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INSIDE STORY: What will it take to grow the church?

Sometimes, the news really isn’t all that new.
Take this headline about the shrinking church in America.
It’s alarming. It’s discouraging. It’s certainly worthy of bold type on the front page.
But is it surprising? Not really. Not to anyone who has been paying attention, anyway.
Just 13 months ago, The Christian Chronicle completed a yearlong project called “Are We Growing?” in which our staff lost track of how much space we devoted to the crucial subject of growth — and decline — in Churches of Christ.
The basis of that project, which drew responses from literally hundreds of readers, via e-mails, letters and personal conversations with Chronicle staff members, was that between 1980 and 2006, the U.S. population grew at a rate 20 times faster than the church.
Of course, with the release of the 2009 statistics, the numerical outlook seems even worse. Rather than a miniscule church growth rate that fails miserably to keep up with nation’s rapidly rising population, we now have no growth rate at all.
We have a decline — a fellowship hemorrhaging members and churches.
While a few readers have accused the Chronicle of advocating numerical growth over spiritual growth, most have understood the true nature of our reporting. That is, to use the numbers as a starting point for examining deeper issues and challenges facing the nation’s nearly 13,000  a cappella congregations.
As we wrapped up the “Are We Growing?” series, we respectfully urged church leaders and congregations nationwide to take seriously the charge that Jesus himself gave us to “go and make disciples of all nations.”
We also editorialized on the lessons learned in that reporting process. Given the latest news, those lessons bear repeating:
• We must become more diverse if we are to reach our culture. Our congregations remain mostly white and have become more affluent. Reaching our society for the Lord will require creative approaches to win souls who may be a different color than we are or speak a different language than we do. We must remember that Jesus loves all the children — red and yellow, black and white.
• We must make the eternal faith relevant to the young people who grow up in our congregations. Doctrine is important, but the young won’t stick around churches mired in internal squabbles and their own way of doing things. A right understanding of Scripture is essential, but the young want more than words. They want to serve, not to simply sit in the pews and follow rote orders of worship. The answer for keeping our young in the church is not contemporary music or flashy sermons, but churches with a real compassion and heart for sharing Jesus with a lost world.
• We must plant new congregations outside the Bible Belt, in places where most folks have never heard of us. And we must be willing to try new approaches to reach a new generation, not sacrificing biblical teaching but perhaps adapting the Acts 2 model of church to include settings such as house churches or groups of believers meeting in coffee shops or parks. We must remember that church buildings are a creation of the modern church, not an ancient pattern.
• Most importantly, we must pledge our allegiance anew to our first love. We must remember that God so loved the world that he gave his only son to die on a cross so that we might have forgiveness from our sins. We must never stop telling that incredible, true story of love and sacrifice. Only then will more people know Jesus and the church grow and prosper.
As we were reporting on the 2009 statistics, an unrelated e-mail — just four short lines of type — arrived from John Scott, senior minister of the Saturn Road church in Garland, Texas.
He intended the information for inclusion on our Across the Nation page, but it seems relevant here: The Saturn Road church baptized 176 people last year — the fourth straight year that the Texas church has immersed more than 150 souls into Christ.
I immediately replied back to John to find out the secret to Saturn Road’s soul-winning success.
“Our message is timeless, but our methods must be fluid,” John said. “For instance, I am all for using the latest technologies in order to better deliver the message. However, at Saturn Road, our leadership has not felt the need to abandon a cappella singing in order to reach people. In my humble judgment, it still comes back to being able to build healthy, biblical friendships both inside the church building and, just as important, outside our walls. We simply have to build more bridges and fewer walls.”

Bobby Ross Jr. is Managing Editor of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].

  • Feedback
    Of course, in this age of quick fixes, people may be brought to the Church (which, since it is made up of humans, is fallible), and when the Church “fails them” in some way, their faith may be like that of the seed on the thorny ground in the parable of the sower.
    If we concentrate on bringing them to Christ instead, then expose them to the Church as something they are then a part of, then Jesus is the INFALLIBLE basis of their faith.
    Nothing tests a new convert’s faith quite like the falling away of one who actually brought them to Christ, by the way.
    March, 1 2009

