Debby Downer Speaks Again

Why are American churches dying?

A Dead Church Above Digne, France — John McKeel

Churches are dying. Speaking of all churches, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson writes in the forward of Jack R. Reese’s important book, At the Blue Hole: Elegy for a Church on the Edge:

By best estimates, about 350,000 congregations are found in the United States. A majority are not thriving. Some experts say that in the next three decades between 30 percent and 40 percent are likely to close—around 100,000 congregations. The average age of those attending congregations has increased and the average size has decreased, with a majority dipping below one hundred members. These trends now show no theological discrimination: liberal and conservative, evangelical and mainline show similar patterns.

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson

These statistics hold true for churches of Christ as well. Best estimates predict we will decline from about a million members in 12,000 congregations today to “to as few as 250,000 members and 2,800 congregations in the next thirty years.” [1]

Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, correctly I believe, lists five reasons why this is so:

  1. Demography. We are “aging out.” Twenty percent of the population at large is between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four. I’m afraid that percentage is much lower in our congregations.
  1. Nones. The fastest-growing religion in America today is “none.” Why should this be so?
  1. Inward Focus. Granberg-Michaelson observes:

“Faced with threats of decline, many congregations become preoccupied with their internal life, struggling to attract more people through the doors in any way possible.”

  1. Impotent Witness. The Culture Wars focused on conspiracies, politics, “idolatrous nationalism, judgmental exclusivism, and implicit cultural superiority.”
  1. Shallow Spiritual Transformation. Without roots, commitment dies.

Before I begin pointing fingers, I need to remember four of those fingers are pointed back at me. I fear preachers are primarily responsible for our decline. For example, think of the use of gimmicks instead of the Gospel to attract people to God. The church calendar is filled with programs and activities. We are impotent witnesses “holding a form of godliness but denying its power” (Paul, 2 Timothy 2:5). We are preaching lessons that sound more at home on Oprah or Dr. Phil than in the pulpit.

But the greatest failing is failing to know the Lord. How would you answer Pharaoh’s question, “Who is the Lord?” (Exodus 5:2) Where is the fire in our souls?

What is the solution? I am not overly concerned about the church “aging out.”

America is now on the brink of an elderly boom, and the new projections illustrate its magnitude. Since the 1950s, the number of older people (those ages 65 and older) has been growing gradually, but it will increase sharply beginning in 2011 as the baby-boom generation (born between 1946 and 1964) begins to turn 65. Today, roughly one in eight Americans are older, up from roughly one in 10 in the 1950s. By 2030, when the entire baby-boom generation has reached age 65, older people are expected to include almost one in five people. This share resembles Florida’s population today. By 2050, the share will be slightly more than one in five. [2]

We’re not “aging out.” We should be reaching out to the fastest-growing segment of the American population! Yes, we need younger families, but we need to be deeply concerned about why we are not attracting more people of all generations!

  [1] Reese, Jack R. At the Blue Hole: Elegy for a Church on the Edge (p. 13). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Kindle Edition.


Telephones and Websites

photo by Pixabay

My mother always told me, “Son, don’t work on Sundays. It’s the Lord’s Day.” Naturally, I became a preacher, and I’ve worked almost every Sunday ever since! Many of you know I am looking for a new church to work with right now, allowing me to visit many different congregations. Today, let’s think about visitors and the challenges they face.

The first challenge is just finding the building and learning the time for services. Believe it or not, many congregations don’t have a sign with that information posted. (You’ll get extra credit if it is large enough to read without getting out of the car.) I have also discovered that those churches with signs may not have a phone number printed! (You’ll get even more points if it is a cell phone number and not just a landline that rings and rings and rings.) So if you have a phone, does it have a voicemail inbox that at least announces the service times?

