For some people, the feeling of living within the dark crevices of depression is not a dream, but a reality. The daily anxieties of this present life compiled with the vivid memories of the past, can feel as though there is no place of escape. As someone with past fear and anxiety issues, I know the reality of this darkness.
I’ve also counseled and listened to numerous people with depression, whether present or former military, those suffering from addiction, or a troubled spouse. The dilemma with depression is that it won’t just fade away on its own and the world doesn’t stop turning.
But one beauty of the ancient Scriptures is their divine way of speaking to the human heart, mind, and soul. Assuredly, the Psalmist illustrates the human side of the deep dark world of those who suffer with depression. I know this may be a bit long, but it also may be a blessing for someone struggling to live. Read the cries of the Psalmist (Psalm 88).
v.1 O LORD, God of my salvation; I cry out day and night before you.
An underpinning to this Psalm is who it addresses—it is written to the LORD God, the Maker and Creator. For those who suffer with anxiety and depression, the cry of infirmity day and night is all too real. The beauty of the Psalms is their ability to bring out the truth of human emotion, pain, and suffering. The feeling of a tattered and drenched soul, one poured out before God has the sense of a soul consumed with tears. Someone crushed.
However, this plea is written to the “God of my salvation;” literally to the God who rescues. This is the foundation of the Psalm—a person who already knows God and believes in His miraculous grace, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and soon-to-be restoration. A relationship exists.
v. 3-4 For my soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to [the grave]. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength.
How many times have you felt like this? I believe every person goes through seasons of change. Sometimes those seasons are meant to stretch us for growth, but the season(s) of depression never sprout plumage—the “soul is full of troubles.” For the depressed, the only conclusion is that the end should be the grave.
This breaks my heart! We lose too many souls to depression. Far too many. One is too many. I’ve seen the devastation of suicide—it’s never done in a vacuum—it affects everyone. The Psalmist describes a person that feels so overwhelmed and “full of troubles” that they choose to give up, for lack of “strength.” Oh, how my heart aches for those suffering with this feeling.
But, let must remember, the Psalms are written as a balm for the soul. They demonstrate the cries to a God who does hear, who does understand. These words allow us to recognize that we are not alone, that the thoughts of death are real.
v. 6-7 You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves. Selah
The Psalmist ponders the thought that God may be the cause of the trouble. Blaming God for present calamity, as if God is the producer of the “wrath” you’re enduring; this thinking is not foreign to humanity. As the person sinks deeper into depression, down into the “depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep” within the soul, helplessness is revealed. Where does the soul turn at this point—help seems incredibly far away, as ration and logic flee the human presence.
The person that is overcome with despair feels the “waves” of trouble as an ocean ebb and flow, caught in the rip tides of life. Is the God of salvation listening?
But then, the Psalmist employs the use of “Selah,” a term which implies a thought of time. It’s as if the writer lays down the pen and the paper and goes to sleep. He arises in the morning and comes back to the pen, Selah, a pause of time. Here, the reflection of Selah tells us that the Psalmist is deeply contemplating his next move.
v. 8b-9 I am shut in so that I cannot escape; my eye grows dim through sorrow. Every day I call upon you, O LORD; I spread out my hands to you.
The feeling that there is no way out is evident. A great sorrow that is ever present and never fading, but the Psalmist knows that in the pains of grief, God is to be called upon, especially in times of desperation.
Why call to God if He’s not listening? Clearly, the Psalmist knows that he did not create himself. He’s a created being. If he is a creation, there must be a Creator. And, only the Creator can heal the deeply cut scars and sorrows.
The Selah does wonders for our Psalmist, while it may not seem that way at first glance, it is true. In his previous thought, he was blaming God for the clenches of death, but now seems to understand that God can be trusted; He is still LORD, and worthy to be petitioned, especially in the midst of suffering. As it’s been said, “If you had a broken watch, you wouldn’t take it to a shoemaker, but a watchmaker.” Too many people living with depression seek the shoemaker, instead of the “Watchmaker.”
v. 10-12 Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you? Selah.
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of forgetfulness?
The Psalmist once more uses the Selah thought, an in-depth pause, perhaps night fades and the morning arises with no relief, but the thoughts are the same; is God there? Can He hear from the place of the dead? Will He work wonders?
