It seems that as pastors and ministry leaders we continually find a full calendar of events and "opportunities" for those in our church. All this is good, because the ultimate goal is to reach more people for Christ and to make disciples.
Yet, is it possible that our programming may be doing more harm than good?
Questions that must be asked regularly are:
What should we keep doing?
What should we stop doing?
What should we start doing?
Easier said than done, but it must be done. Otherwise, we will just keep greasing the gears of this machine called the local church and could miss the mission.
Photo credit: Ciccio Pizzettaro via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA
By now, many in our community know we're launching a new campus of our church in the community known as Fleming Island (yeah, we know...it's not really an island.) When those in our launch team and others in the church share about this new campus to meet in Paterson Elementary School, the most common question asked is "Why do we need another church on Fleming Island?"
When I open Google Maps and type "church" in the search box, the following appear on the map (and to be honest, that's not all the churches that gather on "the island."
Granted, these churches express a wide variety of faith traditions. While all have the name "church" on their signs or websites, there are some pretty significant differences among doctrine held by those gathering. So, I'll just speak of those who are in our tribe (Southern Baptist) and in our denomination, there are already three SBC churches in this area. That leads to an even more pointed question, right?
Why do we need another Baptist church on Fleming Island?
Jon Wood, our Campus Minister, wrote of this on his blog not too long ago. Here's what Jon wrote (blog here):
We don't need another church on Fleming Island. But, we do need new disciples of Jesus Christ and the best way to make new disciples is through new work. Here are some stats that have been discovered over recent years in the US regarding church planting and community engagement:
A new church gains 60-80% of its membership from new conversions.
A new church baptizes 1 person for every 13 members (legacy churches have a ratio of 1 baptism for every 52 members)
A new church will bring six to eight times more new people into the life of the body of Christ than an older congregation the same size.
While there are nuances to every statistical analysis, these have proven to be true, especially as we see the rise of the "Nones" in our culture. Hey, do you remember the "Bible Belt"? Yeah, that's fiction. The truth of the matter is that even with almost 20 churches of various flavors on Fleming Island, there are more people living in the community disconnected and unengaged from church and more importantly from Christ than there are those who attend and participate regularly.
We've talked with some of the pastors of sister churches in the area and all agree - no one is doing enough to reach these people.
So, opportunities present themselves. A venue is open. God provides funding and leadership. Through prayer and seeking His lead, we step into a story that some say we should've been in about twenty years ago. Yet, now is the time. It's time for a new campus on Fleming Island.
Every new church plant and pastor starts with the same concept. I've heard it dozens of times - "We want to reach the people other churches aren't."
It's not revolutionary. I mean, what pastor would actually say "We just want to reach the people who already attend other churches but are bored and need something 'cooler'?" No one says that. Well, some people actually strategize to do that, but no pastor would ever say that.
So, we are pushing against the easy way. Anyone can build a crowd. Most people have enough friends at other churches who will "help just to get it started" and develop a gathering. In some cases, it feels like success. Yet, if all we do is plant a new campus or church and simply borrow (or steal) members from other churches, we are doing a disservice to the Kingdom. That happens all too often.
What if this works? I mean, really works. What if God has positioned us to come alongside our sister churches and those unengaged nones actually get reached?
But it won't be easy.
How We Will Know If We've Done This Wrong
And, if we end up with a room full of people gathering weekly who have a church membership resume of local churches that reveals little more than systematic hopping to the latest version of church (you know, the church that "meets my needs" or "feeds me") then we will be guilty of launching a church campus that was not only NOT needed, but harmful for Kingdom growth.
That's not the goal (and seriously, why would it be?) But, apparently this happens often. So, we have to continually push against that model.
The unengaged and unsaved population dwarfs the church crowd. (Well, in some cases the church crowd actually could be categorized as unsaved. Yeah...I said it.) That's why we need another church on Fleming Island. That's why we need to pray for our sister churches on the island who are preaching the Gospel and making disciples as well.
Maybe....just maybe....we're supposed to reach this community together?
We are almost two years removed from the landmark Obergefell vs. Hodges case where the US Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States.
As predicted, churches and Christian denominations began to discuss, or continued discussions, related to the recognition of such unions and the hosting of same-sex weddings. As expected, traditionally conservative denominations and churches have mostly held to the orthodox view that biblical marriage being between one man and one woman for . On the other hand, churches with more moderate or liberal viewpoints have declared acceptance of such unions. In some cases, strong affirmation has been stated. Truth be told, most of these groups had walked away from biblical inerrancy and truth so many decades prior that to have them state anything other than affirmation for that which stands opposed to biblical truth would be shocking.
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While the law of the land is likely not changing, the marginalization of those holding to traditional, biblically orthodox viewpoint will increase. This seems to be inevitable.
Many conservative evangelicals (of which I would be counted) continue to seek engagement of those in our communities and neighborhoods with the truth of the Gospel, while not capitulating on what we deem to be biblical truth. This leads to conversations with those self-identifying as LGBT. I do mean conversations, in that engagement with those in our community requires both talking and listening. Yet, based on the wide differences between the culturally-accepted and prevalent worldview and the biblical one, these honest conversations will eventually be less about the weather, sports, and our children's school events and ultimately will lead to deeper questions regarding truth and life. Missional engagement requires such.
Marriage and Divorce
When conversing about same-sex marriage, the evangelical church must readily admit that the track record for pure heterosexual marriage, even within the church, has not always been stellar.
For far too long, many churches (even, conservative evangelical ones) have winked at divorce among members and many pastors have refused to preach on the topic for fear of an upheaval among members (and likely financial supporters.) The sin of omission regarding divorce lands under the category of "fear of man" and therefore is often never addressed. So, in this sense, when Christians started railing against the prospect of the legalization of same-sex marriage, many on the other side of the debate responded with accusations of hypocrisy based on the divorce rate and broken families of those standing under the "family values" banner.
