Attentiveness: Bad News/Good News

There is a lot of really bad news today. We could focus on wars and rumors of war, refugees and migration, free-floating anxiety, breakdown of families, anger in the public arena, and much more. So much bad news.

However, I would like to focus specifically on the bad news about Christianity in North America, which, for decades has been in decline, no matter how you measure it: membership, number of churches, attendance, influence in society, or even the general measure of retention of children in Christian families. It is not just the old “mainline” denominations that are in steady decline. Even the Southern Baptists and the Assemblies of God began a steady decline in the last decade. The statistics are easy to find, and they are telling.[1]

There are many ways to analyze this decline—the powerful influences of culture, the sexual revolution, technology, decline of discipleship and Sunday School programs, to name a few. But in this post I want to focus on what I view as an inadequate theology of the church: ecclesiology, to be more precise.

I have written elsewhere that the Church, and any local church, has only two purposes, both of which are found in the very genesis of the church[2]: worship and witness, or to put it another way, worship and mission. Jesus inaugurated a movement more so than an institution (although the church must be both). Being a movement means, well, it moves! Jesus calls people to follow him and then we start walking to encounter more people and to spread the message. His basic invitation is to “follow me.”

The Great Commission is the church’s foundational document that gives us purpose and calling. Worship and mission are found together in that mountain-top moment. “And when they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted.”[3] While they were “in worship,” he tells them what they are to do. “Go” is the operative verb and then further details are given: “…[M]ake disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you…”

It seems North American Christianity majors on worship and various self-focused church activities to the neglect of basic evangelism or ministries of mercy to neighbors. This may seem a little harsh, but I do believe that churches still function as if we exist in a Christian culture, nation or society and churches are players in that Christendom ether.

In contrast, I believe our situation now can be better likened to that of the early church more so than what it was during the Reformation or in the context of western Christendom. We need to be guided by the pre-Constantinian practices and theologies, such as would define an embattled minority more so than by Reformation practices, such as defined the 16th century when everyone was “assumed” to be Christian. It was just a matter of what type they were. We fought wars over the definitions and number of the sacraments. Today, more like the 2nd century, most of our neighbors—at home or at work and play—are not attending church. Most are living in an age of anxiety, seeking identity through self-gratification and material goods. They need to know of Jesus’ love, forgiveness, and mercy.

Here are some simple questions for American churches that may help to facilitate needed recalibration:

  1. Can we begin to think of our church as having a dual purpose, worship and witness? Can we think of worship as a means to lead to local witness and our witness, in turn, to feed our zeal in worship?
  2. Can we begin to pray about working with other local churches in planting another church? (Most numerical church growth comes from starting new churches and preparing to do so.)
  3. Can we find ways in our church life to make outreach—in both ministries of mercy and verbal witness—weekly concerns and constant preoccupation of our leadership and members? How can we do this?

If we think of worship and witness as the warp and woof of the church, or as the two-stroke engine of the church, this will change our budgets, activities, and even how we think of discipleship and spiritual formation.

The good news is that we can do this and when we do, many will notice (as they did in the early church) that Christians’ love for others is noteworthy and winsome. As the apostate Emperor Julian wrote to a pagan priest from Galatia in 362: “For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.”

Christians—in what we say and what we do—are “good news” for local communities and for larger societies.

[1]Explore the latest church attendance statistics. My own denomination, the PC(USA), has declined from about 4 million when my family and I left to serve as missionaries in 1987, to about 1.1 million in 2023.
[2] Matthew 28, Acts 1:8 and Acts 2
[3] Matthew 28:17

Dr. Scott W. Sunquist, President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is author of the “Attentiveness” blog. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.

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