The Failure of the Church
Many scholars argue that the role of the local church is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Chris Shirley quotes Barna in his article entitled, “It Takes a Church to make a Disciple”: “Barna points out, and rightly so, that local churches are not achieving stellar results in transforming the lives and worldviews of their members” (1). He further explains “that by 2025, the local church will be rendered irrelevant” (1). Shirley goes on to refute all the many flaws of which Barna attempts to accuse the local church. However, Shirley acknowledges that the local church is struggling, and it is time to make some changes before Barna’s prediction becomes a reality. Unfortunately, many churches have begun to follow suit which is an extremely dangerous trend. Many scholars agree with Barna, that if we do not refocus the Churches priority back to making disciples, we place the will of God into our own hands. This cannot be accomplished unless churches realize the dangers of focusing on attendance, shift to a Biblical outlook of discipleship, and begin to implement the Biblical solutions into the church.
Today’s church is more focused on getting people in the door, which is causing the local church to hurt. In his book, “Not a Fan,” Kyle Idleman touches on this topic. He explains,
I think a lot of well-intended preachers adopt a Snuggie Theology when they find themselves in churches of a few hundred people and discover the incredible pressure to grow. The attendance isn’t what was hoped for, and the offerings are down. Before they know it has happened they gauge success not on their faithfulness to God but by the weekend statistics. And the sermons get sanitized. Scripture gets edited. The cross gets covered up. The sermons are often on Salvation, but never about surrender. Often about forgiveness, but never about repentance. Often about living, but not dying (45).
As Idleman points out, “well-intended” preachers and churches that start off as God-seeking, faithful churches, as time goes on and stats go down, the priority un-intentionally moves to getting people in the door and getting the offerings up. The way that the local church is justifying this new type of evangelism is, “if we get people in the door, we can evangelize to them when they get here.” However, the way that the churches are going about getting people in the door is by preaching “Snuggie” theology. When we look at the Bible, the example that Jesus sets and the example the apostles give in Acts completely contradict what we are doing right now. This makes absolutely no sense, especially when the Bible is our highest authority. The people that the new church is creating are people that Idleman would call, “Fans, and not followers.” These people are not saved. Idleman goes onto say, “The biggest threat to the church today is fans who call themselves Christians but aren’t actually interested in following Christ. They want to be close enough to Jesus to get all the benefits, but not so close that it requires anything from them” (46). This is the type of person that the churches that prioritizes attendance over discipleship produce.
Scripture provides a formula for creating a biblical functioning church in Matthew 28:19-20: “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, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Ironically, the scripture does not say go make attendees of all nations. However, that is what we are doing. Bill Hull, in his book, “A Disciple Making Church,” defines discipleship as, “The intentional training of disciples, with accountability, on the basis of loving relationships” (16). Jesus trained 12 people specifically for the mission of the church. For example, if Jesus attempted to disciple the 5,000 men that were fed in the same manner that He discipled the twelve, He would not have had intimate relationships with them all (We must remember that yes, Jesus is God, but He was also flesh). We see this framework of discipleship portrayed throughout the New Testament. For example, between Barnabas and Paul, Paul and Timothy, John and his many disciples, and so on. When there is no discipleship at all, we get superficial religious customers. Bill Hull explains it this way:
Superficial beliefs create religious customers, religion is there to save their skins, to relieve their guilt, and to call on in times of trouble. This is why people stop going to church. It isn’t challenging, it isn’t critical to their life itself and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. There are many happy exceptions, but the trend continues down and down and down some more (24).
It is time to begin to implement this Biblical model into our Church planting strategies. In the model that Scripture gives us we see that God is critical to the followers’ way of life. People dedicate their entire lives to God, and we see that many are killed due to their faith in God. The contemporary model of the church does not create these types of Christians, nonetheless disciples. It is important not to apply the term “disciple” exclusively to the twelve that followed Jesus. Boyd Luter says in his journal entitled, “Discipleship and the Church,” “Many mistakenly narrow their concept of discipleship to “the training of the Twelve” (or even the seventy) by Jesus. But that view cannot be supported by the overall usage of the term disciple in the Gospels or the Book of Acts” (2). “Disciple” is a universal term used describe one who follows God anywhere, he or she is a true Christian. It seems scary that the local church is failing at producing Christians. Yes, a superficial Christian is, in fact, not a Christian at all. When put into perspective, it’s frightening because we barely effectively evangelize to those in our own nation. Missionaries often come to America with the mission of refabricating the foundations of the local church, which our culture has unfortunately distorted.
In conclusion, the church’s priorities need to change, and they need to change fast. Barna’s prediction certainly has the potential of becoming a reality if we do not take the proper steps to realign our view of discipleship with the Bible. Today, the church has created a theology that invites people in the door and gets them to sit down and listen to a “gospel” that is not the good news. The modern church needs to shift from an attendance-based gospel to a Biblically-based gospel that focusses on true disciple making.