Now that we have considered the reasons why the church is in crisis, our focus can shift to how to respond to this crisis. While the need to properly respond may seem to be a given, unfortunately for many churches the crisis and how to respond to it is ignored. And the reason for the ignorance is wedded to the crisis itself- response requires change and many churches will always resist change even if it means extinction.
Why the need for change? Simply because culture around us has changed- dramatically! The way people interact with one another, the way they interact with the Christian message, the way they respond to church, even the way people think and come to decisions have changed (all of this- and more- has been defined by the term, postmodern). And because of all of this- the same old way of doing church business no longer has quite the same connection.
Think about our traditional evangelistic methods: door-to-door approaches; gospel meetings; “cottage studies”; filmstrips, etc. No longer do they make much impact. No longer do people respond to these methods. Add to this a general mistrust of the institutional church in the mind of many (Why this mistrust? Church scandals, splits- all the negative perceptions detailed in part one) and the combination is lethal for churches.
So change is a must. Change toward our own thinking about church. Change in moving away from the institutional model toward relationship building. Change in our methods of evangelism. Change in the focus of our ministries. Change in how we interact with our communities. These kinds of changes are absolutely essential- or we will just continue to grow older and smaller.
Notice that no mention was made of needs to change the core message of the gospel or even worship style. While there could be a need to change the way the message is presented, we would defeat our purpose and calling as God’s church to attempt to change the core of the message to something not supported by divine revelation. Whatever the shift in culture and our response to it- it still needs the message of Christ to bring light to darkness. And while we may (and should) seek the most effective ways to communicate the unchangeable message through our worship time together- most unchurched folks have no preconceptions about worship and will accept practically any worship style as long as they see authentic and sincere participation in the worshippers.
IT IS ALL ABOUT CREDIBILITY
It is no longer about what we say but about what we do. Before our message will ever be able to penetrate our postmodern culture it first must be authentically lived out among community. This is absolutely crucial to understand in responding to our current crisis. Faith lived out genuinely and sincerely is now what gives the Christian message its credibility.
It is not about church posturing, church programming, church messages or any other institutional approaches now- it is all about me living out my faith example in a genuine way through my personal relationships and personal ministry. In other words if I say I am a Christian most folks are not going to care about what church I attend, they are going to care about how sincerely and faithfully I live that out in my life. They will want to know if I am compassionate toward them and others. They will want to know if I am living out what they perceive to be the Christian message- helping the poor, ministering to needs of others, living a moral lifestyle, if I am honest and selfless, etc. Unless I am credible in these ways, my church- to them- will never be credible and I will never get the chance to share my faith witness to them. It is just no longer about the institution making claims about Christianity- it is about the person living Christianity out. This is where it starts.
Beyond that, change for the institutional church means shifting focus from within to without. Take a quick look at most church budgets and it is clear that more money is spent ministering to self than ministering to community. This has to change. For churches to be credible in postmodern culture they have to be involved in compassionate ministry to community, to the poor and needy, to victims, to broken people. Churches that are growing do this well with counseling centers, recovery programs, homeless outreach, after-school events and other forms of community outreach. These are the new “gospel meetings” or methods of evangelism. But it takes great commitment- on behalf of church leadership to shift the focus of the institution and on behalf of church members to help make these things happen. And quite frankly, some churches will either never see the need for such commitment or will not make such a commitment. Again, in such cases, the decline will only continue.
WE ARE IN A MISSION FIELD
As Christian theologian Don Bartel says, we must admit that we are in a mission field in this postmodern culture and because of that we need to think like a mission outpost in a strange and foreign land. Another theologian, Grant Osborne has compiled seven principles for putting into proper context the challenge churches face in our current crisis. We would do well to hear and heed.
- We must first be willing to critique the bankruptcy of our age. The emptiness and moral confusion of our times can be a means to witness.
- We need to center more on biblical theology than systematic theology so that the biblical worldview confronts the false worldviews of our day.
- We need to focus on community. Our culture is relation-hungry and people are seeking places to belong. A loving, healing faith community is the best witness in these times.
- The focus of our message needs to be the historical gospel.
- But we need to make sure that message is culturally relevant in our media-savvy age.
- We need to use conversation and life stories to draw people into the “real world” of Christianity.
- We need to think carefully how to live as well as what we say. In this age we witness with our transformed lives as much as with our informed lips. We must avoid the materialism and success-oriented lifestyles of our culture and exhibit a countercultural community to the world.
WELCOME BACK TO THE FIRST CENTURY
The pluralism so evident in our 21st century culture is amazingly similar to that of the first century and this brings us to the good news. The gospel message flourished then. It can flourish now also. Remember however, that the church as an “institution” with all the institutional trimmings (buildings, property, bank accounts, multiple staff, years of tradition to protect) did not exist in the form it does now. The message truly was presented in the credible faith witnesses of individual Christians. They simply went out into that culture preaching and living the Good News of Christ’s death and resurrection. In that culture they found people hungry for a message with substance and hope. Christ’s light faithfully lived and taken by Christians then shone brightly in the darkness that defined that culture and people gravitated toward it. The power of the gospel message has not changed. So why can’t that happen again today?
It can- and that should excite us. I am convinced that more and more folks will grow tired of the empty and unfulfilling menu the world offers and hungrily seek alternatives. But are we willing to do what it takes to allow God to work in us to make it happen again? That is yet to be seen.