Not necessarily beginning with, but accredited to, Donald McGavran and C. Peter Wagner, the Church Growth Movement compelled churches to grow by utilizing sociological analysis.
I’m not one of the critics that thinks the church growth movement was evil. It was nearly 60 years ago! At the time, there were applicational questions that McGavran and Wagner presented, and I think that most will agree—the “status quo” was lackluster.
As well, I don’t think it’s evil for a church to count heads and know who they’re reaching and how many. I don’t like polarizations. I’m usually more of a both/and type of person (except in salvation—that’s black and white) than an either/or.
My point in this brief article is to help church leaders see people for who they are—people.
People need Jesus.
People need love.
People need healing and redemption.
Sometimes leadership can become so obsessed with bringing in more people that personability is lost. Numbers become personified—taking the place of people.
One of the first questions I get at conferences is “How big is your church”? As if this is relevant to anything? Must I explain that I took over a revitalization—that I work with church planters? Why are we justifying “numbers” with success?
The beautiful aspect of church is that it’s the only organization on earth that collects dysfunctional, hurting, pain-ridden, broken, and sinful people with an anticipation of being perfected (in Christ). An anticipation of redeeming love.
The overall premise of the church is reproducible disciple-making to bring about rejuvenation, renewal, and reconciliation (in God).
Once again, I don’t want to discredit churches that are doing amazing work—but let’s not get distracted from the goal—disciple-making. I speak to numerous church planters and pastors who see their work as a failure because they’re not growing at the rapidity of others.
These leaders read way too many books, listen to far too many podcasts, and see too many social media posts regarding numbers, programs, and the “quick-fix.”
The main goal of the church has always been about making disciple-makers(Matt. 28:18–20).
I wonder if the Thessalonian churches were envious of the Philippian church’s size—for they had deacons and bishops (Phil 1:1)? The Philippian church had wealth—they supported Paul on his church planting mission—perhaps they could show the other churches the “right” model?
Or, perhaps, the Ephesian churches wrote letters to the other churches with the best program “to reach the masses”? Maybe they distributed scrolls for, 8 Simple Ways to Be Awesomeor Grow Your Church Like Ours?
I never pick up on any of that in Paul’s writings. I see in Paul, a person who was a devoted disciple-maker (1 Cor. 11:1; 2 Tim. 2:2). Paul was a servant who was dedicated to two words, “Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23, 2:2; Gal. 2:20). And, Paul’s motivation was to see the churches reach maturity. I’ve never read a single statement from Paul consigning numbers over people.
I think in today’s church, leaders can sometimes make things more difficult than they are—instead of keeping it simple.
What if the church focused on only two things? (1)The gospel. (2) Reproducible disciple-making.
The gospel and reproducible disciple-making are centered in Christ and focused on people—the dysfunctional, hurting, pain-ridden, broken, and sinful people. If the church begins to look at people through the lens of Christ, growth will occur—naturally.
Let’s not over complicate the gospel. In the same manner, let’s not over complicate disciple-making, either.
If we do life together—as the called out gathered ones (ekklesia)—our lives will be centered in Christ, releasing us to live out our lives within the world.
If we focus on gospel transformative reproducible disciple-making, our hearts are directed at people and for people.
If all we’re solely interested in numbers, then we’re neglecting the missional mandate to love one another and make disciples.
Let’s not reinvent the wheel—but simply, go back to the basics.
Let’s be candid and free the air about some misconceptions regarding disciple-making.
For most of the church age, the comprehension that disciple-making begins with relationship building has been foreign.
Without delving into the early church—which I’m more than happy to do (I’ll save you the homework)—reproducible disciple-making was never designed to begin at conversion, baptism, or church membership. It also was not designed for categorical stages, but instead, was a commission to reach unreached people groups.
Disciple-making was always (and is) about continually making disciples from unbelieving people groups for salvific reconciliation harmony with God and a sanctifying journey through life to exalt Christ. (Matt. 28:18–20).
Jesus called Twelve men, “disciples,” prior to their revelation of his identity. It was clear that these new followers of Jesus—at least to the Pharisees—took the identity of “disciples” (Matt. 9:14). It’s understandable to make an argument that they were covenant Israelites, looking for the Messiah—but not even Peter’s renowned profession happens for some time (Matt 16:13).
