Biggest Loser?

A couple of days ago, I shared some observations on the idea of the church losing members in a time of transition. After noting that a co-worker and brother had worried about “stopping the bleeding,” I shared my ideas with him. He then shared his ideas with me.

Let me just start by saying that it is good and healthy when members of the body can share their different takes, even in a somewhat passionate manner, and still remain friends. I’m pleased to say that we’re doing that.

I’m also pleased to admit that his response pointed out a significant flaw in what I said–or at least a limitation. After mulling the thing through the afternoon, I’d like to share this.

Who’s Your Gardener?

First of all, it is biblical and understandable that, in a time of significant change, there will be pruning of the church. But actually there will be pruning during other periods as well. Jesus made that clear in John 15.

But here’s the key thing. In that discourse in John, Jesus never hands us a saw and clippers, sending us to start chopping on things. Whatever pruning that gets done should be done by God.

It’s our job to treat everyone the same, showing them the same value that Jesus showed them by offering himself for them. I think the attitude we’re to effect is reflected in what Paul says to the Corinthians, culminating with this verse:

To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by every possible means save some.

1 Corinthians 9:22

Here’s what it boils down to. There will be pruning. There is a gardener. I’m not the gardener.

We’re Not Managers

When I talked about the church needing to lose the fat and keep the muscle, I was piggybacking on Paul’s metaphor of the church as a body. That’s sound, but it is, like all metaphors, limited. Some idiot, who might have been me, suggested something worthy of the most draconian Fortune 500 CEO:

If the church declines by 20% but all it loses is “fat,” unproductive attendees, then who can complain? That’s not bleeding. That’s a fitness plan! Of course, if it loses “muscle,” children’s teachers or deacons or outreach heroes or diligent givers, then we’d refer to that as wasting away.

Really? What pathetic excuse for a servant of God would say that? Sure, if all we care about is the short-term profitability of the organization, then that might make sense, but we’re concerned with more. In fact, that statement was callous and wrong for several reasons:

  • Church members are not static. I know a woman who two years ago was a disaster and today is putting most of us to shame. Who’s to say what other “fat cells” will morph into something powerful?
  • Fat and muscle, while easy to distinguish in the human body are not nearly so easy to distinguish in the church body. God can make that call, but it’s not for me to do it.
  • Finally, this attitude is just mean-spirited. Many people who leave the church will not go to another. Shouldn’t I care about them? Shouldn’t I grieve over them?

The Bottom Line

So to my brother, concerned with the “bleeding,” I thank you for making me look at my own words from a few steps back and realize that while I will stick with most of what that said–especially the personal responsibility we all have to become more spiritually fit and less fat as individuals–I never want to be guilty of taking lightly even one person who leaves us. I think Jesus shared his feelings on those matters pretty clearly:

And whoever welcomes one child like this in my name welcomes me. “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to fall away—it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea.

Matthew 18:5-6

Body Fat Percentage

As I’ve mentioned here, my church is in the process of replacing a popular pastor. It’s early days, and a certain amount of uncertainty hangs in the air. Last week, at a committee meeting, a dedicated brother spoke passionately about his perception of the present season: “We have to stop the bleeding.”

The “bleeding” that this man perceived was an apparent decline in church service attendance. Frankly, I’m not sure, in the middle of July, that we can really see a dramatic reduction in numbers, but I’ve never been good at eye-balling crowds. Let’s take his perception as true. Let’s assume that we examined the numbers and discovered that, in the wake of the pastor’s departure, we saw a 20% reduction in average attendance compared to the same time last year. Should that cause alarm?

The Bleeding

Bleeding, I’m told, is a good thing. Last week, I cleverly rammed my left thumb onto the sharp point of some garden clippers I held in my right hand. It hurt, but then it bled. That bleeding let me know that I needed to stop my work and attend to the wound. It also, so I’m told, cleaned out any of the dirt and debris that might have been injected into the wound by the clippers. Bleeding can purify.

But of course bleeding can also kill, so let’s not get too giddy over that bodily process. What I would ask my friend to consider is that “bleeding” might not be the best metaphor for what we’re seeing.

Pruning and Dieting

One of our pastoral leaders used the term “pruning.” That has the advantage of being biblical. In John 15:2, we read of God as the gardener:

He cuts off every branch in me [Jesus] that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.

That would suggest that if people leave, they do so not on their own volition but as God cut them away. Pruning makes sense, but I’d like to suggest another metaphor.

