I am a devoted churchman. I serve the church broadly through ACT 3. I also serve specific churches locally. I am the member of a local church and a minister in the Reformed Church in America. I am committed to the church as the visible expression of Christ's bride and as a sinful people who have found grace in Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the most frequent question that I am asked, from almost every church background that I know, is this: "Why does it seem that so many churches are in a state of personal crisis and conflict these days?" (It was not always this bad. I have lived long enough to see the level of church problems increase rather dramatically over my six decades.)
I could offer many observations and responses to this question based upon my experience as a pastor and a consultant. I can also offer some answers based on my understanding of the church in the New Testament. For starters, we all know that no church is "perfect." No system or government is without flaws, whether secular or sacred. The reason for this is simple: in all forms of government people are involved and people are sinful. When we put too much confidence in princes or pastors we fail to see that Jesus is Lord. He does not share that Lordship with any human authority. Many evangelicals believe that if they get a system of government that is closely aligned with what they believe the New Testament teaches then the problems will end. I have seen this kind of thinking tried again and again. No system of government works without (often serious) flaws because all such systems involve people. There are many mistakes that pastors and people make but none is more common, from what I've seen, than the myth that by getting the right form of church structure and leadership we can solve the problems. Even the pope confesses his personal sins on a regular basis. We could all follow his model and the church would be better for it.
Another reason for so much of this present chaos in the church is that modern Americans have increasingly treated the church like a corporation and the pastor like a CEO. The idea of a family, albeit a large one in some cases, has been all but lost. The church is a building, but one made up of living stones, not just bricks and mortar. It is family with brothers and sisters, albeit brothers and sisters who sometimes disagree. The church is also a political body, in the sense that it has form to follow with rules and procedures. But the dominant image should be a family.
Further, the church today seems to be suffering under the weight of numerous cultural and spiritual sins that cripple its effectiveness. One such sin is clearly prayerlessness. Another is the misuse of power by our leaders. Then there are people with all their own problems that they bring into the church and expect the church to conform to them. The list could be stretched to include a whole host of similar issues. All I know is that the church in America is seeing one congregation after another turn inward and then divide over this issue and that. The facts are plain. In the era of the great mega-churches Christianity is in serious decline in America.
I thought about this problem recently because I heard about another church that I deeply love going through a pastor/elder/congregational debate about the future of the pastor's call. (There are no moral charges in this instance, just a disagreement about the effectiveness and appropriateness of the pastor's ministry.) After some back and forth the elders sent a letter to the congregation last week. In the final paragraph the elders encouraged their people to be honest with their neighbors about the trials that their church has endured in recent months. I love the way the elders finished this report with these words:
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I think something people miss is that even two people with the best and most righteous of intentions can disagree. As I’m reading through Acts, you see serious disagreements as the early church grew. The most poignant examples? Consider Paul and Barnabas having a “sharp disagreement” or Peter coming to the council and having to convince them that gentiles really were part of the call and that circumcision wasn’t necessary. Those are *big* issues!
Disagreement doesn’t necessarily signal sin or faithlessness, it merely signals difference of opinion. As you highlight, prayer is at the center of discerning which path to take and even in prayer, disagreements will still arise among faithful believers. Humility, love, prayer and scriptural reflection are central to attempting to discern God’s will for us.
Thankfully even though we will falter when searching his will, we know that we can rest in his grace and look forward to the day when all will be renewed–including our interactions with other believers.
Good article. The church has always been messy. Having church members with personal problems is nothing new, so I have to say that having been on all sides of this discussion—a church member, a pastor and an employee of a denomination in her corporate offices, I have to say that greatest problem is “modern Americans have increasingly treated the church like a corporation and the pastor like a CEO.” and the abuse of power by the leadership. A goal of any corporation is to become as big and successful as she can. So, once we started to look at the church as a corporation, growth in numbers became the sign of success and every pastor was forced to increase his/her church attendance (to show that God was with them) at the cost of evangelism and I believe that’s why the church is in decline.
Usually, speaking at a church, I ask the following from the members, “how many of you were saved at this church and how many of you are transferred members?” I’m willing to bit that in any American church at any given Sunday 80-90% of the members are transferred Christians (I’ve been to churches where 100% were transferred). If we don’t evangelize, sooner of later we’ll run out church members. I have nothing against mega churches. However,most, if not all, mega churches don’t become mega because of evangelism. They are mega at the expense of smaller churches. If they continue to devour members of other churches, pretty soon, there will be nothing to devour.
I have been on all side of this discussion as a church member, pastor and a church corporation employee. The church has always been messy with members who’ve issues. So, I don’t know if we can blame the decline of the church on the above. However, I think you hit the nail on the head with,”…modern Americans have increasingly treated the church like a corporation and the pastor like a CEO.” The measure of a corporation’s success is in her size—The more successful, the bigger the corporation. So, now that we look at the church as a corporation, the bigger the attendance the more successful the church, which, by the way is equated with God’s blessing.
This has caused many churches to forgo evangelism and look for that magic formula that will help a church to go from 50 members to 5000 over night.
Most, if not all, mega churches don’t become mega because of evangelism. They become mega because of transferred growth at the expense of smaller churches. I have nothing against mega churches, but when we continue to devour smaller churches, sooner or later, there will be nothing to devour and we’ll run out of numbers.