"Have you not asked those who travel the roads, and do you not accept their testimony?" (Job 28:29)

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Church Key Evangelism...

A MAJOR challenge exists for the small modern Christian church as we are yet mandated by Jesus Christ to proclaim the gospel message. The gospel, simply stated, is that though a sinful people, we have been saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. This faith has been and still is… a gift from God, a gift provided by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit was given to the tiny gathering of apostles during a Pentecost festival held nearly two millennia ago. However, the same eternal Spirit of God hovered over the church so that it grew worldwide. That same Spirit is close by as I write this article about small church ministry. Through the Spirit, God whispers wisdom from scripture into my ear as I type, and guides my Enter key.
 What presses upon me is that each week in our little mission church, I normally end the Sunday worship experience by saying, “Let us go in peace, to love and serve the Lord!”
 This being said, we go… and to some degree we serve… but the echo fades as the week rolls on. The realization again reappears for us and most Christians in this American society, that serving the Lord does not center upon proclaiming the gospel so that the church grows. This is true at least in many small towns and rural areas..
 The realization hits many churches that we are not growing. Excuses loom. For example, I live in a rather busy, small town that is filled with a lot of nice people. Our congregation is a tiny mission outpost that gathers some very active and busy people. But we haven’t gathered new persons to worship with us in more than a year.
 As I think about this, I tend to explain this stagnation away by a theory of relativity… in desperation we look for anyone to just gather in sameness for the next Sunday AM… and bring a relative once in a while. Overall, it often seems that a demon has taken a scatter gun to Christian witness in our town. Christian community is getting smaller and smaller. Therefore, I count us as blessed last year when our congregation held its population steady… while some churches linger closer to closure.
 But that is deceptive excuse. Our small church, which shares the building with another faith family from another denomination, is yet losing persons. In the midst of this foreboding coming upon us, my mind is guided to a scriptural word picture. I am reminded of old Simeon as he waited in prayer for the salvation of Israel... 

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.
 And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said.., “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.” (Luke 2:25-26).

 Looking for the salvation of Christian expression in our community, therefore, while I know that the Spirit is present in our church… I feel like Simeon in my waiting that the gospel voice be surely heard in the public square. If our congregation does not do the task of evangelism in the public square, it and other churches will rightly fail.

Beer Can Crushing?
Sociologically speaking, I see that our various Christian denominations and traditional church structures are slowly failing across the nation. In recent decades many faith expressions have suffered crushing statistics. Worship has become sparsely attended, and this decline falls more so as faithful elder members die. This fact is especially accelerated for any church or denomination that suffers inner turmoil while standing firmly against certain modern trends. Churches that have condemned such practices as alternate marital lifestyles and abortion seem to be hardest hit. A bright spot that I have noted locally, however, is that “fundamentalist” churches have been given to turn to “entertainment theology”. Down-home talent helps to maintain, and even grow their existence and outreach. But in my view, care must be taken. A demonic trade can be present. Some of these venues do wonderful outreach, but only mention salvation through Christ as an afterthought. This tactic is excused so to envelop the newbie attendee with personal human relationships, and hopefully, eventually… promote a “relationship with Christ”.
 While this bait and switch does gather some persons to the gospel message to some degree, the entertainment shell game does not fit my own pastoral skill set. For me, I see that this entertainment trend can be a hindrance, especially if the music, etc… draws more importance for the disciple than the sermon and holy meal. I ask, “Do we really need to soft pedal sainthood to a supporting role behind the bass guitar?”
 But if we do not favor this method, how do we cease the slide toward becoming extinct? Have orthodox faith expressions fallen so far from mainline favor that our congregations shall be whited sepulchers sitting alongside a rural road like a decorative, recycled milk can? By observation we can see that modern lifestyles lure many of our faithful away from the church, and hinder others from joining us. These lifestyles promote a believer’s casual interaction or sporadic attendance within the faith community.
 Living in a small town and rural society then, I see where the church is often replaced by other realms. School activities draw persons into a liberal secular life that becomes prominent for young families This is such that public schools now schedule sporting events on Sunday mornings without excuse or afterthought about the faithful who would usually attend church.
 Indeed, demons do shell games as subtle diversions occur within political arenas, labor unions, fraternal organizations and businesses. Any church community that holds dearly to traditional biblical standards for human relationships quickly becomes archaic to a family having youth whose biggest Sunday challenge is how to get everyone to football or band practice. The parents often feel justified to take this busy path, hoping to dissuade young family members from getting involved with alcohol and drug subcultures. Thus we in the church see that Sunday School may suffer second string to softball.
 Social issues such as marriage, abortion and tolerance for all religions rise to lure faithful parishioners so strongly that whole traditional denominations are tumbling. The locks on the church doors have been picked by the demonic... so that the churches accommodate liberal, progressive theologies just to keep membership rolls from lessening. By doing so, a supple, whited sepulcher stays financially in place though emptied of its faith-filled life. As this occurs, too many ministers find themselves relegated to doing feckless “social ministry” projects. Some mega-churches often cast aside feeding poor widows and children or caring for the ill and dying; replacing these worthy ministries as their “spiritual guides” preen in the public square. These may cling to car seats in marches supporting gay pride or speak in labor union drives to raise minimum wage… all the while the nave in the church sits emptied.
 This modern atomization of our Christian population is being fought by some, but this has been somewhat focused upon keying in on outreach to the wider world. For me it happened in the form of Facebook pages and blogs. I claim that they do have their place. I must defend and claim some success for such as this blog… and a bible study that I write. But.., while these efforts stand good for evangelical message declaration to those in the greater audience, they do not accomplish much to support the local mission of a small church. I often think the activity is too much a distraction for me, as we continue on the local path to dissolution.
 In our small town, therefore, we march along with social changes from active factories to cottage industry… and from family farms to part-time gardening. We lumber less, and our trucks send wood chips out of town. We’ve gone from large church families to scattered individuals as children move away for college and employment futures. We see these souls occasionally in the coffee shop communicating with distant family via cellphone, modem and other gadgets. The results? Family and community activities dwindle. As distance between family members and community ties grows, too often, many isolated young people find themselves mired in lowered morality, higher divorce rates, children aborted, parents spurned… and a greater rise of suburban and urban isolationism. This feeds our growing national suicide rates. The extremes of this social movement drives the headline news across a society that knows deeply even through legal drugs and booze… things are falling apart.

