LIVING IN A "NEW ERA"
We believe that we are living in a “New Era in America,” shaped by the new economy, by
living with the threat of terrorism, and by seekers and believers search for meaning and
hope in their lives. This “New Era in America” is characterized by:
The “American Dream” has become elusive and, to those who have found it,
they found it unsatisfying.
This has led to a palpable search for a “life that is good” vs. “the good life.”
A sluggish economy that may be a new way of life vs. a temporary blip.
Constant anxiety living with the threats of terrorism and war.
A decline in church giving (and giving to other non-profits).
A decline in church membership.
Moral values of Christians are no different than those who consider themselves non-Christians.
The average American tells 23 lies a day.
Of the dozens of books we read and reviewed, these six coalesced our thinking and convinced us that the New Era is here to stay. The question remains, “Will the church embrace this opportunity, transform its culture, and expect full gospel engagement from its members?”
The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart by Peter Gomes, © 1996
The Church of Irresistible Influence and Culture Shift: Transforming Your Church from the Inside Out by Robert Lewis, © 2001
Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling by Andy Crouch, © 2008
The Hole in the Gospel: The Answer That Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World by Richard Sterns, © 2009
Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream by David Platt, © 2010
Transformational Church: Creating a New Scorecard for Congregations by Ed Stetzer, © 2010
Rev. Peter Gomes, in his book The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, puts it this way:
Men and women living at the edge of modernity are searching for “the life that is good” (in contrast to “the good life”). People want a good life for themselves and for those they love. They ask: “What makes a good life? How do I get it?
As the Middle Ages developed a “Theology of love,” and the Reformation developed a “Theology of Faith;” perhaps this Post-Modern Era in America is developing a “Theology of HOPE.” We hope so – don’t you?
In this “New Era in America” churches have a vital and unique role – some would even say a sacred responsibility – to meet the need by providing meaning, direction, resources and opportunities for their members to experience “the life that is good.” And as Christians we know that “a life that is good” is grounded on the cornerstone of faith in Jesus.
In 2005 Christianity Today published an article about Rick Warren and his awakening to the plight of the world’s poor following a trip to Rwanda. The article said:
Around this time, Warren says he was driven to reexamine Scripture with "new eyes." What he found humbled him. "I found those 2,000 verses on the poor. How did I miss that? I went to Bible college, two seminaries, and I got a doctorate. How did I miss God's compassion for the poor? I was not seeing all the purposes of God.
"The church is the body of Christ. The hands and feet have been amputated and we're just a big mouth, known more for what we're against." Warren found himself praying, "God, would you use me to reattach the hands and the feet to the body of Christ, so that the whole church cares about the whole gospel in a whole new way—through the local church?"
“How did I miss God’s compassion for the poor?” A remarkable statement coming from a recognized world religious leader not only for the revelation, but for his courage to make such a statement from someone that should, if anyone does, get it. And, earlier this year Warren spoke about the need for changing how the local church thinks about membership.
Membership is a word that has been perverted and abused. It’s not putting your name on a roll. It’s not about knowing the insider lingo. That’s not what membership is all about.
He also addressed the notion that membership isn’t important as long as people attend the church, saying,
The difference between an attender and a member is the difference between living together and getting married. A lot of people want to date the church, but they don’t want to get married. That is spiritual adultery.
Robert Lewis, pastor of Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, authored The Church of Irresistible Influence in 2001. From there, he founded Fellowship Associates as a resource to help pastors and churches implement the findings in his book. A summary of the book (published by Christian Book Summaries) highlights these key “what we must do” recommendations for the local church.
With repentant hearts, we must face reality and admit that we have not demonstrated to the world what it means to live authentic, biblically-based Christian lives. Building churches of irresistible influence requires that we do three things.
First, pastors must redefine success. As the pastors go, so goes the church. Unfortunately, many pastors define success as size, growth, and numbers. They must lead their churches to become the salt and light that Jesus envisioned. The result would be authentic people, a compelling witness, and community bridges.
Second, the Church must redesign its structure. Most church structures are actually holding tanks that inhibit growth and effectiveness. They might keep people from falling away, but eventually believers stagnate in these environments. Better preaching and big events are not the answer. Structures must be overhauled to equip and send people into strategic places of ministry. Only then will followers of Christ be on track to reach their God-given potential.
Third, laypeople must reconnect with a lifestyle of spiritual standards and service. Believers mistakenly think that their lifestyles are okay as long as they don’t hurt others. But the truth is that undefined spiritual standards and impotent lifestyles undermine public confidence in the Church. How tragic, especially in an age where people express interest in spiritual matters.
