By Mike Willis
Each of us has witnessed the evolution which is occurring in inner-cities of America. Recently I was riding through one of the inner-cities with one of the elders of a church and as we traveled through a run-down area of a town, he remarked, “This used to be the elite section of town.”You could never have told it from what we saw around us. The houses were becoming dilapidated, many men were sitting idle with no work, and children were running up and down the streets completely unsupervised. It had become a ghetto area. The inner-cities which used to be the hub of the business life of these towns continually lose ground to shopping malls located in the suburbs. Consequently, we are witnessing the evolution of the inner-city. It is changing from being the business hub of the community to becoming the ghetto of America.
There is another evolution which is occurring all over these United States in a more subtle form which 1 would like to try to picture for you. It is the evolution of a church. I shall try to describe what happens in the evolution of a church and see if we can make some suggestions to remedy this situation.
Evolution of a Church
The local church usually begins whenever there are a few dedicated and zealous Christians desiring to establish the Lord’s church in a community in which New Testament Christianity does not exist. The few members band together, meet in some isolated place on the wrong side of the tracks, the auditorium of an elementary grade school or in the home of one of their members. The members are there because they are dedicated and want to maintain the purity of His Word. Many of their friends would not meet with them in such extenuating circumstances. Consequently, the ones who are attending are there because of conviction. However, these people are desirous of doing the work of the Lord. Consequently, they begin to look around them for a place to meet. Usually, what happens is that they will buy a rundown denominational building and remodel that building until it becomes a rather decent, suitable place for worship for these people. Many times the members have to do the work with their own hands.
Having acquired a new place of worship, the men and the women speak to their neighbors about the gospel of Christ. More and more people are won to New Testament Christianity as they teach them the truth of God’s Word. Soon, even the old denominational building is not adequate for the needs of the congregation. Ground is acquired and a new building is erected. When this happens, the church receives the respect of the community. Consequently, a spurt of growth frequently occurs. People who find the building convenient to their location begin to attend. They are taught and baptized. Others are attracted by the friendliness of the people or because of the nice building. The members see the building become filled and rejoice in that, but then another stage of the evolution of a church begins to occur.
The members become complacent and content with the church as it is. Their attitude to push forward and ever increase the borders of the kingdom of God is replaced by an attitude of resting on the laurels of victory which they have won for the Lord. Consequently, baptisms begin to decrease, the weak members are not worked with and many of the members begin to cease to attend regularly. The church, consequently, begins to decline. Death takes away the truly devoted leaders of the church. The ones who are left do not have the same amount of zeal as the original members had and, consequently, the church begins to die on the vine. As we look at this evolution of a church, ask yourself in which stage of church development is the congregation with which you are worshiping?
Characteristics of a Church Evolving Downhill
As we consider the downhill spiral of a church, we need to be conscious of some of the things which cause these churches to cease to be pushing uphill and begin to decline. Consequently, I would like to point out some characteristics that I see occurring in some of these which caused them to go downhill rather rapidly. I know that there are other characteristics which might be mentioned and added, but consider these with me.
1. A loss of interest in evangelism. One of the first things that happens when a church begins to go downhill is that it begins to have a loss of interest in reaching others for the gospel of Christ. The members forget their responsibility to take the gospel to the whole world. The Great Commission, however, is still just as applicable today as it was the day Jesus gave it. We still have a responsibility to go into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature (Matt. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:15-16). I still have a responsibility as a faithful ‘man to teach someone else about Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 2:2). There are always new worlds around us to conquer. After the church is established in one community, that congregation has a responsibility to grow to such an extent that they can plant the church in nearby communities. And yet, when the church begins to go downhill, the members cease to have the desire to take the Word of God into other communities. Literally hundreds of people are able to baptize only eight or ten people a -year. Something is wrong with a congregation that is unable to baptize any more than that.
2. The members begin to refuse to accept responsibility. Another characteristic of a church on the downgrade is an increase in the number of members who refuse to take any responsibility in the local church. They refuse to identify with any local congregation, for then, they would be expected to be present at all of the services, to teach Bible classes and to participate in public worship. Consequently, they refuse to identify with them and, consequently, never take any responsibilities in the work there. My brethren, there are no such creatures in the New Testament as members-at-large. The New Testament speaks of people moving into communities and identifying with the local congregation (cf. Acts 9:26; Rom. 16:1-2).
