Years ago there was an illustration making the rounds that still has a point to make today. A preacher was visiting a new family. In the course of the visit the subject of reading the Bible came up. The mother asked her eight-year old son to go into the living room and bring “the book” they were always reading. The boy returned with the Sears Catalog. We smile at this little illustration but sadly, it contains a major reality relative to the status of Bible reading today.
In a recent article circulated by Christianity Today (6/5/2015) it was stated that in a United Kingdom survey it was revealed that one in three British children don’t know the Nativity story is part of the Bible. However, 27% think Superman is in the Bible. In this same article it was stated that 88% of American homes have a Bible, many have four Bibles. Less than 40% of Americans read the Bible regularly.
A farmer from Georgia was part of a tour group visiting the elaborate Westminster Cathedral in London. He listened patiently and with interest as the guide gave the history of the 54,000 square foot building. The guide talked about the altars, chapels, mosaics, music, famous visitors, and the Archbishops who were buried there, etc. When the guide asked for questions, the farmer asked, “When was the last time someone was saved in here?” The farmer hit the nail on the head. His question should be asked in every church: “When was the last time someone was saved here?”
I am not sure what Solomon was addressing when he penned these words, “Do not say, ‘Why are the former days better than these?’ For you do not inquire wisely concerning these things” (Ecclesiastes 7:10). (It follows a verse on anger). I am taking the liberty to take a principle from verse ten and “violate” it by looking back at a practice which once flourished in most congregations—EVANGELISM. How many of us remember those “good old days”?
Not too many years ago most congregations were growing as a result of evangelism. There were campaigns in big auditoriums, numerous gospel meetings, door-to-door evangelism, film strips being shown, home Bible studies, workshops, bus ministries, television and radio programs, tract distribution etc. The evangelism fires where glowing across the nation and around the world. Congregations were hiring men to give full time ministry to training the local church for evangelism, as well as doing it themselves.
In the ‘70s I worked with a congregation that baptized 265 in one years and for a number of years we baptized over one hundred each year. In the ‘80s I worked with a congregation that baptized 102 into Christ; half of which came through the ministry of the youth.
Whatever happened to evangelism?
I remember fondly preaching one and two week meetings in which souls were saved in double digits, and during those meeting scores rededicated their lives to Christ and asked for prayer. The power of the gospel was awesome (cf. Romans 1:14-16). Buildings were filled as outsiders and sister congregations attended the meetings. Yes, those where the “good old days” which I am saying were better, in most congregations, than the evangelism of today.
The research of today related to growth through evangelism is discouraging. My late great and wonderful friend, Clayton Peppers, editor of Personal Evangelism, said, “Evangelism is the last thing most congregations do and is the first thing they give up.” I am privileged to travel across our nation visiting congregations; in most places the situation is the same, churches are not growing numerically. In fact, many are declining and dying a slow death.
The congregation where my mother once worshipped, with 300 members, no longer exists. The property is now a business complex. The congregation where I was baptized, which was close to 400 at the time, now has an attendance of 20 to 30. I know of a once large and thriving congregation that now meets in a classroom and the upstairs is the preacher’s residence. I visited one congregation that had turned the baptistery into a storage area. Numerous leaders have shared that they rarely have one baptism a year; especially from outsiders.
I could go on and on with these examples but it is discouraging and should serve as a wakeup call, as we ask, “Whatever happened to evangelism.” Do you know?
One answer might be that we have traded it for games, gimmicks, media hype, and talk show hosts in the pulpit. However, a second thing is obvious and that when compared to the evangelistic efforts of the first century Christians, “we are not going and everywhere preaching the word” (Acts ). Third, we have inverted the Great Commission, which says, “Go”, to a “Come” command. Yes, there was once a time by putting up a sign in front of the building and taking an ad in the newspaper announcing a gospel meeting that would bring people in, but no more. Our meetings, which were once a week long, are exhausting at four days of preaching. Less than half to three-fourth of the members won’t be back after Sunday morning.
Whatever happened to evangelism? This is a personal question every Christian must ask and answer. It is one leaders in local churches must ask and answer. It will not be sufficiently and biblically answered by pointing a finger at someone else and asking why he or she isn’t evangelistic. Both parties are guilty of neglecting evangelism. In my opinion that’s what has happened to evangelism. But that answer is too simplistic.
