Tuesday, May 5, 2009

My Own Op-ED--Time Lapse

As I have stated before, I highly respect Ed Lewis. I am not writing any of these pieces to critique the man, and certainly do not assume a bit of ill intent from him. I simply thought it would be good to share a different take on his diagnosis and his solutions which were offered in his editorial. And the views of the editorial are not unique to Ed, so this really is an issue regarding some discussion for the whole Fellowship.

(In a way, Ed is stuck being singled out because he is a great guy. I clearly like the man. In the past, other critiques, questions or comments I have had for other ministry partners are ignored, bypassed or deleted. I've been accused of being mean spirited or having personal vendettas. This does not apply at all to my relationship with Ed, so I saw this as a chance to place this out in public. If the problem is my writing styles, perhaps I can correct it. And perhaps I can have some constructive conversations with others who seem unwilling to talk? This is your chance to tell me if you think I'm being out of line.)

Really, this has nothing ultimately to do with Ed. It's one article he wrote. I'd sever the connection and move on (for I think these issues matter), except all the posts kind of flow from one another and may not make sense without it. But please, this is far bigger than addressing an editorial from a man who lives in Winona. If you are a pastor (especially if you are in the FGBC), please consider these thoughts carefully.

Often, when we read the statistic that 70% of young people are leaving the church when they leave high school (or that 59% of people 18-29 are leaving the church) we immediately begin to look at the current state of the church. We ask the question, "What are we doing wrong?" However, there seems to be a far more pressing question:

What have we done wrong?

You see, their attendance can trick us. They used to come to church, so we were doing it right then. Now they don't come anymore, so we must be doing something wrong. But what if what we were doing is the reason they aren't coming now? What if past practices are the reason for the current exodus? In fact, could our past practices be the reason the young people are leaving and the "Boomers" are getting bored? I think so.

Mark Dever so succinctly states it: "What you win them with, you win them to." How were so many of the "Boomers" won? We remodeled the facility to look more conducive to their comforts. We shortened the sermons to appeal to their attentions spans. We spoke directly to their felt needs to address the issues they wanted to hear. We began to cater to their desires and wants. We won many with many different things.

Now, the next generation comes along. They tolerated church the way an older generation wanted it for a time, but now they are ready to branch out on their own. They are able to vote and die for their country, but they aren't old enough to begin seeing the church adapt to their desires too. Now it becomes a power struggle. Do we give the "Boomers" what they want (and this isn't status quo, for they are now bored with what they have) or do we seek to engage the next generation?

The editorial suggests PowerPoint® as a possible solution. I'd disagree for the following three reasons (from least important to greatest). a) 99.9% of all PowerPoint® I have seen in sermons is cheesy and lame. Let's be honest, no one is being impressed by it, and at times, it's just making the church look more out of touch. b) It just doesn't go deeply enough into the heart of the problem. This issue goes deeper than just a few surface level corrections we can make. c) Preaching is so different than anything else ever created by God that the Scriptures are full of passages which state people will see by hearing. We still reach the eyes of our people's hearts through their ears. That's a timeless, God-ordained fact.

Furthermore, you won't be able to keep up with the technological demands. PowerPoint® today, holograms tomorrow. You see, what you win them with, you win them to. If they are coming because you have catchy visuals, look out! You'll have to make sure you keep up with the demands. And guess what, the vast majority of our churches are small and are incapable of keeping up with the budgetary demands to wow the masses. Though we can't compete with the funds, staff, equipment and manpower of titan churches, we are often told they are the standard we should be looking to. Even our larger Grace Brethren churches pale in comparison to the "big dogs" out there in other denominations. If that's the way we want to fight the battle, we will lose.

However, if our ministries are set around the gospel, now that we can do. And when we win people with the gospel, then as long as we keep preaching that gospel, we've won them to it. Trends will come and trends will go, but the gospel will keep them there. Ah, but our churches are preaching the gospel, you protest. People often misunderstand what I mean by this, so allow me to ask a few questions for clarification:

1. Do you preach repentance?

    Many have abandoned the word repentance because it "just doesn't sell today." It seems to be too strong a word and we've seen too many people turn away when we use it. Therefore, we try to get them to come to Jesus and then we'll teach them repentance later. However, this simply is not the way the Apostles preached. Repentance is not small print in the contract. It is the lifestyle the believer is called to. To turn to Jesus we must turn away from our sin. If you win them with a Jesus who doesn't demand repentance, how do you win them to a Jesus who expects repentance from His Bride?
2. Do you preach the gospel every time?
    "Sounds to me like you just want to be an evangelist," is often the response I get. (We'll address that point in the next question.) Many pastors tell me they make their schedule out where there is a specifically evangelistic message on a quarterly basis or so. It doesn't seem necessary to preach it every single week. However, let me ask you this. If a visitor comes--and keeps returning--yet they don't hear the gospel until week five, what was it that won them over in weeks one through four?
3. Does your gospel only seem for the visitor/non-believer?
    This is a big pet peeve of mine. To many pastors in my Fellowship view the gospel as simply the message that leads to justification. Once the person has received the gospel, many assume it can just be set to the side as you move on to other issues. Perhaps you bring it back out when equipping the body for evangelism, or when a person doubts whether they are saved. Otherwise, it stays on the shelf while we talk about how to live the Christian faith. However, the gospel must be that which people hear in regard to their sanctification too. It is the message which roots out and destroys my legalism and my lawlessness all at once. It is a message your people must hear to grow in godliness! (Pastor, there is an easy test to see how you are doing with this. How do your people respond when you are preaching the gospel? Do they look around, appear bored or seem disconnected. How could that be? You are speaking about how the Infinite Creator made salvation possible by offering His Son to die for our sins!!! How could your people be bored? Because they don't see that the message is still beneficial to them.) If you won them with a "one time decision" gospel message, how will you win them to a gospel that changes the whole man?
4. Do you over emphasize conversion stats?
    If you give altar calls, or ask for a show of hands, or have people fill out decision cards, it is also easy to declare those responses. Now you are in an awkward place. Five people come forward at the end of a service. The church is thrilled and excited. After three weeks, one person is never seen again and there never was any visible fruit. What does the pastor do? Is he to get in the pulpit one week and announce everyone should adjust their scorecards (and let's be honest, people are keeping score) to four? Do we have people adjust a outreach event total when a person later "falls away?"
These seem to be the places we should be looking. If a young person leaves as soon as they hit college and denies the faith, or an older person suddenly becomes bored with the message, we've got two options.
    1. The church won the young person over with something other than the gospel, therefore they kept coming to church, but it wasn't really for Jesus.
    2. The church faithfully preached the gospel, but there will always be tares among the wheat. They'll eventually leave, and there really isn't anything the church can do about it.
Therefore, the power of the gospel calls us to keep preaching the gospel. If we were before, yet young people are leaving, why would we ever want to change the message? (And doesn't our eschatology tell us that the number of individuals "falling away" should increase as the Day approaches?) But if we look and see our gospel was secondary to the life of the church, there's still time. Repent and place it back out at front and center.

For a neglect or assumption of the gospel is not only the problem, turning back to it is also our solution!

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