As the Psalmist relays, he feels as if he is in the “land of forgetfulness” and “darkness,” a place where no one cares. However, the silver lining of these verses displays the trust to a trustworthy God. While the writer may suffer with the thoughts of being alone, God is still the God of “wonders.” Battling depression is real, but never cease the “battle” — press inward, onward, and upward. Why?
Don’t ever give up on the God of love because the love of God has never given up on you. Continue reading.
v. 13 But I, O LORD, cry to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you.
The tears of humanity are the ever-present dew of praise. These are not tears of the night, but of the morning; a cry that has bewildered the soul; a prayer in the morning for the release from affliction. If you have never been at this place, it’s a continual emptiness that can overwhelm the soul.
Take note of the personal appeal of “I” and “You,” showing the intimate relationship the Psalmist has with the LORD — a time of prayer, a time of allowing the Potter to mold the clay. The prayers of the saints are beautiful to God and a sweet-smelling aroma ever before Him. Don’t ever feel so overwhelmed to believe the lie that God doesn’t hear—this Psalm demonstrates the faith that prayers are not in vain, or vanish into thin air, but are always present before God—they “come before” Him.
v. 14-15 O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me? Afflicted and close to death…I suffer your terrors; I am helpless. Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me.
I cannot count the times that I prayed this aspect of the Psalms—God why do you not see that my soul is broken? The feeling that God is not present is very real and it seems that there are times when God hides Himself. Maybe it’s to allow a purging of the soul to occur? Who can know the mind of God?
The thoughts of separation lay siege around the Psalmist’s heart—separation of soul and Soul-maker. Oh, how terribly grieving it is to feel as if your soul is separated from the carcass of your flesh, as if you’re merely walking bones, “afflicted…suffering terrors…and helpless.” The feeling, again, that God is not listening comes to mind.
But, the Creator is not some distant god that doesn’t understand suffering. The Lord Jesus knows our suffering because he endured suffering, for our salvation. Jesus defeated sin AND death. Sometimes, we need a “Selah” moment, to remind ourselves in the midst of suffering that we have a Savior that knows our anguish, has felt pain and suffering, sacrificed His life for ours, and has overcome death.
The Psalmist continues…
v. 16-17 They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together. You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.
When our “companions have become darkness” then the depths and darkness of depression have set in—but it doesn’t need to be this way. The feeling of a distant God and being alone occurs far too often. This Psalm is the only one which ends in such a somber and depressive thought. All of the other Psalms show a turn of events—that God is to be praised.
But, I believe the Psalm ends this way because it relates to our humanity—our own suffering. Many people go through this thought pattern, that God is far off, that they are separated from their soul, that troubles overwhelm them, that the cries of the heart and affliction of life feel out of control and helpless. Sometimes, life does not present us with roses, rainbows, or refreshing streams of water. Yet, one thing is certain: God knows your suffering, and there are people around you, created in the image of God, that will walk with you.
If you are fighting depression, please seek help from a pastor, counselor, or friend. The beauty of the Psalm isn’t the darkness but that the Psalmist shared his feelings and brokenness. You cannot and should not feel like a burden—people love you—you are NOT alone. Remember to have “Selah” moments in between your bouts of anguish.
The one thing I believe and know, is that God is good. He is an ever-present help in time of need. He is not far off, but is near. He is the great Immanuel (God with us). He has given us His Holy Spirit to guide us and direct us in love. There is freedom in Christ, the freedom that says, “He is our peace” (Eph. 2:14). A peace that brings joy.
As created beings, we were designed for relationship, not isolation. Sharing our thoughts and burdens with someone is essential. However, one of the keys to depression is that it causes selective isolation. The depressed person seeks solitude to find some sort kind of solace, reasoning, or understanding; perhaps, even to live with their “demons.”
Depression causes the individual to lock the proverbial door to their soul and to hide the key. They become their own prisoner. Think about this, we punish people by placing them in isolation. Since sharing helps relieve the burdens and pains caused by depression, nothing replaces human relationship. And so, while the Psalmist ends his writing in a somber note, your life should never end that way. There are so many people that love you and I know of a God who loved you so much that He gave His only Son to die for your sins and to reconcile you back to Him (John 3:16).
If you need someone to talk to, please reach out to those around you or call the suicide prevention hotline.
Throughout God’s story, there have been many biblical “heroes.” Men and women of seemingly great renown—great courage and incredible resolve.
Men like David, warriors in battle, leading men to victory against insurmountable odds. Or women like Jael, an apparently ordinary wife with remarkable fortitude and bravery—launching a tent peg through the sleeping enemy (Judges 4:17–22).