Looking in the mirror this morning, I was reminded of something that has been nagging me for more than a year. I need to lose weight. At the same time, however, I find that I don’t have all of the strength that I had a couple of years back. If I should manage to get myself back into discipline and drop 10 or 50 pounds, I want to ensure that what leaves my body is fat and not muscle. In fact, I’d like not just to eliminate fat-weight but add some muscle-weight.

The Fat in the Church

If the church declines by 20% but all it loses is “fat,” unproductive attendees, then who can complain? That’s not bleeding. That’s a fitness plan! Of course, if it loses “muscle,” children’s teachers or deacons or outreach heroes or diligent givers, then we’d refer to that as wasting away.

We’re using these metaphors, both the pruning and the weight-loss ones, to refer to the entire body of the church, but we could also apply them to the individual within the church. Just as I look in the mirror and realize that I’ve allowed my physical fitness to get away from me, I can–in fact I should–look at myself as a spiritual creature and recognize that I’m not as fit as I should be.

What if every member of my church, starting with me, were to take a hard look at themselves in the mirror? What if they were to truly evaluate their dedication to Christ and to His body? What if we were to all ask ourselves some hard questions, rather than saying, “What the church ought to do is . . .” They might ask:

  • Should I be using my gifts in service more than I am?
  • Should I be spending more time in God’s Word?
  • Do I have a proper burden for the unsaved people around me?
  • Am I giving an appropriate amount of my money to build God’s kingdom?
  • What’s the state of my prayer life?
  • Am I wasting time, money, or energy on the vapors of this world that will be gone in a few years?
  • What am I doing to ensure that my church is a tool for God’s projects?

The list could continue. If 20% of our people would take seriously such a self-evaluation, if only one in five were to honestly ask and try to respond to these questions, then we would be stronger and more fit even if we did lose 20% of our total number.

The Bad News

Unfortunately, far too many of us respond to our spiritual obesity in the same way that we respond to our physical obesity. We think good thoughts, generate good intentions, and then eat a big bowl of ice cream on the couch.

Just as it was important for me to stop my bleeding last week, it is vital that truly committed Christians take seriously their own spiritual fitness even as they aim to be part of the solution for the whole church body.

That process, my friends, will begin with me. How about you?

More to Korea than Kia and Hyundai

What city has the third most megachurches, trailing only Dallas and Houston? If you paid attention to the title of this, you might guess correctly Seoul, South Korea. And, as a recent article at The Gospel Coalition, notes, the threshold for megachurches in South Korea is 5,000, two and a half times that in the U.S.

Since the close of the Korean War in the 1950s, Christianity in the south has experienced a meteoric rise to the point now that only the U.S. sends out more Christian missionaries than South Korea. However, as the article notes, all is not perfect south of the 38th parallel. Church growth has slowed and attendance has actually slumped.

I don’t want to rehash the very in-depth reporting of Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, instead suggesting that you follow the link and read until you know as much about the Korean church as you had ever hoped to know. What I would like to suggest is that we can learn a great deal about the way forward for the American church by looking at the triumphs and struggles in the Korean one.

One of the problems in Korea, I would suggest is that various politicians put on their MKGA hats and turned the nation from an exceptionally poor place to an economic juggernaut. South Korea’s GDP per capita is about 77% of that in Japan, but more than three times as great as in China. They’re not too far behind long-time established nations like France and find themselves between Italy and Spain in the rankings. In short, economically, South Korea would fit in quite well with the EU.

What happens when societies grow wealthy? Often, people find themselves ready to lean on their own understanding (and bank account), feeling that they don’t need anything as pointless as God. This tendency makes the religious participation in the U.S. even more remarkable, but also helps explain recent struggles.

That’s an aspect of church health that we can’t really control. But there are others that we can control. We can look at a place like Korea, seeing it from a distance, and perhaps learn lessons about how they did not respond to changes in their culture or how they allowed the lure of megachurch success to corrupt ministers and laypeople alike.

Zylstra quotes a Korean leader who offers a simple but profound answer:

There are signs of younger churches and church leaders who are leaving the megachurch, prosperity-gospel, gift-oriented ministry models and going back to the simple gospel message,

Could it be that the answer is that simple? Could it be that when set we aside “church growth” and “seeker sensitivity” and power struggles and name-it-claim-it and everything else that isn’t the gospel, we can actually attract people? Paul dealt with this challenge nearly 2,000 years ago when he wrote to the Galatians:

 I am amazed that you are so quickly turning away from him who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are troubling you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.–Galatians 1:6-7

There is no other gospel, but there are a thousand things that can tempt the hearts of believers to veer from the narrow way. We don’t have to be doing a Joel-Osteen-style detour to damage the power of the Word. Our adversary can use any of our weaknesses.