The Gospel Key!
Thus I make no excuse for turning to scriptural source for cure. Faith history reveals to us a path forward for the small town church. We need only remember that our Lord Jesus was not born into the access of a metropolitan government or temple cult, but was of lowly birth in a small community. He grew, was tutored, and came of age nurtured by a small religious group that valued one another’s company. I offer that this pattern, once prevalent in the great expanse of the Roman Empire during the first century, is what God graciously used to give spiritual power and foundation to the early church. I contend that this is the pattern yet called for at this stage of our collective American history.
 I believe that the Christian church in small towns and rural settings must regain this vision of our calling to worship and proclaim the gospel by accepting our social atomization. What does this mean? Simply put… use “smallness” deliberately. Cast away your keys to mighty fortress walls and focus on the building the kingdom of many small satellite communities. How small? As small as God wills! Remember that Jesus said…

“For where two of three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
                                                                                       (Matthew 18:20)

 Yes, certain adjustments will be made to the community of believers. House churches will need to be started and these may flourish in either small towns or rural crossroads! The locksmith minister will simply carry lighter key rings. The faithful cleric may travel farther to do community visits to more than one church. The image of the circuit rider may loom large again. Let us not worship our empty church buildings… instead worship God!
 In this future day, we shall choose to walk in the ways of our predecessors. Amid twelve disciples, like a gathered small group of onlookers… we may meet on any Sunday morning. We may find that we can also gather on any Monday, Tuesday, or any day of the week within our Lord’s making. We can gather in meeting houses, libraries, funeral homes, and barns. Remember that Jesus said…

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ. (Matthew 16:18-20)

In this way, by following our Lord’s instructions, we already possess the key to the medicine chest for the church. We have in hand the balm which cures the busy, yet lonely hearts that flail desperately as they try to swim through this often overactive and sinful current.
 Consider this! As our scripture stated, Jesus “strictly charged” the disciples gathered on that former day to tell no one that he was the Christ. But the secret got out later through the Spirit. Thus know that as a pastor I think we should show Jesus to others through our hopeful behavior as his disciples. In that way, we pray that the hidden keys to the kingdom that we each possess… shall be mysteriously revealed. In this way, doors shall be opened… and our Lord shall be found.

1 comment:

Bob Kitchen said...

On the very day that this article was written, I was traveling to a small town in the mountains. There I had dinner with Christians who are changing denominations for some of the reasons you mention. I spoke of putting the new wine into new wineskins...getting outside the building with the good news, and eventually starting a new mission post or house church, as people minister to each other in small groups.