#5 in my “Pervasive Problems in the American Church” series, closely related to #3.
So many in America do not trust the Gospel to be enough to “hold the attention” of the people they’re trying to draw. What a woeful neglect to remember God’s power to raise the dead and to keep them alive!
To remedy this and bolster their numbers, many churches have sought out shallow ways to draw members. Three main manifestations of this occur:
Sadly, most professing Christians in America have bought the lie that bigger is always better. God does sometimes work supernaturally to grow a body of believers quickly. We cannot condemn churches with larger attendance solely on the fact that they are large.
But God does not always grow a body of believers to large numbers. Yet, He is faithful to, at work in, and spreading His message through all solid churches, whether big or small.
Attendance worship is a huge problem: it reveals hearts that do not trust God Himself to call and keep people in our congregations; it reveals envious hearts that want what the world values more than what God values; it reveals prideful hearts that, instead of supporting other churches, wants to be “the best and biggest church” in town as if God doesn’t care as much about the “poor little churches.”
However, as Kevin DeYoung says, “There is simply no biblical teaching to indicate that church size is the measure of success.”
Big numbers make it easy to be overlooked; big numbers make it easy to stay lost while having the appearance of godliness. Though unwilling to admit it, big churches often make people the most comfortable because there’s so little chance for vulnerability, especially if only the Sunday service is attended.
Large numbers are also easy breeding grounds for moralism, which is one the greatest dangers of the church.
He has a favorite Bible verse and is in church every Sunday. He must be a good choice for a husband, right? while ignoring what his life looks like the rest of the week.
That man is a deacon. There’s no way the rumors that he’s being investigated for child abuse are true! while ignoring the bruises on his children.
That woman shouldn’t come in here with those clothes! They’re so ratty! while ignoring that those may be all she has.
Large numbers easily puff members up because, without careful discipline, the culture seeps into the church to teach that bigger is the only way to be better. And no one wants to question it because God’s blessings always look like abundance, right? [not].
Remedy: Prizing solid community rather than numbers.
There are large churches with solid communities and small churches are not without their dangers (exclusivism comes to mind). But the focus of the church body ought to be allegiance to Scripture and displaying to the world that Christ is supreme while also displaying their acknowledgement that this world is fractured and that hurt and sin and darkness is real. Their love ought to be so palpable and vibrant that people are drawn to the church because of their genuine love, not their number of services. Love in the sense that vulnerability is not sanctioned, that sin struggles do not come as a surprise, and that sanctification is not ignored but highly prized.
“Fun” instead of “Faith”
Another large problem is the tendency to focus on making things “fun.”
It doesn’t really matter if the guest speaker’s theology is solid as long as it’s witty and makes things sound good.
It doesn’t really matter if the Bible is studied in Bible studies as long as everyone has fun and gets to give his/her opinion.
Fun has been put on a pedastal because how can we engage kids without fun? If church isn’t “fun” for non-believers, why would they come? And then it’s dressed up with spiritualized nonsense about being “for the sake of the Gospel.”
The cross was not fun. It was the greatest agony ever endured. And yet millions throughout the centuries have been drawn by its message: I lived the life you could not live, swallowed the punishment you deserved, and died this horrible death that you might have life forevermore. None of that is fun.
God doesn’t want us to promise people lives of fun and happiness because they’ll be sorely disappointed; the Christian life is one of self sacrifice (Luke 9:24), cross-carrying (Matthew 16:24-26), bearing others’ burdens (Galatians 6:2) and becoming less like ourselves to become more like the One who gave Himself for us (Galatians 2:20). When people see fun promoted as the main thing, many do not see anything different from what the world offers them. We do not need to offer the world more endless entertainment or mindless distraction–those are readily available in everything else. The Gospel should look different.
Of course, it’s okay to have fun-filled events sometimes but when they become what we think will draw people most, our hearts are leading us and not the Holy Spirit.
Remedy: Lay the outcome before God
Afraid it will be awkward if only a few people turn up for your event? What if, instead, you were to get to know those people on a deeper level and share their burdens and struggles to a greater depth–and maybe even the Gospel!
Adding to the Gospel
It’s increasingly popular to not trust the Gospel to be attractive enough, as if the Savior whose beauty will capture us for eternity cannot fully capture the hearts of His redeemed here and now. In our arrogance, we think we can make the offer of the Son of God giving His life for our death more beautiful. But Scripture denies all forms of the “Gospel +” equation
It’s not “Gospel + works (Ephesians 2:8-9)
It’s not “Gospel + living a self-centered life (Matthew 20:16)
It’s not “Gospel + comfort” (Matthew 19:16-26)
If it’s “The Gospel +” anything, it becomes no true Gospel at all.
A spiritually dead church can have a big reputation; a church whose theology profanes the Gospel of Jesus Christ can have a lot of political and social power; so easily, a church with big and expensive “pretty things” decorating the outside and inside become nothing more than a decorated tomb.
Remedy: Our biggest weapon to fight lukewarmth is prayer. Prayer for the Holy Spirit to stir lukewarm hearts across our nation to hold Christ as most precious and prayer that none of us would be blinded by the world’s values or teachings but would hold Scripture authoritative and Christ’s model one worth following–to the very end of ourselves.
With encouragement to trust the Gospel to work unhinged from all else as it has all these past centuries,