Relax, We’ve Been Here Before

Since the ruling of the Supreme Court on same-sex marriage, my email inbox has been filled with Chicken Little prophecies foretelling the death of the church in America. According to these Debbie Downers, the federal government will systematically begin to shut down every institution and organization that doesn’t support the cultural agenda. Law suits will follow law suits and the church will be forced to close its doors.

Relax, We’ve Been Here Before

All of this, and more, may come true—except for that last part. The church in America won’t close up. We won’t be shut down. We may change. We may adapt, but we won’t close. God will always find a way for His people. I’m old enough to remember when China closed the “Bamboo Curtain” and no missionaries or Christian literature were allowed in China. We thought Christianity had been eradicated in China, but when the country opened itself to the world we found, to our utter amazement, millions of Christians in China.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I do think that part of what’s going on is God is judging His church in North America. For too long, we’ve traded away our gospel birthright for the porridge of secular influence. We’ve become involved in secular politics to the point that the church is now viewed as just another political action committee. We’ve tried to become engaged in the entertainment world to the point that we’re just another demographic group to target through marketing.

Like the church at Laodicea, Christ is calling us back to our first love—Him and Him alone. He’s calling us back to the centrality of our mission—the proclamation of the good news of His gospel. We’ll find new energy and new power when we focus again on the gospel of Jesus Christ.

How will we do this? The same way the church has always done it. We’ll focus on the places and people no one wants. The medieval church was the only institution that responded to plague victims and their families. Mother Theresa reached out to the dying lepers of India. Again, we’ll find those people and places no one is paying attention to and start serving there. It’s what the church has always done when the church has been at her best.

And we’ll do it wherever we can. We’ll share the love of Christ in our homes, in neighborhood coffee shops, out under trees—wherever two or three will gather together. The church has never been tied to buildings or methods. We’ve been free to adapt our methods as needed to accomplish our kingdom message.

Yeah, I know it’s a different kind of day for the church in America. But then again, it’s not that different at all. We’ve been here before. The church has overcome worse. In fact, the church of Jesus Christ seems to thrive best in times like these.

So, trust Christ. Trust the message. Love your neighbors and spread the Word. Be encouraged. Our world is asking questions for which Jesus is the only answer.

A Little Honesty About the Pew Report

Back in May, the Pew Research Center released a study that showed the percentage of people claiming to be Christians had rapidly decreased over the past several years. Humanists were elated. “See,” they shouted, “we told you religion is dying.” Church leaders wrung their hands and blamed the culture, liberal seminaries, and lukewarm church members for the decline. “The culture has become hostile to the faith,” they told us, “and the weak are falling away.”

A Little Honesty About the Pew Report

I have a little different take on this. I don’t think the Pew study is shocking. I just think the study is honest. I’ve been doing what I do for a long time, and here’s a dirty little secret that no one will tell you: we’ve never had as many Christians or church members as we have claimed. Anybody who works in a church can tell you this. In a typical church, attendance will be half of the total membership, and a “healthy church” will have 80% of those who attend worship involved in Sunday School or Bible Study.

If you serve an older church, one that’s been around for over 50 years or so, you literally won’t be able to find 25% to 50% of the membership. They will have moved, died, or joined another church, but never updated their membership status. The published numbers of church membership and those claiming to be followers of Christ have always been suspect.

There are several reasons for this. For one thing, several years ago, there was a great deal of social pressure to be a “member” of a local church. You didn’t have to attend, participate, or even give. You just had to be a member. As a result, our churches were filled with “members” who never intended to be a part of church life.

Our demographics are different. Populations are changing and churches have been slow (ok, totally failed) to respond in meaningful ways to the needs of the new communities around them.

Now, our culture has changed and there’s no longer any social pressure to be part of a church. Sunday has become just another day in the weekend. People attend entertainment events, ball games, shop, go to the lake or the beach, and never think twice about missing worship. If you ask them, they will tell you point blank, “We don’t go to church anywhere.”

And there you have it—an honest answer. For me, this is the great revelation of the Pew Research study. People are now honest about their spiritual choices. I, for one, welcome the new reality. Now, we know where we stand.

And yes, there’s a great challenge before the local church, but for me, I find great freedom in this new honesty. People are declaring their preferences and from there, it’s a lot easier to start the conversation about Christ, faith, and what matters in life.

The Pew study didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. We may not have wanted to admit it, but we knew it. Churches and church leaders are going to have to make some hard decisions—either become missional or become extinct. The Pew study makes our choice a little easier, a little more obvious.