Whatever happened to evangelism? First, we have confused believing and talking about evangelism with the physical act of evangelism. These two qualities are essential but they are not sharing the gospel with a lost person. Second, evangelism in some congregations has been replaced, no doubt with good intentions, with media driven presentations, community involvement that never challenges sinner, adopting marketing ploys used by business and mega churches, and the examples go on. There is only one drawing power for evangelism and that is Christ. Jesus said, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to Myself. This He said, signifying by what death He would die” (John 12:32). Christ is the only drawing power in evangelism.
In the first century church evangelism was never taught in a class, tied to a method, or relegated to the hands of an expert. There is no example of brethren being rebukes for not “winning souls.” In the midst of ridicule, rejection, persecution, and ultimately losing their lives, “Those who were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4).
Whatever happened to evangelism? It has been lost in the numerous approaches that teach only qualified professionals who know theology and the Bible can evangelize. It has been lost in the salesman approach of mastering tricky and set up questions to make the sale. It has been lost in a lack of emphasis on the command of the Great Commission to make disciples, which involves relationships with people in a Christian’s personal day-to-day world. And perhaps the most tragic reason for the loss of evangelism is that we no longer believe the lost are really lost.
A restoration of evangelism will occur if we will go back to God’s church growth and evangelism book—the Book of Acts. To study and apply principles such as knowing and sharing the gospel (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-6), using our homes as outreach posts, making sure we share the gospel with our families (cf. Cornelius, Philippian jailer, etc.), and initiating a gospel conversion with persons we meet (cf. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch). Surely we can remember what we did in order to be saved; now we simply need to tell it to others “as we are going in our world” (Matthew 28:18-20).
Whatever happened to evangelism? This question must become more personal: Whatever happened to evangelism in MY life? Whatever happened to evangelism in our congregation? Let’s start sharing the gospel in our world. You already know enough; and you already have a list of contacts. Remembering the gospel is the “good news” about the death, burial and resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-6), which is the only power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:14-16).
It is 6:00 AM, the bugle blasts reveille over the PA system. It is wake up and get up time for the soldiers attached to the Army base. When breakfast is served in the mess hall at 7:00 AM no one is present but the cooks. When the inspection assembly is called at 8:00 AM no one but the drill sergeant is present. Where are the soldiers who volunteered to serve their country? Some are still in their bunks; a few are checking their cell phones; others are in the shower, etc. Would you say this is a very well trained and disciplined company of soldiers? How do you think they will perform if called on to see combat duty?
Former Sergeant Major of the Army, William G. Bainbridge said: “The core of a soldier is moral discipline. It is intertwined with the discipline of physical and mental achievement. Total discipline overcomes adversity, and physical stamina draws on an inner strength that says ‘drive on.’” General George Patton said, “Discipline can only be obtained when all the officers are imbued with the sense of their awful obligation to their men and to their country that they cannot tolerate negligence.”
What is discipline? As a noun, Webster gives an extensive definition: “discipline: training that develops self-control, character or orderliness and efficiency; strict control to enforce obedience; the results of such training or control; acceptance of or submission to authority; a system of rules, as for a church; treatment that corrects or punishes.” For this study we will look briefly at three applications of discipline. First, self-discipline; second, discipline of others, and third, church discipline.
Just as all leadership begins with self-leadership, the exercise of discipline begins with self-discipline. From the cradle to the grave each person is challenged by the discipline of self. The training started with our parents, teachers, and coaches. It is under our control. As Christians we have volunteered to discipline ourselves as followers of Christ.
It may come as a surprise to some that Christians are in the Lord’s army; each Christian is a soldier of Christ. Just as soldiers are required to be disciplined in a literal army, soldiers in God’s spiritual army must be spiritually disciplined too, so wrote the apostle Paul: “You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier” (2 Timothy 2:3, 4). Self-control is a “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:23).
Self-discipline begins by volunteering to deny self and follow Christ (cf. Matthew 16:24). It is a commitment to a covenant relationship that requires faithfulness to death (Revelation 2:10). In referring to the discipline required to win the spiritual race and fight, Paul gave these words as the keys to his success: “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
There are numerous spiritual practices that are dependent on self-discipline. Some of these are: faithful church attendance, stewardship, Bible study, prayer, involvement, caring, teaching, morals, ethics, etc. Spiritual self-discipline requires perpetual exercise: “But reject profane and old wives fables, and exercise yourself toward godliness. For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come” (1 Timothy 4:7, 8).
