How are evangelical churches across America doing? At least three major trends are confirmed ( http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/139575 ):
=====> Growing minority: Weekly church attendance hovers around 17% of the American population (not 40% as news media continue to report) and trending toward 10% by 2050. 80% of teenagers now in Sunday church are projected to drop out of church activity after high school. “Most churches know how to address only one culture” despite our increasingly pluralist, multi-cultural society. Reggie McNeal, a widely respect authority on church trends sees evangelical churches as having increasingly become self-serving “club houses” with occasional “outreach” projects — not “missional outposts” of the Kingdom of God in their communities.
=====> Growing smaller: 24.5% of population say their primary form of “spiritual nourishment” comes from get-togethers in small groups of friends (even as our consumer culture celebrates mega-churches for the thousands). Yet “Americans have become increasingly disconnected from family and friends”, from face-to-face personal commitments. They yearn for intimacy in a caring relationship, yet in small groups they seldom find more than an isolated island in their already fragmented lives. Much noted, today’s young people shun “institutions”, as they see congregational churches, and keep their autonomy by means of “networking”.
=====> Growing deficit: New churches are being planted here and there, but the increase is only 1/4 of what is needed to keep up with population growth – a deficit of almost 10,000 churches today. “3,000 churches closed every year over the past decade.” Study after study has noted “we have created a church consumer culture” that asks “what’s in it for me?” Then, closing churches or opening new churches becomes not much more than recycling another consumer product.
Many observers speak of an “ecclesiological thinness” – a low demand for solidarity in church communal life, and a high demand for consumer satisfaction; a low expectancy for the sacred in worship, and a high expectancy for the celebration of self. A sense of mission is seldom more than a mobilization of “consumerist energy” for interesting projects, for fund raising or for “club house” ministries.
Surveys of preaching point to the preponderance of the “therapeutic” – sermons on “Jesus for your needs”. Seldom, on Jesus’ sanctification for daily living. Seldom, on Jesus’ call to commitment and sacrifice on the Calvary road. Seldom, on obedience to Jesus’ command to love as he loved. Seldom, on Jesus’ call to responsibility and accountability for others in the city and in the world.
Jesus told a parable in which he called for renewal, for a renewed vision, for change: “New wine must be poured into new wineskins” (Luke 5:18). When he, the Head of the Church, brings about a new work of his Spirit in the life of a local church, he also brings about new capacity, enabling and accountability to receive that work.
Where in the Scriptures may we see the essential structures and stitching for “new wineskins” and “new wine” for a time such as this?
However we read reports of trends in evangelical churches, three essential values or marks of the church are clearly focused for us in Matthew’s Gospel account:
• Jesus’ authority for His church: “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (16:18). Despair in the face of death and fear before the darkness of evil shall not stand against His church on any spiritual battlefield.
The church has prevailed in world history as Christ’s followers have been marked both by his cross, by his suffering and by his overcoming life (Philippians 3:10).
• Jesus’ strategy for His church: “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (24:14). He wills the people of His church to proclaim and to demonstrate in daily living his present Kingship and sovereignty over everything in world history.
That missional mindset has marked the church with the priority of an outward going to serve others, not with a primarily inward coming to serve itself (28:18).
• Jesus’ solidarity with His church: “For where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them” (18:18-20, 28:20). Christ so loved the church and gave himself for her (Ephesians 5:25), he promised he would by His Spirit be personally present even with the smallest assembly in His Name.
That intimate dwelling presence has marked the church with a deeply caring love for one another in the church, a love which expresses his indwelling and which he expects: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34-35).
How are these essential values or marks worked out in the life of a local church?
We discover in the Scriptures three basic practices of the essential values which Jesus had affirmed – practices which can constantly renew the church. In his letter to the Ephesian church, the Apostle Paul revealed how the very Trinity of God is reflected in the three-fold dynamic of church life:
• Building bridges (2:16) for the “one body” church of the Son of God:
Paul affirmed (1:4-2:10) we meet men and women in our daily world who have already been promised and prepared to personally know Christ (Romans 11:4). Therefore, Jesus encourages us to build bridges of friendship, hospitality, and care as we are led by his Spirit to speak of him and for him. He said, “All that the Father gives me will come to me” (John 6:37). Ours are vocations of bridge building in cross-cultural, inter-racial, inter-ethnic, inter-generational, inter-national ministries, and community service! Are we not called to be gospel ambassadors?
• Building bonds (2:19) for the “household” community of God the Father:
Paul rejoiced (2:11-20) men and women brought to Christ are no longer barred by hostility or discrimination from direct access to God the Father. They are now accepted as members in the organic reality of a community serving him and each other, and serving also in the world, in their daily lives. Therefore, each member receives spiritual enabling “to do works which God prepared in advance for us to do” (2:10). Ours are vocations of bond building in loving and caring ministries for all those he calls into his family household! Are not called to be good neighbors?
• Building the body (2:21) for the “temple” works of the Holy Spirit of God:
Paul reveals (2:20-21) the ultimate goal of history is the gathering of people from all nations to be “living stones” building up the worship, praise and prayer in which God dwells by his Spirit. Ours are vocations of temple body building in ministries honoring his holy presence dwelling with us! Are we not called to be intercessors?
From the garden temple on the first page of the Scriptures to the transcendent temple on the last, the history of the whole cosmos of creation moves toward the day when the Living God — the Lord Almighty and the Lord Jesus Christ are revealed as the temple to which the Lord the Spirit — invites all to “Come!”, even today.
Jesus promised, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” His church is daily bonded and built together, daily renewed, always new.
Are we not bought to be called his servants? (1 Corinthians 6:20, Romans 1:1)