The church must have a biblical stance on same-sex marriage. However, in many cases, the church must reevaluate it's stance on heterosexual marriage as well and seek to value it more deeply.
God speaks of this.
"Let marriage be held in honor by all..." (Hebrews 13:4a ESV)
Conversely, He declares his opinion regarding divorce.
"For I hate divorce, says the Lord..." (Malachi 2:16 NASB)
Most of us who have been in church at length have heard the verse from Malachi. Other translations allude to that phrase as well. As the context reveals, God's desire is that covenants be kept. The passage states much more than just this one phrase and actually declares why divorce is hated by God. Click here to read more from gotquestions.org on this matter.
The question remains...
Let's presume the Bible to be true (which I do) and that God's truth is absolute regardless of culture, circumstances, or the reader of the Word's preference. In our current state where legalized marriage between two people of the same gender exists, how does God's view same-sex divorce?
This is the question never addressed by prior generations because the boundaries of acceptable morality and legal definitions were different. Yet, today, here we are.
Does God hate gay divorce?
The Bible does give instances where divorce is allowed. Yet, in every case, the relational definition remains heterosexual. Even when a believer marries a non-believer (which is not God's desire, either) the marital union between man and woman fits the design by God as expressed in Scripture. Dr. Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC stated it well in this article from Christianity.com...
Even if these marriages were entered into sinfully in the first place, they are in fact marriages (emphasis added) because they signify the Christ/church bond of the one-flesh union (Eph. 5:22-31), embedded in God’s creation design of male and female together (Mk. 10:6-9).
Therefore, from a biblical viewpoint, the marriage between two men or two women does not represent the image of the covenant relationship between Christ and the church. In other words, though legal in the eyes of the state, biblically the relationship is not truly a marriage.
Moore's statement continues...
Same-sex relationships do not reflect that cosmic mystery, and thus by their very nature signify something other than the gospel. The question of what repentance looks like in this case is to flee immorality (1 Cor. 6:18), which means to cease such sexual activity in obedience to Christ (1 Cor. 6:11). A state, or church decree of these relationships as marital do not make them so.
And...that means divorce, from a biblical standpoint, does not actually enter the equation. God hates divorce. This truth has not changed. However, in the case of same-sex marital relationship, there is no marriage biblically and therefore, no divorce.
Ashley O'Brien has been active in church her entire life, raised in a pastor's family and now serving on the Leadership Team of firstFAMILY (FBC Orange Park) as Director of Social Media
I genuinely get excited when someone surrenders their life to Christ. When a person listens to God and steps out to serve and be a part of something bigger makes me glad. It's inspiring and exciting when a man and wife plant a church intent on reaching the unreached. It's so exciting when Christians act like Christians! I love when people get excited about the Gospel and have to do something about it. However, sometimes it seems the steps taken seem to be focused wrongly. That's is what has led to my frustration.
Ashley and her husband Jordan
I, just like other Christians, want to reach people for Christ. I want everyone to be involved in church - a solid, biblically-focused church. I want people to know what they are getting into when they accept Christ. I believe they should feel at home when they enter the church's facility. Like many, I want to create a place that is attractive and inviting and what some would call “trendy.” Yet, I don’t want to sacrifice the Gospel for that. Jesus himself is attractional to a degree. Just look at the crowds that gathered to see him during his time of ministry around Galilee. Of course, not everyone in the crowd were truly followers. In fact, most were not followers of Jesus, just fans. Jesus' words were offensive. The religious leaders didn't like what he said. Eventually, those who were just there for the show walked away. Apparently, they were offended as well, or perhaps when they truly listened to what Jesus was saying (i.e. "Carry your cross") they decided it was too much.
Too many churches are founded on how to make church look “cool.” The flashy lights, the cool logo, the unusual name that hides the fact the group is truly a church all are part of the marketing strategy to reach Millennials. The great graphics and promos, the promise of free food and maybe a coffee mug, or whatever gets people to take a second look, to ask a question, to check it out are used by just about every new church, church plant, and legacy church seeking to engage the culture. In many cases, these things work. The room is filled. People come. Even Millennials show up. That’s the target audience is seems for most new churches now. And though it is exciting to reach this generation (my generation), the "stuff" that's offered can sometimes be nothing but "fluff." That’s the frustrating part. We fill the “church facility" (whether it's an established church building, a rented school cafeteria, a theater, warehouse, or even restaurant) but are we seeing transformations? Are we seeing people surrender their lives to Christ? Or are we filling up a room for an awesome production for people who look like they are worshipping (and in truth, many truly are) and appear to understand what God is saying through the pastor's message. But, let's be honest. sometimes the appearance or worship and engagement are based on what we think we're supposed to look like. You know, "This picture of me standing and worshipping will look great on Instagram or Snapchat!" Sorry, if that sounds cynical, but I have grown up in the era of big worship production events and while I love the music and the gatherings, it is just way too easy to fall into the trap of performance (even when you're not on stage) rather than truly worship.
It’s hard being a Christian in the world for obvious reasons. This is not earth-shattering. It's always been hard to be a Christian in the world. Why? Because the world never celebrates Christ. Believe me, as difficult as it is to be a follower of Christ in a post-Christian culture, I know what we face here in the west truly does not even compare to what our brothers and sisters in Christ face throughout the world, especially where persecution means death and not just being made fun of on social media.
Yet, I’m finding it becoming more difficult to be a Christian in the "church world." This was something I never expected. My frustration is growing in the area of church life that seems so close, but yet so far from what living missionally truly is.
I want to invite people to church, but I won’t apologize for when they hear the Gospel preached. If anything other than the biblical message is preached, then calling the gathering a church is debatable.