Of course, most people looking to visit your church will try to find it on the web first to learn more. If you have a website (and I’m sure you do, right?), has it been updated? Who cares about a potluck that was three months ago? Privacy is another consideration. The internet is open to anyone. “Prayer lists” are notoriously guilty. Health care professionals are very, very careful about guarding a patient’s confidential information. Still, we freely give out all the juicy details about Brother Smith’s colonoscopy (and often include phone numbers and addresses). At the very least, please don’t include last names! “Please pray for the Jones family, who will be out of town for the next three weeks (and the key is under the mat).” I’m sure you understand.

On the other hand, it has never been easier to create and maintain a beautiful website! There is no excuse for ugly, boring, static sites. (A great place to begin is on Even if you have a beautiful site, how can you be sure visitors will find you using a search engine. Your visitors will probably use a Search Engine like Google to look for your webpage. Search engines aren’t logical. Try finding “St. John Church of Christ.” We’ve optimized our site (see articles about “Search Engine Optimization,” also called SEO), but we still don’t appear at the top of your search page! Imagine how hard it might be to find us on the net if we didn’t use SEO! (Andy Williams has a great resource that I highly recommend at

You’ve called or searched and found when and where the church will meet next week. So in our next devotional, let’s talk about what people expect when they visit. Meanwhile, take time today to pray for those who are searching. Lord, help us connect!

The Sinner and Sister Busybody

When I first started working in ministry, I met a wonderful elder. He was very concerned that our congregation grew, so he visited a Mega-Church in Texas for a three-day workshop on the subject. He came home full of ideas and excitement. Mega-Church has an information booth in the foyer for visitors, so he decided we needed one too if we were going to grow. In our little church, the only problem was that three friendly couples greeted visitors. The visitors were given a warm handshake (this was pre-covid), a smile, and a bulletin. Then the guests were shown to class or to a place in the auditorium for worship. This did two things. First, this ensured the visitors didn’t sit in someone else’s place. (I once saw a member demand a visiting family sit someplace else because she had been sitting in that spot for twenty years. The visitors never came back.) Second, the visitors became guests in our family. The greeters introduced the guests to someone else before they returned to the foyer.

A visitor information booth made sense in a congregation of 5,000, but it seemed a little silly in one of 300. There was a great danger the information booth would discourage the greeters and possibly even end their ministry. Instead, our three little couples simply moved from greeting visitors in the foyer to meeting them out front on the steps as they got out of their cars! It was brilliant. The last I knew, the information booth had become a lost-and-found.

Think about it for a moment. It can be a very frightening thing to visit a church. Everyone knows everyone (and if they don’t, that’s a subject for another day). You are the outsider. You don’t know what to expect. “Will I be singled-out?” Recently, a young, troubled woman visited our worship. She desperately needed God, but she was terribly, terribly shy. She was worried she wouldn’t be accepted because of her clothes and greasy hair. She arrived after services began and sat as close to the door as possible. (She didn’t know in most churches; you must arrive early to get a backseat.) My wife Jan befriended the girl before the last song was finished and even got her to stay for the potluck following services. (It wasn’t that hard. She was hungry.)

What happened next was as natural as it was sad. The girl sat by herself while Jan tended to some of our seniors. Sister Busybody pounced with a bright smile and a thousand questions. The shy girl left as quickly as she could. Then Sister Busybody explained to anyone who would listen that the girl was some distant relative’s ex and probably was a drug addict. The girl was looking for God, but we never saw her again.

Please read Luke 7:36 – 50 and think about how that applies to this situation.

God’s Candy

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood

My father loved fresh fruit, and I must admit nothing tastes quite as good as a peach, or a plum or an apple plucked fresh off the tree. George Burney was one of my elders in Arizona. He owned a navel orange orchard. Each year the men would come and harvest the oranges in the fall, but the workers never picked all of them. One year, just before Christmas, George introduced me to one of nature’s delights. We drove out into the orchard, and he explained, “Those oranges that are left are special. For over a month, all of the energy of the tree is focused on those few remaining oranges.” He was right. The Christmas oranges were special. They were as big as grapefruits and so full of juice they would explode in your fingers as you peeled them. I have never enjoyed a finer piece of fruit in my life. George is gone now, and I really miss his stories and his wisdom, but truth be told, I really miss his oranges!

