Barna Research did a study a year ago, and found out that 95 percent of all church growth in America was simply people transferring from church to church. In other words, Christianity isn’t reaching the unchurched in our nation, but rather just relocating the saved. Interesting enough, study after study shows that most Christians have never even shared their faith—most indicating that somewhere 90 percent of evangelicals have never shared their faith with anyone outside of their family. (Kind of makes you wonder how we get away with using the name “evangelical”!)
According to a recent Lifeway Research study, in the next seven years 55,000 churches in the United States will close their doors, and the number of those who attend a church on the weekend in the United States will drop from 17 percent to 14 percent. Only 20 percent of churches in the US are growing, and only 1 percent are growing by reaching lost people. It’s obvious to me that we don’t need more churches, we simply need more Christians to bloom where they are planted and to “Stop The Hop.”
Don’t you think these two problems—church transfer, and not reaching the unchurched—have to be related in some way? I believe they absolutely do! In the American church culture we measure success by size. In so doing, however, we neglect the one thing that can propel the church forward into the next generation … and to the ends of the earth: reaching lost souls and making Spirit-filled, disciple-making disciples. Disciples who don’t quit, and don’t give up when the going gets tough in their jobs, marriages, friendships, and their church.
I believe we need a fundamental shift in how we think about the mission of the church. Let me illustrate, using two types of ships.
Many church goers today see the church as a cruise ship, offering Christian luxuries for the whole family—sports, entertainment, childcare services, and business networking. They show up at church asking only, “Can this church improve my religious quality of life? Does it have good family ministry facilities? Does the pastor preach funny, time-conscious messages that meet my felt needs? Do I like the music?” However, if their church ever ceases to cater to their preferences … well, there are plenty of other cruise ships in the harbor. In fact, often they get involved with three or four of them at once. After all, the music is great on Cruise Liner A, and the kids enjoy the youth program at Cruise Liner B, and we do most of our fellowship and Bible study with friends at Cruise Liner C, and we occasionally podcast the angry young pastor down the road who tells the funny stories.
I believe a true church is called to be more like a battleship. The church is focused on a spiritual mission, and its success should be seen in how well it fights that mission. The apostle Paul saw himself as a career soldier whose job was to warn fellow soldiers — people like you and me — that spiritual warfare calls for living in a perpetual state of alertness. Without this understanding, you will succumb to a cruise ship mentality which jeopardizes the fulfillment of The Great Commission. Our faith is built on the practice of vigilance, which stems from a real relationship with Jesus.
Those on a battleship declare, “We’re at war,” whereas those on the cruise ship say, “We’re on vacation.” Passengers on the battleship think, “It’s all about God,” while their counterparts on the cruise ship think, “It’s all about me.” The battleship mentality is, “I am the crew,” while the cruise ship mindset thinks, “I must be served by the crew.” Those on the battleship view God as the Faithful General, while those on the cruise ship see Him as their Entertainment Director.
Your perspective makes all the difference in the world. The Christian walk is not about being entertained or always getting our way. We must stop viewing church like we’re on a cruise ship, and start serving like we’re on a battleship. This Sunday at South Side we will get armed for spiritual battle as we continue learning about the parables of Jesus in our “Sharable Parable” sermon series. We would love to see you! Come be a part of a battleship and join us in the battle!
Barry Pettit is the lead minister of the South Side Church of Christ.