A host of recent studies have all come to the same conclusion: the Church in the U.S. is losing ground.
Surveys says that church members are not attending worship as often as they used to. Many in the millennial generation are not attending at all, declaring “none” when asked about their religious preference.
And now, the “nones’ are being joined by the “dones”. These are long-time members who once were very active but who now have completely dropped out of church. They were once all in, and now they are all out.
Sociologist Josh Packard says the “dones” he interviewed have dropped out because, a) they are tired of being lectured to in sermons, and b) they are tired of a passive Christianity. *
I believe there are significant cultural forces at work in American society which are fueling these trends.
That aside, taking Packard’s assertions at face value would suggest a couple of systemic issues at work within the modern Protestant church.
1. If the “dones” are leaving because they are “Tired of being lectured to” and having someone tell them what to do, that would indicate they do not believe they are hearing from God in the preaching. Could the recent emphasis on “relevant” rather than exegetical preaching have back-fired? Perhaps.
And if the only other significant component in the worship service is contemporary worship music, it might not be enough to inspire people’s attendance. Modern worship songs are often criticized for a lack of depth in the lyrics, and many church report that it is normal for worshippers to listen rather than participate in the singing.
2. The “dones” are saying that they want to be actively participating in meaningful ministry and do not want to sit in the shadow of a star pastor (or suffer the boredom of a mediocre pastor). This would indicate a rejection of the dominant model of church in American evangelicalism, which could be described as “come to the Sunday show”.
In a nutshell, these findings point to two needs for the church:
1. Help people experience the transcendent presence of God in worship.
Only 3 of 10 American worshippers say they usually experience God in worship now. No wonder may are choosing not to go. But where people experience the mystery of Jesus’ presence, they will be there.
2. Live as the body of Christ.
We are not meant to be an audience, nor an extension of the pastor’s ambition. We are to live in relationship with each other and be sent into the world with love and power as Kingdom agents.
Churches which help people experience these tow realities will have few people dropping out.
What do you see happening in these trends?
* Thom Shcultz – Rise of the “Done with Church” Population; http://www.churchleaders.com/outreach-missions/outreach-missions-articles/177144-thom-schultz-rise-of-the-done-with-church-population.html
“What agenda should our group meetings follow?”
“How often should our group meet?”
There are a million and one decisions to make when leading a cell church.
For answer, you could copy another church’s practice, but there are at least two problems with that.
First, it probably won’t work as well for you as it does for them. Their practice is shaped by their context and is based on what God led them to do. You probably don’t live in their city and even if you do, you are not them.
Second, someone is eventually going to ask, “Why do we do it that way?” You need a different answer besides, “So-and-so Church does it that way, and they’re blessed”. If you don’t have a better answer, it will leave people unconvinced and dissatisfied.
The best answers to the questions of practice are based on the scriptural and Kingdom values.
Here are a couple of biblical truths which can guide you in the building of a solid cell ministry foundation.
Truth #1- A disciple is one who hears and obeys Jesus.
Jesus clearly defined the kind of disciples we are to make:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20)
The goal of your ministry is not to get a lot of people into groups. The goal is to make disciples who hear and obey.
So when confronting options for designing your cell ministry procedures, a key question to ask is, “Which approach will best help people hear and obey the Lord’s word?”
Truth # 2: Discipleship happens in a relational context.
When Jesus started making disciples, he said, “Follow me.” He didn’t say, “Listen to me teach,” or “read my books.” He invited the 12 into community. His disciple making was personal.
The New Testament gives us at least 50 “One another” statements: “love one another,” “bear one another’s burdens,” “forgive one another,” and so on.
In order to grow in our faith, we must be with “one another.” As Ralph Moore said, “No relationship, no discipleship.”
So when making cell ministry decisions, consider “What will promote true community and influence?”
You may come up with structures that look similar to those of another church, but the key is you will have built your ministry on scriptural fondations, not trending fads.
Are you a betting person? Blaise Pascal says you are.
Blaise Pascal was a brilliant French philosopher, mathematician and physicist who live in the 17th century. He devised an argument for choosing God that goes something like this:
All humans bet with their lives either that God exists or not. If you believe in God and he does indeed exist, then you gain an infinite reward (heaven). If God doesn’t exist, your loss is limited (some pleasures, etc.) But if you do not believe and God exists, your loss is infinite (hell.) Therefore, a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God.
There is a compelling logic to what Pascal says. However, many (most?) people misinterpret the terms of the wager. They hear it to say, “Believing in God doesn’t require much, but it pays off big in eternity, so play it safe and choose to believe in God.”