If a church spends all their capital seeking to not look or sound like God's church, then at some level either the Gospel is not being preached or the group has pulled off little more than a "bait and switch." It's one thing for the pastor to be versed in apologetics (contending for the Gospel and defending the faith,) but something totally different if the pastor is apologizing for the Gospel, seeking not to offend.
I would feel dissatisfied if all they heard was a therapeutic message. These types of messages are prominent and the crowd can listen without being able to discern if the message was from from the Bible or just a self-help book. The Gospel is offensive. It is truth. And, we all know that at times, the truth hurts. We don’t need to create churches that ignore truth. We don’t need another pastor building his kingdom and ultimately mar the Christian name. We don’t need a church that stands alone, either overtly or covertly building their crowds from those already attending solid (and maybe multi-generational) churches in the area. We need something else ... and I have no idea what that is, other than the truth and the Gospel.
New church plants are exciting. I believe they're needed. The numbers bear this out. My generation is growing less and less connected with the church. Yet, superficial fluffy entertainment-driven gatherings are not really the answer, are they?
So, from my perspective, our current churches, new campuses, and new church plants must have these:
Founded on Truth not a pastor's personality
Deemed successfully engaging not by how many Christians from other churches they can gather in a room weekly, but by how many lost are reached
Brokenness for the lost in the community, even if they don't fit the prescribed demographic of choice
Seeking the unengaged, not just the disgruntled attenders of other churches
Passion for the Gospel
Love of God
Love of people
Desire to make disciples...not just photogenic "worshippers"
As Christians, if we are obedient to what God has called us to do, God will be obedient to what He said he will do.
So, your gathering may have really cool stage lights and a smoke machine (those aren't bad...our church has them), a worship leader and band that does well, and maybe some really good coffee (free trade coffee, of course) and a bagel or even a free coffee mug or T-shirt for first time guests. In fact, there's nothing wrong with any of those things. Do it. I like coffee mugs and free T-shirts.
But...don't miss the point.
Churches don't exist for us. They're for God. They're his to begin with.
Be attractional. No issue there, just don't focus so much on the things that don't matter in eternity and miss the Gospel.
Church planting is an exciting and scary adventure for most. I pray those pastors and launch team members hold tight to the truth and the reason behind it all. Reaching lost people for Christ.
As Baptists and Bible-believing evangelicals, the lies of the prosperity gospel are easily identified. This "name it and claim it" theological version of the gospel that lives somewhere at the far-end of DirecTV and on late-night television has been gathered funds from less-than-discerning followers for years. Years ago John Piper took a moment at a conference where he was speaking to share about his feeling regarding the prosperity gospel. It went viral and a few versions of that brief message are available on YouTube. I've linked one below:
For the most part, pastors and church leaders in the Baptist and evangelical world discount the false promises of the prosperity gospel and distance themselves from such.
However, there is another false gospel that exists and it seems to be gaining traction, even within the framework of biblically-centered Gospel-focused churches. Sometimes, it sneaks in as a "short-term small group study" and sometimes in sermons or Sunday School classes.
The Therapeutic Gospel
We live in an age where therapy is not only accepted but marketed as needful for all. When it comes to therapy, I do not discount the need for such. I believe in counseling as a help for those in need. As a pastor, I offer counseling as well. Biblical counseling (not to be confused with what is often marketed under the broad term "Christian Counseling") is a powerful use of offering help and hope to those in need through the inerrant truth revealed in Scripture.
It's the focus on "felt needs" that drives this.
David Powlinson, author, teacher, and counselor shared these distinctions regarding the contemporary therapeutic gospel back in 2010. Not much has changed (full article here).
The most obvious, instinctual felt needs of twenty-first century, middle-class Americans are different from the felt needs that Dostoevsky tapped into (in his book The Brothers Karamazov). We take food supply and political stability for granted. We find our miracle-substitute in the wonders of technology. Middle-class felt needs are less primal. They express a more luxurious, more refined sense of self-interest:
I want to feel loved for who I am, to be pitied for what I’ve gone through, to feel intimately understood, to be accepted unconditionally;
I want to experience a sense of personal significance and meaningfulness, to be successful in my career, to know my life matters, to have an impact;
I want to gain self-esteem, to affirm that I am okay, to be able to assert my opinions and desires;
I want to be entertained, to feel pleasure in the endless stream of performances that delight my eyes and tickle my ears;
I want a sense of adventure, excitement, action, and passion so that I experience life as thrilling and moving.
The modern, middle-class version of therapeutic gospel takes its cues from this particular family of desires. We might say that the target audience consists of psychological felt needs, rather than the physical felt needs that typically arise in difficult social conditions. (The contemporary “health and wealth” gospel and obsession with “miracles” express something more like the Grand Inquisitor’s older version of therapeutic gospel.)
In this new gospel, the great “evils” to be redressed do not call for any fundamental change of direction in the human heart. Instead, the problem lies in my sense of rejection from others; in my corrosive experience of life’s vanity; in my nervous sense of self-condemnation and diffidence; in the imminent threat of boredom if my music is turned off; in my fussy complaints when a long, hard road lies ahead. These are today’s significant felt needs that the gospel is bent to serve. Jesus and the church exist to make you feel loved, significant, validated, entertained, and charged up. This gospel ameliorates distressing symptoms. It makes you feel better. The logic of this therapeutic gospel is a jesus-for-Me who meets individual desires and assuages psychic aches.
Pastors lament the consumer mentality of many in the world today and yet, sometimes that which is complained about is propped up unknowingly by a version of the gospel that is less than complete. A less-than-complete gospel is a false gospel.
Signs That Your Church Members Just Want Therapy, Not the Gospel
Every pastor, at some point in time, will hear church members state that they're looking for a new church.