Everyone loves stories. Especially stories about overcoming adversity—they’re the feel good, sort of chicken soup for the soul, stories.
When I reflect upon my life, I know my story. I know that it’s filled with defeats, trials, and sometimes, some wins. I also know that I’m not a hero. In fact, Jesus is the hero of my story. And, if I’m even more transparent, I’ve had way more failures in my life than victorious triumphs.
But as I’ve written before, Failing is Not Failure. When we learn from our failures and use them for success, those failures can become victories.
They Didn’t See That Coming
One of my recent devotional readings led me to Joshua and the battle of Ai (Josh. 7, 8). Joshua spies out Ai and organizes a small battalion of 3,000 Israelites to go up to battle against them. However, because of Israel’s hidden sin and idolatry, they flee in defeat.
The people of Israel didn’t see that coming! Their sin was revealed, but the people took action and repented. They refocused and centered their lives upon God.
Afterward, the Lord then encouraged Joshua, “Do not fear and do not be dismayed. Take all the fighting men with you, and arise, go up to Ai. See, I have given into your hand the king of Ai, and his people, his city, and his land.” This time, Joshua used defeat to bring victory.
As in the previous battle when the Israelites fled, Joshua engaged the city of Ai. Once again, the same troops, same battle plan (sort of), so battle looked like defeat.
Joshua had the men flee—but—only to draw the enemy out from the city and into the open. The plan worked.
Again, the people of Ai thought that they were routing the Israelites, but as soon as they were outside of the city, Joshua had his men sneak in and burn it to the ground!
The people of Ai didn’t see that coming! Joshua had the enemy surrounded—drawing them out into the open—there was nothing hidden and nowhere for the enemy to go.
Using Defeat for Victory
One thing that I have learned in life—when pride sets in it blurs my vision. Whenever I’m facing defeat, I have to ask probing questions: is there any hidden sin that I’m not seeing? Am I trying to do things in my power, or for my own glory? Am I trusting in God to be my “dreaded warrior”? How can I use this defeat for success? How can I honor and glorify God with my defeat? What have I learned?
Maybe I am building my empire and not God’s? Those are just some of the questions I think about. I also ask the Lord to “cleanse my heart,” to “search me and see if there are any wicked ways within me.”
When we confess our sins, our pride, and our motives, it brings the enemy into the open. Our adversary no longer has “ammunition” to use against us. To the enemy, on the outside, we may look the same, but internally, we have been renewed through repentance, probing, and reflection.
God is now able to use our defeat for victory. As Joshua used defeat for victory, we too can use our failures as springboards to victory. But, the central focus must not on us, but on the grace of God given through Jesus Christ.
What have you learned about your situations lately?
When I was 7 years old, I caught our cat with its arm in my brother’s fishbowl. The cat was poking, prodding, and antagonizing the goldfish. The cat didn’t get the fish, but I know how it felt.
I’m connected to many pastors who live the “fishbowl” life. I’ve heard their “horror” stories of being prodded, poked at, and antagonized. Sometimes, I am in sheer disbelief that anyone would be so heartlessly treated. For the sake of my love for Christ’s church, I won’t share those stories.
What I will do is shed light on the reality of why pastors leave the ministry—here are my top five.
70% of pastors feel grossly underpaid.
Over 50% of pastors are paid $50,000 or less—many even below the poverty line. As well, those pastors receive no benefits, medical insurance, or retirement options.
When they leave the pulpit, the church casts them aside.
While the pastorate is a calling, the church should have a true love for their pastor—excited to say, “We take great care of our pastor.”
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he gushes with love for them—but it’s mutual. The Philippians were passionate about their “partnership in the gospel” and they “well supplied,” Paul (Phil 1:5, 4:18).
I know many pastors barely making the income needed, causing them to become bi-vocational (which has pros and cons). The dilemma is not bi-vocationalism, but that these churches expect “full-time” (and more) work. It seems Jesus was right about the “sons of this world” (Luke 16:8). The business world cares more for their peoples than the church.
Perhaps I meant—lack of leadership? While deacons and elders may be in positions, they may also give no support to the pastor.
When leaders have no desire to serve or to cultivate spiritual disciplines, the pastor is the one who suffers. He’s stuck with a rudderless ship. He’s a lone captain at sea, navigating “storms,” with no guides.
