It seems like it’s getting harder and harder to do any research on church membership in America without getting depressed. The vast majority of articles that cover trends in American church membership talk about a general decline. This decline seems to be especially pronounced in the traditional “mainline” denominations in America.
The result of all this research is that there are a lot of people who are trying to figure out why church membership in America might be declining. Obviously, understanding why church membership might be declining is one of the first steps to reversing the trend.
There have been myriad possible reasons offered for declining church membership. Everything from increasing demands on people’s available free time, to greater competition from other religions of the world.
Among all the possible reasons, there is an undercurrent of thought that is common, even when it isn’t explicitly stated– that the Gospel message is no longer relevant to modern Americans.
This reasoning is not only dangerous and self-defeating, but it is also completely wrongheaded, for a number of reasons. I want to show you why the church doesn’t have a message problem; the Church has a delivery problem.
A 2,000 Year-Old Message Doesn’t Suddenly Turn Irrelevant
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matt. 28: 19-20 NIV)
For 2000 years, followers of Jesus have been doing exactly what he originally commanded his first 12 disciples to do. Over those 2000 years, the number of Christians has grown from dozens, to hundreds, to thousands, to millions, to billions.
The Gospel message is just as relevant today as it was when the apostles first preached it after Christ’s ascension. It is just as relavent today as it was when Paul wrote his letters to the groups of Christians scattered around the ancient world.
People need to hear that message today, just as they did then. There is no need to change the message. The sharing of the gospel message and the magnificence of Jesus Christ has always been relevant. It will always be relevant. It will always be sufficient.
So What’s the Issue?
If the gospel message hasn’t changed over 2000 years, then what has?
Everyone recognizes that the world that we live in today is not the same as it was 25, 50, 100, 500 or 2000 years ago. Not only that, but over the last 50 years, the rate of change has become even faster. It used to take decades, even centuries, for significant change to be realized on a national or global scale. Now, it take just mere years to see similar amounts of change.
Think about your history classes– the “Middle Ages” is defined as a period of about 1000 years (from the 5th to the 15th centuries). The Renaissance is defined as a period of about 300 years (the 14th to the 17th centuries). The Enlightenment is defined as a period of about 100 years (the 18th century). Each of these periods are defined by certain sociological, scientific and philosophical attributes. Each marks a major change in human civilization.
The first period lasted 1000 years, then 300 years, then 100 years. By the time we get to the 20th century, we are down to defining history in terms of decades (the Roaring 20′s, the 60′s, the 80′s). Right now, historians and sociologists are having trouble finding commonalities in decades!
Initially, the Church was very good at keeping pace with changes in the world. In fact, the Church has largely found itself on the leading edge of change. Most of the major changes in technology, science, and society were pushed by the Church (the printing press, anyone?). Most recently, however, the Church has seemed to remain content having ceded its place as a change agent to scientists and technologists.
Rather than staying ahead of the changes, there has been a recent movement by the Church to remain unchanged. This seems to come out of some sort of unfounded fear that the Church might become too “worldly.”
That puts us where the Church (especially the mainline denominations) is now. Operating in a way that might have been great 50 years ago, but is not nearly as relevant to people today. Everything from structure, to worship style, to dress, to evangelism should be up for evaluation.
The Church needs to be less worried about how it can stay the same in today’s climate of change, and more worried about how it can create the change that the world so desperately needs.
The Good News
The good news is that we still need the Good News. The Gospel hasn’t changed one bit. It is just as relevant and important to the lives of people living in 2012 AD as it was to people living in 112 AD. So the Church has no need to worry about the relevancy of its message. There is no need for a “rebranding” of the Gospel (despite the fact that some people seem all too willing to try).
The other good news is that it is much easier to fix a delivery problem than it is to fix a message problem. It merely requires a shift in the way the Church looks at itself and its place in the world.
The problem isn’t that the Church has become less relavent to the world, but that the Church sees the world as less relevant to itself.
There needs to be a shift in thinking. We must consider that some things that worked well 50 years ago, or 100 years ago might not work so well today.
That does not mean that we change the message. The Gospel never changes. It does, however, mean that we might need to change the way in which that Gospel message is delivered.
What Must Be Done
Our methods of communicating the Gospel, our style of communicating the Gospel, must all align with the times in which we live.
Do you know what the very first thing missionaries did when they went to a new land was? They learned the language. Seems obvious, right? If you can’t communicate with the people in the land you are in, they’ll never get to hear the Good News.
It’s time for the Church to learn the language of today. It’s time for the Church to communicate the wonderful, important, relevant Gospel message in a way that will reach people now. It is time for the Church to fix its delivery problem.
In some cases, this might mean doing old things in a new way; in other cases, it might mean doing new things in an old way. It will mean starting new traditions, and letting go of some old ones.
And it’s up to us; me and you. It’s up to the followers of Jesus that are here, now, to ensure that no one misses the Gospel simply because we are unwilling or unable to communicate it in a way that is relevant to them.
If we are to be fishers of men, it’s time to mend the nets.