Rethinking the Way We Do Church

June 5, 2017

For a number of years, I have been of the opinion that if a strategy to reach people with the gospel, disciple them to reproductive maturity, and involve them in a true New Testament type church is biblical, it will work anywhere and at any period of time. In other words, if it requires huge amounts of money to keep the institution operating, years and years of time and monies devoted to educating it's leaders, and a vast array of buildings that are used at most 2-3 times weekly, then it cannot be biblical because these resources are not available to the overwhelming majority of the Two-Thirds World.

Jim Rutz is a Christian researcher and writer and author of numerous books. In his book, Megashift, he  reports on the financial cost of doing institutional church nowadays.  He writes, “Any modern pastor worth his salt wants to see Christ honored and praised as the very center of His church. Reality fights that. 

“The dynamics of the meeting, the architecture, system, and historical customs all combine to produce a pastor-centered church. Despite the best intentions, everything tends to revolve around the visible hub of activity, the “preacher.”

“In a typical church, the pastor and his staff have to do about 70% of the total ministry. That’s counting evangelism, church services, everything. Why such a lopsided work load? Because the “laymen” like it that way.  They like dropping their typical $27 in the offering plate, going home, and watching the game on TV.   

“That’s inexpensive, but not efficient,” Rutz continues.  “Barrett and Johnson (church researchers) calculate that it costs the U.S. institutional church $1,551,466 to baptize each new member. (This dollar figure is based on 2001 statistics. The current estimate is around $2 million per baptism!)  The cost is even more in Europe - over $2 million per baptism!)

Rutz adds, “And from what I know of home church movements in poor countries, I’d guess it’s closer to $25-40 per baptism.  But even in the U.S., home churches are dog-cheap.  Like, how much does it cost to sit on your neighbor’s porch and tell him about a new life in Christ?” (Megashift, p. 117) 

The church as we know it here in America is in trouble. However, we should not panic because the Church as a whole and world-wide is never in trouble because Jesus promised to build it, protect it, renew it where and when needed, and use it to fill the earth with the knowledge of the glory of God. But the institution we know as the local church is on the road to irrelevance in North America.

The decline in attendance in America by generation should be alarming.

Thom Rainer, the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, estimates the proportion of each generation reached for Christ in the USA:

65% of those born between 1910-1945.

15% of those born between 1965-1976.

88% of all under the age of 26 do not attend church at all!

Jon Zens writes, "Someday in America, if our religious infrastructure falls as a result of economic and political turmoil, true believers will be forced to meet outside of traditional church buildings. But the issue still is not what type of place believers gather, but what shape their committed life together takes as they wrestle with the many duties and privileges flowing out of the priesthood of all believers.

"I believe that it is far more important to capture the spirit of church life as we see it unfolded in the New Testament, than it is to try and woodenly replicate cultural particulars of the first century. We do not live in the first century, but the concepts and principles in the New Testament endure and will come to expression in any culture."

The solution for reaching North America with the gospel is not in planting more churches based on the institutional model of buying expensive property, funding and maintaining buildings, and hiring professional staff to run the church. A typical illustration of how this will not work is found in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, which has been called the most diverse city in America with more than 300 languages spoken there. In the Dallas area, we discover there are more than 3,000 churches meeting in buildings, with an average attendance of only 86. If all of these church buildings were filled to capacity, they would serve only 3 percent of the population. David Watson notes, "Building more church buildings would take a huge amount of land and money. So the current American church “business model” of drawing people in to a church building would not work even if they all tithed.

Conclusion, if it only works in an affluent country like America, it is not biblical!

In their book, Contagious Disciple Making, David and Paul Watson set forth a strategy involving a lifestyle of engaging those who don’t know Jesus in conversations that lead to meaningful spiritual conversations. They say this leads to the person’s family or “affinity group” becoming disciples. They then replicate the process into their families, friends, work or schoolmates, neighbors, and places where the gospel has not yet reached. Sound familiar? It should if you have ever heard of the Great Commission of Jesus, which mandates every available believer is to be equipped and sent out to be disciples who make disciples with total world impact their goal.

Their book lists seven steps to create a movement in your mission field, whether that is overseas or in your neighborhood. It’s basically discipling and training one person to become a leader who spreads the process among others.

If that sounds impossible, consider this: David Watson used this technique in Bhojpuri, India to train a handful of missionaries to work with one people group. This resulted in the planting of more than 80,000 churches with an average attendance of 60, and more than 5 million people being baptized in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, with virtually no public "church buildings." (I am not opposed to church buildings as long as we make them a base for ministry and not the place of all ministry!)

It is time we rethink the way we are doing church in America and ask, "Will our model work where there is very little money, no Bible colleges, very few, if any, trained professionals, and where buildings are either forbidden or are an open invitation for radical persecutors of the faith to attack soft targets on a large scale?"

If our strategy is "Build big buildings and big crowds will come"; or, "Find the charismatic man with the latest "marketing plan" to lead us and we are on our way to the "promised land" of church success", then it's only in America for a limited time, that we will be able to keep doing church this way.