Most often the church members and friends do not state these directly, but just fade away in attendance and participation and eventually share that phrase with mutual friends or other church members. Then, over time, that phrase hits the ears of leadership.Sometimes God actually calls members of a local body of believers to unite elsewhere. However, unless that calling leads to missional engagement and missionary living, it all to often seems to be based on a desire for a new version of church, and sometimes is fueled by disagreement with pastoral leadership, theology, or programming.In all candor, it has been my experience that theological differences rarely are the tipping point. This proves to be the case when members join another local church that holds to the very same theological understandings.
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Those who have itchy ears for the therapeutic gospel (which, in case it's not clear, is a false gospel) tend to offer one of the popular statements such as...
"I'm not being fed"
"I need...something from someone"
"I'm not being discipled"
"We need a better group for our kids"
...or other such phrase.
Acquiescence to the therapeutic gospel is often identifiable through the overuse of "I" or "we" statements when it comes to what the church offers or does not offer.
The church and pastoral leadership do not get a pass here. Poor leadership leads to ineffective discipleship. Inwardly focused churches are not disciple-makers. Therefore, they are prone to offer therapeutic philosophy disguised as biblical truth. Pastors and leaders must continually push against the drive (even within themselves) to build small kingdoms, keep the tithers happy, and bow to the false god of self-preservation and self-worship.
Powlinson addresses the five elements of the therapeutic gospel biblically this way:
“Need for love”? It is surely a good thing to know that you are both known and loved. God who searches the thoughts and intentions of our hearts also sets his steadfast love upon us. However all this is radically different from the instinctual craving to be accepted for who I am. Christ’s love comes pointedly and personally despite who I am. You are accepted for who Christ is, because of what he did, does, and will do. God truly accepts you, and if God is for you, who can be against you? But in doing this, he does not affirm and endorse what you are like. Rather, he sets about changing you into a fundamentally different kind of person. In the real gospel you feel deeply known and loved, but your relentless “need for love” has been overthrown.
“Need for significance”? It is surely a good thing for the works of your hands to be established forever: gold, silver, and precious stones, not wood, hay, and straw. It is good when what you do with your life truly counts, and when your works follow you into eternity. Vanity, futility, and ultimate insignificance register the curse upon our work life – even midcourse, not just when we retire, or when we die, or on the Day of Judgment. But the real gospel inverts the order of things presupposed by the therapeutic gospel. The craving for impact and significance – one of the typical “youthful lusts” that boil up within us – is merely idolatrous when it acts as Director of Operations in the human heart. God does not meet your need for significance; he meets your need for mercy and deliverance from your obsession with personal significance. When you turn from your enslavement and turn to God, then your works do start to count for good. The gospel of Jesus and the fruit of faith are not tailored to “meet your needs.” He frees from the tyranny of felt needs, remakes you to fear God and keep his commandments (Eccl. 12:13). In the divine irony of grace, that alone makes what you do with your life of lasting value.
“Need for self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-assertion”? To gain a confident sense of your identity is a great good. Ephesians is strewn with several dozen “identity statements,” because by this the Spirit motivates a life of courageous faith and love. You are God’s – among the saints, chosen ones, adopted sons, beloved children, citizens, slaves, soldiers; part of the workmanship, wife and dwelling place – every one of these in Christ. No aspect of your identity is self-referential, feeding your “self-esteem.” Your opinion of yourself is far less important than God’s opinion of you, and accurate self-assessment is derivative of God’s assessment. True identity is God-referential. True awareness of yourself connects to high esteem for Christ. Great confidence in Christ correlates to a vote of fundamental no confidence in and about yourself. God nowhere replaces diffidence and people-pleasing by self-assertiveness. In fact, to assert your opinions and desires, as is, marks you as a fool. Only as you are freed from the tyranny of your opinions and desires are you free to assess them accurately, and then to express them appropriately.
“Need for pleasure”? In fact, the true gospel promises endlessly joyous experience, drinking from the river of delights (Ps. 36). This describes God’s presence. But as we have seen in each case, this is keyed to the reversal of our instinctive cravings, not to their direct satisfaction. The way of joy is the way of suffering, endurance, small obediences, willingness to identify with human misery, willingness to overthrow your most persuasive desires and instincts. I don’t need to be entertained. But I absolutely NEED to learn to worship with all my heart.
“Need for excitement and adventure”? To participate in Christ’s kingdom is to play a part within the Greatest Action-Adventure Story Ever Told. But the paradox of redemption again turns the whole world upside down. The real adventure takes the path of weakness, struggle, endurance, patience, small kindnesses done well. The road to excellence in wisdom is unglamorous. Other people might take better vacations and have a more thrilling marriage than yours. The path of Jesus calls forth more grit than thrill. He needed endurance far more than he needed excitement. His kingdom might not cater to our cravings for derring-do and thrill-seeking, but “solid joys and lasting treasures none but Zion’s children know.”
May we diligently focus on the truth of the Gospel and not settle for less than God truly offers. When our theology centers on self, and ultimately becomes a "me-ology" the church ceases to be church. This may be one of the greatest challenges we face nowadays, especially as the generations of church members and attenders dwindles. The natural response from many church leaders is to "offer what the audience wants" while sacrificing what we truly need.
For the past few years, church leaders and evangelicals have been lamenting the loss of younger people in the church. While some new church starts and mega-box churches have seen growth in seeming success in reaching the younger generation, the statistics show a loss overall. Much has been written about this and most hearkens back to Pew Research Center's 2015 report. While that report is two years old, it is likely no significant changes have occurred.
Generational labels differ based on what study is cited or book read, but by and large, the Millennials (born between 1981 and 2000) and Generation Z/Boomlets (born after 2000 ) are trending away from the church. There's not as much data regarding Generation Z, but the older portion of the generation are in high school and graduating this year.
In 2006 there were a record number of births in the US and 49% of those born were Hispanic, this will change the American melting pot in terms of behavior and culture. The number of births in 2006 far outnumbered the start of the baby boom generation, and they will easily be a larger generation.
