Jesus sent these twelve out and commanded them, “Don’t go among the Gentiles or into a Samaritan city. Go instead to the lost sheep, the people of Israel. As you go, make this announcement: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ (Matthew 10:5–7)The kingdom of heaven has come near…
That really is the heart of Jesus’ ministry—that simple message. In fact, that phrase “kingdom of heaven” appears all through Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Matthew. That phrase appears 31 times in the Bible, and all 31 times are in Matthew! I told you a couple of weeks ago that this phrase probably had a special meaning. The Gospel of Matthew was written to Jewish Christians. As you know, Jews still do not say the name of God out loud, nor will many of them write it. So, over the centuries, they’ve developed other ways to refer to the Holy One. One of those ways is with this phrase: “The kingdom of heaven.” So, when you see this phrase in Matthew, you should know that this was probably another way of saying “God.” Those 31 occurrences of this phrase in Matthew start pretty early, even in the ministry of John the Baptist. In Matthew 3, John is preaching and baptizing people in the wilderness. Listen to what Matthew says about what John is doing.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing, “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”This was his message: “Here comes the kingdom of heaven! Here comes Jesus! Here comes God!” That simple message really was the basis of John’s message, and Jesus’ message, and the message of the early church. “God has come here, to us. Emmanuel, God is with us. God has become one of us, and because of that, nothing will ever be the same again.”
I fear that sometimes we forget that simple mission of God.
A new book is about to be released. Every 3–4 years, an updated version of The Churches of Christ in the United States is published. It is the “national directory” of Churches of Christ. The book tracks all of the statistics from our movement. How many congregations do we have? How many members do we have? How many attenders do we have? The newest version has not yet been released, but some of the numbers have begun to leak out. And the numbers are not encouraging.
Over the last 25 years, there has been a sharp decline in the number of congregations, members, and attenders within Churches of Christ. In fact, the Christian Chronicle reports that there has been an eight percent decline. Without getting too detailed into the numbers our rate of decline is doubling every 15 years. Most of the people that are leaving Churches of Christ are younger people or families with children.
I do not have to tell you that more than one solution has been offered up as to how to fix this problem. Some of the more prominent solutions:
Let’s make worship more attractive, that is why people are leaving.But many others have offered up a competing solution.
Our worship is boring, let’s bring in a band.
Let’s bring in lights.
Let’s make sure our technology is top notch.
Let’s dress in blue jeans to make people feel more comfortable.
Let’s put on a great show and people will come.
The reason people are leaving is because we've become too concerned with adapting to culture.Church, I am 100% convinced that neither of these two solutions fully appreciates the problem.
We need to get rid of the innovations.
Go back to songbooks.
Get rid of the praise teams.
If we get rid of all of the cultural innovations, God will help us grow… like we used to!
The problem is not with what is taking place in this room!
The problem is that too many of us think that what happens in this room is the beginning and end of our expression of the Christian faith. I’m not saying we need to stop having discussions about worship. Those conversations are important and they’ve been taking place throughout the centuries of the church. But the reason we are losing people has very little to do with how we worship! And our conversations about worship are, at best, meaningless to non-Christians and at worst, those conversations actually repel them. This problem is bigger than we realize. Here is why I say that: Churches of Christ are not alone in their decline.
In America today, less than 20% of people go to church on Sunday, which means more than 80% do not. Between 4,000 and 7,000 churches close their doors in America every year. And guess what? Other fellowships are offering the same solutions we’ve offered. Fix worship, make it more attractive, bring in the lights, and produce a great show. And we point to some of those churches and say, “Look, it’s working. They are growing!” But they are not growing! The vast majority of “growth” that is occurring within Evangelical mega-churches is coming from one place. Disgruntled Christians from other churches. The church is not growing. The church is shuffling.
Can we get really honest (and a bit uncomfortable)? The same thing has happened at Glenwood. I recently spent some time looking at Glenwood’s attendance and membership numbers over the last couple of decades.
Glenwood is not growing. In fact, our numbers have been relatively flat over the last 20 years and this as Tyler has grown and grown and grown. Yes, we’ve added new families. But our numbers have remained the same, which means we are losing as many as we are gaining…So, we are not only failing to reach new people; we are losing the people that are here!
I’ve had a recurring conversation with so many friends over the years. The conversations are occurring more regularly all the time. People come to me and say, “I think I’m done with church. I’m tired of the institutional nature of the church. I’m tired of the formality. I’m tired of the routine. I’m tired of the way the church spends so much time and energy and resources on the church. I’m tired of people viewing church as a club and less of a missional community with a clear purpose from God.”
