The church and God’s plan

I have discussed the decline in church attendance in western countries, asked why go to church? and looked at why sermons are a poor way of making disciples. So can we rescue the church from ineffectiveness and irrelevance? What might improve things?

Recover a Biblical understanding of the gospel

We have already discussed this in Good news? – we need an understanding that takes account of Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God and Jesus’ ways of dealing with people.

Jesus evangelised in a very different way to Paul. We western evangelicals have adopted a stripped down version of Paul’s approach but tend to ignore Jesus’ approach:

  • Jesus addressed every person individually and differently, whereas our ‘gospel’ is almost always the same
  • Jesus emphasised the positive coming of the kingdom more than sin (he spoke of hope to the sinners and sin to the religious), whereas our ‘gospel’ is often totally sin-based with very little positive encouragement
  • Jesus generally called people to actively follow him, sometimes even naming specific actions he wanted them to take, whereas we tend to reduce the ‘gospel’ to abstract and passive belief only.
  • When defining ‘the gospel’, Jesus and the gospel writers expressed it in very different terms than we would do – e.g. Jesus’ statement of his purpose in Luke 4:16-21, and his answer to John the Baptist in Luke 7:18-23.
  • Our ‘gospel’ isn’t seen as good news by most people, yet Jesus’ gospel attracted those most in need of hearing it.
  • Jesus told lots of stories and left the bait dangling to see what people would make of it, but we tend to explain things in tedious detail every time.

We should consider how to better follow Jesus in our understanding of a kingdom-based gospel without letting go of what we have learned from Paul. There is surely a place for recognition of our need for forgiveness (looking back) and a call to join us in changing the world (looking forward to the kingdom).

Our presentation of the gospel is often reiteration of facts, which is only useful if it is merely information that people need. We need to recognise that more than information is needed – much more prayer, demonstration of God’s love within our community and in the world, and more creative ways to present the good news. More than anything else, the gospel will be seen (or not) in our loving and serving community before it will be believed.

Mobilise the whole church

In many churches, the staff do most of the work while the congregation sit and consume – and contribute financially. It is a rare church where everyone is using their gifts in carrying out the mission Jesus gave us. Some suggestions include:

  • Staff and congregation need to be committed to everyone using their gifts, and to stay committed to this.
  • Members need to be trained and equipped for practical ministry, not just encouraged to do evangelism that may presently be beyond them, or they have no confidence they can do. This is best done via apprenticing and mentoring by people who have recognised gifts, ministries and experience, not just by sermonising, and certainly not via guilt. One way to facilitate this is to set up ‘ministry teams’ to develop specific ministries according to the church’s goals. Teams would develop their own training programs.
  • Church services must better serve the mission goal of the church, not by trying to make them attractive evangelistic opportunities, but by using them for discipleship training and equipping, testimonies and reporting back from mission work, prayer, etc. Instead of being run by the few, while the majority become more passive, get everyone involved. This could be accomplished by reducing sermons and creating a more ‘magazine style’ service with lots of different inputs.
  • Christians are under pressure from the world, and some falter at different stages of their life – e.g. when they leave school, start professional work, get married or are under increasing criticism from militant atheism, etc. So disciples need to be equipped to stand as well as to minister, via learning to walk in the Spirit, apologetics and strong community.

Reduce dependence on church-based activities

Studies show that only about 30% of people are open to attending ‘church’, so if we want to minister or evangelise we need to move away from an attractional approach towards amore “out there” strategy:

  • Church members need to be trained and equipped in making friends, meeting needs and sharing faith where they live, work and play – and then freed up from too many church activities to allow them to do this.
  • Meeting people’s needs and serving them, mixing with people on their territory rather than making them uncomfortable on ours, and building relationships slowly, are all helpful and necessary approaches.
  • We need to pray more for non-believers and for our own choices in outreach, so that we are guided by the Spirit into effective activities.

Would this be better?

I have little doubt that this would be better than what we so often have in ‘church’ now. It may not initially please people who are consumers looking to be comforted and confirmed in that they believe, but I am confident it would better equip the church for the work of ministry, as is the idea in Ephesians 4:12. But I think it is still a compromise, between what we have now and what we ought to be doing.

I believe there are two better ways, and we’ll come to that next. Stay tuned!

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