In an ever-changing culture, the Church has always looked for
ways to reach more people. Gene talks about what
has been attempted in the past and what he sees as the
key to having a church that sees real life-change.
In 1958, a nation-wide religious census reported that "nearly all of the people of the United States claim to be church people." Cited by Dr. Elton Trueblood, the census showed that "only four per cent of those who are fourteen years of age or older deny all church connection. Ninety-six per cent claim to have...some real affiliation with a church."
I was one year old in 1958.
Today I live in a region where eighty-eight per cent of the population report they do not participate in church of any kind.
How did we get here in the span of one lifetime?
Being a practitioner of ministry my entire adult life, I have a particular point of view. Being a pastor in the church of Jesus, I have had a unique vantage point for watching the wholesale change in culture and church. Granted, I don't claim to have THE vantage point; I claim only to have one vantage point. And from my vantage point this is what I see: we got here because we lost the gospel.
At some point, it became apparent that the church was losing traction in culture. A flurry of save-the-church medications were produced: attractional church, marketing, superstar worship leaders and pastors, entertainment, updated programs, and so forth. Pastors and church leaders went off to save-the-church seminars and conferences and came back with their cases full of all kind of meds: "Hey, it worked for that church; let's try it here." The result was that nothing worked, truly. Oh, some churches got bigger. But overall, the trend kept moving downward, getting us to where, in the region where I pastor today, virtually no adult any longer has a real affiliation with a church.
Why has this happened? Because we lost the gospel of Jesus. All the time we were swallowing the church meds that promised results, people were longing for something else. Turns out they weren't longing for better entertainment in church. Turns out they were not really attracted to better marketing schemes. Turns out they weren't hungry for bigger and better at all. All the time they were hoping for the full, holistic, healthy gospel of Jesus.
Go to any corner cafe, get a cup of coffee and have a conversation with people who no longer have any real affiliation with church. What immediately strikes you is they have no interest in the church meds pastors and church leaders are getting their hands on. No interest. Nada. Zilch. When you listen to them, and not the church doctors, it takes only a moment to realize the recovery and restoration of the church will happen when the it recovers the full, holistic, healthy gospel of Jesus. Here is what you hear:
"We want more authenticity, less plastic, less schmooze, less pretend in church."
"We want deeper spirituality, less five-steps-to-your-best-life-ever."
"We want to live in community; we're tired of all the individualism in church."
"We want to be part of a community that lives, loves, gives for the last, the least and the lost."
Does any of that sound familiar? It should. It's the gospel. The recovery and restoration of the church will begin in every local church and local community when the church recovers the mission and message of Jesus. When his words, and his ways, shape us and form us and transform us, the church will once again have a future.
I have to say I love where I'm at. The community which God has allowed me to be part of for almost a decade is experiencing this recovery of the gospel. It's exciting. They are pushing hard for all the things I've heard in corner cafes: more authenticity, deeper spirituality, real community, radical servanthood. At a gathering of about twenty people from this church, someone put it like this: "Maybe we weren't ready in the past. But no more. Now we're ready." I love that honesty: maybe we tried out some church meds in the past hoping there was a save-the-church magic pill out there. But no more. We've emptied the church medicine cabinet. We've thrown away all the pills. We're ready for a genuine, awe-inspiring encounter with the crucified, resurrected and ascended Jesus. We're ready for the gospel.