The problem with that line of thinking is, “believing in God” isn’t mere mental assent to the idea that God exits. That kind of “believing” isn’t what brings an eternal reward. James 2:19 says, “Even the demons believe, and shudder.”
Jesus says that becoming his disciple will cost us everything. In Mark 8:34 Jesus says “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
So to place the bet means to lay your life down before Jesus and turn the rights of your decision-making and destiny over to him. It means to gamble that he was right when he said, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. (Matthew 16:25) And the wonderful bonus is that the rewarding life we find begins right here, right now.
Yes, it’s true that every day we are each betting with our lives one way or the other. As for me, I’m going all in with the One who rose from the dead. It doesn’t look like much of a gamble to me.
Over my three-month sabbatical I read about 23 books. I listed them below, in no particular order. I marked with asterisks the top four books in terms of making an impact on me personally.
I wasn’t reading for any particular goal – just what struck my interest at the moment (that’s the privilege of a sabbatical!)
I am an information-addict; I find that I am always interested in learning something I didn’t know. That means I am drawn to read mostly non-fiction (although one can learn a lot through a good novel, too.) However, these days I am trying to make sure that I am taking action on what I read. So I will copy quotes from good books in my journal, and note what action I want to take as a result. I am much more likely to do something when I take these notes. The books I have designated with an * are those which merit significant journal entries.
Speed – Brown
Birthing the Miraculous – Heidi Baker
* Do What Jesus Did – Robby Dawkins
The Invisible Girls: A Memoir
Prayer – Seeking the heart of God – Mother Teresa and Brother Roger
Mighty Prevailing Prayer – Duewel
Passion and Purpose – Seibert
Healing Ministry – Moraine
Baptism in the Holy Spirit – Randy Clark
Manifesting God’s Love – Jerame Nelson
* Present Perfect – Greg Boyd
Clay in the Potter’s Hand – Dorothy Sun
** The Insanity of God – Nik Ripken
Arts and Entertainments – Beha
Four Cups – Chris Hodges
Sentness – Hammond, Cronshaw
*** Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus –
Untitled: Thoughts on the Creative Process – Hogan
Outrageous Love, Transforming Power – Wardle
The Demon of Brownsville Road – Cranmer
Paul among the People – Ruden
The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind – Johnson
A Wind in the House of Islam – Garrison
Home — there is nothing like it.
As part of our sabbatical, Linda and I spent 16 days in France and 2 in Brussels, Belgium. It was a great trip and we enjoyed it a lot, but at the end Linda and I were anxious to get back home.
After we landed in New York, we headed for the customs and immigration check points. The signs above indicated one lane for US citizens and another for those with visitor visas. I was thankful to head for the “citizens” line.
I was home.
I could fully understand everything people said. The food was familiar. I knew what to expect (mostly!) I belonged.
Arriving back in the States made me think of heaven. When we get to heaven we will finally feel fully at home. There will be no misunderstandings or miscommunications. Things will seem right and comfortable. No one will have to explain anything to us. Nothing will be missing. Our eternal family will be there.
It’s not that we hate life on earth; it’s a precious gift. Linda and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Europe and meeting all kinds of new people there. It’s just that the U.S. (and Pittsburgh!) is home. Life on earth is wonderful, but heaven is really our home – and we’re not there yet.
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 3:1-2)
From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)
John actually started preaching Jesus’ message before Jesus did – repent because the kingdom has come.
The kingdom and repentance are linked. Why?
The kingdom of God (or “of heaven” in Matthew) is life when God is in charge; it is life when everything is in line with God’s will.
When we are unaware of the kingdom we live in ways inconsistent with it. We think anti-kingdom thoughts and do anti-kingdo deeds without even being aware of it. But when the kingdom breaks in on us we must change. That is what Jesus proclaimed.
The very next chapter Jesus begins to describe the outlines of the kingdom in what we call “The Sermon on the Mount”. It is full of counter-intuitive challenges about how to live, like love your enemy, turn the other cheek, etc. On our own, we wouldn’t naturally think of doing these things. They aren’t “natural”, they are supernatural; they are expressions of the kingdom. Jesus is announcing and demonstrating these kingdom ways, and calling us to repent. (which means to change our thinking/mind). In order to experience the kingdom it is not just that we need to ask forgiveness for our sins, which we do because they are anti-kingdom ways. We also need to let God give us a brand new way of looking at the world and what is the right way to live. Repent because the kingdom has come near.
Our methodology is shaped by our theology. What we do is based on what we believe.