After all, now that we know what we know, we really don’t have an excuse, do we?

Baltimore and Beyond

A few days ago, Baltimore police arrested a man named Freddie Gray. While in their custody, Mr. Gray died under suspicious circumstances. When he was later taken to the hospital, Mr. Gray was found to have a series of injuries that included his spinal cord being 80% severed. The Baltimore police have admitted mistakes.


Then, the riots broke out. Stores were burned and looted. Fire fighters and police officers were attacked. Cars were set on fire. On the heels of the riots in Ferguson, MO, it appears we may be on the verge of another summer of riots like we experienced in the sixties.

As Christ followers, how are we to respond to this? What are we to do? Prayer is an obvious answer, but sometimes, prayers have to have feet on them. That is, prayers have to be lived out in our actions.

So what do we do? First, there are a couple of things we don’t do.

One, we reject violence. Violence is rarely, if ever, the answer. The attacks by the rioters will bring a response by the police, which will bring more violence from the rioters. Violence begets violence. It never solves anything. Those defeated will only go underground with their anger, and then it will resurface. It may take years, even generations, but it won’t go away.

Second, we must also reject the “sound bite” responses given by politicians, so-called “experts,” and news commentators. The problem is too complex to be adequately understood in a five-minutes news segment. Not every police officer is a racist and everyone who’s arrested isn’t guilty.

On the other hand, there are several things we must do. First, we have to embrace justice. We cannot sit by and watch lives destroyed by a system that discounts anyone who isn’t of use to the system. What do I mean by that? For a child to be born in the United States of America and not have a chance is just wrong. You and I both know there are children, born in certain places and who live in certain areas of certain towns that, realistically, don’t have a chance. The schools they attend will not prepare them for their future. The streets they live on aren’t safe. The neighborhoods they live in aren’t well served. Christ followers must work for justice for everyone at every level of our society.

Second, we must work to break the poverty cycle that keeps too many of our neighbors trapped. Without a good education, you can’t get a job. If you can’t get a job, you don’t have the money you need. If you don’t have the money you need….and the cycle never ends. Throughout our history, Christians have done some of our best work when we engaged the issue of poverty. The gospel restores dignity to a person. The church brings community to a person and that community provides support and discipline that may be missing in a child’s life who grows up in a broken family.

No, these children aren’t our fault, but they are our responsibility.

Christ calls us to do all of this with love. We often read 1 Corinthians 13 at weddings. Yet Paul didn’t write that passage for weddings, but for everyday living. His description of love lived out is a compelling challenge, but it is the way Jesus Himself responded when He was confronted with in His own life. Love is not only concerned with the victim, but with the aggressor. Both are in need of salvation.

Baltimore didn’t just happen over these past few days. These issues have been seething for years, but no one would do anything. Everyone said it was somebody else’s problem and now everyone has to pay.

The local church has to reengage. Throughout history, when the church has addressed those issues no one else wanted to touch (think Mother Theresa dealing with dying lepers in India), we’ve been at our absolute best. The gospel is for the whole person—mind, body, and soul. The church’s mission has to be to the whole person as well.

How Do You Communicate Vision?

The other day, a parent in our church pulled me aside and said, “I have to tell you this. Last night when we were reading our Bible stories with our son, he took the Bible from our hands and said really loud, “This is God’s Word for God’s people. Hear it, believe it, and live.” Then she patted my arm and walked off laughing.


Here’s the joke. On Sunday mornings, after I read the sermon passage, I hold up the Bible and say, “This is God’s Word for God’s People. Hear it, believe it, and live.” I’ve said that same phrase every Sunday for over twenty-three years.

There is always a lot of discussion among leaders about how often something has to be said before our congregations hear it. While we don’t have all the answers to this, here’s what we do know. Saying something once doesn’t work. The first reason is that on any given Sunday, there are several members of your church who, for whatever reason, aren’t there. The second reason is that of those who are there, half of them aren’t listening.

It just has to be said a lot. The experts disagree about how many times—some say six times, some say more—but we all agree it’s more than once. Here’s what I’ve learned. The number depends. What does it depend on? How important the message is.

If it’s an announcement, once or twice will do. But if it’s vision, as a leader you say it every time you speak—in one way or another.

In every sermon, in every address, you always find a way to talk about the vision and/or a significant strategy needed to accomplish the greater vision. How will you know when you’re successful in this?

You’ll know when your people start using your words to describe the vision.

And how long does that take? I don’t know about you, but it took me every Sunday for twenty-three years.

What about you? How do you work to communicate your vision? How long does it take you?