Replanting a Church: Advice from the Church Doctor, Part 2

I’m blogging through an an article by Kent R. Hunter, with Church Doctor Ministries.

The graph divides the respondents based on how long they have been at the church. Reading left to right, those who have been members more than 20 years have the largest percentage, 18 percent, who indicated their church reached them while they were not Christians. For those who have attended for 11-20 years, that percentage drops to 17 percent. Only 10 percent of those who have been at the church 6-10 years became Christians after attending their church. In the time frame of 4 to 5 years, it drops to 9 percent, and in the last three years, it is 4 percent.

We started seeing this trend about 12 years ago. We discovered this stark reality: During a time in U.S. history when the population of unchurched people has grown significantly, the church has become increasingly ineffective at reaching them (see the chart below).

The church in America is falling behind the curve in its ability to reach unchurched people. Why? The strategies used in the past are not working for the new, postmodern, unchurched populations.

I think it’s unquestionably true that the strategies used in the past no longer work. Gospel meetings, Jule Miller filmstrips, and sermons about why the Baptists are all going to hell don’t work. I’m not sure that they ever did. I mean, they may have worked to persuade believers to change denominations, but they weren’t nearly so effective at converting the unchurched. After all, they were targeted at the question: which denomination? rather than: which Lord?

As a result, older generations were converted to a doctrinal system and a pattern of worship, but not to a mission. Oh, there was lots of evangelism, but much of that evangelism was targeting Baptists and other branches of the Churches of Christ. There wasn’t nearly so much evangelism of true unbelievers. Of course, there weren’t as many true unbelievers as there are now. (I once spoke to a missionary in India who claimed great success by converting existing Christian congregations to a cappella music. He said that it’s easier to convert Christians than Hindus!)

A case can be made, based on the statistics, that the 20th Century methods were better at creating unbelievers than believers.

And because Christianity was defined as right doctrine and attendance, rather than mission, the church lost its moral standing in this country — causing “Christian” to become an insult in many circles. We were far more concerned with defeating evolution than poverty and with keeping prayer in the public schools than having Jesus in our homes.

The graph tells the story. Other denominations had their own problems, of course, but the overall problem was a form of Christianity that was both ineffective and unappealing.

Therefore, the last thing we should be doing is romanticizing the Christianity of the 20th Century or proceeding by compromise between 20th Century Christianity and true Christianity. We have to have the real, unadulterated thing.


4 Responses

  1. “which denomination? rather than: which Lord?”

    Great comparison of questions. If we ask people, “do believe that this Jesus fellow in the New Testament really was the Son of God sent to save us?” We may find lots of Christians out there who just don’t like what they find in church buildings.

    Ouch, then we may have to do something about what happens in church buildings.

  2. The history of Christianity has been filled with people who have made “the church” the big deal. I do not think that’s the focus God wishes us to have.

    But relatively few people seem willing to concur. Not that folks have to agree with me. But that is also your point, Jay.

    Could we be Christians without the organizations necessary to support buildings?

  3. David,

    We could certainly be Christians without the buildings. I don’t think we can be much in the way of Christians without being in community with our brothers and sisters.

    We were saved into the church, to work as part of the body of Christ — together — in God’s mission to redeem the world. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that God’s work is, in part, to save us from loneliness and individualism into community with God and God’s people.

    (Psa 68:6) God sets the lonely in families, he leads forth the prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land.

    Then again, churches that serve only themselves aren’t doing it right either. They’ve just taken Western individualism to the corporate level.

    (Eph 3:10-11) His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.

    And so, yes, a lot of our organizational efforts are aimed at the wrong things. But we can’t truly be what God called us to be other than in community.

    But the church isn’t the big deal. Jesus is the big deal, and the church’s role is to point others in the direction of Jesus, through good works and teaching the good news of the kingdom. And we invite people into the church, not because salvation is found there, but because the saved are saved to be on mission together with each other and with Jesus.

    Anyway, that’s how I’ve got it figured.

  4. But the church isn’t the big deal. Jesus is the big deal, and the church’s role is to point others in the direction of Jesus, through good works and teaching the good news of the kingdom.

    Careful there. The church is the bride of Christ — it seems that at least one person in the cosmos thinks the church is the big deal. We invite people into the church because the church gets to be married to the best and most amazing and awesome person who ever lived. I don’t disagree with what you’re saying about mission; just suggesting that we all should have a care in how we speak about the Lord of Creation’s Bride! 🙂

    I mean, imagine the wedding scene, and somebody slips up beside Jesus and whispers, “She’s not the big deal. YOU are.” I wouldn’t recommend whispering that to any grooms on their wedding day!

    The groom has been heavily denigrated in Western society — let’s not make the opposite mistake by undermining the worth of the Bride. He did die for the joy of being married to her, after all.

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