Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Honest Statistics: A Large Convention of Small Churches, Part 1

In 1995 the Home Mission Board (now known as the North American Mission Board) of the Southern Baptist Convention issued a research report entitled, A Large Convention of Small Churches. It was authored by Philip B. Jones and employs standard statistical-analytical procedures to give insight into the reported membership and growth patterns of Southern Baptist churches using the Annual Church Profile. It is, in my opinion, a devastating report. Devastating in the sense that it confirms in bold letter the very kinds of concerns that Founders Ministries has been trying to address for more the twenty years.

The great problems that I see in many churches--Southern Baptist and otherwise--is not a lack of Calvinism. It is a lack of Christianity. I believe that the Gospel has been lost and that Christ is absent from many churches. There is no way to state that conviction without it sounding harsh, pharisaical and unkind, but I at least want to go on record that I do not want to be any of those things. My heart breaks when I see and hear what goes on in the name of Christ in many churches and Christian institutions. Souls are at stake. Heaven and hell are at stake. If the Gospel is missing, it does not matter what else is present.

Let me cite two reasons that I can make this statement with some sense that my assessment is at least not eccentric. The first support that I have for thinking this way is historical. John Dagg, the first writing theologian among Southern Baptists, said this: "When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it" (p. 274). You may read his Treastise on Church Order here.

The other reason that I think we must be willing to consider the possibility that Christ is absent from some churches is because He Himself warned that such could happen. In his letter to the church of Ephesus in Revelation 2 He threatens to remove the lampstand from its place among them (v. 5). That is, He threatens to unchurch them. I have often wondered what such an unchurched church would look like? Would it affect their activities if Christ withdrew? Would it change their schedule, their priorities, their worship, their prayers, etc? Probably not. Because the very reasons for which Jesus threatens to unchurch them are the very patterns of living with which they have already grown comfortable. A question I have put to myself and to our congregation is this: "If Christ were to leave our church, would we even notice?"

My fear is that some churches have become so dependent on so many resources other than Jesus Christ that if He withdrew, it really would not matter in their life and schedules. Obviously, determining whether or not Christ has left a church is at best a very difficult matter. However, it is not difficult to evaluate whether or not discipline has left a church, or if the Gospel is known and believed and preached in a church. These are objective, discernible realities that can be analyzed by simple Scriptural criteria.

Here is a question to put to your church, or the churches you know about and care about: "What if John Dagg is right?" How many churches--churches where Christ is present--would that leave us with?

Well, I have gone on longer than I intended in giving my justification for stating my fear that in many churches and Christian organizations, the Gospel has been lost. So I must wait until a later post to give you the information from the HMB report I mentioned above. You might try to secure a copy of this report for yourself. I have been told by some that it is no longer available. If that is true, it is a shame. The insights it gives are very instructive.

3 comments:

Scott Hill said...

Rick Warren does not have a small church. He also does not have the Gospel or church discipline. I agree 100% with what you posted, but I am afraid you are looking at a hard sell to most mainline SBCites.

By the way I attend Saddleback every couple of months to see if they have started preaching the gospel. Not as yet when I have been there.

Bill Moore said...

Tom,

Well put. Dagg's concern should be ours.

Bill

GeneMBridges said...

"Church discipline" These two words strike aversion and fear into the heart of every church member in the modern era in most SBC churches. Some will say that it infringes on their right to privacy or that it is "unenforcible" or "pharisaical," or "selectively enforced." I have seen the last of those situtations, having been in a church in which two of its assistant pastors (at different times) were publicly discplined by the fellowship. However, that same fellowship, while disciplining its pastors, would not do the same for those living in open sin within the lay membership. That, it seems, was off limits. Sadly, that's the way the current generation has been conditioned to think.

One way in which I've seen the Lord unchurch a church is by moving its godliest members elsewhere and out of the fellowship. Not all church members not in attendance in our churches are not in attendance because they have fallen out of fellowship; they are looking for churches that honor the Lord and take these issues seriously. It's a shame when you say to a lapsed member in a church where you are the new pastor, "Hi, I'm the new pastor at your church, and I understand you've not been with us in several months. May I ask, honestly, why that is so?" only to have them reply, "Because I wasn't growing, the Sunday School lessons are anemic at best, and nobody seemed to take understanding Scripture seriously. I've been visiting other churches for the past few months, and I'm finding it is hard to find a church with a people with their priorities in the right place."

I warned a Sunday School teacher in my church recently that if he didn't challenge his Sunday School class beyond teaching them what his teacher's manual told him to teach, people were going to leave his class and his church for other, more fertile pastures. He attempted to defend himself by saying that he felt like he had to appeal to a broad range, and "you can't force feed babies solid food." My response was, "and babies will not eat solid food if you don't wean them off milk." I interned many, many years ago with Dr. Mark Corts at Calvary Baptist in Winston-Salem, NC. He taught me that no church rises above the level of her pastors and teachers. AMEN!

God gives teachers what they sow. If they sow complacently and do not think through their beliefs and constantly grow, the people will become unthinking, complacent, and stagnant as well. They will, bluntly, come to have the discernment of shoelaces over time. They will be taken in by every manner of doctrine, deceived radically in many ways. If the teacher will not rise up and challenge the students and set the pace for growth, then the students have no example to follow themselves. The growth of teachers and leaders is paramount to the growth of a people. The attitude that says, “I will maintain the status quo, you can be part of that or not,” has no respect for God, for the Word of God, or the people of God. (Yes, I've been told that before by teachers). Pabulum preaching and teaching begets pabulum Christians, and in a short span, "Ichabod" will be written over the door of a church. Sadly, I've seen churches where every Sunday was a revivalistic evangelistic sermon preached from the pulpit fill up either with unregenerate churches or immature Christians that grow very little, because their own pastor never gets out of "Jesus Loves Me" mode on Sunday mornings or evenings.

I find the attitude of many in our churches these days self-contradictory. Why has deeper teaching been dismissed so offhandedly by those who are teachers? On the one hand there is the attitude that God does not want us to use our minds in study and worship of Him (anti-intellectualism), and on the other is the notion that “theology is for cold, unfeeling people,” and that those that dare openly challenge tradition are trying to sow division. People want to know the Lord, but they don't want Him on His terms. They want Him on their terms. It's as if they say, "I want to know your wife," but then, when I tell them all about her, they say, "Hey, that's too much information."

The seeker-sensitive movement has, embedded in it, the seeds of its own destruction. Ultimately, the audience, not the elders; the people, not the Spirit of God; the person, not the Word determine the message. The teacher of God’s people does not let the spiritual babies determine the level at which he teaches. He has, implicit in his teaching, a real expectation that they grow. A first grader will not learn how to multiply if we do not eventually move from basic addition and subtraction to multiplication tables in school. The teacher, not the student, devises the lesson plan; yet we fail to apply this in the way we grow our churches in the SBC. I would ask those in the seeker churches “Has anybody come to a deeper understanding of any core biblical doctrine under your teaching?” If you say, No,” or “I do not know,” I submit you have failed in your responsibility as a teacher, and, starting with your next lesson or sermon, you need to abandon your “status quo” mentality for a “growth” mentality. A real growth mentality doesn't let the lowest common denominator determine the content of the gospel preached and the Word of God taught. It is one thing to pastor a people who are obstinate while you are faithfully discharging your calling; it is another thing to pastor a people who don't grow because you won't challenge them at all. One doesn't set the expectations in the stratosphere, but one sets real expectations progressively, most of all according to the standards set by the Word and the Spirit, not the audience.