perhaps two hundred sermon topics listed in various church “Gospel Meeting” announcements and past meetings. And guess what I learned? Of all the “Gospel Meeting” lesson topics, of scores and scores, I found 4 or 5 that might have been focused on the good news about Jesus and what he accomplished for sinners. Oh, there were good things to be sure. Most were lessons on marriage, rearing children, the importance of the Bible, the church, and much about ethics and morality. Unity, elders, Restoration history, and others also got a lot of coverage.
Sunday sermons covered most of those same topics but primarily focused on personal disciplines like prayer, Bible study, loving others, community service, giving, and many other noble and worthwhile subjects.
We have a gospel deficit
I was both shocked and saddened when a few weeks ago I asked this question in a thread of comments on the popular One in Jesus blog, “What is the gospel?” Some of the answers were “The life and teachings of Jesus”, “The New Testament”, and at least one that in essence said, “If you are baptized and live good enough you will be accepted by God”.
There is only one reason why long time members of churches of Christ don’t know what the “gospel” is, they have not been taught it. A cursory mention of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, or getting agreement that Jesus was the son of God cannot be passed off as gospel teaching. In my view a person who almost never preaches the gospel should not allow people to call him a “gospel” preacher.
Much of our history has been trying to get denominational people to accept our view of baptism and they way we do church on Sunday morning. A long time coc missionary once told me that our historic mission had been “correctional” rather than redemptive. I later learned that he did not coin that statement but nonetheless it was very true. What people everywhere need is not to be reformed but reborn.
Theistic moralism is not good news.
Many of us have the flawed idea that if we can get people to attend church regularly and improve their morals they and others will be helped. Maybe so, but they might still perish having never known Jesus. Yet, most of our teaching is don’t do these things but do these things. Pray more, study your Bible more, give more, love your wife more, spend quality time with your children, teach your children to love God and to be obedient, do acts of kindness, etc., etc. All of these are good but not best. A dead man does not need a better suit of clothes, or a better hair do, he needs life and there is only one place to get it.
You don’t sell Jesus like a vacuum cleaner
I have had many sales jobs and was not very good at most of them. The ones where I did best were the ones with the best training. I once sold Bibles door to door in the hills and hollers of rural Western North Carolina. When I knocked on a door I knew exactly what to say and when to say it. After my 3 or 4 minute presentation the person bought my Bible or likely felt guilty for not loving God and his Word. It was a slick presentation that highlighted the features of the Bible and then put a guilt trip on the person as motivation to buy. I don’t feel very good about that chapter of my young life but I did it.
A few years ago a church in a distant city (without being invited by anyone) decided that they would conduct a door knocking campaign in a small town to help the new coc there grow. In discussions with the leader of that group I learned quickly that the goal was to establish a church of Christ in the community. They did knock on doors and after a few days baptized I think 16 people. They were elated! Of those 16 people who were baptized I think perhaps about three of them ever attended a church service and even those didn’t stick around long. They were no more saved than a goose.
I was once asked to speak to a young man who wanted to be baptized. I asked him “Why do you want to be baptized?”. He replied “I want a better life”. I explained to him that baptism would not give him that result. I carefully told him the good news about Jesus, why Jesus died for him and that He alone was the answer to his two greatest problems, sin and death. He was uninterested and did not want to be baptized after all. Another time I spoke with a young couple who wanted to be baptized. When I asked them why they gave puzzling and rambling answers. I told them the good news the best I knew how and they seemed unaffected but still wanted to be baptized. Against my better judgement I baptized them and soon they were fighting like to angry cats, sleeping around, doing drugs and in general acting like sinners do.
We can’t beat the biblical model
Read Acts chapter 2 and following. Peter and the others were not preaching the church of Christ, or moral improvement, or water baptism, they were preaching the good news about what Jesus by his living, dying, and resurrection had accomplished for sinners. After Peter’s great gospel message the hearers cried out with convicted hearts “What must we do?” Do we do that? We should. We should preach Christ, explaining how he paid for our sins by offering himself as a sacrifice and absorbing God’s wrath against sin. We must not only preach the facts of the gospel of Christ but what those facts mean! In my view we should teach people the gospel and then shut up. If God grips their hearts and opens the eyes of their understanding they too will ask “What must we do?”. Then is the time to tell them about baptism and the disciplines of following Jesus. I’m not saying we should never mention baptism to a lost person but it should not be presented as the Savior instead of Jesus.
Why are some churches growing?
There are a variety of reasons why some congregations are increasing in numbers. Churches in large metro areas like Dallas or Charlotte of some other large population center will have many families because they are simply there. Let me ask another way. Why are there scores of transformed lives in some churches? Why are addicts and convicts and unfaithful husbands and all sorts of former sinners now happily following Jesus and telling others about what He has done in their lives? I promise you it is not because the music is better, or guests are greeted with coffee and doughnuts and …..you get the picture don’t you?
Churches that never get far from the gospel are very likely to grow.
Our purpose should be to preach and teach Christ, to make him known far and wide. Our ministry to our members should be to help one another to know him more, to love him more deeply, and to delight in Him as our only hope of a future. Our music should be gospel saturated, Christ centered. The cross of Christ should get far more press than the church of Christ. Men and women are not reconciled to God by what they do but by the blood of Jesus alone. Our members should know these things and know them well.
Paul said of the gospel that it is the “power” of God. The telling of what Jesus has done for sinners is it’s self the dynamite of God to blast into the most rebellious hearts. And he said the gospel of Jesus is of “first importance”. That means that every other thing in church life, no matter how good is is not as important and as necessary as the gospel. We must keep the most important thing the most important thing!
I suggest you preachers do a series on Jesus! Teach the gospel for several months, every Sunday. Better presentations, better programs, better books, and better looks are no substitute for the story of Jesus loving sinners so that he died for them. The gospel is just as important for our sanctification as for our initial salvation and it is because of the gospel that we will one grand day know glorification. Don’t neglect the good news about Jesus!
Churches that do not keep the gospel of Jesus first should not expect to be a church that grows.