By Don and Susan Dewey, Co-Regional Ministers
Another church closed. First Christian Church of Bellflower held its final worship service on March 26, 2017 and has officially closed its visible ministry. The congregation, like so many in our Region and our Disciples denomination had aged and declined to place in which they were no longer able to continue.
This has been shared numerous times in the past but it bears repeating, the church as we have known it is changing and new forms and models of church are emerging. The church in America is going through a sea change of transition as new generations are seeking alternative ways of living out their spiritual lives.
It’s also important to remember that there are no quick fixes to the continued decline of the mainline church nor is there any one model of new church that replaces or reaches everyone.
We also know that there continues to be a growing number of those who choose “None” when ask of their religious affiliation. As well as those that now claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” But the truth remains, many congregations must change or they will die.
Thom Rainer in a recent article on “Growing Healthy Churches, Together” calls these churches “the urgent church.” He says, “Time is of the essence. If changes do not happen soon, very soon, these churches will die. The pace of congregational death is accelerating.”
He is speaking particularly about mainline churches in America. The church in China, South America, and Africa is growing by leaps and bounds.
What, then, are some of the key changes churches must make? Rainer offers nine suggestions of change but warns that none of them are easy.
Here are nine changes:
1. We must stop bemoaning the death of cultural Christianity. Such whining does us no good. Easy growth is simply not a reality for many churches. People no longer come to a church because they believe they must do so to be culturally accepted.
I believe the church must once again refocus its energy and re-engage their communities in the places of the greatest need. In the book of James we read: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” James 2:15-17
The Great Commission of Christianity is about going out into the world; it’s not “y’all come.
2. We must cease seeing the church as a place of comfort and stability in the midst of rapid change. Certainly, God’s truth is unchanging. So we do find comfort and stability in that reality. But don’t look to your church not to change methods, approaches, and human-made traditions. Indeed, we must learn to be uncomfortable in the world if we are to make a difference. “We’ve never done it that way before,” is a death declaration.
In a recent Transformation Committee meeting Linda Gardner shared several inspiring quotes about transformation. Two of them struck me as important for the church today.
The first said, “How does one become a butterfly? You must want to fly so much you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.”
As we approach this season of Easter we are reminded again that we are the people of the Resurrection! However, to have a resurrection/new life one must be willing to die. Old ways, structures, methodologies must give way to new ideas, approaches and models for being the church today.
The second quote was much more straightforward. It simply said, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.” The Prophet Isaiah reminds us of who God is and what God is about: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”
3. We must abandon the entitlement mentality. Your church is not a country club where you pay dues to get your perks and privileges. It is a gospel outpost where you are to put yourself last. Don’t seek to get your way with the music, temperature, and length of sermons. Here is a simple guideline: Be willing to die for the sake of the gospel.
Many people today are reluctant to “join” a church because it feels as though they are simply invited to accept things as they are and perpetuate an institution that may or may not have any relevance to the their needs or their daily living. Most people are looking for a community that takes seriously their spiritual hunger and actual needs of their community.
4. We must start doing. Most of us like the idea of evangelism more than we like doing evangelism. Try a simple prayer and ask God to give you gospel opportunities. You may be surprised how He will use you.
I sometimes wonder if we have put too much weight on one simple worship service or sermon to be our only Evangelism tool. Or that we have abdicated our responsibility as a “priesthood of all believers” to share the hope we have in Christ.
Scripture reminds us, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” 1 Peter 3:15
5. We must stop using biblical words in unbiblical ways. “Discipleship” does not mean caretaking. “Fellowship” does not mean entertainment.
I believe the invitation here is ask ourselves how are we guiding others into a deeper relationship with Christ and developing a genuine place of belonging for those seeking true community?
6. We must stop focusing on minors. Satan must delight when a church spends six months wrangling over a bylaw change. That’s six months of gospel negligence.
We may or may not receive the reference to “Satan” but I think we all know what he’s talking about. Sometimes as church we can spend enormous amounts of time discussing and haggling over the color of the bathrooms and hardly anytime talking about reaching those in our communities with the Good News!
7. We must stop shooting our own. This tragedy is related to the entitlement mentality. If we don’t get our way, we will go after the pastor, the staff member, or the church member who has a different perspective than our own. We will even go after their families. Don’t let bullies and perpetual critics control the church. Don’t shoot our own. It’s not friendly fire.
I think the challenge for the church is to remember that we are the body of Christ, many members but one body. We have different parts but each one is important and needed. (1 Corinthians 12) We need to find a way to work together in healthy ways so that the body can grow and be its best.
8. We must stop wasting time in unproductive meetings, committees, and business sessions. Wouldn’t it be nice if every church member could only ask one question or make one comment in a meeting for every time he or she has shared his or her faith the past week?
Perhaps the challenge here is to move from spending much of our time as managers of an institution and more time as witnesses of the love and grace of Christ.
9. We must become houses of prayer. Stated simply, we are doing too much in our own power. We are really busy, but we are not doing the business of God.
I think it’s worth noting, that as we read through our Gospels, how many times they refer to Jesus taking time alone to pray. If prayer truly is our communication to the divine and we are really wanting to be God’s church, then perhaps we need to spend more time listening to where and how God is inviting us into being the church today.
Friends, we serve a risen Lord, the Spirit is alive and moving in and through us and in places we least expect. Death is not the end but can in fact be the beginning a whole new way of living. The church as an institution is simply the means for carrying out the Gospel message but it is not the Gospel. We must be willing to adapt and change the means for carrying out the Gospel message for the sake of its message.
We still have Good News to proclaim that a hungry and hurting world is dying to hear and know. For me the one command of Jesus “to love one another as I have loved you” must be the primary focus of what we do as church; all else can die or change.
May God’s Spirit of grace and peace strengthen you and empower you as people of the resurrection!
Together on the journey,
Don and Susan
Co-Regional Ministers, PSWR