Relative to disciplining others, I will briefly discuss it with application to children. There is an amazing controversy today over the discipline of Children. The evidence of a lack of parental discipline is seen in the home, class room, on the streets, in the media, and even in churches. In addressing this issue, Laura Clark, an educational correspondent for the Dailymail.co.uk.(2-27-2012), wrote: “Parents who fail to discipline their offspring properly are creating a generation of angry children who lash out in the classroom, a study has found.”
School-age children expert, Katherine Lee wrote: “Contrary to what some parents may mistakenly believe children who are not regularly disciplined are not happy. In fact, failure to discipline children often results in kids who are unhappy, angry, and even resentful. To those around him, a child who is not disciplined will be unpleasant company, and a child without discipline may find it difficult to make friends” (http://childparenting.about.com).
God has given us sage advice on disciplining children. In Proverbs 19:18 we read: “Chasten your son while there is hope, and do not set your heart on his destruction.” And in Proverbs 13:24 we read: “He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly.” In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote advice to both children and parents. He made it clear that fathers are responsible for the discipline of their children: “And you fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). Whatever happened to the discipline of children?
The final observation I will make in this article is related church discipline. Whatever happened to church discipline? When was the last time you heard a sermon or series of lessons on church discipline? When was the last time you witnessed the church practicing discipline? I know this is wading into scalding water because of the controversy and lack of practicing discipline in congregations today. It was more than 50 years ago when I witnessed an elder stand before the congregation and read a letter stating the church was withdrawing from his son who was committing adultery. In my early years of ministry the biblical discipline of members was a common, undisputed practice. But since the law suit by a member of a congregation in Collinsville, Oklahoma in the ‘70s, a quick retreat has occurred for fear of being sued. Oh we have talked and preached about church discipline, conducted many lectures, but the actual practice has been lost and the commands to practice discipline have become lost and admired antiques of a past era in the church.
The guilty verdict in the Collinsville case was overturned by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. However, that hasn’t stopped the fear of being sued as a reason for not practicing church discipline. There are many additional reasons why it isn’t being practiced today. First, it isn’t being taught from a Bible perspective (i.e. studying each verse in its context). Second, there has been an abuse of how it has been conducted. Third, there is a lack of conviction relative to the seriousness of discipline. Fourth, is doesn’t work as God intended because a disciplined member will go to another congregation and be accepted. Fifth, a lax attitude toward the seriousness of sin in a Christian’s life.
When one member of the congregation observes a problem, misconduct or sin in a brother or sister, Jesus, in Matthew 18:15-17, gave the initial procedure for correcting it; thus preventing church discipline. There are three steps: First, go to the person with a one-on-one confrontation in love, encouraging repentance and renewal of the relationship. Second, go to the person with two or three others, saying the same thing as in step one. Third, if there is no repentance and renewal, saying the same thing as in the previous two meetings, take it to the congregation. This is God’s way to practice the commands related to church discipline.
While the remarks on these three areas of discipline have been brief, prayerfully they have opened the door to deeper study, as we answer: Whatever happened to discipline?
If we aren’t careful those of us who write and teach may leave the impression that our messages are being believed and practiced perfectly by our congregations. In my case it isn’t so and I know it isn’t so in the ministries of others. This article is one of those cases. As I write the question, whatever happened to church attendance? I do so with the realization that on any given Sunday morning an average of 20 to 25 percent of the members are not in attendance. We track attendance through our CARE groups, thus I know it is an accurate percentage.
I am fully aware that some are absent because of sickness, others are out of town, a few have to work, and many other reasons. My point is not to sit in judgment on those who miss the Sunday morning assemblies, but to ask whatever happened to church attendance. I know I am not a lone voice crying in the wilderness. As I look at congregations around my geographical area, as well as travel over the USA, the situation is the same. Sunday morning attendance has fallen on hard times. (Notice I am not even addressing Sunday and Wednesday nights).
There are numerous things impacting the decline in Sunday morning church attendance. Many are obvious and some are more subtle. We must take seriously the question: Whatever happened to church attendance?
In over 50 years of preaching I have documented over 35 special, sure-fire, can’t fail programs and methods that were said to be the cure for declining church growth and the solution for getting inactive members involved. These have all faded into history. Today there is a new bundle of phenomenon’s being offered under marketing labels such as: purpose driven, missional driven, disciple making churches, cell groups, mega or meta-churches, and new ways of doing church. These are being bought into by “mainstream Christianity” as fast as people purchase new electronic gadgets. The latest model has to be better.