Without leadership, the pastor takes the brunt of the finger pointing when things don’t go as planned. Business meetings become gripe sessions—or the contrary, no one cares.
When bad leaders are in positions they are spiritually or experientially unqualified to partake, there’s no vision, mission, and reaching the lost. The pastor becomes a chaplain, overburdened and leaves.
Toxicity can be fatal. I’ve worked with churches that have closed and some existing ones that should!
Wherever there’s gossip, inside concentration, or manipulation—there’s toxicity. I have an ex-pastor friend who was forced out. The church belittled him at corporate meetings, made his life miserable, and asked him to supply his preaching outlines for review. They wanted to rule the pastor.
I know another ex-pastor whose treasurer would withhold his check. He would have to hunt him down to get paid—even though the church had over 1 million in the bank!
I know 4 others with similar situations—never to return.
80% of pastors believe pastoral ministry has negatively affected their families.
A pastor’s family will always see, and feel, how he is being treated. Whether lack of compensation, undue stress, or other—unlike any other profession, the family worships where the pastor “works.”
Consequently, the pastor’s home becomes an unstable environment. I know a pastor’s wife that literally cried and begged her husband to leave the church—for the sake of the family.
Unfortunately, wives (and children) of pastors experience emotional, relational, and spiritual stress. They hear all of the gossips. They may question: where is God? Is this what the church is really about?
The family of a pastor sacrifices much.
70% of pastors do not have a close friend and constantly fight depression.
True, and I know why. Many pastors have stated an inability to confide in church members. They feel that whatever they say, or do, will be used against them at some point. This is truth.
Pastoral loneliness is a horrible certainty—going through life with no close friends and feeling depressed. It’s a reality that pastors neglect to share and a major reason they leave.
70% of the U.S. population reports a connection with Jesus Christ, yet according to David Olson, on any given Sunday, less than 17.5% of the population actually attends an orthodox worship service. Even more sobering is the reality that American churches would need to plant 2,900 new churches a year, just to keep up with the current pace of population growth (some research states 15,000).
In an interview with a Liberian church planter, he revealed that God called him to come to the United States to plant churches; he’s not the only one among the diaspora missionaries from Africa. With 80 to 85 percent of churches in America either plateauing or in decline, there is an urgent call for church revitalization and planting. For this reason, the church must re-engage the missio Dei, the sending of God, and shift to a missional praxis. The Western world has once again become the mission field.
When relating to Western culture, I understand the ambiguity involved in such terminology; therefore, for the purpose of this article, the term “Western culture” refers to the United States of America. I hope to illustrate our culture’s need for an apostolic movement and a call for a reestablished Trinitarian mission.
First, I’ll address the historical and present reality of the Western church’s decline and imperative nature as a mission field. Second, I’ll explore a biblical and theological reflection on the Western church within culture.
Historical and Present Reality of The Western Church
We don’t need to go too far back into American history to notice that a transformation has occurred. Just one hundred years ago, back to the 1920’s, Christianity was once was so enmeshed within its culture that capitalism and faith were nearly inseparable—it was virtually improbable to receive a bank loan without church membership. John D. Rockefeller, who organized the Interchurch World Mission (IWM) once proclaimed, “A Christian is a Christian no matter what church he belongs to…What nobler aim can a man have in life than to be Christlike?”
Studying Rockefeller’s business practices, it would not be against popular opinion to question his biblical faith, but as many Americans, Rockefeller assumed that everyone in American society were automatically Christian. Alan Hirsch clarifies, “In the American expression, Christianity was not married to the state but is nonetheless seen to be an inextricable part of American culture and identity; until the last thirty years or so, if you were American, you were a Christian.” Church membership was more about being a part of the social norms and values than it was conviction of the heart.
An interesting statistic from the North American Mission Board (NAMB) shows research concerning American churches. NAMB found that in 1900 there were twenty-eight churches for every ten thousand people; by 1950 that number declined to seventeen; by the year 2000 it declined even more to twelve, and by 2004, it was down to eleven.! There are no current numbers, at least that I have discovered.
As stated, Olson’s statistics display that only 17.5% of the population in North America is attending Sunday services, but Doug Murren of the Murren Group, declares that number to be too high and suggested Olson’s 2008 numbers were lagging a bit behind—his ghastly number of only 12% is staggering. Furthermore, Murren’s research indicates “20% of people leave their church every year, which would require a visitor rate of at least 30% of a church’s size per year, just to grow.”