Since the early 1700s the most common last name in the US was "Smith" but not anymore, now it is "Rodriguez."
There are two age groups right now:
Age 8-12 years old.
There will be an estimated 29 million tweens by 2009.
$51 billion is spent by tweens every year with an additional $170 billion spent by their parents and family members directly for them.
Toddler/Elementary school age.
61 percent of children 8-17 have televisions in their rooms.
35 percent have video games.
14 percent have a DVD player.
4 million will have their own cell phones. They have never known a world without computers and cell phones.
Have Eco-fatigue: they are actually tired of hearing about the environment and the many ways we have to save it.
With the advent of computers and web-based learning, children leave behind toys at younger and younger age. It’s called KGOY-kids growing older younger, and many companies have suffered because of it. Most recognizable is Mattel, the maker of Barbie dolls. In the 1990s the average age of a child in their target market was 10-years-old, and in 2000 it dropped to three-years-old. As children reach the age of four and five, old enough to play on the computer, they become less interested in toys and begin to desire electronics such as cell phones and video games.
They are savvy consumers and they know what they want and how to get it and they are over saturated with brands.
Religious “nones” – a shorthand we use to refer to people who self-identify as atheists or agnostics, as well as those who say their religion is “nothing in particular” – now make up roughly 23% of the U.S. adult population. This is a stark increase from 2007, the last time a similar Pew Research study was conducted, when 16% of Americans were “nones.” (During this same time period, Christians have fallen from 78% to 71%.)
Overall, religiously unaffiliated people are more concentrated among young adults than other age groups – 35% of Millennials (those born 1981-1996) are “nones.” In addition, the unaffiliated as a whole are getting even younger. The median age of unaffiliated adults is now 36, down from 38 in 2007 and significantly younger than the overall median age of U.S. adults in 2014.
Indeed, our Religious Landscape Study finds a clear generational pattern: Young people who are not particularly religious seem to be much more comfortable identifying as “nones” than are older people who display a similar level of religious observance. Nearly eight-in-ten Millennials with low levels of religious commitment describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.” By contrast, just 54% of Americans in the Silent and Greatest generations who have low levels of religious commitment say they are unaffiliated; 45% claim a religion. A similarly striking gap between Millennials and others is also seen among those with a “medium” level of religious commitment.
What Can the Church Do?
Normally, at least it has been my experience, when data like this surfaces, churches and denominations react, rather than respond. In many cases, the exodus of young people comes as a surprise, all too late. Parents who had faithfully attended church, signed their children up for every program and event from AWANA to DiscipleNow, youth camp, mission trips, etc. wonder where they went wrong when the now adult child seemingly walks away from church with no intent of coming back.
In the past, churches would say (well, not out loud, but it was a predominant thought) "Just wait until they get married and have kids. Then, they'll come back to church." Maybe that was true a generation ago, but it doesn't seem to be now. The fact is that young parents who just attended church and were entertained as teenagers seem to find more community in social networking sites, school activities, athletic endeavors for kids, and other areas and church is not avoided...it just never come across their minds.
Yet, all hope is not lost.
Reaction is not the answer, but godly response is.
What we are facing is not new. Have you ever read the Old Testament? When you read Moses' commands to the next generation in Deuteronomy 6 regarding the passing on of truth to the next generations, there is a since of fear in his words. The fear is that unless the family teaches of God, models worship in the home, and remembers the covenant past with God, the kids and grandkids will not only forget, but walk away. The journey away from God is not without consequence.
What faithful parent or grandparent of a prodigal hasn't shared similar lamentation in prayer?
Since trends tend to raise awareness, let's look at observable trends of those who have not abandoned the faith.
Jon Nielson, Pastor of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, recently shared an article highlighting some of the trends he has personally observed of faithful Millennials and young adults (full article here).
They are converted. Sometimes, we deem attendance as a faith indicator. Yet, just being in the youth room or the church building does not a convert make. Teenagers from "good families" who get good grades, play football, cheer, get accepted to multiple schools, etc. are considered by many in the church to be "good kids" and while they may comparatively be, the problem is when salvation is presumed. Christians truly don't abandon Christ. Church attenders and members do.
They have been equipped, not entertained. Oh boy, this is big. "Come to our youth group. It's really fun!" isn't a bad thing, but when everything in the ministry is focused on the student or young person, rather than on the God we worship we perpetuate a "better than the church down the street" model that defaults to the latest events, concerts, praise band, dodgeball tournament, ski trip, and other such events (which are not bad...they're just no the ultimate point.) I'm all for fun and I like being entertained, but if we're simply creating consumers of Chrstianese rather than making disciples, no wonder the younger generation walks away. "Big church" will never be that fun. Seriously - the deacon retreat is not quite the level of youth camp.
Their parents preached the gospel to them. Better yet, their parents worshipped with them and not just at church. The gospel was lived out, modeled, and shared. Normative home life was Christ-centric. Parents who are discipled well disciple well. When the parents are not believers, the church fills the gap. The problem occurs when Christian parents outsource discipling their children to the "professional Christians" at the church. Let's just say that after decades of promoting this model, the proof is in the pudding. It does not work.
Walker Moore of Awe Star Ministries developed a model of student ministry years ago where students led. The gifting of "significant tasks" to students for the health of the ministry allows God to work in and through young people at levels where the "come into the youth room and wait for the adults to feed you" model never will.
So, what can we do? We can remember. God has not abandoned young adults and teenagers. And, God is not through with the older generations, either. It's not like all the Boomers and Gen Xers are believers, right?
I'm not pessimistic when I read the statistics. I'm actually happy that the scales are now falling off our eyes. Sure, many are walking away, but it's not too late. We (the church) are now being forced back to Scripture and the model is clear. Disciple-making is our commission. It begins in the home, not the church building. Family equipping discipleship is more than a model. It's a biblical command (Deut 6).
