The Crisis in the Local Church

The New 'Unchurched Movement' Among Christian Believers

There is a crisis in the local church. Local churches are increasingly struggling to continue going along in the same old way; Meanwhile thousands become 'unchurched Christians'
Why is there a crisis? What are the problems? And how have we reached this sad state? Let us take a closer look at this...

Some while ago a long-standing church pastor made a private confession to me which I found quite surprising at the time (although I don't now). He told me that he felt that the entire local church model of how Christianity is normally administered could not go on for much longer in the same old way. For this sincere gentleman (who is no liberal) the system just assumed too much which no longer holds true in any sense. For sure, it is now widely recognised that denominationalism has had its day but the problems go much deeper than that, and I want to outline some of them in this article.

When The 'Good News' Can No Longer Truthfully Be "News"

The greatest (of several) problems which confront local churches is that they are finding it difficult to continue going along in the enthusiastic assumption that there are thousands out there who - once exposed to the truth of the gospel - will seize it with both hands, just as a child from an impoverished African country might eagerly seize a brightly-coloured candy bar which he or she had never seen before! In the early years of the New Testament Church, Christians knew that they were taking out a message which was genuinely new and different - after all, the very word 'gospel' means 'good news' - and this really was news! Wherever the first evangelists went they discovered a hunger to hear and learn more of this exciting message that a Saviour who was God incarnate had come to earth and had died a horrible death upon a cross in order to reconcile a straying humanity to Himself! Even in a world which was steeped in religion, and even in religious claims, this was somehow very different. Indeed, just in case people did not know how different this message was, God Himself allowed dramatic miracles to accompany the preaching of the message by the original Apostles and the original 70 Evangelists! (Notice Luke 10, for instance).
We sometimes forget today that many of these miracles caused an absolute sensation - for example, read through the first 2 or 3 chapters of Mark and note the huge crowds who wished to follow Jesus everywhere He went because of the miracles which they witnessed - then notice that on that very first post-resurrection Pentecost an amazing 3,000 people were baptized in just one day (Acts 2:41). Sometimes historians seem unsure as to what caused Christianity to so shake up all the known world in the first century AD - the reason is that it was surrounded with some amazing occurrences of the supernatural and the miraculous! The effect was that people simply could not ignore it.

Picture of typical country church
Very pretty, but is that enough?

We have to admit that - except to a lesser extent during a few periods of Revival - such things do not happen today (actually, there is compelling evidence that many of the supernatural signs again occurred when the gospel first went into new areas of the world such as China, Burma and Nepal in the last century). We call ourselves "evangelicals" - and it is a good enough name for us Bible-believing Christians - but here in the West, which has been steeped in the Christian gospel for well over a thousand years, we really need to re-think some of the assumptions involved in that word 'evangelism.'

There is a growing feeling that - while, of course, the flock must continue to be fed - we may well be living in a post-evangelistic age. Even the most enthusiastic evangelists - when operating here in the West - are finding that it's not so much that people "desperately need the message of the gospel" but that those people are already familiar with the claims of the message of the gospel and are either completely indifferent to them or they purposefully reject them. Do we then pressurize acceptance of this message? There is no New Testament mandate for doing so. The problem is that the gospel has lost the 'news' part - over a thousand years of Christian history means that the gospel of Jesus Christ can no longer be 'news', except to children. For the rest, it is either indifference or rejection! Too many pastors are still refusing to face this fact, but it is high time to lift our collective heads out of the sand!

The Failed Experiment of Restorationism

In response to this situation, many have sought "restoration" through the Restorationism of Pentecostalism and the various phases of the charismatic movement. Alas, even whilst applauding the sincerity of many people involved in these movements, this now appears to be a failed experiment. All too often, the lack of the active involvement of the Holy Spirit has led to emotional extremes of behaviour being used (even frequently by the most sincere of people) as some sort of a Spirit-substitute (even if entirely unconconsciously). Even worse, since Restorationism has mostly stepped outside previously accepted Christian worship patterns, it has become a hotbed and a fertile ground for countless false apostles, false prophets and hundreds of money-motivated preachers! Some extremes of what I can only call 'charismania' have even (and shamefully) led to demonic involvement in some "church services." I have also been hearing of Restorationist leaders who have attempted to contact the dead! If these reports are true, this would seem to underline the final utter failure and desperation that a movement which once promised so much has finally only led into a spiritual cul-de-sac.

So why has Pentecostal/charismatic Restorationism failed?