If cell groups are going to be the base of a church, it will be because making disciple-makers is the leadership’s central goal and commitment.
In making the transition to a cell-based ministry model, it is easy to get preoccupied with structures (the “how”) and overlook the theological foundations (the “why”). For example, it is easy to focus on making cells the base of the church by eliminating other programs and activities. But unless there is a clear and widespread commitment to the goal of making disciple-makers, this generally fails.
One of the reasons cell-based ministry doesn’t come naturally to the U.S. church is that we have a fundamentally different assumption about ministry. All of our models assume that a successful church has a lot of people attending weekend worship and believing in Jesus. The assumption is that this happens as irreligious people attend and get involved with the church. In other words, it is the church’s activity that makes disciples, and the people support the church’s mission. Thus, equipping the saints for ministry means helping them use their spiritual gifts in the multitude of ministries which will result in more disciples.
In contrast, the target of the cell-based church is to make irreligious people into disciples who make disciples. It isn’t “the church” that makes disciples, it is the disciples themselves who do so. The leadership doesn’t see the believers as cogs in the disciple-making system of the church, they see the believers as the “system” itself.
If our goal is to make disciple-makers, and if we believe that it is not systems but disciples who make disciples, then it will be natural to focus our energies and resources on the essential relational disciple-making environment: “the cell”. We won’t call people to numerous other ministries – only those which promote the development of disciple-makers who lead cells. We won’t have battles about which ministries to support.
What does your church’s current structure reveal about what you believe?
When Bigger isn’t Better
A popular commercial in the U.S. features a man sitting at a table with young children, asking, “Which is better, bigger or smaller?” The kids all respond by yelling, “Bigger!”
However, when it comes to church gathering sizes, the answer might be “Smaller”, at least where discipleship is concerned.
When the New Testament church gathered, it was generally in homes and thus in small groups. The relatively small number of people made it possible for each person to participate actively in ways which are impossible in a large gathering.
1 Corinthians 14:26 says,
When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up
The early church’s meetings were highly interactive. This allowed believers to share with others what God was teaching and to practice their spiritual gifts. This led to a healthy, vital church (“so that the church may be built up”).
Large crowds gathered for worship are exciting in many ways. But by their nature they are “one-way” venues; communication flows from the front to the crowd. Discipleship and personal ministry can be facilitated better in a small gathering.
Christ-follower: if your main goal is to become like Jesus, doesn’t it make sense to build small group into your schedule? Sure it takes time and effort to get there, but the pay-off is well worth it. It will help you become like Jesus and learn to love others in a way that doesn’t happen in a weekend service.
Church leaders: If the mission of your church is to make disciples, then doesn’t it make sense to prioritize the environment that is most effective at doing that?
Putting small cell groups at the core of your church’s ministry can result in stronger disciples. It might be tempting to think that offering a wide variety of ministry programs and options will mean “something for everyone”. But actually, what everyone needs is the opportunity to develop spiritually in an environment where they can participate actively in the ministry. Don’t allow other well-meaning programs to crowd that out. Keep the main thing the main thing, then the church will be built up.
The U.S. Church is going through whitewater.
The most obvious rapid today is the issue of homosexuality.
This month the United Methodist Church has defrocked a pastor for leading a wedding ceremony of his son to another man. This is against church law, a law large numbers of UM pastors and leaders want changed. The General Conference (made up of democratically elected representatives) creates church law, and it continues to say a resounding “no” to the idea of changing the law. Those who demand change are no longer willing to abide by the legislative process and through “ecclesiastical disobedience” are pushing the church to a breaking point.
Also this month, the A&E network has suspended Phil Robertson, a cast member of the hit show Duck Dynasty, for remarks about homosexuality as being sinful. (His less-discussed comments on race are a different matter.) Many Christians share Phil’s sentiments and are up in arms about this suspension, while others side with A&E and feel the suspension is appropriate.
I suppose there has always been tumult in the Church. Any image of a “golden age” of the Church in which there was perfect unity, purity and effectiveness is a figment of the imagination. From the book of Acts until now the Church has wrestled with heresy, corrupt leaders, spiritual deadness, institutionalism, loss of vision and more.
But through the centuries the Lord has continually renewed His bride, the Church. Even in the darkest of ages, when it appeared that she has completely lost the Light, God has raised up agents of renewal who run with a freshly-lit torch. St. Francis rebuilds, Wesley ignites a new warmth and an unlikely band spreads the flame of Pentecost around the world again.
