Where To From Here?
We were in trouble well before coronavirus upended our 2020. Not so much Chesterfield Baptist Church as the larger, universal Church in North America (though we aren’t without our particular issues).
Church participation in the United States, like most of our social and civic organizations, has been in decline since the late 1960s. Since the 1990s, cultural change in America has led to huge numbers of people leaving religion altogether. Today, more than 25% of all Americans claim no religious affiliation—the largest single “religious affiliation” in the country—followed by Catholics and Evangelicals. When looking at Millennials, those adults aged 24-40, more than one-third of them have no religion. And of all these folks, when asked, 90% state that they are not looking for a religious affiliation.
What’s more, the damage done to churches by the COVID-19 pandemic has yet to be quantified, but we can be sure it is real.
And yet, this change in culture, is more opportunity than crisis. It is no secret that for a long time the Church in North America relied on social pressure to keep adults attached to the church. Blue laws, family pressure, and even shame and ostracism effectively bound people to a community of faith. Now, however, the Church no longer has the status or authority it once did.
Yet, I suspect that the Church of former decades made it easy for Christians to be Christians and allowed our skills and calling to atrophy. For instance, how many folks have you led to Christ in the last decade? How many have you introduced to Him? Who are you intentionally discipling right now? Can you name anyone? What has God called you to do right now? What is your mission?
You see, each of these questions is a biblical mandate. These aren’t things that belong to some Christians and not others. They are incumbent upon all of us.
But for too long we allowed our cultural dominance to do the job for us. Blessedly, we can no longer do that.
For the last 40 years the Church in North America has been trying to figure out how to engage a culture where 90% of non-Christians aren’t even looking for a spirituality. We’ve resorted to changing our worship style and offering various programs, but I believe our reformation has to be more fundamental.
I believe two things are absolutely essential.
We do education in the church … sort of. We have Sunday School classes and Bible Studies and provide some explication in sermons … but we have largely failed in discipleship. This is largely evident in even Christians lack of distinctiveness when it comes to their behavior, much less that they are increasingly ignorant about their own scriptures (ironic, given how much Bible Study we do). Some time ago, a woman I love expressed grave concerns with me about any church allowing dancing. When I pointed out several instances in the scriptures of dancing as legitimate form of worship her response to me was, “I guess I just don’t know my Bible then.”
I find it interesting the number of people I have dad conversations with in our church who justify their current behavior with the statement, “That’s just how I was raised.” Yes … but is that the way of Jesus?
Interestingly, been raised a certain way is a great example of discipleship. Our parents teach us certain principles and ideas and behaviors. They do this by their example, by enforcing discipline, and by repetition. These are all excellent practices for discipleship. We all learn in these ways. These are fantastic pedagogical methods. In fact, they’re the same methods Jesus used.
But Jesus disciples us in the way of the kingdom … not in the way of my childhood home (though, obviously, there could be some overlap). He then calls us to do as he did: make disciples! Now notice, Jesus doesn’t do a whole lot of Bible Study with his disciples. To my knowledge, he never held a Sunday School class for them. Yet, through his example, through repetition, through real-world problems, and, yes, even through discipline, he taught them to walk in the world a different way … his way.
You can’t talk about how bad or selfish or entitled the next generation is if you’re not willing to disciple them. You can’t blame how they ended up on their parents or how they were raised when our scriptures clearly teach that we are the ones who know the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus said it is our job to “make disciples … teaching them to obey all that I have commanded.”
The way forward for the Church from here is discipleship.
For nearly 200 years the Church in North America had it easy when it came to missions. We set up international mission organizations (e.g. the International Mission Board), and national mission organizations (e.g. the North American Mission Board), and state mission organizations (e.g. Virginia Baptist Mission Board), and even local mission organizations (e.g. the Middle District Baptist Association). As church members we didn’t have to get our hands dirty. We outsourced our mission responsibilities: we cut a check and let someone else be a missionary.
And for a while, it worked. In the 1950s, 2% of the American population claimed no religious affiliation. If we were going to engage in mission work, then people needed to go where the need was … and it wasn’t here.
But we forgot how to be missionaries. We forgot how to live missional lives. The first word of the Great Commission is “Go,” but we’ve never had to go. Now the mission field is our own back yard. Every fourth house on our street is inhabited by someone who could care less about church or God. If we live in a younger neighborhood, it’s at least every third house, which means that one of the houses on either side of us has no relationship with God.
The scriptures tell us that the Father sent the Son. When the Son returned to the Father, together they sent the Spirit. The Book of Acts makes it clear that the Spirit sends the Church. The word apostle is just a Greek word for “the sent ones.” Our God is missionary in his very nature. The Trinity is missional to its core. And we are called to be like our God.
We must reclaim our missionary identity.
The way forward for the Church from here is mission.
It’s not our style of music. It’s not the quality of our Sunday School classes or Bible Studies. It’s not how engaging the preacher is or what kind of cool event we can pull off. It’s not how attractive our buildings are.
The way forward is entirely dependent on our ability to make disciples and to go. Though they’ll always be welcome at Chesterfield Baptist, it’s only going to get harder and harder to get them to come to us. To be a faithful people in uncertain times, we’re going to have to go to them. Rather than spending our time building programs, each of us is going to have to invest in people. Before we’ll have earned the trust to invite them to church, we’ll have to invite them over for dinner.
We will become a church that makes disciples and sends people into the world.
It’s going to be unbelievable.