    I think Jeff Howell said it best, “We need to take the good news of Jesus not the Good news of the church of Christ.” When we stop evangelizing, we stop growing. The Good News about how to be saved from our sins through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ must be the core of our message. Literally billions need to still hear this. We reep what we sow. The church of Christ seems to be quite enamored with itself as a movement instead of with Jesus and eternal life. We know the cure for death so why aren’t we broadcasting that from the rooftops? We like to pat ourselves on the back and talk about what happened a hundred years ago. But how does that help the lost we interact with every day? The average member has no idea how to share the gospel with someone. They think that is the preachers job. We talk about practicality all the time, but in all the bible classes I have been in over the last 7 or 8 years I have not heard a single class about how to share the gospel with someone. I remember when it used to be common emphasis to invite people to church with us. Sometimes that is all it takes.
    February, 21 2009

    Nowadays, there is such an emphasis on modern-day “gifts”, as opposed to talents acquired by a lot of effort, study, and (in some cases) sweat. Soul-winning is looked at by many as being one of those “talents”, rather than the responsibility of every Christian.
    In a lot of congregations, we don’t even have songbooks with which a congregation of hundreds can sing, “Lead ME to some soul today. Oh teach ME, Lord, just what to say.”
    That song used to be the final song to close out many of our assemblies, but even the sentiment is lost in this age of, “That’s not something I’m good at.”.
    February, 4 2009

    Bobby thanks for the article but I am a little concerned that it seems our focus at times is all about the ” Church” and not just about Jesus..your quote of “in places where most folks have never heard of us.” We need to take the good news of Jesus not the Good news of the church of Christ. Thanks for a great article.
    January, 30 2009

    Thank you for a very well written article Bobby. It’s clear that your heart is in the right place.
    If the Church is going to return to growth we first must reconize that we are indeed shrinking. I say this because so many say that the Church is not declining, just “shifting”. But if you look at all the lastest data it becomes clear that we are Shrinking.
    Some have pushed the panic button and added instruments to worship thinking that will bring people back. Some have gone the other direction and have tried to return worship back to the “good Ol Days” when we were growing. And a major division has formed.
    Both of those extremes are wrong because they are focused on worship. How we worship is not the problem. We are focused on the wrong things.
    The problem is that we have stopped “doing the will of the Father”. The reason we exist as a Church or even as Christians is to “do the will of the Father”. It is His will that all men be saved. We must return to sharing the Gospel with the lost. We must return to “loving other people”. Until we do that we will continue to fight and divide. When we focus on “Doing the will of the Father” HE PROVIDES THE INCREASE!
    January, 28 2009

    You have handled a difficult story with grace. Thanks for pointing out the problems and some of the solutions!
    January, 24 2009

    I applaud Bobby Ross’s comments and heart-felt intent of this article. I consider this to be very worthwhile for every member of the Church of Christ to consider (prayerfully and thoughtfully). Thank you for giving me hope! (Signed) Raymond S. Stewart
    January, 23 2009

    “But is it surprising? Not really.” Not at all. We have abandoned our heritage, a heritage of speaking the truth to lost people and planting new churches. If we don’t reclaim our heritage, then the churches of Christ will disappear.
    I’m committed to seeing that doesn’t happen! I am working with Kairos Church Planting (www.kairoschurchplanting.org) to plant a new church in the near future. I am sitting in a room that represents 8 church plants coming very soon and Kairos already has seven plants on the ground. We need help. We can’t do this alone. If you believe in the heritage of churches of Christ and you want to see the church begin to grow again, then please help us. We need sponsoring churches, we need more planters, we need coaches and mentors to support the people who are already planting.
    The good news is that the benefits don’t stop with the new churches. The congregations that have sponsored church plants have all been blessed by the relationship. They get to see the passion of new Christians, they get to support the saving of lost souls, they get to hear the stories of methods that work, and they get to share the excitement of the good news.
    These are dark times when we must face the fact that the mission field, which was once far off, is now next door. However, the future is bright if we entrust this to God. He is faithful. He is calling us to be obedient, to embrace the Great Commission, and to seek out God’s preferred future.
    January, 22 2009

    This isn’t U.S., but I’ll give you some more good news, this time from Matanzas, Cuba:
    “We’re really happy, because when doing our final count there were 239 people baptized, 50 more than in 2007.”
    If you think about the situation of the church in Cuba, all of our excuses for not growing seem pretty weak. If we won’t help expand the kingdom here, God will do so in other places.
    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer
    January, 22 2009

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