Saturday, July 28, 2007

Too Little Emphasis on the Local Church?

I’ve been reading Ed Stetzer’s book on church planting recently. He made the following statement that grabbed my attention:

“Eighty to 85 percent of American churches are on the downside of their life cycle.”

Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 13.

Stetzer placed an endnote for that statement on page 334: “Win Arn, cited in Malphurs, Planting Growing Churches, 32.” I’m not sure how that figure of 80-85% was determined or what the criteria was for determining whether a church was on the downside of its life cycle, but the statement is certainly disturbing.

I do not know all the reasons for such a high percentage of our churches being on the downside of their life cycle, but I would like to speculate on a few. Our church members only have so much time to give in their busy schedules. This is particularly true in our American culture in this era when both husbands and wives typically work outside the home. There are many good activities, and sometimes it’s difficult to separate the good from the best. I want to suggest some possible competitors to the local church that have perhaps diverted our members from the best to the merely good and thus weakened the local church:

1. Athletic Events – I can remember when ballgames were not scheduled on Sundays, except in professional sports. Now, weekend tournaments for our church members and their children are quite common. I wonder how families can finance so many of them. I love sports, and I think athletic events are wholesome activities. They can even be used for evangelism and discipleship. When I served as pastor of a church in Kentucky, we built a Family Life Center with a very nice basketball court. Our gym, however, did not interfere with other church activities; rather, it complemented them.
2. Parachurch Ministries – Again, parachurch ministries are good, but if our members neglect local church involvement by getting over-involved in parachurch ministries, they are making a mistake. A parachurch organization cannot take the place of a local church. Large parachurch ministries may be more glamorous than small local churches, but our members must remember that parachurch ministries should assist local churches, not take their place.
3. Famous Preachers on Television and Radio – Once again, these are good ministries. These famous preachers may be better at preaching than the preacher in a particular local church, but certainly they cannot substitute for the local church pastor. Many church members send money to these guys and spend a lot of time listening to them, but if that involvement negatively affects involvement in the local church, then it should change to some degree.

One attitude that has negatively affected local churches is consumerism. Many folks shop around for a church like they would for a house. How comfortable is it? Will it require much maintenance from me? Is it beautiful and state-of-the-art? In contrast, it would be refreshing to see more folks ask the following questions: Where can I most effectively serve the Lord? Which local church needs me the most? Another attitude that has negatively affected local churches is individualism. In America, with the exception of corporate worship, we have emphasized individual religious activities but not group religious activities. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts in regard to evangelism, education, ministry, and fellowship. Part of the problem is that members have low expectations for membership. It's as if we say, "All you need to do is be a part of the audience." Our message should be that every member is expected to have a place of service, a specific ministry. We need each other!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

It’s a Small World

Last night my wife and I spoke for an hour in regard to our 10-year IMB career at Bellevue’s summer camp for fourth and fifth graders at Camp Cordova in Memphis, an associational camp that I attended as a boy. About 200 campers were there, and they had some interesting questions for us at the end. One of them asked a question that I dread: “What is the strangest food that you ate in South Korea?” I don’t like this question because my answer always “grosses out” the audience, and such was the case last night. Interestingly, one of the counselors in the audience had lived in South Korea for four years near the DMZ, and I mentioned this to the crowd during the introduction. (He was not surprised at my answer to the food question.)

I have recently made another interesting discovery that makes me want to repeat the old cliché once again about our “small world.” Richard C. Strub wrote a book dealing with the history of the church in which I was reared in Memphis: The Eudora Baptist Story: God’s 150-Year Miracle, 1850-2000. I was surprised to find that J. R. Graves, the famous leader of the Landmark movement, served briefly as pastor of the church during 1868. Strub described Graves’ time in Memphis:

“One of the most notable of all Eudora pastors apparently served here only part of 1868. . . . He moved to Memphis is 1867 as editor and publisher—and helped bring the new Sunday School Union here. He served as interim at First Baptist, where he held a long membership. Union University benefited from his generosity when located at Murfreesboro and Jackson. . . . His wife and mother were Yellow Fever victims in 1867. Graves was an invalid following an 1884 stroke. He died here June 26, 1893.” (Strub, 13-14)

Graves had the stroke while filling the pulpit at First Baptist Church in Memphis, according to Samuel H. Ford (Life, Times and Teachings of J. R. Graves, 1899).