The cry of change, almost for change sake, is the new mantra, as leaders and members become agents on a new mission to change the church; not just traditions but doctrine as well In an effort to draw people in, which is not a command in the Scriptures. The felt needs, desires, and wishes of outsiders must be known and met (As well as members too). Wall Street marketing techniques are used to lure the prospects. They are “evangelized” through the methods of business, such as entertainment, use of management styles, and make them feel good at all costs. This is growing a church that becomes more and more like the world.
From the beginning of her existence the church has been planted, grown and survived in culture. However, to the degree she has abstained from becoming like the culture, her purity has survived. This is relevant to the issue of Sunday church attendance. The command to assemble has not been cancelled or adjusted to fit cultural norms. Hebrews 10:24, 25 still reads as follows: “And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.”
There is a lot of speculating, guessing, and polls being taken trying to find out why church attendance is going down like the Titanic. Only a person who has become lax or stopped attending church services can tell us why. My research has revealed that a major reasons dropout is occurring is because spiritual needs aren’t being met with God’s word. A Christian works all week, Monday through Friday and maybe on Saturday, experiencing every form of media pressure and usage imaginable and then attends worship on Sunday and what does he find more of the same. He is being exposed to a “Christianized” form of marketing ploys, jokes, stories, and management techniques. The question in the heart of the attendee is, “Is there any word from God about my life challenges?” The high-tech church, while trying to compete with the media model, makes it difficult to connect with the unseen Creator of the universe. What does it mean to “walk by faith”? Preachers are using laptops, IPads, live texting, and power point, replacing the open Bible, to present a 20 to 25 minute sermonette.
Years ago a well-known editor said “the church assembly is an emergency room where the hurting, sick, confused, lost, hungry, and dying come to be treated to a dose of God’s healing word. We dare not try to heal by placing a Band-Aid on cancers.” Who would want to go to an “emergency room” where you wouldn’t receive proper treatment? Likewise, how about attending a service where the emphasis is not on the Bible text and it properly interpreted and applied? I know someone will say a Christians should be there regardless. That may be true but reality says it’s not happening.
A careful study of the Book of Acts and the Epistles doesn’t reveal that the purpose of the Sunday assembly was to meet the needs of unbelievers, but to edify the saints and equip them for going out into the world with the gospel. Preaching is not designed by God to put an acceptable spin on the message of the cross, nor tickle the funny bone of the luck-warm and occasional visitors. It is a time to warn about the dangers of sin in time and eternity. The preaching event is a time to present the amazing grace of God as the only hope for missing the flames of hell.
There isn’t anything wrong with creating a comfortable and convenient physical environment for people to congregate. However, when fire flows from the pulpit, heat will be felt in the pews. When ice emits from the pulpit a chill will prevail over the assembly. This is why in God’s plan for the church nothing is more powerful to save people than the gospel (cf. Romans 1:14-16). This is why we should want to attend the assembly to hear the word preached with power, enthusiasm and convictions (2 Timothy 4:1-7). We attend so we can be aided in our study of God’s word and be ready to give reasons to others why we follow Christ (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15; Jude 3). We attend the assembly because it is one of the places we can fulfill the 50-plus “one another passages” related to our obligations to each other in the body of Christ.
The Sunday assembly is where we share the Lord’s Super with fellow-covenant members and soldiers of Christ. We have not assembled to hear a watered-down message or self-help hype. The only way we can “feel good”, is not by half-truths and entertainment, but by the surgical work of the words of God on our hearts (Hebrews 4:12; Acts 2:37), and obeying it as God intends (cf. Matthew 4:1-6).
In my mind as I reflect on the reasons for attending the assembly, it is not only because God commanded it and I benefit from it; it is also because of how God feels about it and how precious and beautiful it is for brethren to dwell together in unity. These are principles found in Psalm 133:1-3; cf. Ephesians 4:1-7)).
Whatever happened to church attendance? Let’s continue the study of this question and how we can prevent the downward spiral of dropouts.
They had been selected, mentored and trained for three years to carry out a worldwide mission to change the world. Their preparation had been the best because the world’s greatest Leader had prepared them. But something was wrong; we find them—the disciples—hiding behind closed doors. Why? The apostle John tells us why: “Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for FEAR of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, ‘Peace be with you’” (John 20:19).
Jesus had been illegally arrested, tried and sentenced to death on a cross. They may have thought, as followers and trained leaders, they would be next to experience the same fate. At this moment hiding behind closed doors the odds of them changing the world were zero. But wait a minute! Jesus shows up and everything changes. He is not dead. He is alive and courage now flows in their veins. The fearful now become fearless. Jesus makes a difference.