The Apostle Paul congratulates the Colossians. He says the gospel “which has come to you,” and like George’s late oranges “is bearing fruit and increasing” (Colossians 1:6), but have you ever wondered what type of fruit the Gospel produces?

It could be the apostle is describing the rapid spread of Christianity. After all, in context, he is talking about “increasing.” The Apostle Peter describes the Word of God as “seed” (1 Peter 1:23). The expansion of the faith in the first century is amazing! Preachers often describe the Gospel truth this way to emphasize the importance of evangelism – and that is a very valid assertion. But earlier, Paul described the fruit of the Spirit as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control;” (Galatians 5:22, 23). (Remember, this is a singular fruit that produces all these virtues.) That too is a valid interpretation. In fact, I believe the transforming power of the Gospel is one of the most powerful attractions of the Good News. When people see the beauty of our lives in Christ, they want to learn more and so the Gospel bears fruit.

Let me make one more observation. In recent years, I’ve noticed people forgetting peaches have pits. That is, some ministers are so focused on the delicious fruit that they forget that apart from the seed, peach trees would quickly cease to exist. Likewise, if peaches were just pits, peach pies would just be baked sawdust at best. For the church to thrive, we need to preach the fruit of the Spirit and spread the seeds of truth.

Be a Blessing (and bear fruit!)

We Don’t Always Get Along

Somewhere along the way, we’ve bought into the idea that Christians must always get along, but have you ever been in a relationship that didn’t have conflict or struggles? The Apostle Paul and Barnabas quarreled about the role of John Mark (Acts 15:36 ff.) Eudia and Syntyche had contended at Paul’s side in the cause of the gospel, and their names were written in the book of life, but they still disagreed with each other (Philippians 4:2 – 3).

What are some of the things we fight about? Often, sins like pride, envy, or jealousy cause quarrels (James 4:1 ff.) Often, fear is at the root of a conflict, and all too often, misunderstandings – failure to truly listen – cause fights.

Please understand me. There are some things worth fighting for! We can’t compromise with sin. We must stand on principles! But be careful: sometimes “doctrines” (especially when they are called “sound doctrines”) are only opinions.

How do we resolve our troubles? We can use the New Testament “Friendship Principle”:

Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it, many become defiled (Hebrews 12:14 – 15).

Frankly, some people seem to relish a good fight. That’s not the way we learned in Christ. We need to “strive for peace” because sometimes peace isn’t easy, and it requires us to “strive.” We also need to examine our motives. The Hebrew writer asks, are we living holy lives? Finally, he warns us about the “root of bitterness,” which “springs up” and defiles us. Remember: caring for our hearts is the first step on the path to peace.

Here are three more tips that I had to learn the hard way:

  1. Learn to truly listen to what the other person is saying before reacting.
  2. Learn to fight fair! That will require a whole series of additional lessons but start with the Golden Rule.
  3. Finally, sometimes it takes a “Peacemaker” (Matthew 5:9) – someone who can stand outside the conflict and mend broken relationships. In Philippi, it took Syzygus (his name means “Yokefellow”) to bring Eudia and Syntyche together again (Philippians 4:2 – 3).

No, we don’t always get along. The world is full of evil people, and sometimes they slip into the church, but Paul concluded:

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice (Philippians 1:15 – 18).

Note: Just before I posted this article, it dawned on me, I need to make sure people understand what Paul is saying. The teachers with the evil motives were not teaching false doctrine. Paul would never rejoice about something like that. He is glad that the true message about Jesus Christ was being preached, but it must have saddened him that they were doing it for the wrong reasons.

Putting Out the Welcome Mat

Groton Church of Christ Building
GCC – Groton Church of Christ

Everyone likes to think, “Ours’s is a friendly church,” but is that the reception visitors receive? As members, when we pull into the parking lot, we see the cars of our friends and we can anticipate the warm welcome from people who love us. It keeps us coming back for more! But is that how others see us? Let’s walk in to our church with “new eyes” and look around.