The Western church is surely in decline and hemorrhaging, as the culture pulls away from Christianity. The Barna Group assesses that “more than one-third of America’s adults are essentially secular in belief and practice.” With a population of roughly two hundred forty million Americans, one hundred seventy million of them (71%), either consider themselves as having no religious affiliation at all or Christian in name only. As JR Woodward observed, “Functional Christendom has given way to a ‘spiritual,’ secular and pluralist society where a growing number view the church with suspicion and some with downright disdain.”The Western world is officially a mission field and is in dire need of apostolic movement.
However, while it’s good to recognize numbers and statistics, the church should not become depressed—only motivated. As the culture shifts, the contemporary church must be reminded that it’s not in the first-century. As early church historian Michael Green notes, “They lived in a world more relativist and far more pluralist that our own.” Of course, to some, like Ted Turnau, who projects in his book, Popologetics, that “each idolatrous cultural act inspires another that is darker and more deceptive,” this would place humanity into a more darker culture than ever before.
It’s probably safe to say that humanity is, well, humanity, and a depraved unregenerate people will not flock to the gospel, but toward sinful tendencies. One cannot fault culture for shifting, nor for humanity in embracing relativism, new age spiritualism, or even atheism. If the church is not spreading the love of the gospel and making disciples within its community then the current culture cannot be faulted for failing to possess a Christian worldview. David Hesslegrave defines, “A worldview is formed by hearing and learning a big story with a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
The church is failing to present a transformation story in Christ, filled with the Scriptures, and the application from within our current lives. Society is only doing what is expected of it, to live life according to the desires of the heart. Western culture must be a mission field engaged by a missional people with a passionate and harmonious unified church at its core. The culture has shifted from the church to the workplace—hence, the church must engage the marketplace—and engage it as a movement.
The call for an apostolic movement is vital. If as Malphurs stated, “Only five to twenty-five percent of pastors are equipped to turn around churches” then only a paradigm shift in thinking will work. J.D. Payne rightly observes that the American church, which once was filled with missional church planters has developed into a pastoral missiology of “maintenance and conservation of structures and organizations.” Hirsch adds to this line of thinking, “We forgot that it’s not so much that the church has a mission as that the mission has a church…missional church is apostolic church.”To combat the decline of Western culture, the church must reengage its apostolic past, while communally embracing its missional future.
Biblical and Theological Reflection on The Western Church
As Lesslie Newbigin so eloquently, yet blatantly put it, “The Christ who said, “Come unto me and I will give you rest,” also said to those same disciples, “As the Father has sent me so I send you,” and showed them the scars of his battle with the rulers of the world (John 20:20-21). John’s passage reveals the Greatest Commission; the missio Dei, it’s theologically steeped foundation within the Omnibenevolence of God.
To know God is to love him. Jesus told his disciples that they must love their neighbors as they love themselves; this is the second greatest commandment (Matt 22:39). When questioned as to whom was their neighbor (Luke 10:29), Jesus responded with a story pertaining to the Jews’ detested race of people, the Samaritans (Luke 10:30-35).
In connection, the story of the Good Samaritan is an applicable imperative to know and love those within our culture. Christ’s incarnation provides an example of not only understanding culture, but tabernacling within it (John 1:14). In Kevin Vanhoozer’s book, Everyday Theology he explains, “Cultural literacy—[is] the ability to understand patterns and products of everyday life—[it] is thus an integral aspect of obeying the law of love.”To effectively engage Western culture, the church must not abandon the ancient faith, striving to embrace secular values to become relevant, but adhere, apply, and act within Trinitarian koinonia.
At the heart of the reconciliation of all things, whether Western culture or otherwise, is the love of the Father, explicitly sending the suffering Son, to vicariously be victorious over sin and death for humanity, “through the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:14). The love of God cannot be disseminated from the three persons of the Trinity, nor divorced from the missio Dei, as the conceptual understanding of homoousis underlies the Christ as the same eternal substance with the Father; so to, Christ is the head of the church.
Robert Webber’s book, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World expresses the church’s role and functions within a changing culture— “Our calling is not to reinvent the Christian faith, but, in keeping with the past, to carry forward what the church has affirmed from its beginning.” The church was given a mandate to make disciples while going about life (Matt 28:19), through the worship of the Father (Matt 4:10; John 4:23), obedience and submission to Christ (John 14:15), by intentionally heeding the Holy Spirit’s voice (John 14:26; Acts 1:8).