The Well-Dressed Terrorist

There were terrorists on my campus this morning. I didn’t actually see them, but I’m pretty sure they were dangerous and sowing discord. ISIS? KKK? No, it was the Gideons!

Seriously, a couple of my students came in to our class this morning toting those little New Testaments (plus Psalms and Proverbs) that the nice suit-clad men were passing out to anyone who would accept them. One guy decided to use the book as a starting point for a series of jokes until I finally suggested that he was going to offend somebody and needed to knock it off.

To be clear, my students are not Social Justice Warriors and knee-jerk Leftists by and large. They’re reasonably open-minded people, but many of them have not been brought up to take the claims of Christianity seriously. People talk about how college helps young people lose their faith. Frankly, most of them seem to have a pretty weak grasp on the topic when they come in the door. This doesn’t reflect on them or even on their families as much as it does on us–or the church at large.

When I was growing up, you could ask most people, “Where do you go to church?” and get an answer. If they didn’t go to church, they found that a little embarrassing. “Well, we haven’t been going as much lately, but we used to go to . . .”

Today, lots of people have zero connection with the church and feel zero problem with that. And why? Do we blame their parents, their grandparents, lack of prayer in school, the ACLU, John Lennon?

I don’t blame any of those. I blame us–or at least our predecessors. The church had at least some hold on those parents or grandparents, but somewhere along the way we decided to take it all for granted. Or maybe we–or they–decided that the church was for us (or them) rather than for others.

The church in which my parents met, in a thickly populated part of Kansas City, dwindled until only about a dozen seniors were meeting in the basement. They eventually gave the building to a growing, living congregation. The church in which I grew up, half a mile from my house, faded until they were bought out, lock, stock, and barrel, by another, more active church.

What did those two now-dead churches have in common? They became more inward-looking than outward-looking. They took care of their own needs rather than the needs of the lost. The Apostle Paul could have done that. He could have just taken care of that church in Antioch and focused on organizing potlucks and prayer meetings. Instead, he went on the road, starting churches all along his route and making sure not to be assume that the next generation would come to Christ.

Those terrorists, those Gideons, came on our campus to disrupt things, to place the Word of God into the hands of people it has not changed. No wonder these guys face hostility from time to time. Happily that hasn’t happened at JCCC. We’re still open to some terrorists.



Taking the Church on the Road

Group-RunA growing number of people, it seems, are discovering that running and Christianity are not all that incompatible. Granted, I’ve had a couple of Sunday morning routines interrupted by road races, but that’s a couple of times in a year.

A story in the Deseret News, timed to coincide with the Boston Marathon, describes several ways that church and running are converging.

It’s not unusual for athletes to gather to share their faith. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, after all, is 60 years old. But churches are starting to see running as a way to draw their members closer together while reaching out to the secular world. It’s a savvy strategy: As church membership in the U.S. continues to decline, the number of runners is on the rise. The nation is now in what’s been called the “third running boom.” More than 19 million people not only competed in, but completed, a road race in 2014; a figure that has grown nearly 300 percent since 1990.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that running and Christianity go so well together, despite the bad eating habits of American Christians leading so many to be–shall we say–non-aerodynamic. Running can be both a social and a solitary pursuit just like the spiritual life. What must not happen, as churches embrace running, is that the run becomes the primary thing while the Christian walk fades in importance.


Sing Together (Hebrews 3:1)

Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest. (Hebrews 3:1)

For most of my life, I’ve sung in church choirs. I’ve sung in one really poor choir; one large and brilliant one; and, currently, one that, at its best, is quite solid. All of these organizations, however, share one thing. They all have a director, and typically the quality of the director has a great bearing on the long term quality of the group. Sure, the body of singers available has a great deal to do with the quality of the choir, but the director exerts a mighty tug as well.

As I read the verse above, I’m reminded of choirs. All of my choir directors have been flawed and fallible people, but the great choir director, Jesus Christ, never misses anything. All of my choirs have had a goal–sometimes several goals–but the choir of the church is unified or should be unified in singing whatever song the director is leading.

How often do we, as churches or as individual Christians, go astray because of taking our eyes off the director. We share a single calling, yet often our singing rambles off into a fugue of competing voices and desires. I want to hold a certain position within the church. I want the pastor to stop telling corny jokes. I want everyone to dress more (or less) formally.

