Why is the Church in Decline?

Statistics are clear. The polls tell the story. The American church is not well and our reputation is in shambles. Like the elephant in the room, these facts are largely ignored. News stories abound of attacks Evangelicals make on the sexual mores of unbelievers and how they take pot shots at one another. And why in the world are they looking to political leaders, i.e. Caesar, to lead us? Meanwhile, we have failed to reach Generations X, the Millennials and are failing to reach this generation.

Like dysfunctional families, some keep doing the same thing expecting different results. Others employ techniques of the entertainment world to build their churches. The model Jesus gave the apostles is largely ignored. Back then disciples were not spectators or bench warmers. Church leaders helped them find and use their gifts to lead and participate in various ministries. Today professionals disciple their people from the pulpit. A paid staff does most of the important stuff. Rank and file believers support, assist, and warm pews. Their gifts and talents are largely untapped. With a few exceptions, ministries are clergy-led. If new ministries emerge, more professionals are hired.

Jesus chose laymen. The clergy, Pharisees and Sadducees, rejected him. So Jesus turned to folks with jobs–laymen. He forged them into teams, utilizing their various gifts. He promised them His Spirit to empower them to be his witnesses. As a result His movement grew from 12 to 120 to 3000 to 10,000. The men and women he prepared succeeded by relying on the Spirit’s power and by following Jesus’ model.

Today Christians are on the sidelines, cheering the coach when they need to be on the field, blending their gifts with one another to light up the world and carry the gospel to others. Pastors need to come down from their pulpits, get to know their people, train leaders, form ministry teams and build up the body of Christ. When they do this, they help fulfill Jesus’ prayer, “Father, may they be one—may they be in unity as we are, that the world will believe.” (John 17: 21-23) When leaders trust their people to lead, enlist their talents, build community, encourage them and turn them loose, miracles can happen. New disciples can be won; neighbors take notice of us rather than scorn us. It’s what He promised. “Love each other (as equals) as I have loved you, and the world will recognize you as my disciples.” (John 13: 34, 35)

Jesus invented teamwork. St. Paul articulated it. Perhaps you have experienced the thrill of playing a team, sport or singing in a fine choir. I’ve played tennis singles and sung solos. But nothing beats shining with others to win a game or sing The Messiah. Imagine Handel’s thrill when he heard his masterpiece performed for the first time! It’s thrilling when the church functions like this. It gladdens the Lord’s heart and fulfills His vision for functional, workable, loving relationships in His body, the church

The Church an orchestra? Paul used the human body as an example of a healthy, growing church (1 Cor. 12: 14-26). We’ve changed the metaphor, but the principle is unchanged.   “…a fine orchestra is not made up of one instrument, but many different kinds. If the oboist says, “Because I don’t play the trumpet, I don’t belong,” that is foolish; and if the flutist were to say, “Because I do not beat a drum, I don’t belong,” that would be absurd.  If the whole orchestra were the flute, who would provide rhythm? And if all were percussionists, who would play the melody? As it is, the composer has written parts for all kinds of instruments, each to play its part in his great arrangement. And so it should be among you.”

“…So, the violinist does not say to the trombonist, “I don’t need you!” Nor does the guitarist say to the clarinet player, “I can handle this by myself!” On the contrary, all the instruments are needed, to blend together. Even the little piccolo is significant. Think how bleak “The Stars and Stripes Forever” would sound without him.” 

“So, even though instruments are tuned to different keys, when each plays his own part, the result is beautiful music. But if members go off playing their own tunes, they ruin the composition and throw off the others.  By the same token, when one player wins praise for his solo, all share in his glory.”

Please join the conversation. Your comments keep us going.

8 thoughts on “Why is the Church in Decline?

  1. Questions for you, my long time friend…
    Do you feel there is overemphasis on the idea of church attendance/membership?
    Are churches spending more time marketing themselves than doing real outreach?
    Do you think church budgets are more in-house centered than people centered?

    I agree with you…in congregations, there is less team effort than there should be. It becomes all about the leadership, especially if there is a “rock-star” pastor or a pastor who feels it is his job to “hear from the Lord” for his people. Oh, the stories I could tell.

    You were one who wanted to share the load, so to speak. Unfortunately, it was a tough row to hoe, as a pattern had been set by the denomination, that particular church and the generations that attended. This is not uncommon among many churches, of course. There are a few congregations sprouting, here and there, that believe and act in the team type serving you mentioned in this post. May this become a more common pattern.

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    • Yes. Wonderful comment. Your instincts are right-on. Were you aware I was trying to do that at San Hei? I learned it from two great spiritual leaders: Juan Carlos Ortiz and Richard Halverson (later, chaplain of US senate]. In retrospect, I wish I’d spent more time with those I was trying to disciple [train]and less time preparing sermons.

      Much of the problems is due to our image of the task of the professional pastor. Spiritual leaders do what we were taught in seminary, but we fail to lead as Jesus did. The confusion is compounded by our image of “the sermon on the mount.” Did you know it wasn’t a sermon at all and it wasn’t addressed to the crowds? “When Jesus saw the vast numbers, he went up the hill and after he sat down, his disciples came to him and he began teaching [not preaching to] THEM..” (antecedent is disciples, not the crowds.)