'Restorationism,' in its various phases and fashions, has failed because it has not understood that our Lord, and the apostles, never promised that the stunning and miraculous would always be the 'norm' for the New Testament Church of God! Please note 1 Corinthians 12:4-6. The Holy Spirit is perfectly capable of working in a quieter way among believers. Paul is quite clear that our Lord alone decides which Gifts of the Spirit go where; 'Pleading (and screaming) down the gifts' will make no difference! The testimony of the record of Scripture itself is also often ignored by these naive people; Scripture clearly indicates that the abundantly miraculous only accompanied certain vital stages in God's Plan - most notably, of course, the ministries of Jesus and the apostles. At other times our Lord prefers to work with people through the laws of nature which He Himself so carefully designed and now upholds.
The miracles of Jesus, on the other hand, provided clear evidence for his identity: His miraculous ministry was a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (Matthew. 11:3-5). Jesus Himself cited his utterly unique miracle ministry as one of the evidences for his Messiahship (Matthew. 11:3-5; Mark 2:9-11; John. 5:36; 10:37,38).
For their part, the apostles (and the 70 evangelists) were specifically required to be witnesses to the ministry of Jesus and were empowered for this purpose. Just note Matthew 10:1; Matthew 10:8; Mark 16:20; Luke 9:1-2; Acts 2:43; Acts 5 12-16; Acts 14:3; Acts 15:12; 2 Corinthians 12:12 and Hebrews 2:3-4. Indeed, the New Testament writers usually referred to the miraculous 'signs of an apostle' in the past tense - this alone tells us a whole lot.

The first century is now a closed chapter. It cannot recur, just as we cannot make the Gospel message a new proclamation all over again.

None of this means that genuine miracles are now impossible - indeed, I have personally witnessed several dramatic and unlikely healings after prayer was offered and several amazing answers to prayer as well but we have to recognize that this is not the way that our Lord usually works with us in our day - the emphasis is not on the supernatural and it can be spiritually dangerous to continue to look for that at all times.

Today's Widespread Disaffection and Disillusionment Within Local Churches...

Okay, apart from the difficulties of taking the 'good news' to a society which has already heard that news but is indifferent to it and the failings of charismania, what are some of the other problems in too many modern congregations which have led to thousands of Christians joining the swelling ranks of the 'unchurched' (that is, preferring not to regularly attend any place of worship):

I spoke to 3 Christians from 3 countries, South Africa, the UK and the USA. All of these people have one thing in common, they form part of what has been called the new 'unchurched' Christians. All 3 claim to be as commited to the Christian Faith and to their personal walk with Jesus as ever but they are no longer regular attenders. Mike from Florida attends a place of worship once every 4-6 weeks but now rejects membership of any particular congregation; Sue from South Africa still attends various meetings/conventions but rejects local church membership and Barry from Birmingham, UK also has come to reject local church membership but is still involved in various Christian activities. It is impossible for me to put all of the comments of this fascinating trio here but I include a few:

Barry from the UK said, 'Churches have killed the goose that laid the golden egg because of their keeness on money! Modern people are more sophisticated than they used to be; they won't keep handing over money to pastors and deacons when either no evangelism is being done or when it is plainly being mis-spent. In the end I only contributed to our overseas missionary but the deacons got tough with me about that. I have spoken to many friends and the disenchantment with the way that churches do things is definitely growing - I never heard some of these complaints 5 years ago. I was part of a big evangelical church which grew at a big rate for 5 years but for the last 2 years is continually having people leave. It was like a big club which was always congratulating itself. Looking back there is no doubt that psychology was used from the pulpit on Sundays to keep people positive and in-line but you would get better pastoral care in many big offices which are not Christian.'

Mike from Florida said, 'It would have been so easy just to stay where I was and I still remain friendly with some people there but some things you could just no longer bear. As I became more involved in things I became aware of some of the terrible anger and even hate among people who were in church every Sunday. Also I learned that the brethren were often not told the truth but were presented with a picture - yes, it sure was a beautiful picture - but it was only a picture of the way things really were in our church. I think that most were not even really Christians...I have now had bad experiences like this too many times..we now worship at home....'

Sue From South Africa said, 'Jesus came to set us free but it dawned on me that I and my friends were in somebody's 'pocket' - we were controlled too much. No, it was not a cult but there was still a lot of control. There was another church nearby but we were not allowed to speak to people from there. I won't be a member of any place again, I am happier with much more freedom as I am. I also now have more control over my own money, before a man who had been ruined in his own business controlled our money to a great degree. Now I am free to support a Christian fund which we always were keen on...'