One of the biggest questions for the church is how or whether to “change the culture” to meet the biblical model. Andy Crouch, senior editor with Christianity Today International and author of Culture Making in 2008, says:
The essential insight of the 3:12:120 is that every cultural innovation, no matter how far reaching its consequences, is based on personal relationships and personal commitment. Culture making is hard. It simply doesn’t happen without the deep investment of absolutely and relatively small groups of people. In culture making, size matters – in reverse. Only a small group can sustain the attention, energy and perseverance to create something that genuinely moves the horizons of possibility – because to create the good requires an ability to suspend, at least for a time, the very horizons within which everyone is operating. Such “suspension of impossibility” is tiring and taxing. The only thing strong enough to sustain it is a community of people…
Crouch has put his finger on the church’s problem by recognizing that the church tries to change the culture mostly through the pulpit (which hasn’t and won’t work) while not engaging the members in culture making at the personal relationship level. His solution, the “3:12:120” concept – small groups replicating throughout the host (the church) – oriented toward full engagement of the member is a core element in transformation; and it is what’s missing in the church.
Today’s free and easy technology brings all aspects of the world not just into our homes, but onto our phones, letting us see, “up close and personal,” the suffering faced by the poor, oppressed, sick and abused. As members of the local church watch these scenes, it’s what they don’t see or feel that confronts them…and if they truly grasp the full gospel and their responsibilities through it…they come face-to-face with the guilt of disobedience to God. This is counter-balanced by the priority of achieving the prosperity of the American dream, and leads to hard hearts that pick and choose what is comfortable to do.
This dilemma is well described by Richard Stearns, CEO of World Vision, in his book The Hole in the Gospel. He especially calls the American church to task.
If church leaders do not have an outward vision to become salt and light in our world, to promote social and spiritual transformation, pursue justice, and proclaim the whole gospel, then the church will fail to realize its potential as an agent of change. It will become inwardly focused on meeting the needs of its members, to the exclusion of its nonmembers. It will be a spiritual cocoon, where Christians can retreat from a hostile world, rather than a “transformation station” whose primary objective is to change the world. We need only read our church bulletin to see where our priorities have been placed. How many of the announcements involve programs that focus more on meeting our needs than the needs of those outside the church?
An African pastor of a small and humble church in the midst of the AIDS pandemic once told me, “A church that lives within its four walls is no church at all.” That says it all.
Stearns is not the first, or only, person to challenge to the church to engage in the full application of the gospel, through its members, to address the issues so important to God. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed this same point in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in 1963. While the issue then was American civil rights, the words ring just as true today.
The contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch-defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into downright disgust.
David Platt, pastor of a large Southern Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, led his fellowship through a transformation and wrote a book called Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream. He clearly sees the danger faced by the American church and knows that personal transformation, led by church leadership, can encourage the members, attract seekers, impact a community, and take the gospel to those who need to hear it.
God’s design for taking the gospel to the world is a slow, intentional, simple process that involves every one of his people sacrificing every facet of their lives to multiply the life of Christ in others.
But we resist this plan, resorting to performances and programs that seem much more “successful.” In our Christian version of the American dream, our plan ends up disinfecting Christians from the world more than discipling Christians in the world.
Disinfecting Christians from the world involves isolating followers of Christ in a spiritual safe-deposit box called the church building and teaching them to be good. In this strategy, success in the church is defined by how big a building you have to house all the Christians, and the goal is to gather as many people as possible for a couple of hours each week in that place where we are isolated and insulated from the realities of the world around us.
Just a few months ago, Transformational Church was released. Its authors, Ed Stetzer and Thom Rainer, using extensive research conducted by LifeWay Christian Resources, identified churches and trends that are bringing transformation to members and communities, and offer a hopeful future for the local church IF church leaders are willing to move from “doing church.”
Right now it is in vogue to look down on the church . . . For all kinds of reasons and with all kinds of motives, many are swinging away at the church . . . Yet despite the beating Christ’s Bride is taking, despite the daily write-offs she receives, God is not finished with His church. Far from it.
Many American churches used bad blueprints and pay the price for it decades later . . . In building, what you measure is perhaps most important . . . Spending all of our time measuring the outlying issues means we will miss the core mission of God. Transformational Churches spend their time measuring the issues that bring transformation to lives and communties.
Sadly, Christian leaders are often more in love with the way they do church than they are in love with the people in their community.
On the eve of the 2010 Southern Baptist Convention, Rainer blogged an open “Letter to my Southern Baptist Family” saying:
I really wish the world knew us more by what we are for, by how we care, and by how we demonstrate love. It’s time to move forward. It is time to reach the nations. It is time to be Christ in our communities. It is time to give food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, shelter to the stranger, clothes to the naked, and fellowship to the prisoner. It is time to be known for our love.
“If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For the person who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And we have this command from Him: the one who loves God must also love his brother.” (1 John 4:20-21)
In summary, there is a New Era in America and the local church is faced with more than adapting its messaging. The traditional church must engage its members, at an intimate, personal level, in living out the full gospel. There are examples and resources available to aid church leadership in making the transformation. The question is, “Will they do it?”