Talk to a minister, elder, or church leader long enough and church growth is likely to come up. According to recent research, Churches of Christ are in decline, and we are not the only ones. We live in a world that is rapidly changing, and this has some church leaders worried. People are contemplating questions like: What will Christianity look like in 20 years? How are we going to reach millennials? What does effective preaching look like in a postmodern culture? These and many other questions have church leaders looking for answers.
When contemplating how to evangelize in the 21st century, it is important to remember that we live in a diverse and complicated culture. There is not a magic solution to all the problems we face, nor is there a special program that will save the day. If we are looking for easy answers, then we haven’t truly counted the cost of following Jesus. Christians who have come before us have faced difficult times, and the church has survived just as Jesus said it would. Christianity is a life-long pursuit. In other words, we are in it for the long haul. We should take a deep breath, consider the statistics and situation we find ourselves in, and respond accordingly. We should not be reactionary. We should not get excited, but instead we should always respond from a position of faith. The most important thing we can do is trust God and look to him for guidance.
As we go forward, it is important to understand that mistakes will be made. This is because we are human. We fail. We mess up. It is also because we are dealing with a difficult issue. Evangelism in the 21st century poses certain challenges that we must address. Still, we need not make it any harder on ourselves. There are certain mistakes that we can avoid from the start. Here are four obstacles to church growth that we need to overcome.
1. Results-Oriented Mindset
As Americans, we are driven. We want to see results right away, and if we don’t, then we quickly abandon what we are trying and move on to something else. This model works great if you are in the business world, but the church is not a business. Evangelism is not a sales pitch. Evangelism in the 21st century is going to involve developing relationships, and this takes time. We are not going to see results right away. Even in the first century, evangelism was something that took time. Paul described a process in 1 Corinthians 3:6 that included himself, Apollos, and God. Paul did not always see results overnight. Thankfully, Jesus never called us to be successful. He never said the greatest in the kingdom is the one who has the best numbers. People are not numbers, and evangelism is more than stats. We must get past always thinking about results, and get busy thinking about the people we are going to love.
2. Focused on the Wrong Enemy
One thing that will kill church growth quickly is infighting. For some reason, Christians like to focus a lot of time on other Christians who they believe have it all wrong. We like to label others and make them our enemy. The most common labels are liberal and conservative, but there are others. Other Christians are not our enemy. Satan is our enemy, and he will do anything to keep us from gaining ground. He wants us to focus on each other and forget about all the lost souls in the world. Sometimes issues will come up in our local congregations that we must deal with, but our emphasis needs to be on reaching people with the good news about Jesus. Paul addressed certain issues in his letters to specific churches, but his daily ministry was going from town to town preaching the gospel and making disciples. Jesus did not devote his time to petty disputes, but instead he invested himself in the lives of others. There will always be disputes and disagreements among Christians. Some of these disputes have existed for 2,000 years. Jesus did not call us to settle all disputes. He called us to go into all the world and make disciples.
3. Misguided Passion
If we want the church to grow, then we must have a passion for the lost. Church leaders are usually passionate people, but they are not always passionate about the things that matter. Sometimes leaders are passionate about the formal vs. informal dress code for worship, or they may have a strong opinion about instrumental music outside of worship. Church leaders may spend a lot of time on these issues or similar ones, and little time on what can be done to reach the lost. It’s great to be passionate, but we need to make sure we are passionate about the right things. The Bible has much to say about preaching the gospel and loving others. It has nothing to say about whether or not one should wear a coat and tie to worship or what type of music should be played at a wedding. If we want the church to grow, then we will be passionate about what God is passionate about and love what God loves. This means our focus should be on people. We should be passionate about reaching people, and we should spend much of our energy on loving others.
4. A Failure to Recognize Generational Differences
The gospel never changes, but peoples, culture, society, traditions, etc. change. Sometimes major changes take place within a generation. Some of these changes pertain to the environment and surroundings in which we live while other changes have to do with how people think and look at the world. All of these changes have an impact on the church. We cannot prevent these changes from happening, Our job is to understand them and do what we can to address them. This may mean making adjustments in the way we reach out to others. If someone grows up using a smartphone, then it’s not going to be effective if we show them a filmstrip. Failing to respect and understand another generation is like having a friend who speaks another language that you refuse to learn. When one generation refuses to acknowledge another, then nothing will be learned or passed on. God spoke to different people in different ways. The apostle Paul did the same. He spoke one way to Jews and another way to Gentiles. Evangelism and church growth involves learning about the people we seek to reach.
May we do all we can to proclaim the message of Jesus and share the good news with as many people as possible.
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