Making disciples means that the church expresses,reveals, and manifests to culture the reality of the Trinity’s nature, by the gospel of Christ. As Adam Dodds confirmed, “Jesus cannot rightly be identified without describing the triune nature of God…Although the gospel is the gospel of Jesus Christ, this gospel begins with the Father sending the Son who is conceived by the Holy Spirit.” Therefore, for the church to engage the Western culture with the gospel, it is to reveal God’s Omnibenevolence with the missio Trinitas. A call back to understanding that the Godhead propels and sustains the missional church community is at its core. Woodward validates, “since the church is the icon of the Trinity, true personhood is found in community.”
When the Apostle Paul was called to go to Macedonia, he first made plans to go to Asia, but as Erwin McManus linked, “The entire Trinity got involved in keeping Paul from going to the wrong place.”Currently, the Western church is not listening and it seems to be going to the wrong place. The church abides in Christ, having its resolve to fulfill the missio Dei, as the Imago Dei. As Christ’s body on earth, the church’s missional DNA (mDNA) exists in Jesus as Lord.
Enculturation occurs when “an existent, prevailing culture influences” a church to “imbibe its accepted norms and values.” By enculturation, the contemporary church has separated itself from the imago Dei. Rather than retaining its innate DNA (2 Cor. 5:17), Western Christianity has lost the power of the cross, the dynamic of the Holy Spirit, and the fear of Almighty God. The church’s enculturation has stripped it of the convicting influence of the Holy Spirit (John 16), causing, in part, the West to become the mission field.
However, all is not lost. As Jesus stated, “I will build my church, and the gates of hellshall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18b). The church, from its earliest inception, faced political, religious, and even internal opposition with councils, proconsuls, governors, kings, and tribunes, but the “powers that be,” hinder as they may attempt, could not and cannot cease a missional movement of God. When the church relinquishes control of all earthly things to God and basks in his presence, it can expect an apostolic Trinitarian movement to occur. During trials, tribulations, and opposition from society, the New Testament (NT) church was in the midst of an expansion explosion, and God was on the move.
The church must re-engage Western culture by relinquishing its boundaries to the missio Trinitas. Rolland Allen expresses this as the church’s primary fear, “There is always something terrifying in the feeling that we are letting loose a force which we cannot control; and when we think of spontaneous expansion in this way, instinctively we begin to be afraid.” As the Apostles Paul and John declared, “God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7) and respectively, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…” (1 John 4:18a). Therefore, in moving ahead within the cultural divide, the church must relinquish its thoughts of controlling Christ’s body. The church has all the resources, power, vision, people, and God-given authority to reach the West for Christ—may we be so emboldened to do it!
David T. Olson, The American Church in Crisis: Groundbreaking Research Based On a National Database of Over 200,000 Churches(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008), 181.
J.D. Payne, Strangers Next Door: Immigrations, Migration, and Mission(Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 2012), 151.
Aubrey Malphurs, Look Before You Lead: How to Discern and Shape Your Church Culture(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2013), 200.
Charles Edward Harvey. 1982. “John D Rockefeller, Jr and the Interchurch World Movement of 1919-1920: a different angle of the ecumenical movement.” Church History51, no. 2: 203. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed July 7, 2015).
Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: the Gospel and Western Culture(Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 124.
Ross Hastings, Missional God, Missional Church: Hope for Re-Evangelizing the West(Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 19.
Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Charles A. Anderson, and Michael J. Sleasman, eds. Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 19.
Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 17.
Adam Dodds. “Newbigin’s Trinitarian missiology: the doctrine of the Trinity as good news for Western culture.”International Review Of Mission99, no. 390 (April 1, 2010): 17. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost(accessed July 6, 2015).
I’ll say it … someone has to speak up. We should be ashamed at the actions of the Western Church.
For years I have been involved in church planting. However, it wasn’t until I became involved in finding financial support for planters and developing a collaborative initiative for church planting that I saw the ugly truth.
Before I begin, I want to shed light on some reality. Sometimes I feel like I’m beating a dead horse with these numbers—and while numbers are data, they reveal the truth. With 80–85% of all American churches either plateauing or in decline, and only 10–15% of pastors equipped to turn around churches, we need to admit there’s a huge problem. An elephant in the room.