Likewise, a person can be seeking God, but not be a Christian. For instance, Apollos was an adherent to the baptism of John, and knowledgeable in the “instruction in the way of the Lord,” but Priscilla and Aquila “took him aside” and discipled him “more accurately” (Acts 18:25-26). Of course, we have no idea of how long Apollos was in Ephesus with Priscilla and Aquila or how long they discipled him—but to “explain to” Apollos the “way of God more accurately,” denotes more than a quick conversation.
Therefore, all Christians are disciples, but not all disciples are Christians.
The discipleship process shouldbegin pre-conversion—at building relationships, explaining, reasoning, walking, and living with others—hopefully, while they are in the searching process.
Unfortunately, when the church shifted to a more didactic form of “discipleship”—between the late second to early fourth centuries, mainly due to heresies—the communal life-on-life aspects of reproducible disciple-making changed.
Disciple-making doesn’t occur in stages
I’ve read many times and, in several publications, that disciple-making is about getting to, and recognizing, specific stages. Here’s some of the problems and arguments I have with stages of discipleship.
First, the Thessalonian church was only 3 weeks old when Paul and Silas were snuck out of the city—but no older than six months (Acts 17:1–9).How could this church grow in reproducible disciple-making, with a city of a hundred thousand persecuting them, in only a few short weeks? The truth is—reproducible disciple-making requires Holy Spirit gospel transformation, not programs or categories. In the case of the Thessalonian church, they would have been considered “babes in Christ.” Today, none of them would have been selected to lead or facilitate our modern small groups. Yet, Paul was encouraged by the report of their “faith and love” (1 Thess. 3:6).
Second, the dilemma with stages reduces disciple-making to a course to be completed. As if we enter a final stage of maturation. Believers are always learning and always growing. The Apostle Peter was rebuked by the Apostle Paul for representing a false gospel—what stage would we have placed Peter into during that period (Gal 2:11)? I’ve seen some models of discipleship list a requirement for a “mature disciple” to possess full knowledge of the gospel—guess that leaves Peter out? Paul asserted that Peter stood, “condemned” (Gal. 2:11). I’ll rest in the words of the Apostle Paul—that God is not finished with me, yet (Phil. 1:16).
Third, similar to my second point, when disciple-making is viewed as a program within the church, what happens to those who are not involved? I’ll tell you. Those “disciples” do not view themselves as disciples because they’re not in a “discipleship class.” The modern church values Scripture memorization more than Scripture adherence. Disciple-making is a continual life-on-life journey, which should begin at pre-conversion.
My point? Why bother with trying to measure believers up? Every believer is going to go through times of doubt, anxiety, turmoil, bitterness, error, sin, and so forth—perhaps the church should focus on being more like Christ—in unity—communally—not individualistically?
If the church could have a renewed vision of reproducible disciple-making, looking back at the early church, not trying to reinvent the wheel, perhaps evangelism and growth would be the outcomes? Perhaps the church could reach unreached peoples in communities, cities, and countries—beginning the reproducible disciple-making process.
The concept of reproducible disciple-making is not about finding a believer and discipling them, but a non-believer. What if each believer focused on discipling a non-believer? What would that look like?
It would look like multiplicative new conversion growth: salvation, baptism, identity in the Godhead, teaching to obey the commands of Christ. It would look like gospel transformation. It would look like communal life-on-life—sharing in troubles, failures, and successes. It would look like accountability and personal relationships, with God and man.
Is that so bad?
Fee, Gordon, L. The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians(TNICNT) (Eerdmans: Grand Raids, 2009, 6).
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).
One of my professors suggested that our doctoral cohort study culture and trends—something I was already inclined to do, but he offered a website that provides great insight. While the site, Faith Popcorn, doesn’t provide much analysis, it provides provoking thought and reflection. Reading the predictions through gospel lenses allows me stay a step ahead of culture.
I realize that this title may sound somewhat Orwellian, but humanity has arrived in the twenty-first century technological age. There are no flying cars, yet, or humanoids; however, not unlike the twentieth century we are still—perhaps even more so—engaged in an age of fear, anxiety, and paranoia.
