Friday, July 03, 2009

Shrinking Churches

"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)

These aren't usually the verses that one quotes when one is at a church growth conference. In fact there is a dichotomy between the growth of the early church (“..about three thousand were added to their number that day.” [Acts 2:41]) and the hard teachings of Jesus (“From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” [John 6:66]).

Pastors often feel pressured to lead their churches into higher and higher numbers. The pressure comes from a variety of sources. Sometimes the pressure comes from parishioners or financial needs. Sometimes it comes from a culture that screams bigger is better.

Attracting a crowd is never enough. Faith and repentance are hard work. Jacques Ellul suggests that the Church will always be small. In his estimation, once the faith becomes a mass movement it devolves into an ideology. Sadly, I do see evidence of this in the wider Christian subculture. We peddle cheap grace while preaching against a few select sins.

Mark Galli, a senior managing editor for Christianity Today, surveys the current megachurch movement and finds similar concerns. He states, “Evangelicals have become the unmatched experts in church growth, but often end up with a truncated gospel.” Galli says that he isn't kidding when suggesting that we need church shrink conferences. As a pastor, I will not be suggesting any time soon that we shrink our congregation. However, church leadership must grapple with the questions he raises.

Many pastors and lay leaders recognize that they are in a superficially successful church, and that it's time to introduce the harder edges of the gospel. But how? How do we get comfortable people to listen to a gospel that includes a lot of discomfort? How do you deepen discipleship without introducing despair? How do you insist firmly on faithfulness without becoming legalistic?

Most important, how do you manage the loss in membership? That will happen.”

Last night, I saw the movie, Romero, about Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador. I've read only a little about the Archbishop, but I have been impressed by his faithfulness in difficult circumstances. The entire country of El Salvador was his parish, and he resisted the temptation to side with one or another. Instead, he stood firmly with Christ. Without compromise, he was pastor to the military, the ruling elite, and the Marxists.

We gather a crowd and then we disciple. Some will be drawn closer. Others will stay on the periphery. Perhaps, we should imagine that the mission field is our parish, and the parish is our mission field.

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