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The little churches are declining.  The big churches are, often, getting bigger.  Now, in the little churches, we often complain that we’re getting smaller because the big churches are getting bigger.

But I’ve looked at the numbers—at least in our town and other towns I’ve been in—and the statement doesn’t hold true.  Yes, the little churches are getting smaller, and the bigger churches are getting bigger, but there’s not a direct correlation.  If I were to estimate (and why not? It’s my blog, right?), I would say that for every 100 people who have left the little churches, less than 25 are being added to the big churches.

I look at the people that we, as a small church, have lost over the 7 years I have been here and I can only think of one couple that went to a bigger church.  Some died, some are chronic church-hoppers and we knew from the beginning we didn’t have them for long … and some have just stopped going to church.

This is a small town.  I still see these people around town and I talk to them.  I’m friendly, they’re friendly, and they usually tell me something like, “Yeah, I need to get back into church, but … “  For the sake of this blog, there’s no need to go into the specifics of the second half of that sentence.

See, they don’t hate the church; they would never in a million years tell me they hate God; they just don’t have room for either in their lives right now.

So, what has the church usually done to try and address this problem?  Newer, hipper music.  Video screens.  Youth programs.  Gymnasiums.  Let me stress: there is nothing wrong with any of these things.  I see no evidence that any of these things is anti-God in any way.  And sometimes, they even help (though that’s not a guarantee, either).

Travel back in time with me for a moment.  A time when Sunday morning service involved hymns, sung from hymnals, and the sermons were generally expository (and long).  What did people used to call the Wednesday night service back then?  “Prayer meetin’.”  And you know what?  The church was a vital part of the community and the churches were growing and every denomination was planting and growing new congregations and—

Wait, this isn’t a call to go back to hymns, unpadded pews, women’s hats and men’s ties.  While I’m a big fan of expository preaching (or “ex-poz”, as we pronounce it in the biz), I don’t know that it is the answer over topical sermons.

But I’m thinking that one thing we need to stop trying to do is “be relevant”.  Because the more we try to be “relevant”, the less impact we seem to be having on our culture.  The more user-friendly we’ve tried to make the church, the less users we’ve had in the church.  We lost the culture a long time ago and I don’t think we can recapture it.

At least, not on culture’s terms.  I’m glad there’s Christian music and Christian movies and I’ve even tried to do my part to add to the library of Christian novels and all these things may have a place, but I don’t think they are the answer (because, for the most part, they are encouraging the faithful but having little effect on the unsaved).

For one thing, let’s travel back in that time machine again.  Back when the churches played a much larger part in the life of the average American, was life perfect?  Nope.  Not only did they not have satellite TV, they also had crime and poverty and all the vices we do today.  Divorce may not have been as prevalent but there were still plenty of loveless, Godless (but I repeat myself) marriages.

C.S. Lewis said that he noticed that chapel attendance at college decreased when it stopped being mandatory.  While there has never been a country-wide command to be in church here inAmerica, there used to be some societal assumptions and pressures to get in a church when one came to a town.  At some point, though, that ethos ceased to be passed down to the next generation.  Church went from “something you better be a part of” to “something that’s a good idea to be a part of” to, now, “something I can’t understand why anyone would be a part of.”  Those of us who go to church are thought of as harsh and judgmental and uncaring and … and you know what?  The facts have no impact on this argument.

We can blame that on the media or the past transgressions of the church, but the real reason is that the god of this age has blinded people to the truth.  And then he’s convinced them that he doesn’t exist and the one, true God is either a fable or a doddering old man, a vestige of a bygone, unsophisticated age.

What do I think needs to happen?  I think we need to stop worrying about being relevant.  I don’t think the style of music matters nearly so much as what is sung* or the length of the sermon is as important as what is said.  (The Apostle Paul preached so long a dude fell asleep and died—and then, after raising the fellow—Paul went and finished the sermon!  But Jesus’s entire Sermon on the Mount can be read out loud in about 12 minutes, 20 if you’re in the south.)

Ultimately, I think what’s going to save the church is to take the focus off the church and put it on our every-day-lives.  See, I’m convinced that all those people who have drifted away from the church didn’t leave because of doctrinal issues or even the church’s stance on alcohol, drugs, homosexuality, gambling, or whatever.

I think they left because they looked at the people who stayed and didn’t see that church really made any difference.  They heard the Lord works in people but saw no evidence of it other than a few happy bromides, which they could achieve on their own by bailing out on church, sleeping late on Sunday, and getting tweets from Joyce Meyers*.

I think—nay, I’m convinced—that the only way to save the church is to take the emphasis off the church and have Christians living—every day, out in the world—as Christians.

 

* For those people who are always going on about how much better the old hymns are because of the lyrical intricacies and harmonies and such, I think some of the worship choruses surpass the hymns for the simple reason that they are just scripture set to music.  While I, personally, am not big on all the repetition some of the new songs slip into, over all I would have to say that a direct quote from the Apostle Paul trumps the poetry of Isaac Watts (but that’s just me).

* No offence to Joyce Meyers.  She sends out good tweets, which is why she was the first one to come to mind.  There are also great tweets from CS Lewis, Billy Graham, Max Lucado, Timothy Keller, Matt Chandler and many more.

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About Sam White

Samuel Ben White (“Sam” to his friends) is the author of the national newspaper comic strip “Tuttle’s” (found at www.tuttles.net) and the on-line comic book “Burt & the I.L.S.” (found at www.destinyhelix.com). He is married and has two sons. He serves his community as both a minister at a small church and a chaplain with hospice. In addition to his time travel stories, Sam has also written and published detective novels, a western, three fantasy novels and four works of Christian fiction.

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