Faith Popcorn predicts, “people will want guarded homes, there will be ways to filter your water, maybe bullet-proof houses, working more at home, not wanting to travel, armored communities where you will swap privacy for the privilege of living in a safe bubble.”
While some fear may be substantiated, Popcorn noted that “74% of Americans fear ISIS,” so the trends of tiny techno chips and fully disclosing our lifestyle seem to be the writing on the wall.
What do these future trends reveal?
Living With Full Disclosure
Does living within an armored city sound appealing to you? What about having all of your emails, phone calls, texts, and social media updates viewed and scrutinized—for the good of the community?
I see something grander at work here than protection or information gathering. I believe if people swap their privacy for safety something radical may occur. A community may accept sin as normal and justifiable.
Man will always desire to gratify himself. Sin feels good, tastes, good, and looks good. So, to think that an armored community would halt this would be naïve. Since the fall of humanity, man quests for pleasure, while also longing to hide the sin (inject Cain and Abel story, here). While armored communities may sound somewhat attractive at first, the realities of having every near-thought recorded and dissected will inevitably change how we will view sin.
If this future trend of walling ourselves in and being monitored by the thought-police occurs then we will inevitably be encountering some way to moralize or justify sinful behavior. Basically, no sin will be hidden from prying eyes, so to justify one’s actions; acceptability of the sin becomes normal. The community’s hearts become seared and accept sin.
Armored communities could easily become modern Sodom and Gomorrahs, not necessarily in a sexual sense, but in the sense of Ezekiel 16—following vanity and self-gratification.
The Fitbit Frenzy & Fear
Fitbits are probably some of the neatest gadgets manufactured. To think that this Star Trek-like accessory can sense our heart rates, fitness activity, record calories, receive text and call alerts, play music and wirelessly sync with our smart devices is pretty amazing. Newer technology trends are being developed to alert us if someone is strapped with C4 explosives or some type of dirty bomb.
I know, you’re probably thinking, how does this reveal the need for the gospel? A bomb sniffing Fitbit is just a man-made device created to help protect humanity—that’s good, right? Sure it is. But it is also revealing. It’s not the Fitbit itself that is so revealing; it is the reason for the ability’s design and demand. Why would people demand such a device? Surely, Apple would not create a product that people wouldn’t purchase—so, what does this tell us?
How These Trends Reveal and Plead For The Gospel
These two future trends reveal the hearts and minds of fearful living. The gospel’s power delivers people from the domain of darkness to the kingdom of God’s Son, Jesus Christ (Col. 1:13–14). Paul asserted, “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7).
There’s nothing wrong with protected neighborhoods, many well-known pastors live within them, and nothing wrong with an explosive-sniffing-micro-chip—don’t misunderstand me, but the fact that we live in a society where these are good things, detects more than bombs—it detects man’s bondage to fear, lack of love, and trust in God—something which only exists in the gospel.
The art of neighboring seems to be long gone. Both of these trends spell out what the church will be faced with in the coming future—fear and paranoia. But, we, as gospel-centered people, must strive to boldly proclaim man’s redemption from sin, God’s graceful gift of joy, and the freedom from the bondage of fear, to the world. We are ambassadors and ministers of reconciliation, as God makes his appeal through us (2 Cor. 5:17–20). Trends of fear should be countered with gospel-saturation. “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).
If you’ve been in church planting for any amount of time, at some point you have dealt with demographics. As a pastor, I believe it is just as important to know my demographics. However, most pastors have no idea what to do with demographics or even how to read them effectively and apply them.
Demographics are important. But, let me be particularly clear: demographics will never replace the working power of the Holy Spirit. Demographics are a tool to understand culture, age, ethnicity, education, ideology, and religion(s) in any specified region.
Demographics & Exegeting Culture
Exegesis. Before my undergrad work, I thought I knew the Bible—then I was introduced to exegesis—everything changed. Biblical exegesis is a critical examination and explanation of a text, employing the original languages of Scripture.
If I am assessing a church or church plant, an imperative question is, do you know the demographics of your neighborhood, community, or city? While some pastors may be able to spout off percentages, reality comes when there’s a lack of application and comprehension. Similarly, if I can see Greek words, but have no idea what they mean, I cannot exegete a Bible passage—I’ll need help.
So, let me provide some help in which exegeting demographics can assist you to understand your culture and context.