Only 26% of America is evangelical (I realize that some don’t like that terminology) and a staggering 71% of Americans are either nominal in their faith or have no religious affiliation at all. 96% of Americans have heard the name Jesus Christ, placing us in a post-Christendom society. Lastly, just to maintain the 26% evangelical rate (to keep up with population growth), we would need to plant 3–5,000 church per year!
But it’s never going to happen and I’ll tell you several reasons why.
Approximately one year ago I founded a collaborative initiative in Richmond, Virginia, called, Planting RVA. While I’m not promoting it, I’m using it as analogy. I believed (and still do) that if any city is to be saturated with the gospel, it must be a collaborative effort of gospel-centered churches, associations, and denominations. Biblical students understand that reaching cities (like Paul; Rom 15:20) is imperative for saturation. So, while many different associations were initially intrigued at the idea, the reality of collaboration became a farce.
Organizations, denominations, and associations will only get involved if there’s an asset for them or perhaps to find out what someone else is doing, but not for support. Don’t fool yourself. I quickly found out one truth—the American church is very self-centered.
One local Baptist seminary (President) advised me that they are only involved in events and programs that benefit them. I humbly asked if they’d like to help sponsor a collaborative church planting conference, if they had any students that may be interested in church planting, or professors—I was shot down:
“We basically ‘sponsor’ the events, programs and worthy causes which arrise out of our own work, ministry and budget” (cut and pasted).
I asked for a one on one meeting to discuss the fact that Planting RVA works with their “primary denominational partners: the BGAV …”
I was shot down again. Even from sharing coffee! (The blasphemy!)
Anyway, what I find abhorrent about the response is the revelation as to why certain churches in our area decline to help collaboratively plant churches and to see kingdom growth—because they’re taught to be empire builders—to align only with theological and doctrinal presuppositions. How do I know that? His last email response:
“As I am sure you know, even though we live in a postdenominational age[,] most connect with the church planting enterprise through denominational networks of one kind or another. This is primarily true because one’s theological perspective and church starting methods must be compatible. Consequently, as the seminary has needs for church starting expertise we will seek those resources through our partner organizations.”
This leads into the next point….
Lack of Unified Love
Lack of unity, self-centeredness, and greed will never help grow Christ’s kingdom. This ‘every man for himself’ mentality is not Christian love, nor can it reach an unchurched, unreached, and starving culture.
Don’t get me wrong, I believe that seminaries should indeed teach theology, doctrine, and align themselves with the agencies that support them—but to what extent? I love hearing about Together For the Gospel and these types of conferences, but when it comes to the actual aspects of working together—we’re all going down in separate ships because of our self-centered way of doing things.
Let me give you an example. Ever see a McDonalds? I bet next to it you’ll see a Burger King, Wendy’s, Chick-fil-A, or other food dive. But, drive five miles out of town; do you see a McD’s, Chick-fil-A, or one of those grab-and-go places? No, you don’t. Why is it that they all stack up on top of each other? Why don’t they build in small town USA, the projects, crack allies, or low-rent districts—that’s easy—it’s called revenue. It’s business 101. You go where the money is and don’t allow your competitor to reap all the profits. Don’t allow them to be the only game in town.
However, with this same model that denominations (and even non-denominations) desire to plant churches with and how they view the Christian faith. It’s a business—it’s greed and it’s also arrogance—it’s the mentality that we do it better, more hip, more missional, more liturgical, more traditional, more conservative, more blah, blah, blah.
Let me ask you this: Do you think starving people care about where they get a meal? Oh, but why don’t you make sure they get the fat steak cooked perfectly, right?
Read on …
Forget The Empire—Think Kingdom
Recently, I was invited to speak about church planting at a local conference. While I already knew how things behind the curtains of church denominations and associations worked, one message rang loud and clear—the American church is empire building. The motto: How can your church grow and become large?
I agree. Churches need revitalization. Here’s a secret about church planting. When churches plant churches the kingdom grows. If a church is in decline, one sure-fire way to grow is to plant or support a church plant. Why do I have the idea that you’re scratching your head?
Here’s the deal, if a church plateaus at 200 people (average church in US) and they plant another church, as they grow to 200 people, the mother/sending church has doubled in size. And, as the next generation (3rd church plant) is sent out, there is a potential of growing the kingdom even larger, to 600. This is first-century church growth.
But, that stands against the current model of empire building—of, I want ‘my’ church to be large (*as if it were yours!*). I hope this is convicting someone? But I bet it’s only angered some to justify their positions.
