The churches of the Southern Baptist Convention are in sad shape. SBC pastors and leaders rejoiced last year when Tom Rainer, the President of Lifeway, released new statistics that implied that only 65% of evangelical churches were in decline. Previously, church growth experts had estimated that approximately 80% of churches were either plateaued of declining. The Department of Defense becomes uneasy when 14% of its forces are unfit for battle. The Church rejoices to discover that 45% her units are ready for the kingdom fight.
When we dig into the statics a little more, we discover why churches consider less bad news good news. According to the SBC annual report only 1 out of every 3 Southern Baptists attends church each Sunday. Two-thirds of our church members skip church every Sunday. And only 39% of those who regularly attend church read their Bibles every day. Because of the lack of Church attendance and because of their lack of biblical knowledge, most Christians more closely resemble their culture than the Scriptures. Seventy-six percent of Christians believe that the best way to find yourself is to look within; 72% believe that joy and fulfillment come through pursuing their desires; and, 40% believe that all sexual expression are permitted. Another study revealed that Christians where just as likely as their neighbors to buy lottery tickets, to have affairs, to lie, to seek revenge, and to steal. The main benefit of Christendom consists in the reduction of alcohol and swearing. Though 84% of Americans know someone who claims to be a Christian. Only 15% of Americans know a Christian who has been radically transformed by the gospel. The church is a mess.
But that is not all. The American culture has fixed her sights upon the church and has been firing salvo after salvo at our rickety vessel. The American culture which has embraced the religion of self has little patience for a religion that calls people to die to themselves. Ninety-one percent of Americans belief self-revelation is the key to happiness, and 89% believe that those who criticize the choices of others have gone against the moral code. Consequently, 60% of Americans view evangelism to be as extreme conducting a religious war. Preaching the morality of the Bible is deemed to be as dangerous as attempting to blow up Time Square according to a majority of Americans. They view the Bible as being outdated, irrelevant, and dangerous. Those who affirm the Scriptures, stand on the Word of God, and teach the Bible are said to be on the wrong side of history, standing with the bigoted backwards men and women of yesteryear. The number of Americans who identify with evangelical church continues to decline, and the fastest growing religious group in America continues to be the Nones, those who have no religious affiliation. The cry of Nitcheze is increasingly the cry of America, “God is dead.”
The church is both eroding from within and collapsing from without.
Though the evangelical church in America has been battered and bruised, she possesses great hope! In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says,
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
The church has great hope, because Jesus builds the Church.
The Church exists not because of our church growth plans and not because of our welcome packets. Those things aren’t bad, but they do not make the church go. Nor will they save the church. As Lloyd-Jones noted years ago,
The problem confronting us is not a problem of methods, or of organization, or of making a slight adjustment here and there, or improving things a little bit, or keeping them up-to-date, or anything like that.
A recent Lifeway study of church planters revealed that the church does not grow through human means. Three percent or less of the new congregations came to their churches because they Newspaper adds, billboards, or fliers. Another 6% came to church because of the church’s social media presence. The overwhelming majority of people attending the church, 77%, came because they had relationship with someone in the church.
Jesus builds the Church through the proclamation of the Gospel. As Lloyd-Jones notes,
Men can produce evangelistic campaigns, but they cannot and never produce a revival…A revival by definition, is the mighty act of God and it is a sovereign act of God…Man can do nothing. God, and God alone, does it.
God does it alone and he does it. He works. He builds the church. And the gates of hell will not prevail against it!
Nitcheze is dead. The church is not. God builds the church. God defends the church against the attacks of Satan and the world. From the get go the church has faced daunting odds both from without and from within. Men and women like Simeon the magician join the church and try to buy their way into leadership (Acts 8:9-24). The church at Corinth tolerates a man having an affair with his step mom (1 Cor. 5). False teachers come in and twist the gospel at Galatia (Gal. 1:6-10). Jude and 3 John demonstratively warn to the church to be on the lookout for wolves in sheep’s clothing. Paul and the Jews imprison and murder Christians (Acts 8:1-3). Nero, Diocletian, Julian and other Roman leaders abused and murder Christians for political gain and for sport. The church has always been under attack.
The reformer, Martin Luther lamented the state of the church which was overrun with sin, sexual immorality and pride because the gospel was seldom preached. J.C. Ryle stood for the gospel in the 1800’s as British society abandoned the gospel viewing it to be old and antiquated. In the 1930’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer lamented that many in the church were preaching salvation without requiring “repentance.” And in the 1980’s D. Martin Lloyd-Jones was already defended the church from modern thinkers who believed humanity had evolved beyond abilities of the Bible. But despite all the corrosion from within and the attacks from without. The church remains. Rome is gone. The political power of the Vatican is at an end. The Holy Roman Empire is gone. But the church remains because she is God’s and God builds his church!
As I prepare to leave First Baptist Church Eastman and begin to serve at Amissville Baptist Church, I find great hope and encouragement from the words of Christ. I leave a church with problems and go to a church with problems. But none of them are too great for God. If we the people of God will stand upon his Word if we will faithfully preach the gospel and regularly repent, we have every reason to be hopeful! God builds his church on Christ through the proclamation of the Scriptures. The success of the Church does not depend on my ingenuity or yours. It depends on God. And the God who created the universe and who redeemed a lost and sinful people is more than up to the task. He has built his church and will continue to build it! I will shortly embark to become the senior pastor of ABC because I know God builds and defends his church! To God be the glory!