Our calling is simple: follow the leader. Follow Jesus and advance his cause. My current choir director makes what I consider to be some wrong choices, but since he is the director, I will follow to the best of my ability. I might speak to him and express my misgivings, but I always try to accept his judgment and follow it.

If we can be loyal and obedient to a flawed human leader, how much more should we do so with a perfect human-divine leader. Let us watch the baton and sing with all our might.

My Mother’s Bridge Club vs. My Mother’s Church

Since I know you’ve been wondering, I’d like to tell you a bit about my mother’s bridge club. This group of women meets each Monday to play a serious game of cards. They used to play in each others’ homes, visiting hers every eight weeks or so. As a kid, I enjoyed those days since I could generally scam a few handfuls of chocolate-covered raisins or other candy for making a quick appearance. Now, the eight-some get together on Mondays at the small restaurant at a local antique mall. It’s great, my mother assures me. The card tables are already set up. Everybody buys her own lunch. The people put on a pot of coffee. The hostess simply has to bring cards, scorecards, and snacks. Where these ladies used to take pride in showing off their cleaned-up homes and trying a new (or favorite) recipe for the others’ to brag on, they now opt for a simpler, more convenient form of a get-together.

Mom will be 91 this summer. I’m pleased as can be that she and her gang can sit around a couple of card tables and exercise their minds through the game and their voices as they share the latest goings on. (None dare call it gossip.) Realistically, in a few years, as the group continues to age, they’ll lose members. They might manage to replace those who drop away, but eventually this group will age out of existence. There won’t be a lot of 40-somethings who want to play cards with the 90-somethings and vice versa. The club will cease to function, which will be perfectly fine. It will have done its purpose, providing a social contact for some ladies who would otherwise have been sitting about doing nothing.

I can’t speak with any real knowledge about my mother’s church. I do know that it is over 150 years old. Clearly it did not age out of existence–at least not yet. While it’s terrific that Mom’s bridge club has decided to move into a restaurant for their convenience, her church should not be about convenience. While it’s reasonable that the club would be somewhat selective, seeking socially similar women to fill vacant chairs, such is not the case at the church. And were her church to ever age out of existence, it would not be perfectly fine. The purpose of a church does not die with its members. It lives on just like its founder.

All too often, I think, we think of the church like a bridge club, a place where we know people, eat together, and enjoy good times. Yes, a church should be all of these things, but if it is not something more, then it really isn’t a church. My prayer is that my mother’s church will share Christ, baptizing and making disciples until He comes back; the bridge club can fend for itself.

Two Flavors of Churches

I’ve been turning a theory about church life over in my head recently, so I thought it might be time to stop boring Penny with my random speculations and to commence getting some of these ideas down on (virtual) paper.

My theory suggests that two models of successful churches exist. For want of better terminology, I’m going to call them the country church and the city church, although such a division is far too simplistic. In reality, the distinction between these two churches is the territory from which they can reasonably draw their flock.

The country church, or virtually any church before everybody in the country had two cars or a mass transit system, could look at the map and know roughly where their members might come from. In those days, my church, First Baptist Church of Oak Grove (MO), would draw people from Oak Grove and the surrounding farms. Someone living where I live, some 5 miles from FBC Oak Grove, would have almost certainly opted to attend FBC Bates City at a distance of 2.5 miles. The difference between 2.5 and 5 is negligible in a car today, even as we negotiate part of the trip on gravel, but it would have been more significant in a day when the county roads were an adventure, when tire failures were far more common, and horse power referred to a mode of transportation that ate hay. In that day, the day of the country church, the pastors of Oak Grove and Bates City could be fairly clear about who their potential flock comprised and where they lived. Of course there were competing congregations in the towns–at least in Oak Grove–but let’s not overly complicate matters.

In short, in the day of the country church, I could look at Oak Grove, MO and know who I might reasonably ask to church. I could know all the kids in the school. I could keep track of who was moving in and out of town, something that happened with far less frequency than today.

If I were a church leader in the country church age, I could reasonably measure the effectiveness of my coverage of the turf. Let’s say that there were 500 potential church members. I might see 350 of them walk in the door with some regularity. I could know the remaining 150. Some might be prospects for the church. Others might be incredibly hostile, the sort of people it would take an act of God to get over the threshold. If I could move that 350 number up to 375, then I would be doing well. If I dropped to 325, then I’d have to ask how effectively I was serving the town.