I believe God is recalibrating our focus. While we may be as fearful as Moses, the hope we have in Christ remains. So, don't lose heart.
In Christine Emba's report, she shares results from social scientists on the reality of such chambers.
The study focused on how Facebook users interacted with two narratives involving conspiracy theories and science. Users belonging to different communities tended not to interact and tended to be connected only with “like-minded” friends, creating closed, non-interacting communities centered around different narratives — what the researchers called “echo chambers.” Confirmation bias accounted for users’ decisions to share certain content, creating informational cascades within their communities.
Recently, one of my online friends who holds vastly different views politically, socially, and theologically, shared a story online that was opposite my view on many levels. We discussed the views cordially and I shared the reality that the views espoused were simply echoes of others. The concept of living in an echo chamber is a reality, and I am not immune either.
The Echo Chamber of Politics
Social scientists and political scientists have studied the surprising (to some) results of last year's US Presidential election. As results came in where states were colored either blue (Democrat) or red (Republican) to indicate Electoral College votes, our news showed the county-by-county vote totals of our state, Florida.
I would not be surprised to see other state breakdowns to show similar results. Here are Florida's results (screenshot from The Guardian)
Screenshot from The Guardian
For the most part, the blue counties are where large universities are located (FSU, UF, UCF, USF, UM, FIU, FAU, etc.) They are also the locations, other than Alachua County, of urban areas in our state.
This is no surprise in that many students in university settings are challenged intellectually regarding their belief systems and sense of fairness. It seems that over the decades, many of our universities have embraced a humanist worldview that leans left ideologically, politically, and theologically. This is not news.
However, I am not saying that individuals abandon their convictions and beliefs just because they enroll in college. In fact, no university populace is homogenous (well, except for Saturdays in the fall during football season) in their beliefs or support of ideologies. Yet, it is true that many students find themselves exposed to a worldview that sees things vastly different than the one experienced growing up under parental authority once at college.
It is at this level, the echo chamber develops.
And it is not just in the liberal, humanistic worldview world.
Just in case it's misunderstood, I'm not saying that the red candidate's voters were not in echo chambers. They were, too.
I am just pointing out how so many who leaned left were surprised at the election results primarily because they were trapped in an echo chamber. The same has been proven true for other sides over the years.
No one is immune.
The Christian Echo Chamber
As Christians, we must guard against the echo chamber as well.
But as we’re thinking about the entire question of this media ecology, there are two other issues that thinking Christians should keep in mind. This has to do with the echo chamber and what is known as confirmation bias. One of the great risks to all of us, whether of the left or the right, Christian or non-Christian, is that we will situate ourselves within a cocoon in which we hear no dissenting voices and no contrary arguments. This is probably, to be honest, more a problem for liberals than conservatives in terms of the print media because of the dominance of the liberals in major newspapers and editorial boards. But on television Fox News largely leveled the field, and now there is the risk that anyone of the left or the right or any other perspective can spend 24 hours a day listening to nothing but the echo of one’s own political positions and the bias of hearing confirmation of what one already believes.
This is where Christians need to understand the discipline of forcing ourselves to hear contrary arguments in order to understand evangelistically and apologetically the worldview of those who may not agree with us on so many issues. The political and moral—the worldview divide in America is now so deep that we can cocoon ourselves and hear almost no one who disagrees with us.
Some fear that even listening to dissenting political or ideological opinions flies too close to "the appearance of evil" but I hearken back to Paul's encounter at Mars Hill. To lovingly engage those far from God with the Gospel leads us out of the echo chamber (which for Christians can be filled with empty "Amens" on social issues apart from biblical foundation.)
If you check my Twitter account, you'll see that I follow many people. Many of those I follow view the world through a lens (a worldview) vastly different than the biblical one I do. They hold to beliefs of Scripture that I do not. They argue in favor of things that I believe are evil and wrong or at best, short-sighted. Yet, I "follow" them. To be clear, just because I follow you online, does not mean I agree with you.
Yet, to be clear, as a Christian I must spend the bulk of my time in God's Word when it comes to having a biblical worldview. Apart from the Gospel, I have no valid discourse with those who are pre-Christian.
Internet and Email scammers have been around for years now and unfortunately, many have lost money and some have been "catfished" through the process. It makes for interesting stories on news programs and talk shows.
Photo credit: BioDivLibrary via Visual hunt / CC BY
Last week, I received an email (actually the second time I have received such an email) that on the surface looks somewhat legit, but ultimately is a scam designed to play on the egos of pastors (yeah - I said it) and the opportunity to preach the Gospel in an international venue.
This email seemingly originated from the United Kingdom. Take a look below:
When I first read the email, I was suspicious. Primarily because I received a similar one a couple of years ago, but the names of the church and pastor were changed. However, I do have friends who serve as pastors and missionaries in the UK, so there was this slight chance that this was authentic. I even shared the info with one of my friends, but approximately five minutes after asking him if he knew the church, I discovered what I just knew to be true - THIS IS A SCAM!
Pastoral Catfish Scheme
Things that made me question the authenticity of the request:
I have never met Pastor Sherard Wood and know no one who knows this man.
Passion Conference is a strange name for a local church's event in that Louie Giglio founded and hosts the Passion Conferences annually. Sometimes these are international events and most local churches would see the problem in naming their event the same thing.
The website included in the email for Victory Church is authentic and actually goes to the church in Wales. However, there is no one listed on the Leadership Team named Sherard Wood.
Most churches now have email domains that match the church website, so the Gmail account was strange. It's not unheard of for a church to use Gmail. It is not even a bad thing, but it did look suspicious.
Under "Events" on the church tab, there is no indication that a "Passion Conference" is scheduled this spring.
