By Dean Inserra
The Church of Jesus Christ is alive and doing just fine. I know this because Jesus is the builder of the Church and He promised that not even the gates of hell will be able to overcome her (Matthew 16:18).
That sounds like longevity—and a guarantee of victory. In the context of Matthew 16:18, I recently saw a pastor post on social media that a church never dies. It made me scratch my head a little and wonder how that can be true when I’ve seen local church congregations in my own community disband, close the doors, and cease to be a church.
Jesus continues to build his church across the globe, yet local congregations disband and churches die. This isn’t a contradiction, but only possible because this promise of Jesus is true for all believers and a great source of a certain hope for the mission of God. And it isn’t a long-term guarantee for the local congregation where I pastor.
The mission of God understood in the church of Jesus Christ is not fragile, but your local congregation is extremely delicate. I know that anxiety is not from the Lord, but I feel it regularly about the fragility of our local church.
The bizarre part of that anxiety is that things are going really well at our church. I’m just fully aware that none of that is guaranteed tomorrow, due to the state of the local church in America.
Your local church is fragile. As one who believes strongly that the local church is God’s chosen vehicle to reach the world and our own communities with the gospel, of Jesus Christ, I want to understand why this is a reality.
Through my personal examination of this, there are three primary factors that make American local churches fragile.
1. Because of the way most American churches grow.
Transfer growth. That’s the secret sauce for an explosion of growth at a local church. I don’t believe it’s an exaggeration to say that it’s the way most churches have grown. It’s rarely admitted, but it is true.
When a church has a period of large numerical growth, more times than not it’s because they were doing—by a consumer’s standards—a better job, with better talent, and better “stuff.”
There are certainly good reasons to transfer membership to a new church. If one transfers to a new local church because they are looking for theological or missional soundness, fantastic. I wish more people would choose churches for those reasons.
Sadly, many choose churches based simply on consumer taste and preferences, and I’m well aware that if we start doing things differently than they are accustomed to, or another church in town starts doing it better, they’ll be gone. If they left their previous church for consumer reasons, why would you think they would treat your church any differently?
If the way a church has been grown is through transfer growth, that church may be “booming,” but it’s fragile.
2. Because of the social pressure concerning the church and the sexual revolution.
People have left our church simply over our views on same-sex marriage. Strangely, they often hold orthodox views on every other area of biblical doctrine.
While one might find it foolish that their friend is part of a church that believes in the virgin birth, or the Holy Spirit, there isn’t social pressure to disassociate with churches who believe in such things. There might be some mockery, but not outrage.
When it comes to where a church stands concerning the sexual revolution, being part of a “non-affirming” church is absolutely unacceptable in the eyes of the world. Due to reasons such as relationships, sentimental emotions, cultural indoctrination, and fear, people will leave churches that preach on sexual ethics and God’s design for human sexuality.
The individuals I’ve witnessed leave our church by the dozens over these issues haven’t flocked to progressive churches affirming the sexual revolution, but rather churches that remain silent on the issue. In those churches’ eyes, “going there” concerning speaking to these issues from a biblical perspective isn’t worth the risk of people leaving.
3. Because the local church is becoming less of a priority for many.
My biggest current frustration as a pastor is the infrequency of church attendance among people who call our church their home.
Claims such as “you don’t have to be at church to be a Christian,” “I can have church in the boat or on the golf course,” and “I’ll just watch online later this week,” have become the norm across America. Children are seeing their parents make the local church less and less of a priority, where everything from sports, to brunch takes precedence, all while still claiming the title of “Christian.”
If the trend continues, the need to be part of a Sunday worship gathering, or involved at the church at all will eventually vanish completely. Seldom is the new regular, which will result in never being the future outcome.
How does the church respond?
I believe we need to lovingly challenge all of it. If people claim to believe in the Bible we need to help them see what that actual Bible actually says about the local church, and why it matters for their personal benefit—but more importantly the mission to the world.
The significance and primacy of the local church must be frequently preached from the pulpit, and be part of the conversation that permeates throughout the culture of the church.
Encourage those who come over by transfer growth to be part of this church only for issues of theology and mission, and not simply because they like it more than their last church.
Preach and teach the whole counsel of God, including the societal cost of following Christ, that is nothing new for the Christian.
Overall, individual conversations must become normal again. It’s one thing to preach a sermon to the masses, but another to share in vulnerability with others in staff and lay leadership about the fragile reality of every church.
People must be aware that the future projections for the universal Church of Jesus Christ are outstanding, but the local church is vulnerable. Hopefully, there will be not only a raised awareness, but also a commitment that they are going to be part of this church’s mission, and encourage others to do that same.
We have to start talking out loud about the vulnerability and fragile state of every church, and realize that if simply having a full room and meeting budget is the goal, the future of that particular church is not bright.
If every church member takes ownership of their local church, a fragile church will gain durability and strength.
DEAN INSERRA (@deaninserra) is lead pastor of City Church in Tallahassee, Florida, and author of The Unsaved Christian: Reaching Cultural Christianity with the Gospel