There are other ways in which responsibilities are shirked as well. Many of those who are members of the church refuse to teach the Bible classes. I have noticed in many congregations this to be particularly true of the older women. Where as, Titus 2:5 gives them a responsibility to teach the younger women, what I witness is the younger women teaching the Bible classes and the older women failing to participate in the teaching program. A number of men with capabilities to teach and develop themselves as teachers, refuse to take any responsibility to tell others about the good news of Jesus Christ. Others refuse responsibility in participation the public worship or helping to maintain the grounds aid the building itself. As a matter of fact, they do absolutely no work for the Lord in spite of the commandment of the Lord for us to be zealous unto all good works (Tit. 2:14) and to abound unto all good works (1 Cor. 15:58). They simply want to be lost in the crowd of a large congregation, having no responsibilities and no interest in the work at all. If they choose to attend, they want the congregation to be there, so that they can worship; if they choose not to attend, they do not want to be bothered. When a church becomes filled with such members, it is destined to destruction.
3. A poor attendance begins to set in. Whenever the congregation is small and struggling you can know before hand practically where every member will be. His place will be filled because of his dedication to the Lord. However, when growth comes, the percentage of those who miss for no excuseable reason begins to increase. You will have members ceasing to have the same dedication and zeal as they did when they met in the basement of an office building or a store front. Yet, the commandments of the Lord have not changed. He still expects Christians to worship stedfastly (cf. Acts 2:42). He still forbids them to forsake the assembly (Heb. 10:25). He still expects them to put Jesus ahead of everything else (Matt. 6:33). No Christians are acceptable before God when they become so entangled in the affairs of this life that they do not have time to please Jesus Christ. Attendance problems reflect that some are putting their lust above the Lord and God will not accept this form of service. When it invades a congregation, the congregation will go downhill.
4. A loss of militancy. When the church begins to become socially acceptable, there is a tendency for some to want the gospel watered down. No doubt one of the causes of people wanting the gospel watered down is that they were never truly converted in the first place. yet, this watering down of the gospel manifests itself in the following way: (1) A failure to back a man as he exposes false men for what they are, (2) criticism of the preacher for negative preaching when heresies are exposed, (3) a desire for short sermonettes filled with anecdotes rather than with an examination of the Scriptures, and (4) failure to see any danger in “a little liberalism.” Hence, the church which once desired and longed for strong Bible preaching, becomes one that needs to be entertained by emotionally charged sermons and promotionalism.
The presentation of the gospel demands the preaching of God’s Word. The gospel is not preached when a person entertains his audience with humorous stories and anecdotes. Hence, God’s people should love to hear the Word of God proclaimed. They should desire to learn more about the Word and should come prepared to learn God’s Word, bringing their Bibles and a pencil and paper. They should carefully follow the proclamation of the Word, seeking to learn what they can.
The presentation of the gospel will demand a defense of the faith. Gospel preachers are to contend earnestly for the faith(Jude 3) and to be ready always to give an answer to those who question them about what they believe (1 Pet. 3:15). Gospel preaching demands reproving, rebuking and exhorting (2 Tim. 4:12). Whenever a church ceases to have an interest in this kind of preaching, you can mark this church as being on the decline. I wonder if any of these characteristics of a church on the downgrade are occurring in the church where you worship. If so, brethren you had better be concerned about the future of the congregation in that area.
Challenges To The Church
I would like to challenge the members to do certain things to help the church where you worship. I would like to challenge you this week to do each of the following:
1. Talk to one non-Christian this week. Try to lead him to salvation in Jesus Christ. Urge him to visit your services, to worship with you and discuss the Bible with you.
2. Talk to one weak member this week. Look around you in the church and look at the people who are not attending regularly and have little or no interest in spiritual things. Go talk to them and urge them to walk in the right ways of God.
3. Study your Bible every day this week. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God (Rom. 10:17). You cannot have faith yourself without a personal study of God’s Word. Make up your mind that every day you are going to study and spend some time developing your faith through the study of God’s Word.
4. Pray to God every day this week. Make up your mind that you are going to get off by yourself for a few minutes of every day and exercise yourself in prayer to God.
5. Pay careful attention to the announcements of the church and visit the sick. If you do not have the time to go by personally, pick up your phone and call them and see how they are doing and if there is anything you can do to help them.
A person does not have to travel too far in any direction to see examples of churches which are drying up on the vine. These churches are drying up because they fail to do the very things which I am challenging you to do. Consequently, after a few deaths have occurred in the church in that area, it will virtually die. Already there are signs of its death coming whenever the dedicated members are fleeing from that congregation to more zealous congregations in the city. What will be the future of the church where you live? Will the church there die in just a few short years? You hold the answer to that question.
Truth Magazine XXIII: 11, pp. 179-181
March 15, 1979