Can We Keep It?
“The Church exists for a mission. Jesus did not give a mission to His church; He formed a Church for His mission…”. - Christian Smith
The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ exists for Jesus’ sake.
Most every Church-going, pew-sitting person that attends a somewhat orthodox Church would give some verbal affirmation of that statement.
The Church exists for Jesus.
The problem is that while giving their verbal assent, many Churchgoers also harbor feelings and attitudes that would challenge and disagree with that statement. We are quick to say that the Church belongs to Jesus, but we can easily feel and act as if it doesn’t.
Too often, churches allow themselves to become distracted and dominated by personal feelings, controlling personalities, long-standing traditions, interpersonal conflicts, and more. Churches can become territorial; and even intra-territorial.
And when these types of things come to dominate a church, well, that church moves away from the mission of King Jesus and it begins to focus on itself.
The reality is that most churches settle into a comfort zone of doing things a certain way, and when that happens—when that comfort zone is found—churches are tempted to lose sight of the fact that King Jesus not only formed her, but He formed her for a mission. A mission that is not only her responsibility to carry out, but a mission that absolutely forms and defines who she is to be.
The Sturdy Mission of the Church.
We do well to remind ourselves that the mission of the Lord’s Church is not, itself, fragile. The mission to evangelize the world and to make disciples is a mission that comes with the most robust of God's promises…
Jesus says, “I am with you always…” (Mt. 28:19-20; Heb. 13:5);
The gates of hell shall not prevail against the Lord’s Church or her work (Mt. 16);
Kings and emperors cannot stand against the Lord’s mission (Mk. 13; Acts 4);
The Holy Spirit is given to every Christian and every Church (Jn. 20);
King Jesus keeps our souls healthy and full, even while our bodies fail us (2 Cor. 4);
We can lay up treasures where moths cannot eat them, and thieves cannot steal them (Mt. 6);
King Jesus says that we do not have to fear him who kills the body (Mt. 10);
The Church is assured of her great wedding to the King (Rev. 19).
-These are promises that accompany a Kingdom that cannot fail; a mission that cannot be thwarted.
The mission is sturdy and fail-proof because it belongs to King Jesus.
But that does not mean that the keepers of the mission won’t and don't fail. Most Churches today are fairly young ,with the oldest being only a few hundred years old (I'm not speaking of larger, more global organizations like the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches).
Most local churches have years or growth and then years of decline because, somewhere along the way, the mission of Jesus was replaced with the mission of the members...
The Keepers of the Mission Are Fragile…
-The mission of Jesus is not weak or fragile…but its keepers are. In His good providence, the Lord has entrusted His mission and the work of His church to fallible and weak creatures — you and me. As J. Todd Billings notes, the gospel teaches us that the Lord has great interest in attaching Himself to fragile and fallible human creatures. But such a unity comes at a great cost.
And one of those great costs is that humans often fail. We fail to keep our promises, we fail to remain steadfast, and we fail the mission itself.
And yet, God does not allow His mission to fail, even as individual churches do along the way.
I opened this post with a quote from Missiologist Christian Smith. “The Church exists for a mission. Jesus did not give a mission to His church; He formed a Church for His mission.”
Here is the full quote…
“The Church exists for a mission. Jesus did not give a mission to His church; He formed a Church for His mission. Without a mission, a Church is not a Church; it's just a group of disobedient Christians hanging out.”
In every Church generation there is a battle to keep or lose the gospel of Jesus Christ and the mission of the Church. For some generations, this might be a battle to keep the gospel against outright rejection and heresy. There are countless historical instances of heresies and false teachers arising that must be combated and dealt with.
We think of Paul is Corinth, and Ephesus, and Crete...
We think of Augustine against Pelagius, Luther against Erasmus, Van Till against Liberalism...
For other generations, the battle will be against something that appears less aggressive on the surface, but proves to be more deadly in the long run: The battle against comfort and complacency.
Church history would tell us that, typically, when the Church has faced a great doctrinal battle or challenge from some heresy, there usually follows a great revival of serious theology and biblical commitment. Think of the early Church councils: Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon.
