I ponder this question every day: “Are we being effective in making new disciples?” And even more to the point, “Are most churches effective in reaching people with the good news and teaching them how to follow Jesus 24/7 in the real world context of the 21st century?”
In short, the answer is a not-so-surprising no. Put in marketing terms author Tim Sinclair is correct when he says in his new book, Branded: Sharing Jesus with a Consumer Culture (Kregel, 2011), Jesus needs to be “rebranded or remarketed” in our fragmented and diversified culture (29).
There are many new religious options and there are many new ways to embrace and talk about faith. What most Christians are saying is just not working. You don’t need a doctorate in missiology to see that this is true. Sinclair asks what I believe is the $64,000 question: “Hasn’t there been consistency in the number of people who are embracing Christ over the years” (29)? The answer is very clear. Actual research shows the church is failing rather badly and the number of actual Christians in North America is in decline. You can put lipstick on a pig, and some authors and writers are doing everything they can to make evangelical Christianity look better on this account, but the math here doesn’t lie. We are in serious decline. Fighting culture wars, reworking the techniques of church, even planting new churches, it is not working. (Yes, thank God, there are a few exceptions!)
Sinclair provides a brief account of some of commonly known data. The number that stunned me the most was that according to the World Christian Encyclopedia the average church spends $1,551,466 for each new follower of Jesus! Read that again. Be shocked and be deeply concerned if you care about reaching people who are outside the church and outside the Christian faith.
If your church’s annual budget is $500,000 then on average it will take you three years to reach one honest-to-goodness non-Christian who will be converted to faith through your efforts. Sinclair writes, “Seeing that kind of ratio on a balance sheet would get every CEO in America fired. And it should” (30).
There are some churches that are really good at outreach but I am persuaded, after forty years of study and experience, that these are actually very, very rare congregations. Even most large churches are reshuffling the chairs on the church ship more than they are reaching the un-churched and never converted. On the whole most movements, groups and churches that claim great things in evangelism are actually doing a very bad job. One thing is for sure – the typical church does very little inside the church to excite and then equip their people to actually help outsiders come to faith. The real work in reaching people will not happen inside the church so how will people be reached when most churches never teach whole-life discipleship and “business as mission” to their congregants? I am not even sure that pastors know how to teach this way since the schools they attended never taught them how. And given their centuries old penchant for making a sharp distinction between clergy and laity they never will. This is a universal Christian problem not one limited to Catholics, Protestants or the Orthodox. We think evangelization is reaching the already churched!
What we’ve done is create safe places, places for worship and education, places that teach our children (most of whom will leave the church when they are 18 and older). Tim Sinclair opines: “If the World Christian Encyclopedia figures are correct, today’s Christians have run some expensive bathwater, sat down, and gotten all wrinkly from stewing in our own, pricey filth” (30).