Since I have many friends in Wales, where this church is located, it does seem strange to call the church Victory Church UK in the email. Most of my Welsh friends actually indicate "Wales" as their home and location. Just as my friends in England tend to say "England."
I did a quick Google search of the story and found that many have been scammed. It seems that when pastors respond, another email is sent with PDF documents attached which must be completed to allow the church to pay honorariums. The documents are actually authentic, but the rest of the story reveals how the scammers work.
This is the same strategy that King from Nigeria uses to get you to send money as well as all the other "Send money" emails people get from other sources. It seems there is a fee due to process the forms and yes, that needs to be paid, so just wire the money to the church's bank account and all is good.
That's the deal.
There's no conference in the UK paying thousands of dollars to American pastors who are mostly not known outside their region. It's flattering and it's a lie.
Be careful. Be smart.
Here are a couple of sites where others have broken down the scam just in case you may think your email is legit:
What is the difference between a campus plant and a church plant?
What is best? To plant a campus or new church?
We've been talking about both for years and yet, it is clear that the differences are not fully understood by all.
Dr. Jimmy Scroggins of Family Church in West Palm Beach recently hosted a discussion about this very thing at the Florida Baptist State Convention last fall. His honesty was refreshing as it became clear that the movement of Kingdom expansion that Family Church has embarked upon is the exact same strategy God has led our church here in Orange Park.
We are all in when it comes to church planting. While we would love to have planters in every focused area, God has clearly revealed our strategic partnerships over the years and we continue to serve as the sending church for Neil and Kaytee in Toronto and Mike and Carrie in Washington, DC. Additionally, we have been able to support others throughout the nation in cities such as Portland, Colorado Springs, Greensboro, and Tucson. Currently, we are seeking to partner with Cam Triggs in Orlando with a new plant launching this year.
We also have served as catalysts for local planters as we have served with Dr. Rick Wheeler and Dr. Josh Dryer and the Jacksonville Baptist Association in church planting assessment.
Church planting involves placing a pastor in an specified area, most often an urban area. The demographics reveal the unchurched reality of the community and the goal is to birth a new church where there is none.
The planter and wife embed themselves in the community for the sake of Kingdom growth. The strategies for engaging a community are as varied as the communities. Planters set off understanding the marathon that planting is, most often renting facilities and seeking to till up hard spiritual ground.
Our North American Mission Board has strategically focused on church planting over the past few years and we have seen many step into this story.
There is a difference between planting an autonomous church and a campus of an already established (i.e. legacy) church. The most recognizable difference is that the campus is not an autonomous church. This allows for some unique opportunities.
Dr. Scroggins shared the following realities of campus plants and what they offer. I offer my commentaries on his statements within the points as well:
ADDITIONAL SERVICES. Campus plants are viewed as additional services, just meeting at a different venue than the church's traditional campus.
MULTI-SITE IS LONG-TERM CHURCH PLANTING. In some cases, the campuses may grow into autonomous churches, but this is not true for all, and not expected.
TAKES ADVANTAGE OF SYNERGY AND ECONOMIES OF SCALE. In other words, a campus may be launched in a relatively short amount of time where a church plant may require a year or more of preparation.
ACCELERATES RATE OF CHANGE. No church wants to wake up one day to realize that they are too far gone to revitalize. There are fifty Baptist churches in our city (Jacksonville, FL) that will either close or sell off property within the next two years unless change among the internal church culture occurs. This is based on visible and recognizable statistics and realities.
CAMPUS PASTORS ARE EXTENSIONS OF THE LEAD PASTOR. Therefore, there is no separate vision, doctrine, or leadership style. This allows for unity and consistency regarding programming, strategy, and vision. In many cases, campus pastors are men who were sent out from the church to serve and already have the DNA of the local church. This allows for quicker growth and launching.
VIDEO OR LIVE? Though I prefer live, there are enough offering video venues that are working to discount this reality.
THIS IS DIFFICULT! It is much easier to stay at one campus. Yet, if God opens the door for multi-site, it reminds us that he has not called us to easy service.
THIS REQUIRES THE BEST! This means that campuses cannot be launched with those who are not already serving well. J.D. Greear has mentioned on many occasions about the uncomfortable stress that occurs when the "best" leave what has been deemed in the past as the "main campus" to serve at a multi-site venue. When faithfully and prayerfully done, God always "back-fills" the positions of service at the launching campus.
THERE IS NO MAIN CAMPUS. This has been a challenging reality for me, but needed. We do not have a "main campus" in that regardless where a person attends church services, that campus, be it a school cafeteria or tent by a ball field, is their "main campus." To call the traditional site the "main campus" presents a Varsity and Junior Varsity idea.
ONE CHURCH OFFERS MUCH. To remain one church with multiple sites offers one name (in our case firstFAMILY,) one budget, one leadership structure, one constitution and bylaws. These allow for quicker movement, safer structures, and long-term stability.
The Best Strategy
The question at the beginning was whether campus or church plants should be the strategy. The answer is BOTH. We believe that church planting is vital and that is why we continue to send and support many who have answered the call to do so. Yet, we also believe there are areas and situations where a campus plant (in our case, The Creek and IslandChurch) are the best options for community engagement. Therefore, we offer these as well.
There's the third option which would come under the "revitalization" heading, I guess. That is what we are doing at Oak Harbor Church now, but as we have agreed with the leadership there, we are treating Oak Harbor as a campus site with a pastor on site.
The end game is simple - love God by loving people well and making disciples. We know it is not easy, but these strategies allow us to move forward rather than stand still (which feels like moving backward.) It's risky. We cannot afford it. Yet, God has clearly called us to this story and we press on, trusting Him.
When it comes to the calling to ministry, the church seems to struggle, though not overtly with the concept.