Moving forward to the Day of Pentecost and thereafter as recorded in the Book of Acts and the Epistles, we see leaders who are sold on being bold. Luke documents how these leaders were viewed: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). These leaders didn’t have a diploma or degree in philosophy, science, religion and other disciplines as the source of their boldness. The source of their boldness was Jesus Christ. They had been with Jesus.
Isn’t it amazing how Christ took a ragtag group of “uneducated” men from the fishing boats, tax tables, and other nominal professions of the day and train they into bold world changers? Boldness was one of the hallmarks of first century Christians; especially the leaders. I find it interesting that of all the things we say we need to restore that was characteristic of the first century church, boldness is not on that list. Why?
Whatever happened to boldness? King Solomon affirmed that “the righteous are as bold as lions” (Proverbs 28:1). Jesus “spoke boldly” (John 7:26).Even after Paul and his preaching team had been abused and rejected, he wrote to the Thessalonians, “… as you know, we were bold in our God to speak to you the gospel of God in much conflict” (1 Thessalonians 2:2). In Philemon Paul wrote this: “Therefore, though I might be very bold in Christ to command you what is fitting” (Philemon 1:8).
Whatever happened to boldness? Returning to the Book of Acts we see a thread of boldness running though the behavior of first century leaders and Christians. They prayed for boldness: “Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word…And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the world of God with boldness” (Acts 4:29, 31). When was the last time you prayed for boldness or heard a prayer for boldness in the assembly?
In Acts 5:25-33 we read the account of the disciples being commanded not to preach Christ and the gospel. Here is how Peter and the Apostles responded in boldness: “But Peter and the other apostles answered and said: “We ought to obey God rather than man” (Acts 5:29; cf. 5:34-42). A reading of Acts 6:8 through 7:60 shows the amazing boldness of Stephen. A boldness that cost him his life.
After Paul was converted to Christ, having been a bold persecutor of Christians, he turned his boldness into preaching the gospel boldly: “And he spoke boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus and disputed against the Hellenists, but they attempted to kill him” (Acts 9:29). Paul was committed the rest of his life to being sold on being bold.
As we continue to follow the thread of boldness in the Book of Acts, we read this about Paul and Barnabas: “Then Paul and Barnabas grew bold and said, ‘It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46). As Paul and Barnabas continued to preach, they did so with boldness: “Therefore they stayed there a long time, speaking boldly in the Lord, who was bearing witness to the word of His grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands” (Acts 14:3).
The Book of Acts closes as it started—exemplifying boldness. “Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all CONFIDENCE, no one forbidding him” (Acts 28:30, 31).
Whatever happened to boldness? One answer is that it has been replaced by fear. A lack of courage has removed boldness for the hearts of many soldiers of Christ. Fear is an enemy of boldness and does not come from God: “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). Fear is created by our thoughts as we evaluate what we perceive as a threat: “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7).
Another enemy of boldness, which is a stronger statement of fear, is cowardice. In Revelation 21:8 we find a list of things which God views as worthy of hell: “But the cowardly, unbelievers, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” It is interesting that cowardly is the first sin mentioned. Why? It may be because it is a major contributor to the sins that follow.
As the church faces a hostile world and a declining membership, she must restore the spirit of boldness. Boldness is not ugliness, harshness, brow-beating, or any behavior that is not spoke or demonstrated in love (cf. Ephesians 4:15). It is obvious from a study of boldness in the Book of Acts that we need to restore boldness in preaching and sharing the gospel with the lost. Boldness will eliminate the fear of losing friends, being misunderstood, or being thought of as a fanatic. It is a restoring the “we ought to obey God rather than man” attitude and behavior.
Boldness is based on “knowing in whom we have believed.” It is based on the power of God’s inspired word (cf. Hebrews 4:12; 2 Timothy 3:15-17). It is based on “walking by faith and not by sight.” Boldness is based on believing “that we can do all things in Christ.” When we believe in eternal life and heaven, we will be sold on being bold.
We can restore boldness by praying for boldness, by studying and applying God’s word boldly, and by daring to be bold regardless of the circumstances. We must stop hiding behind the closed doors of our church buildings, behind excuses, and waiting for boldness to occur at some magical time in the future. Every member of the Body of Christ must first be sold on being bold and then practice what is believed.
Whatever happened to boldness in your life? In your congregation?