More on the current dissaffection within church-going life Here.

Keeping the Balance...

Of course, we really need to keep some balance here; despite all the foregoing, there are still many excellent places to attend Christian services. There are places which are a sensible size (less than 80-100 people), places where there is real loving fellowship,
Places where people have attended for a long while and not been pressurized into becoming 'members' or into tithing and where the preaching is always biblical. Places where the right balance between being too informal and being overly strict, staid and legalistic is carefully maintained.
Places which guard against divisive growth tactics/strategies including the current 'youthfulness is all' strategy.
Places which while being clearly evangelical do not spurn/condemn Christians of other backgrounds and are prepared to patiently work with them to increase their knowledge and understanding where necessary, and,
Places in which there is genuine loving support and pastoral care (rather than attenders being apparently forgotten about if they miss a few services due to illness). I do have to say, however, that my own city - as far as I can see - does not appear to have such a place and this is quite disappointing.

A Possible Way Forward...

A typical house church in session.
A typical house church.

There is no doubt, then, that the local place of Christian worship is currently genuinely in a state of crisis for some of the reasons which we have outlined in this article; the disaffection within local churches of both large and small size seems to be approaching epidemic proportion.

In all of this, it seems vital to me that we don't seek out human answers and human strategies for this dilemma, many of which have caused the disaffection in the first place.

I genuinely feel that the 'house church movement' may have some of the answers since it is how the early Christians met for several centuries. Where such a group grows too large, urgent prayers should then be offered up for the Lord to provide another godly Bible-believing Elder to take on another group. This would seem to be a far better and more biblical way forward than for an elder or pastor to take on more and more responsibility until reaching breaking point. Also, Christian history seems to indicate that where ecclesiastical control and centralization increase, Jesus moves out!
Therefore, it seems to me, such groups should be independent entities. I am informed that good house churches find their own level of scriptural understanding and tend to gradually move on from that. Of course, it would always be necessary for such a group to be praying for guidance and for protection against false teachings entering in. There is no doubt that much of the house church movement, as it currently stands, has been affected by heretical teachings - but this is not inevitably so.

Postscript; A Frustrating Personal Experience

The last 'house group' which I spent some time with was not truly part of this movement but a local study group of a huge congregation; it had a huge leadership problem ; two of us had the necessary experience/background to have led it (if we had been asked) but a sort of misplaced "democracy" was in place. Effectively a lady led the group (she was very sweet and quite knowledgeable, but no leader, neither would she have claimed to be a leader). Liberal theology was making serious inroads into the group, but no one had the authority to push it out and it had gotten into a 'whoever shouts the loudest rules' sort of situation. Two of us tried our best to root it out apart from trying our best to keep these groups on course and to get them starting on time, but we had no authority; amazingly, the leadership of the huge evangelical church which had planted these house groups in the first place seemed pretty much disinterested in the whole situation. After persevering with all this for about 3 months I left the group. Within another 6 months my wife and I came to see that the serious problems within its 'house groups' were only a reflection of the serious problems within that congregation's leadership and we discontinued attending there.
But this experience actually taught me that house churches could and should work - but not when operated as democracies! A respected Bible-based elder needs to be in place first of all, then the group could grow naturally starting with the elder's own family. Also, there is no merit in bigger numbers attending except to the degree that reasonable 'house group rules' are adhered to (starting on time, adhering to the elder's choice of the worship pattern etc.,) - of course, such an elder could seek out the opinions of those stronger in the faith within the group - but not during the worship meeting itself! During such a meeting a certain order should be in place - rather than debate tinged with a good flavor of anarchy, as in the group which I attended! House churches also free Christians from financial pressures which should never be part of worship life, and no one is ever pressurized into becoming a member (it is probably also essential to read 'Should House Churches be Democracies?' - link below)

Keep Your Eyes on the Main Goal!

In all our considerations of the difficulties of local churches, let us never forget that all Spirit-led Christians are - in any case - members of the Eternal Church of Jesus Christ whose names are written in the Book of Life. This is the true, although currently invisible, spiritual Church of all the ages. We may, understandably, get frustrated with the visible and temporal manifestations of that but let us never get so bogged down with such difficulties that we take our eyes off our ultimate goal, that wonderful coming day when we all sit down to the glorious wedding feast of the Lamb! Read Romans 8:28-39 and Revelation 19:1-9 !!
Robin A. Brace, 1998, re-edit: 2006.

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