Whether it be in service to God through the local church as a deacon, elder, minister or pastor or as a missionary on the field, the phrase "I've been called" has been stated and affirmed by hundreds of churches over the years.
But, how do you know?
Was it through a Macedonian vision like Paul received (Acts 15-18)? I'm not saying that it wasn't, but I will say unlikely simply due to the reality that even in Scripture that type of calling was rare.
To be called to ministry is an honorable and good thing. Of this there is no question.
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. 1 Timothy 3:1 ESV
However, while all Christians are called to serve the Lord and the cause of the Gospel not everyone is called to that specific pastoral role or position within the church.
In many cases, a person will come to the pastor and state "I've been called by God to be a <fill in the blank>." The pastor is likely excited at this point, as he should be. Yet, to be honest, most churches in my experience, do not have a plan for discerning the calling.
Photo credit: amlusch via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA
Therefore, licenses and ordination certificates have been handed out like spiritual participation trophies, to the detriment of the church and the individuals.
This happens in Baptist churches when it's time to select deacons as well. With each church being autonomous, the processes for deacon selection vary, but in many cases, the candidate needs to be a man who fulfills the qualities expressed in 1 Timothy 3:8-13. At least these are the qualifications that should be followed. Unfortunately, in many churches, the passage in Timothy is considered, but then the candidates being nominated end up being the only men we can think of who attend regularly and, as is the case in many churches, haven't been divorced. And...the concept of calling is ignored, not to mention a firmer biblical understanding of qualifications and calling. Benjamin Merkle writes a concise post regarding such qualifications here.
Therefore, there are a number of men I can think of who need to turn in their ordination certificates since they have disqualified themselves, if in fact they ever were truly qualified...but, that's a posting for another time.
But I Love God and Feel Called...
Our church has been blessed to have a number of men surrender to God's call into pastoral ministry. Yet, there are some who have voiced their feelings for calling and for one reason or another have shown evidence that they were not. This is not to discount their calling as a Christian and disciple. That calling is for all who have surrendered to Christ as Lord.
Yet, not every Christian is called to be a minister/pastor/missionary or deacon.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Ephesians 4:11-14 ESV)
Emotionally-based responses may be God-centered and Spirit-led, but they also may be responses to human manipulation (often not intended) and based on false expectations. I have met some well-intentioned men who are enamored with the concept of ministry, but were not called and ultimately suffered. I went to seminary with some.
I have also met some folks who seemingly regretted "missing God's call" earlier in life. I won't discredit that, but the calling of God is not like a pop fly to right field that can get lost in the lights. Yet, intentionally sinning by saying "NO" to God does happen. All too often.
Dennis Poulette, a friend, former missionary in Mexico, and fellow seminary classmate who works for Youth Ministry International, led a group of us through a discussion on this very topic. Insightful and challenging. Dr. Stuart Scott shared some information on this as well and the convicting reality is that we, the church, must do well to help those "called" to discern. The church plays a heavy role and in a culture where people change jobs like socks, the unfortunate reality is that the calling to ministry seems hot and fun right now and many may be licensed and ordained apart from God's calling. It is wrong for the calling to pastoral ministry to be viewed as just another temporary job.
Dr. Al Mohler refers to the affirmation as inward and outward calling. Mohler states...
Charles Spurgeon identified the first sign of God’s call to the ministry as “an intense, all-absorbing desire for the work.” Those called by God sense a growing compulsion to preach and teach the Word, and to minister to the people of God. (full article)
That is evidence of the inward calling.
Yet, the outward calling is essential as well.
Jim George of The Master's Seminary uses the acrostic C.A.L.L. to express the same thing. Since they teach acrostics in seminary, it's easy for me to remember.
You are called to ministry when you have...
C - Confirmation from your church's leadership. Pastoral leadership matters and his confirmation of your calling should be sought. Your confirmation of calling will be based on where you have been serving in the church already. There may be a season of serving required as discernment happens. No leader or minister can do so apart from willingness to serve.
A - Ability. Do you have serving gifts or speaking gifts? Just because you want to preach doesn't mean you can. It is true that being a talented speaker apart from the calling of God is possible. However, this is not speech class or debate club. And yes, I know "God wants your availability not your ability" but don't miss that God gives talents and abilities and equips the called.
L - Lifestyle of integrity. This is the 1 Timothy 3 emphasis. Think about how many "pastors" and ministers are featured on the local news due to immoral acts. It's appalling. I saw today where a pastor was arrested for participating in armed robberies of local convenience stores. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? Seriously!
I was talking to a police officer while on a mission trip to another state years ago who told me he was at the funeral of a local pastor's wife and the pastor, right after the graveside service, walked up to one of the ladies in the crowd and said, "My bed is going to be cold tonight. Why don't you come over?" WHAT??? Yeah, this happens.
To be honest, most of the integrity failings aren't so obvious, but if a man has a history of immorality, debauchery, thievery, lying, etc., apart from repentance and clear life-transformation, it's easy to say "You're not called."
L - Longing. This is the desire to serve, share, and proclaim the Gospel. It's not "church work." It is something that cannot be ignored and when the Lord calls and transforms, He creates a longing for the Gospel and a love for God and others.
The first three - Confirmation, Ability, and Lifestyle are objective, biblical principles (external.)
The last one - Longing is subjective (internal.)
To be called is a noble honor and not one that is sought, but one received. The church would do well to helping discern with and for those "called to ministry."
Consider the Call
Mohler presents these questions in closing...
Consider your calling. Do you sense that God is calling you to ministry, whether as pastor or another servant of the Church? Do you burn with a compulsion to proclaim the Word, share the Gospel, and care for God’s flock? Has this call been confirmed and encouraged by those Christians who know you best?
Ministry is not easy. It is not always fun. Yet, when God calls and equips, the joy of serving in obedience and fulfillment that comes is wonderfully overwhelming.