So I am not concerned about the Church’s long term future. I know the gates of hell cannot prevail against her and that the Lord will be renewing and empowering his Church until that day he gathers her to himself.
But I am troubled about the immediate future, particularly the future of the UM Church. How can it hold together? What will happen?
As I prayed about this I got the sense that the Church in the U.S. (not just the UMC) is passing through white water. The ride may be rough, and things will get messy, but this time of shaking will serve the purposes of God and result in a new vital, mission-focused Church.
The white water through which the U.S. Church is passing is the inevitable result of our society passing over the tipping point of becoming a post-Christian nation. The previous cultural norms, which emerged out of a shared Christian worldview, no longer make sense to those who do not share that worldview and legally rejected it decades ago. Our nation’s laws and cultural standards are now catching up with that reality, and this is resulting whitewater for the Church. Large segments of the Church now must navigate realities it is not equipped to handle, such as how to live in the world without being of the world and how to engage those with a post-Christian mindset.
Some parts of the Church are flowing with society’s evolving norms. This is not due solely to the human tendency to be influenced by those around us, it is because certain parts of the Church have cut the ropes which keep the Church anchored to the historic Christian faith. Thus, it is inevitable that it will float with the currents of society. Among those steadying ropes are the authority of scripture, a theology of sin and an understanding of redemption. There is little chance that an unanchored Church will stand fast against the tidal wave of societal pressure to embrace homosexuality as a new justice and civil right issue.
However, other segments of the Church have not been flowing with this tide.
Some parts of the Church have maintained the orthodox view out of unhealthy motives such as fear of the unknown, unexamined tradition or even hatred of the “other”.
But much of the Church that is holding to the orthodox 2,000 year-old view is doing so out of fresh conviction. Their understanding of biblical authority is far deeper and more nuanced than, “Leviticus said it, that settles it.” They admit that the Church has in the past acted unlovingly toward GLTB people, and yet their understanding of the nature of sin makes it very natural to love all people (including themselves) without stamping everything they they do as “good”. They understand that to say the Church must stand on the “right side of history” comes perilously close to marrying ourselves to the spirit of the age (at which point it becomes inevitable that we become widows). Instead they see the reasons behind our 2,000 year old history of monogamous heterosexual marriage as transcending fluctuating human desires.
Yes, I believe the UM Church’s stance today is correct and should not change.
To be clear, I am not implying that those who want the Church to accept homosexual marriage and ordination of practicing homosexuals are not Christians. And I am not saying that those in gay unions do not have a meaningful faith. I agree with our church’s current position that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, but then again, each of us has parts of our lives that are incompatible with Christian teaching and for which the Lord died and from which he wants to transform us.
I have no trouble seeing those who want to change our church’s stance as brothers and sisters in Christ, even if I disagree with their approach to the scriptures, sin and redemption. We have Jesus in common, which is all it takes to make us part of God’s family.
The question is, differing as we do in many substantive issues of the faith, will there be enough to keep us part of the same denominational tribe? What essential distinctives do United Methodists share? This is what provokes the tumult.
Will the UMC survive this looming crisis in a recognizable form? I don’t know. I hope so.
But I am convinced that the Western Church will pass through this white water, and somewhere down stream there will emerge a Church which is even stronger and more powerful in the Spirit because she has come to peace with her resident alien status in the land. She will have ceased expecting TV land and the society it represents to act in Christian ways. It will march to the beat of heaven’s drum, and exude heaven’s power and love in surprisingly counter-cultural ways.
We need to cease expecting the culture around us to uphold or even understand our values. That’s OK. The first Christians were in the same boat and it worked out pretty well.
I was greatly saddened this week to hear that prominent pastor and author John MacArthur held a national conference he called “Strange Fire” to attack and denounce charismatic Christians.
MacArthur has long been a staunch advocate for the “Cessationist” point of view, which holds that certain gifts of the Spirit ceased at the death of the apostles. The Strange Fire conference coincides with the release of his book by the same name. It is his third book attacking the charismatic movement.
Though labels are problematic, there is truth in the over-simplifcation that Evangelicals believe in the necessity of conversion through personal faith in Jesus, the authority of the Bible and that the role of the Holy Spirit is to make us like Jesus (holiness). Charismatics also believe the same things, plus that the Holy Spirit plays an active role in a Christian’s life by giving us the spiritual gifts listed in the Bible for the ministry of Jesus.
Over the last 100 years most of the growth of the Christian Church worldwide has been in the “charismatic” wing. As MacArthur noted, there are now about 500 million Pentecostal/charismatic believers world-wide., and he does not like this one bit.
