102,000 fewer people in the pews since ’03: Churches of Christ in decline
FROM PRINT EDITION: Declining numbers, but signs of hope? Sunday's…
Adapt to the culture you’re serving, but not in a way that compromises the truth of the Gospel.
For centuries, that was the challenge for missionaries who took God’s Word to faraway lands where people didn’t know Jesus.
In 2019, that same challenge remains for believers who seek to spread the Good News to foreign fields — and to their own, Western culture, which seems increasingly opposed to biblical truths, said Bill Richardson.
“As Christians debate such topics as the sanctity of life or the definition of such basic concepts as gender, marriage and family, it becomes alarmingly clear that American churches are being tempted to synchronize the faith with secular culture and adopt a materialistic worldview,” said Richardson, a former missionary to Guatemala, Argentina and Chile.
“As Christians debate such topics as the sanctity of life or the definition of such basic concepts as gender, marriage and family, it becomes alarmingly clear that American churches are being tempted to synchronize the faith with secular culture …”
Participants came from Churches of Christ across the U.S. and from nearly a dozen countries. The audience also included students from universities associated with Churches of Christ, including Searcy, Ark.-based Harding.
Richardson spoke on the topic of “Adapt or Die?” — one of the conference’s Tension Talks focused on difficult questions facing modern missions.
He noted the dangers of Christians over-adapting, becoming too much like a culture that rejects God’s sovereignty.
“In our culture, I believe that churches are racing to the mainstream … in an attempt to be attractive to believers, to be accepted and to be relevant,” he said. “In so doing, they have diluted the power of the Gospel, effectively marginalizing the church as the salt has lost its saltiness.
“In other words, there is a point at which we must be counter-cultural.”
He also warned against mission efforts that reject their host culture entirely, throwing out cherished traditions and beliefs that don’t contradict the Gospel. He noted the apostle Paul, who sought to be “all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some,” as he wrote in 1 Corinthians 9.
“Rather than opposing culture, the transcendent, super-culture God has chosen to draw near,” he said, “and culture is the vehicle through which he has chosen to reveal himself.”
Launched in 2005, the Global Missions Conference brings together missionaries and supporters every three years. The conference also has incorporated the audience of the World Mission Workshop, a gathering of mission-minded university students that was hosted on college campuses for more than 50 years. In recent years the workshops have been suspended due to declining attendance, though Harding hosts a regular Global Missions Experience at its missions simulation camp in rural Arkansas.
“Deep and Wide: Exploring Missions Dimensions” was the theme of the 2019 Global Missions Conference, organized by World Bible School and hosted by the Brentwood Oaks Church of Christ and Brentwood Christian School in Austin.
Organizers offered nearly 100 classes following 19 curriculum tracks, including missions to the U.S., reaching youth, reaching Muslims, serving migrants and refugees, business as mission and missionary care.
Alice Mhlanga, a church member in the southern African nation of Zimbabwe, attended with her husband, Washington, an elder of the Avondale Church of Christ in the capital city, Harare. He presented classes on healthy partnering relationships and child and orphan care.
“For me it was a great experience for missions in multicultural communities around the world,” said Alice Mhlanga, who has coordinated World Bible School’s Service Center in Harare for 18 years. “The Tension Talks were an eye opener. The crowd had a blend of young, middle-aged and aged. That was good.”
(Find audio recordings of classes at gmc2019.org)
During the conference, more than 500 participants gathered to honor 60 veteran missionaries during a banquet. The missionaries “were a veritable cloud of witnesses that made an indelible impression,” said World Bible School president John Reese. “They then passed the torch, in the form of electronic candles, to the next generations and prayed with them — a truly motivational and moving evening.”
Another highlight of the event, Reese said, was the introduction of Mathetis, a social media initiative of World Bible School designed to share Jesus with younger generations.
“Seekers using online searches will find high-quality, engaging videos with exercises that invite peer sharing via social media,” Reese said. The videos and accompanying curriculum are the result of “intensive research and development for the way youth interact and learn.”
Alice Mhlanga said, “The Mathetis presentation was exciting, especially as it catered to the younger generation. I heard the young people talking about how professional it looked.”
Technological adaptation is vital if Churches of Christ, which are declining in number in the U.S., are to reach new generations with the Gospel, Reese said.
Steve Eckman echoed that sentiment as he spoke during the “Adapt or Die?” Tension Talk.
“College kids today, even at a Christian college, are a mission field,” said Eckman, president of York College in Nebraska. “Teaching them Bible is like teaching them Greek.”
As they engage an increasingly hostile culture, Christians must resist the urge to condemn practices that don’t line up with biblical truths, he said. He cited the example of Jesus’ conversation in John 4 with a Samaritan woman who had been married five times and was living with a man who was not her husband.
“Jesus doesn’t say, ‘Before we can talk, you’re going to have to clean up your life,’” Eckman said. “What if it’s today’s world and it’s a transgender person who is talking to us? Would we back off or would we dive into the Gospel?”
He added, “God didn’t establish the church to protect us from the world. He established the church to reach the world.”
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