Fifty years ago I was a busy and often dirty faced-little boy, contented to play outdoors in the woods. My friends and I loved to climb trees, primarily because we reveled at the task of building a “tree house” up there. Our motto was “up, up and away!” The higher the tree house, the better it was. Of course it also demanded a stronger, more well-rooted tree to sustain our rickety structure. Tree houses were a great outdoor past time, but they were often left to rot in the trees since we boys grew up and soon had more exciting adventures to conquer…like dirt bikes and motorized go-carts!
Fifty years ago the local church was a safe haven for many believers and even those who were only “sympathizers.” A church could fill its pews with only a minor amount outreach. Other means of filling the church were good singing, interesting preaching and active youth programs. Neighborhood churches were a part of the local scenery and most people respected that or at least they honored the church’s place in the community. That is not the case today. Many people, like my friends and I back in the early 60’s, soon leave behind the “tree house” of the church and move on for more exciting things like “motorcycles and go-carts.” Today, many churches are being left to rot alone. No one seems to care any more.
That is, I admit, a drastic evaluation of the church. The churches that I am most familiar with in the United States are not being left to rot. But, they may be in about 25 or 30 years. In other words, there is a trend I see that must be addressed now. The sad truth is that every year hundreds of churches are closing their doors forever. They are losing their youth, their families and their single adults. Many churches will disappear from the local scenery, because they are not reaching their communities and have no sense of a passion to make the necessary changes in order to reach the younger singles or those young marrieds who have moved on to other more exciting things, like podcast sermons, electronic Bible study groups or even the buffet style mega church with its vast variety of activities and groups.
While I do not pretend to know all the causes nor have a magical wand to wave over the problems to make them disappear, I feel that a few questions might be in order to help a church that is lagging behind in outreach or that is becoming preoccupied with paying the mortgage or keeping the staff’s salaries paid. Perhaps by looking at what we are going for, we can see how to steer through this maze of change that the church is facing.
First, ask the “front line” leaders and workers in your local church, “when was the last time you had an unsaved person in your home to show the love of Christ and to explain the Gospel to them?” If they answer that it has been more than 6 months, then kindly suggest that they need to re-evaluate their participation in the Great Commission. The Gospel of Christ spreads most rapidly when it spreads in one-on-one settings.
Second, ask your leaders (ask yourself): “how much time do you spend each week in prayer for the lost or for unsaved people you personally are seeking to win to Christ?” Prayer is the back bone to evangelism, and evangelism only becomes a top priority when you pray for opportunities to speak out about your faith. Do you have a list of names of the unsaved? Do you know your neighbors well enough to say “I am praying for you” and be truthful about it? One good way to tell if you are praying for the lost: your neighbors ask you to pray for them, because they know you are a person of prayer.
Third, investigate your church’s budget. Ask your treasurer or the deacon or elder in charge of finances this question: “During the past 5 years has our spending for evangelism and missions gone down, gone up or leveled off?” Once you have identified a trend, you ought to take note that trends usually are not visible until after they have already begun to have an impact. Therefore a decrease in missions giving or a reduced item for evangelism probably already has produced some weakening impact in the church’s outreach. The results may still be in the making, but it can be averted if evaluated and corrected decisively.
Fourth, now this question may make some uncomfortable, but be sure you ask it in a spirit of love. Ask “how has your church family demonstrated Christ’s love in some tangible means over the past year to those who are needy, defeated, beaten down, rejected by society? How is your church ministering to those you wish to reach before they are believers in the congregation?” I am convinced that the church today, as well as we believers, often attempts to rush into the evangelism mode and forget about the pre-evangelism that breaks down the walls of fear and distrust. The acts of serving, of loving and caring for the lost gain you a hearing and in turn, open the door for explaining your motives, which according to 2nd Corinthians 5:14, must the be love of Christ which controls us.
Will there be a day that the church congregations we all know and appreciate end up like those tree houses that my childhood friends and I built some 50 years ago? Abandoned, rotting, empty, useless. Will churches in the next 25 years continue the trends we see today of the small, traditional church that soon cannot pay the bills and ends up turning off the lights forever? What possibly could be done to turn this disheartening trend around? One thing is for sure: one part of the answer is to turn our hearts to God in humble dependence and in desperate prayer, and call on Him to turn us from our complacency and coolness. If you and I are not avidly involved in evangelism, the church will soon fade away. As one well known historian has said: “the church is only one generation away from extinction.”
The other part of that answer may come, I believe, when we see the masses of Christians take seriously their personal responsibility to witness to the lost. That starts with a renewed commitment for each one to employ his or her spiritual gifts for God’s glory and in God’s plan. One thing that the unsaved world cannot resist and that is a multitude of committed, godly, faithful believers functioning in harmony in the Body of Christ.
The churches of 2050 will thank us for it!
David L. Rogers, M.A.Min.