The reality: As long as the American church desires to “go it alone” and not work together, we will never see a Jesus movement occur and gospel saturation happen. We’re too busy with our own agendas.
I leave you with this to think about; the words of Jesus when the Disciples confront him:
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward” (Mark 9:38-41 ESV).
 This number varies depending upon the data. Mainly due to the addition of 1,800 churches closing per year—this adds to numerical figure, from 3,000 to approximately 5,000.
The greatest church planting movements in history were accomplished without clergy hierarchy. Ok, stick with me—I’m not bashing pastoral work—I am one. I don’t want you to get the impression that pastors and leadership are not vital—they are—but in a different degree than you think.
In examining church planting movements, there are definite similarities and common killers. Let’s address three.
The Simpler, the Better
Everyone knows that the simpler something is, the easier it is to reproduce. Jesus made it really simple to plant the gospel. In actuality, Jesus does all the work for us and even gives us a “helper” (John 16:7).
The problem comes when we make the gospel complicated. We’re good at complication. We complicate things by halting movements of God. Think about it. God adds people into His Church (Acts 2:47). Once they get in, they’re told they need to be trained before they can be sent out. Example, a believer feels the call of God on his life. He asks the pastor for advice. What advice does he give?
Go to seminary and get trained. But is this simple, or complex?
When Mao Tse-tung became supreme leader of China, he executed the indigenous pastors, kicked out the missionaries, seized church property, and imprisoned the remaining leadership structure. There was an estimated 2 million Christians. When the curtain was lifted after his death, do you know how many believers were found? Over 60 million!
Imagine a church movement that grew without pastoral hierarchy and buildings. I know, you’re probably thinking—but there’s got to be heresy involved, right? Actually, that’s been studied. In the research, it was found that only 5% drifted into heresy—they were isolated from the others. Basically, the church policed itself.
Only 15% were with doctrinal errors, and a whopping 80% were orthodox! If you measure that model to America, guess what you’ll find—almost 35% heretical, yet we have seminaries and clergy, and more than 60% doctrinal errors. It seems simpler is better.
Distinctions Halt Initiative
The Methodist movement was one of the greatest discipleship movements in history. John Wesley had designed a “method” (while I may not adhere to prevenient grace, I do recognize the results) to discipleship by creating small groups with accountability. And so, Methodism was growing at staggering numbers, across the United States.
Men called to the gospel from one church got on horseback and became itinerant preachers—or circuit riders. And the churches remained strong. With no real headship (other than Christ), due to their discipleship groups, they exponentially grew. However, the movement began to plateau in 1850. By 1860, Methodism began to decline, never returning to its reproducibility years. Why?
According to one researcher (Alan Hirsch), this is when the Methodists were ridiculed for not have seminaries and not being “educated.” They were mocked by other denominations as being poor and illiterate, having circuit riders that were uneducated. And so, what did Methodism do? They built seminaries to make better pastors and ceased the discipleship model—hence killing the Jesus movement.
When the Church makes distinctions between clergy and laity, there is a class system that can evolve. This creates complexity (i.e. only a pastor can teach, pray, or make visits—he’s God’s anointed). Don’t get me wrong, I am a pastor, but I admit to our brokenness and failure. The power of God must revert back into the church bodies (the people) to reproduce, disciple, and send believers.
Pastor As Dynamic Leader
Unfortunately, the Western Church has created a model that requires a seminary trained dynamic leader to preach really well, in the hopes of entertaining, or even “teaching” people, by speaking at them for 45 minutes (at least that’s how long I preach). This dynamic model, however, is a broken and unsustainable model.
If 2,900 new churches must be planted within the U.S. every year, just to maintain a 26% evangelicalism rate, then you can see that the dynamic leader model will take hundreds of years. There is no way to start a Jesus movement without bi-vocational or volunteer church planters. Too often, seminaries can be costly. Once again, don’t hear me incorrectly, God uses seminaries and I happen to be a doctoral student of a fantastic one.
My point? Seminary trained people can become catalysts and apostolic leaders. But if we are honest, a Jesus movement will not occur with “occupational” leadership as the head speaker, prayer, discipler, and visitor. There is a five-fold ministry within the Church (Eph. 4:11–12).
The greatest church planting movements in history all managed to occur without dynamic pastors. Twelve ordinary disciples turned the world upside down by discipling people with a simple message of redemption, serving the body as a whole, and thought of themselves as slaves of Christ.