      Jesus’ mission wasn’t to reach the world with the gospel. One man, not even the Son of man, could ever do that. His job was to build a a community of faith (church: Matthew 16) that would serve as witnesses to the world who would be led by 12 men he trusted and trained. Since the church is still here 2000 years later, I think he did a pretty good job of it.

      I heard of a pastor say to his congregation, “I take seriously my responsibility for caring for your spiritual needs.” How many can a single man do that for? Francis Chan couldn’t, resigned his church, and now follows Jesus’s pattern. He only managed to care for 12. Of those, three were in his inner circle, one was his closest friend and one betrayed him. If pastors led as Jesus did, they would: a] Eliminate the distinction between rank and file laity and professional clergy–not in the Bible. 2] Trust the Holy Spirit to provide the leadership gifts needed among their people, 3] Identify those gifts 4] Give up the task of trying to disciple [train] from the pulpit; 5] Spend quality time with those they had identified 6] Trained them to lead and train others in the church. The positive outcome would be legion. Here are only some positives” a] Gifted members of his congregations would be energized to identify their gift and become ministers to the body and their world; b) Pew and committee sitters would be transformed to become functioning members of the body; c) Keep the many disenfranchised Christians who leave the church because they don’t believe Christianity is a spectator sport. d) There would be no need to hire an expensive staff.

      Thanks for the excellent comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Was Juan Carlos Ortiz from NY…part of the family that helped David Wilkerson when he arrived there?

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      • Juan Carlos Ortiz was one of the leaders of the Argenentine revival in the 60’s-70’s. He was the featured speaker at the Lausanne Conference, but his leadership model, taken directly from Jesus, was never accepted by the larger church. I was fortunate to hear his amazing story, found in his book which I hope you can find “Call to Discipleship.” Realizing traditional church leadership was not creating sheep, but no disciples. He humbled himself by coming down undercover and stole sheep from Pastor Ortiz (his exalted role), recruiting and training a small group of his members like Jesus did. He also reached out to other pastors, which began a revival in Argentina. There is much more I know about the tragic results of his teaching among many Charismatic leaders in the US. Bob Mumford, John Poole, Ern Baxter, Simpson and others skipped right over the principle of this revival: the mandate of Jesus to “Love one another and seek unity. These leaders headed up highly publicized and discredited Discipleship Movement because it became very authoritarian. John Poole, the finest Christian leader I ever known and a mentor, who came to Irvington twice and led crowds at the High School ended up leaving his wife for another woman and nearly breaking my heart.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well, humans is as humans does. Heartbreaking, yes.
        I just wondered, as it was an Ortiz family that was in NY when Wilkerson was there. Just a note of interest…in the book, it was a young daughter of that family who answered the door when Wilkerson knocked. We got to know her, her husband and children for several years back in the 90’s. So, that is why I wondered if it was the same Ortiz family.

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  2. Churches overemphasize marketing over outreach.
    …hierarchy over team
    …salaries and building expenses over benevolence
    …performance over grace.

    There are some congregations who are breaking the old pattern, where pastors are not the boss, people minister as the Lord directs and they keep expenses to a minimum and raise monies for ministering to others, rather than larger buildings.

    I desire to see more of this.

    Like

    • Yes. Wonderful comment. Your instincts are right-on. Were you aware I was trying to do that at San Hei? I learned it from two great spiritual leaders: Juan Carlos Ortiz and Richard Halverson (later, chaplain of US senate]. In retrospect, I wish I’d spent more time with those I was trying to disciple [train]and less time preparing sermons.

      Much of the problems is due to our image of the task of the professional pastor. Spiritual leaders do what we were taught in seminary, but we fail to lead as Jesus did. The confusion is compounded by our image of “the sermon on the mount.” Did you know it wasn’t a sermon at all and it wasn’t addressed to the crowds? “When Jesus saw the vast numbers, he went up the hill and after he sat down, his disciples came to him and he began teaching [not preaching to] THEM..” (antecedent is disciples, not the crowds.)

      Jesus’ mission wasn’t to reach the world with the gospel. One man, not even the Son of man, could ever do that. His job was to build a a community of faith (church: Matthew 16) that would serve as witnesses to the world who would be led by 12 men he trusted and trained. Since the church is still here 2000 years later, I think he did a pretty good job of it.

      I heard of a pastor say to his congregation, “I take seriously my responsibility for caring for your spiritual needs.” How many can a single man do that for? Francis Chan couldn’t, resigned his church, and now follows Jesus’s pattern. He only managed to care for 12. Of those, three were in his inner circle, one was his closest friend and one betrayed him. If pastors led as Jesus did, they would: a] Eliminate the distinction between rank and file laity and professional clergy–not in the Bible. 2] Trust the Holy Spirit to provide the leadership gifts needed among their people, 3] Identify those gifts 4] Give up the task of trying to disciple [train] from the pulpit; 5] Spend quality time with those they had identified 6] Trained them to lead and train others in the church. The positive outcome would be legion. Here are only some positives” a] Gifted members of his congregations would be energized to identify their gift and become ministers to the body and their world; b) Pew and committee sitters would be transformed to become functioning members of the body; c) Keep the many disenfranchised Christians who leave the church because they don’t believe Christianity is a spectator sport. d) There would be no need to hire an expensive staff.

      Thanks for the excellent comment.

      Like

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