After a week of study, sermon planning and preparation, praying, silence, and solitude, and after a week of co-teaching at TCM in Vienna, Austria, and after a four-day motorcycle ride through Germany, France, and Switzerland, I believe I’m ready to get back in the saddle and ride into the exciting fall God has planned for those of us who are part of East 91st Street Christian Church. In my absence over the past couple of weeks, Dave Faust and Fred Meadows did a tremendous job writing their thoughts and reflections for this blog, and if you missed those, I encourage you to go back and read them from the archive. Thanks, Dave and Fred!
One of the experiences I had in my travels the past few weeks was riding through numerous small towns and villages in Europe. In the center of EVERY single town was a church building high and lifted up. Wherever you went, you could always look up and know right where you were, because you could see the church steeple. Town developers intentionally placed church buildings in the center of town on higher ground as a reference point to help villagers know their location.
Unfortunately, as Christianity in Europe waned in influence, what was once a reference point to keep travelers from losing their way has now become either a tourist destination or a gathering place for a handful of older believers who maintain the property and conduct a weekly service.
This is a portent of the future of Christianity in America, unless Christians and churches are willing to re-engage their culture and communities with the truth and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. The church is no longer the reference point for sojourners either spiritually or geographically. And I’m not just referring to a church building. 85% of all churches in America are plateaued or dying. Roughly 5,000 churches close their doors every year.
In a recent book by Thom Rainer called, Autopsy of a Deceased Church, the author researched fourteen different churches that plateaued, declined, and eventually died. His “autopsies” revealed some common contributors to the decline and demise of these churches: (1) Slow Erosion (no one paid attention to their gradual decline and death); (2) The past became the hero; (3) The church refused to look like the community; (4) The Great Commission became the great omission; (5) The church was driven by member preferences rather than mission; (6) Pastoral tenure decreased; (7) The church rarely prayed together; (8) The church had no clear purpose; (9) The church obsessed over the facilities.
As I drove through Europe and saw the number of closed church buildings (unless they were a museum of religious artifacts and history), I wondered which spiritual disease those churches had.
For all of our churches, let’s not become museums of the past but mission centers for the present and movements for the future. We serve a God who is bigger than time, whose nature engulfs time—past, present, and future. But this God beyond our human limitations calls Himself the “I AM” (Exodus 3:14). He has chosen to enter our time and space most fully through the Incarnation, Jesus Christ. He can exonerate our past, He empowers us in our present, and He enlightens us for our future.
If we keep our eyes on Him through humble, Christ-like obedience, and if we are willing to proclaim and live out the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:15) through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, we will see the advancement of the church—perhaps like no other time in history—and the gates of Hell will not prevail against us (Matthew 16:18)!