We might think of Augustine and his stand against the Pelagians; or of the great 16th century Reformation and the break with the Catholic Church. A seriousness about the gospel and Scripture was birthed from these controversies.
But, when a Church enters the phase of comfort and complacency, a different enemy moves in. This enemy is more subtle than heretical teaching. This enemy attacks the hearts and minds of Church members, convincing them that the mission has shifted from one of evangelism and discipleship to one of maintenance and tradition; a mission of circling the wagons and maintaining the status quo. This enemy doesn't attack the Church's teaching per se. It makes its assault by questioning its mission and reason for existence. We hear the lie of the Serpent in the Garden, "Did God really say...?" Churches begin to ask the questions, "Does God really call us to the nations? Does God really call us to sacrificial, gospel work? Does God really call us to seek and save the lost? Does God really call us to pour ourselves out for the sake of others?"
And when this happens, not only do churches start to decline in membership and effectiveness, they have almost always lost sight of their true mission.
In a shocking study, Lifeway Research found that more than half of all existing churches are in decline.
The church lifecycle: Birth, infancy stage, adolescent stage, adulthood, plateau, decline, death spiral.
—More than half of all existing Churches are in decline.—
That means that more than half of all existing churches have moved beyond their years of success and growth, and have settled into the “circling the wagons to maintain the status quo” years. The next step for most of these churches, according to Dr. Bill Henard, is "the death spiral."
Henard writes, “Growing Churches dream dreams and plan; unhealthy/stagnant churches solve problems. It's not that growing churches don’t have problems; they do. The problems, however, are not seen as obstacles, but as either growing pains or opportunities for the next stage of growth. Stagnant/declining churches have lost their dream and their focus. Therefore, problems become the primary motivation for existence.”
How chilling is that quote? Especially that last statement, “...problems become the primary motivation for existence.”
When churches lose sight of the fact that they exist for something larger than themselves—namely, the mission of Jesus Christ and His Kingdom— they begin to exist for themselves, and they settle into what is often a years/decades long decline and death spiral. They still meet and function like an organization, but they are no longer focused and driven by the mission of King Jesus. They exist to protect themselves and solve their own problems.
In his book, Reclaiming Glory, Mark Clifton—leader of Church Revitalization for NAMB— provides some characteristics of declining/dying churches. Keep in mind Lifeway found that more than half of all existing churches are declining. So this list applies in part or whole to more than half of all churches in our country...
Value the process of decision more than the outcome of the decision.
Value their own preferences over the needs of the unreached.
Have an inability to pass leadership to the next generation.
Cease, often gradually, to be part of the fabric of their community.
Grow dependent upon programs or personalities for growth or stability.
Tend to blame the community for a lack of response, and, in time, grow resentful of the community for not responding as it once did.
Anesthetize the pain of death with an overabundance of activity.
Maintain an unfaithful or a less fruitful governance structure.
Confuse caring for the building with caring for the Church and the community.
When this happens in a Church, when she so loses her way that she ceases to operate for King Jesus, choosing instead to exist for herself, she begins her death spiral and moves closer to becoming one of the almost 5,000 churches that close each year.
—4,500-5000 Churches close every year.—
Thankfully, there is hope. We do not have to lose the mission.
In his book, Gaining by Losing, Pastor JD Greear notes that the future always belongs to those Churches who understand and embrace the mission of King Jesus, holding it at the center of their existence. He gives four reasons for their success...
In our modern world, non-Christians are not going to show up to church on their own. In the past, especially in recent American history, churches could count on the community coming to them without having to do much work. This is no longer the case.
Churches who embrace the mission of Jesus as their reason for existing experience real growth, real energy, and real meaning.
The Bible is clear: God promises His presence where His people are faithful to His Word.
Jesus’ promises of “greatness” in His churches is always, always connected to His mission.
So, what hope is there for a Church to keep herself from decline and death? Keep the main thing the main thing.
A healthy church is healthy because she understands that she exists for King Jesus and for no other reason. His mission is her mission. His mission gives her everything; her identity and reason for existing.
Healthy churches take Jesus at His Word, and take His Word seriously.
Healthy churches are focused on growing the faithful and reaching the lost.
Healthy Churches seek to make everything they do about fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ: Reaching the lost and making disciples.