I recently found out that this group of my friends has a name. An article was written recently about “The Dones” Listen to a description of this growing group of people within the church:
John is every pastor’s dream member. He’s a life-long believer, well-studied in the Bible, gives generously and leads others passionately.The Dones… These are not fringe members. The Dones are not “those people.” The Dones are integral, active members of this family. Many Dones have left Glenwood in recent years. And many Almost-Dones are still in this room, many of them wondering why they are here, and convinced that their days in the institutional church are numbered. I’ve thought a lot about these numbers. I’ve thought a lot about the conversations I’ve had with many of you, and with my friends who are not here anymore. The emotion that surfaces more than any other is this: Fear. I’m scared because I hear from so many folks that the church is broken. But I don’t know how to fix it. I don’t know any other way to do church. Can I be honest with you and say that? I sense that the church is missing its mark in many ways, but I don’t know how to initiate a course correction.
But last year he dropped out of church. He didn’t switch to the other church down the road. He dropped out completely. His departure wasn’t the result of an ugly encounter with a staff person or another member. It wasn’t triggered by any single event.
John had come to a long-considered, thoughtful decision. He said, “I’m just done. I’m done with church.”
John is one in a growing multitude of ex-members. They’re sometimes called the de-churched. They have not abandoned their faith. They have not joined the also-growing legion of those with no religious affiliation—often called the Nones. Rather, John has joined the Dones.
Several years ago, Brian McLaren wrote a book entitled A New Kind of Christian. He wrote that if you wanted to find the best kind of transportation in 1910, you wouldn’t look for a car or a plane. You’d look for a horse and buggy. In 1910, they were building better horse and buggies than in any other time in history, and there were certainly some horse and buggy manufacturers that resisted that change. “Why buy an unreliable car? We don’t have good roads for them. There are no gas stations. Here is the best horse and buggy the world has ever seen!” But some companies realized they were not in the horse and buggy business. They were in the transportation business, so they adapted. They began building cars along with their buggies because they knew the times were changing.
We are not in the church building business. We are in the business of proclaiming this message: “The kingdom of heaven has come near."
Followers of Jesus have not always shared that message like we do today. They’ve not always met in buildings. They’ve not always had huge budgets and elaborate worship services. Could it be that we are on the cusp of a new age? Will our children or grandchildren meet in buildings like this as their expression of Christianity? I don’t know. But I do know this is not the only way to live out the mission of Christ.
Here’s the harsh reality: 80% of Americans are not interested in being part of a church like this. And it’s not true that all of those people have turned their backs on God. Many of them love God and love God’s mission and they are engaging God’s mission in numerous ways! Chances are, no matter what programs we offer, no matter how flashy we make our worship, no matter how many different ways we try to coax them into a room like this one, they are most likely not going to come in. But that does not mean we give up on those 80%. It probably does mean, however, that we need to change the way we view the church. Let me be clear: The gospel does not change! But the expression of it changes constantly. It always has. The church’s mission has always been the same. But the church has employed an untold number of methods to accomplish that mission over the centuries. I think it is time for us to begin exploring other methods. Because God’s mission is much more important than any method we may have employed in the past or present.
I don’t pretend to have all of the answers to the questions I’ve posed this morning, but I do confess that I am listening intently for God’s voice, and I want to hear from you too. I recently read an article that said church leaders are afraid to do what I am about to do, but here goes. I want to invite you to be as open and honest with this church leadership as possible. I want to challenge you to tell us how you would answer these questions:
- Why are you part of this church?
- Have you ever contemplated stepping away from church? Why or why not?
- How would you describe your relationship with God right now?
- What effect, if any, has our church had on your relationship with God?
- What would need to change here to help you grow more toward Jesus’ call to love God and love others?
- What can Glenwood do to better proclaim and live out the message of Jesus, “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” to our community?
I feel compelled to make this important point before I finish this morning.
In his book The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith writes:
God is good, and God is still in control, and God’s kingdom is never in trouble.As I’ve expressed this morning, the “church” as we know it may be in decline in North America and that scares me. I listen for God to give us new direction. We still need to ask some hard questions about our faithfulness to God. But I also am reminded: God’s kingdom is not in trouble. God’s kingdom is strong. God’s power in this world will never diminish. Today, the church is called to do what the church of every generation has done: We need to look for what God is doing and we need to join God! I pray God would give us open eyes, extreme humility and amazing courage as we seek to follow Jesus’ words that He spoke so long ago…
As you go, make this announcement: “The Kingdom of heaven has come near.”