Targeting. I won’t dive too far into targeting, but it can be highly effective. If you don’t know whom you are targeting and why (besides the gospel), you will never know how. With the ever increasing population shift of people groups through immigration, urbanization, and gentrification, church leaders must know who is in their community, the projected growth, and why they are there. People don’t just migrate somewhere for no reason.
Targeting specific people groups within my neighborhood is done when I notice a growing population shift within a specific grouping. Maybe there is a rise in a particular ethnicity, race, religious affiliation, or socio-economic status. Targeting will help leaders critically examine and explain what is occurring in their region, along with actually reaching them.
Community Needs. Every community has a need —when exegeting a community, you may uncover areas of plight, addiction, homelessness, or any myriad of social injustice and demand. The church should not only be serving these needs, but reaching the people affected by them, with the gospel. A comprehensive approach to help break the chains of poverty, despair, and bondage are fundamentals of the gospel.
Areas of Resurgence. Perhaps within your community an old box store was torn down, an old strip mall demolished, or restaurant closed? What’s replacing it? That’s the question you need to be asking. Municipalities must have tax revenue. Something will either be built in tis place, or your community is seeing a decline, both provide ample answers. We need to be observant and do a little homework. Is the old strip mall being torn down for some surge of economic growth? If a new restaurant is being built—what type is it? What does that tell me about the neighborhood? Should the church be revisiting its vision?
Areas of resurgence seem to occur within regions periodically, or cyclically. We once were geared up for the suburban sprawl, as people left cities. Now, people are leaving the ‘burbs and flocking to urban neighborhoods. Likewise, trends are showing that Wal-Mart and some of the bigger corporations, like Anheuser Busch, are in decline, as Millennials shift to more organic shops and craft brews. What does that tell us? It tells us that the church may be seeing a shift in mega-churches, possibly seeing future decline, while smaller more personal churches/church plants may be seeing growth.
Demographics & Spiritual Pulse
Spiritual Warfare. When I came to Richmond I wanted to know a little more about where I was engaging gospel ministry. It was revealed that Richmond, Virginia was one of the few cities along the eastern seaboard that was not affected during the Great Awakening. As well, there was a notable revival among African-Americans just prior to the Civil War, but the war squashed the Spirit’s zeal. Why is that important? History tells me what occurred within my community.
I know that some may not be advocates of prayer-walking, but there is most definitely a spiritual warfare taking place behind the scenes of your church. Do your homework and know your history.
Assessing Culture. While the Apostle Paul walked around Athens he was assessing the culture (Acts 17:14–31). With demographics in hand, what should I be looking for? I think if we are wise stewards of this information, we try to assess who lives within our community, city, and region. We want to know which religions are here because they’re not the same, nor can they all be approached in the same manner. Likewise, ethnic groups are not the same and bring with them a culture, perhaps, much different than our own.
If I want to engage the culture, I need to get out and view the community (walk it, ride it, experience it) and then read the demographics. For instance, our church has an inner city Liberian church plant. In questioning their pastor, he expressed that he wanted to reach his neighborhood more. I took one glance at the demographics and assessed that he should engage the culture with diverse arts projects (graffiti & folk art), music, celebrate recovery, and helping homelessness. Did all of that come from one look at the demographics? No, it came from experiencing the neighborhood and then reading the demographics.
Demographics & Sermon Delivery
Contextualization. I’ll use the same passage from Acts 17:14–31 regarding the Apostle Paul. When Paul was in Athens, he wandered around the marketplace (17:19) and assessed the culture, what they bought, how they talked, what they talked about, and how they worshipped.
Paul was examining how he was going to deliver the gospel to the Athenian people. While he was exegeting the people, he must have witnessed or understood much about their culture because he utilized an Epicurean philosopher and a Greek Stoic to explain the gospel (17:28–29). This is so important.
As a pastor I need to know the education level of my audience. If I’m constantly utilizing twenty-dollar theological terms with a congregation of people that have not graduated high school then I will have a hard time contextualizing the gospel to them. This is true if I am reaching a different ethnic group, or socio-economic group, as well.
There’s no reason to spend countless hours studying and preparing a message that no one understands. Demographics will help you understand who are the people within your region and help you reach and teach them the gospel.
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.