Missional guru Ed Stetzer recently reported on his blog that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has been in decline over the last number of years. It’s a trend that seems to be afflicting most of the North American church, Lutherans included. http://www.edstetzer.com/2012/06/sbc-2011-statistical-realities.html
As such, consultants, researches, and church leaders are pressing for answers. “Why is the church in decline? What are we doing wrong? What do we need to change? How can we reach new people?” They are good questions to ask. It’s always good for the church to take stock and self assess. But what it’s assessing is always the key.
Stetzer notes that the SBC has had its lowest growth in 60 years. “Baptisms in the SBC are also on a slow decline, and have been for over ten years – a 20% decrease since 1999. Baptisms ticked up a little this year – but this is the second-worst year we’ve had in more than 60 years –” However, what’s curious, or perhaps ironic, is that the SBC has been in the midst of intense “missional” and evangelism emphases for at least the last decade. Stetzer himself is a champion of it, even co-authoring a book that claims to have broken the missional code.
In fact, his 2006 book Breaking the Missional Code, is described this way: “One size does not fit all, but there are cultural codes that must be broken for all churches to grow and remain effective in their specific mission context. Breaking the Missional Code provides expert insight on church culture and church vision casting, plus case studies of successful missional churches impacting their communities.”(Front Flap).
To be sure, having read through his book a couple of times I found that Stetzer (and Putnam) have some very thoughtful things to say: “We have to recognize there are cultural barriers (in addition to spiritual ones) that blind people from understanding the gospel. Our task is to find the right way to break through those cultural barriers without removing the spiritual and theological ones.”
However, if numbers are the measurement of success (which they have so often been in the past, and for some, still are today) it would seem that the breaking of this missional code has not been so revolutionary or effective. In fact, the numbers would seem to indicate that perhaps it is even counter-productive.
But then, I’m not that much of a numbers guy. And as long as I’m making admissions, I’m not all that keen on letting the culture position the church’s theology either. I appreciate Stetzer’s desire for the church not to lose theology in the midst of removing cultural barriers, but I worry he (along with those in my own church body who feel he’s got it right) flirts too close to letting the culture position the church’s theology, and therefore change the message of the Gospel.
Remember how Robert Schuller got his start? Before there was the Crystal Cathedral, there was the Orange County Drive-in church. A recent article from The Atlantic captured its beginnings as well as how it was recently sold, and has now come to and end:
For cinematic purposes, the drive-in was useful only in the darkness, which meant that it could play an effortlessly dual role, theater by night and church by day. The architecture and technological system built for entertainment could be repurposed, hacked even, to deliver a religious ceremony for the golden age of the car. An early advertisement announced the new ministry’s appeal: “The Orange Church meets in the Orange Drive-In Theater where even the handicapped, hard of hearing, aged and infirm can see and hear the entire service without leaving their family car… The Schullers, and their contemporary entrepreneurs of religiosity, had happened into an idea that made particular cultural sense at its particular cultural moment: In the mid-1950s, Americans found themselves in the honeymoon stages of their romances with both the automobile and the television. And they found themselves seeking forms of fellowship that mirrored the community and individuality that those technologies encouraged. As one former congregant put it: “Smoke and be in church at the same time, at a drive-in during the daytime. What a trip!”… [However, now] The Cathedral’s current congregation is doing with pain what its predecessors did with ease half a century ago: driving away. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/06/reel-faith-how-the-drive-in-movie-theater-helped-create-the-megachurch/258248/
So my question is this, is the decline of the church really with the church’s inability to break the cultural barrier? Or could it be the church is in the midst of a generation of determined unbelievers who simply are refusing to hear the gospel? If so, would all the claims of the church’s need for cultural relevancy and to change with the times need to be reconsidered? Could what the church has done for ages be what is actually needed for today? Could the aim to be culturally relevant even be contributing to the decline?
Don’t get me wrong. I fully desire, with the Lord, that all people come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). And I fully recognize Paul’s testimony about becoming “all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). However, when one of the most well known culturally “relevant church” bodies continues to decline, might that be reason for Lutherans to pause and think about such cultural claims?
It’s happened before. Remember Elijah. “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”(1 Kings 19:10).
Elijah was surrounded by a land of unbelievers (“pre-believers,” “unchurched,” and “dechurched,” all seem to be lobbed together here). He thought he was all alone. So he sought out the Lord. And where did he find him? 11And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. (1 Kings 19:11-2).
The living voice of the Lord spoke to Elijah. Despite the cultural conditions and unbelief that Elijah faced, he was to remain faithful to that living voice. In so doing, he would encounter 7,000 faithful others who the Lord had reserved for himself.
The church of North America has found herself in a similar situation today. But I would contend that the answer is not drive-in churches or culturally relevant churches. The answer is the “low whisper” of God’s powerful voice of the Gospel speaking in the midst of culture, speaking through culture.
Yes, of course we need to know the language and the beat of our culture. And of course we need to take people where they are at. But if culture dictates how the church is to act, and what the church is to say, will God’s voice actually be able to be heard, or will people simply be prone to drive away at the end of the show?
As always, I invite your collegial and constructive comments as we seek to dialogue about what it means to be a 21st century Lutheran who “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).