That is disappointing.
One of most encouraging developments in the Church over the last 40 years has been the tumbling of the walls people built between the evangelical and charismatic segments of the Church. That growing unity allowed greater missional cooperation, not to mention a healthier testimony to the world.
MacArthur seems bent not just on rebuilding the walls of separation, but on eliminating the charismatic movement altogether. Through his conference and upcoming book, he attacks it as “a farce and a scam”, saying nothing good has come from the charismatic movement or theology, that they do not worship in a God-honoring way, that they do not hold nor value sound doctrine, and more.
It appears to me that their greatest “sin” is that they do not believe exactly as John MacArthur does.
Some of MacArthur’s statements indicate that his passion to stamp out charismatic Christianity is trumping his judgement.
For example, he said “if you criticize them [charismatics], if you endeavor to be vigilant and discerning, and if you endeavor to contend for the truth and hold them to Scripture and expose their error, they will condemn you as the sinner … How do I know that? I have lived that.”
MacArthur apparently doesn’t see this is exactly what he is doing himself. If someone claims to have experienced and ministered with a gift of the Spirit that he doesn’t believe in, he condemns them as heretical, unsound doctrinally and worse.
He said, “We are not trying to divide the Body of Christ by this conference, we are trying to identify the Body of Christ.” Can he really believe that anyone who doesn’t line up with his teaching on spiritual gifts is not a part of the Body of Christ?
It is surprising that MacArthur lumps all charismatics together as if they are all the same, and then calls out the abuses of some to characterize them all. No movement can withstand such treatment.
* Are there some charismatics who worship with an emotion ungrounded in biblical truth? Of course.
Yet are there some Evangelicals who worship with a cold, dead orthodoxy? Absolutely.
* Are there some Pentecostals who teach unbiblical concepts? Certainly.
Has error or heresy ever cropped up in Evangelical churches? Without question.
* Have there ever been abuses in the use of spiritual gifts in charismatic circles? Yes.
Yet there have been abusive practices of other kinds in Evangelical churches too.
The reality is that there are 500 million pentecostal/charismatics in the world because they are lit with a fire to share their faith. Evangelical leaders regularly urge people to read their Bibles and to share their faith, but it is those who testify of an experience of the Holy Spirit who are actually doing it.
Charismatic and Evangelical believers have so much in common. It is very sad to see someone wage war on fellow believers when the world is in such desperate need of Jesus. And the Church needs all the tools (spiritual gifts) God provides in order to fulfill the mission of Jesus in the world.
If I’d have to pick a label for Crossroads (which I usually resist doing) I’d use Rich Nathan’s term and say we are “Empowered Evangelicals”. We adhere to the evangelical’s primacy of scripture as well as use all the gifts of the Spirit. In the process we try to steer away from the abuses of either camp.
I call John MacArthur my brother in Christ, though I am not sure he’d label me his. None the less, I love John and pray God’s best on him.
MacArthur has a valid point that the global charismatic movement needs to call divergent teachers back to the grounding of the scriptures. But to deny that the Holy Spirit is doing something remarkable in the world today is myopic at best. An unbiased reading of the book of Acts and the letters of Paul would not naturally lead one to conclude that Christ-followers who see God heal the sick, speak in tongues, encourage and build up people through biblical prophetic words or see miraculous works done are not part of the body of Christ.
J.I. Packer is a highly respected evangelical writer and professor who is decidedly not charismatic. He wrote a lengthy scholarly paper on the charismatic renewal in which he concludes:
“Though theologically uneven (and what spiritually significant movement has not been?) the charismatic renewal should commend itself to Christian people as a God-sent corrective of formalism, institutionalism and intellectualism; as creatively expressing the gospel by its music and worship style, its praise-permeated spontaneity and bold ventures in community; and as forcing all Christendom, including those who will not take this from evangelicals as such, to ask: What then does it mean to be a Christian, and to believe in the Holy Spirit? Who is Spirit-filled? Are they? Am I? With radical theology inviting the church into the barren wastes of neo-Unitarianism, it is (dare I say) just like God—the God who uses the weak to confound the mighty—to have raised up, not a new Calvin or John Owen or Abraham Kuyper, but a scratch movement, cheerfully improvising, which proclaims the divine personhood and power of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit not by great theological eloquence, originality or accuracy, but by the power of renewed lives creating a new, simplified, unconventional and uncomfortably challenging life-style.” (from Theological Reflections on the Charismatic Movement)
Let’s work together to share Jesus with a dying world.