In such a church, I could feel very good about a sort of maintenance approach to church life. I could run Sunday School classes that taught the faithful what they needed to know, doing for this generation what we did for the last generation. With less mobility in that day, churches tended to have many more multi-generational families; therefore, a certain amount of tradition could be seen not as old-fashioned, but as something appreciated by grandma. The concerns of the seniors wouldn’t be a matter of just being caring; they would be something that struck home–literally. Spending on the youth would be spending on our nieces, nephews, grandkids, and so forth.

In all but the most isolated places, the age of the country church has come to an end. Living between Oak Grove and Bates City, with easy access to I-70, I could reasonably attend church in Ottawa or Higginsville (to the east) or Grain Valley or Blue Springs (to the west). If I were to extend my potential-church-radius out to a thirty-minute drive, my options would grow enormously. Literally scores of potential churches would fall into that circle without even exploring other denominations. So what does that mean?

If the attendance at FBC Oak Grove were to fall by 25 on average, what could we conclude? Have we messed up and driven people away? Did they find themselves not driven away but attracted to somewhere else? Did they move away from town, away from this church, or away from God? It’s hard to tell. Today, it’s much harder to tell, without doing a completely implausible survey, how we’re doing when anyone and everyone could be strapping into the car on Sunday morning to drive all over the area.

Today, I would argue, we cannot survive with a maintenance-style church. We must be concerned to attract and retain an ever-shifting, increasingly diverse population. This is not a call for the church to pander to the “perceived needs” of a fickle generation. We don’t have to change worship formats in the way that radio stations will change their programming formats whenever the ratings dip slightly. On the other hand, we cannot simply do what we’ve always done hoping that all will be well. It’s pretty hard to make disciples when you don’t reach the people within your community. Perhaps even the country church could not do that, but the urgency seems much greater today.

What does this mean for the church today? I believe that every aspect of church life should have outreach, inclusion, and retention in mind. We must recognize that we are not the only game in town. Granted some people might leave a church and drive to the next town for a facile reason: the music is better or the youth pastor better looking. Others, however, will leave because they feel there’s more going on, that the new church is on the move. Some will never come into the church if it’s not welcoming. Some won’t stay when they cannot get plugged in. Again, there are many, many voices calling for the attention that church once came near to monopolizing.

If anyone from FBC Oak Grove should happen to read this, let me say that I feel we should receive mixed grades on this exam, and the church I last attended sometimes privileged numbers over actual discipleship. I’m not an uncritical devotee of the latest church-growth fad.

What I would suggest is that any activity within any church that only attracts the same people today that it attracted at this time last year deserves some real scrutiny. No children’s activity can be tolerated that could be mistaken for child care–maybe not even actual child care. No music activity can be tolerated that puts music above ministry and worship. No senior adult activity is worthwhile if it simply gives the seniors “something to do.”

Jesus called Christians to be salt and light to the world. We live in a brightly lit, strongly seasoned culture; thus we must be even saltier and even brighter. No one said that baptizing and making disciples would be easy, but then He who called us to that task also promised to be with us to the end of the age.

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will have nothing to do with us. So if I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, gossiping maliciously about us. Not satisfied with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. –3 John 1:9-10

Have you met Diotrephes? Although you haven’t met the person referred to by John in this passage, you’ve probably met somebody like him, at least if you have spent much time around a church. Unfortunately, in assembling the church–a collection of redeemed persons, all of them broken in one way or another–we always seem to get a few whose flaws cause significant problems within the body. Diotrephes, it seems, was one of these sorts, working on his resumé.

If you’re a professional person, you probably have a resumé. It chronicles your education, jobs, abilities, and achievements. Mine is kept in a running document with every academic publication and presentation, every different course and award that I have tallied up over twenty years of teaching. Working on and maintaining a resumé is perfectly appropriate within the professional world.  However, it’s a different story within the church.

The churchly resumé-builder will gravitate toward those ministries that gain notice. Teaching fourth-grade Sunday School tends to be a pretty thankless endeavor. Rarely do the “important” people come by and clap you on the back. The same can certainly be said for shoveling snow off the sidewalks after a winter storm. These are not the jobs that the resumaker will desire. Instead, he or she will want to be seen in front of people, recognized by the pastor or other movers and shakers. I guess that this describes Diotrephes, “who loves to be first.”

While you and I cannot do a great deal to put an end to the abuses of the resumakers, we can inspect our own behaviors and attitudes. We can recognize that–now and again–we are all people who love to be first. Then we can recognize that such behavior never serves the church in a positive way.