Listening to the Building & Grounds

Grandma was right: “You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.” Like it or not, the first thing people see is our parking lot and, if it is littered, pockmarked with potholes, and lacks any place for them to park, that all-important first impression isn’t going to be a good one. On the other hand, if there is a spot reserved near the door marked, “For Our Guests,” it shows somebody cares. If the lot is clean, well-lit, and bordered by flowers, I’m ready to learn more about these people.

At Grandma’s house, only salesmen and strangers come to the front door. Friends and family always came through the kitchen. Likewise, sometimes there is a difference between the front door of the church and the door the family uses. If that’s the case, we need to make sure someone is at the front door to welcome guests, or there should at least be a sign pointing to the “Friends and Family” entrance.

The Entrance Exam

Almost before he asked me for my name, he began a theological inquisition. Was I a member of the “Lord’s Church”? What did I believe about the Holy Spirit and Pre-millennialism? He was a “gatekeeper.” A sweet-faced, white-haired lady met me with a smile, but then began gathering grist for the gossip mill. She was a “busybody.” Unfortunately, sometimes visitors are subjected to an entrance exam.

A smiling face and a warm greeting the moment I walk through the door says, “We’re happy you’re here!” The second step is just as important. Do we introduce ourselves and ask anything at all about our new friends? About their family, work, where they live – the questions we would ask a new friend?

And don’t forget to introduce your new friend to another member. Don’t just shake their hand and leave them standing to navigate their way alone. Show them to class or invite them to sit with you during worship.

“You’re sitting in my spot”

Ouch! Sister Smith had been sitting in the same spot on the same pew forever. Brother Jones had staked out the seat next to the isle from the day the building was erected. Before I could warn our guest of the sin they were about to commit by sitting in the sacred space, Brother Jones or Sister Smith rudely booted them out – and they will never come back. If you are going to become permanently attached to a sacred space, at least have a plaque made to warn people.

“Where is everybody?”

Once, Jan and I went to visit a congregation. We checked their website first and they advertised a coffee hour thirty minutes before Bible Class. That sounded so friendly, but when we arrived, we walked into the foyer and no one was there. We walked into the auditorium and no one was there. We scratched our heads and then heard voices down a flight of stairs, so we followed the sound and found the Fellowship Hall. When we walked in, everyone stopped talking and just stared at us. There was a coffee pot and the remains of a tray of donuts off to one side. No one said a word. No one got up to greet us or invite us to sit with them. I’m not shy so I walked over to a table full of men and introduced myself. They shared their names, but nothing else. It was like I had walked into a conversation I wasn’t supposed to hear. Jan looked around wondering where the children were. It took us visiting for three weeks before we discovered what a warm and friendly congregation they really were, but I wonder if anyone else would give them a second chance.

How hard would it have been to at least put a sign in the foyer or on the doors directing us to the coffee hour? If this was a friendly church, why didn’t someone get up and prove it?

Don’t Forget the Kids

My children are precious and so are yours! If Bible School is important, then the classrooms should be clean and well lit. As a parent, I want to know my children will be safe. Who is the teacher and how will my children be protected?

We were so impressed by one congregation. Not only were the classrooms inviting, but there were pictures of the teacher and her aide posted on the door. When parents dropped their infants off at the nursery, they were given a pager in case there was a problem. The new parents could worship with peace of mind knowing that if there was an issue, they would be contacted.

I love “Family Friendly” worship where the children are considered a part of the congregation too. The worship leader always has at least one song for them and the preacher begins his sermon with a story and a lesson for the children. One congregation Jan and I visited began the worship by inviting the children to bring their contribution to the front, file past a giant water bottle and drop their coins in. As the kids rushed to the front, they were often given extra coins to contribute. Everyone loved it! By the way, the children decided how their collection would be used. It might go for a school lunch program to help feed hungry kids. It could be used to drill a well in a poor country so those children would have safe water to drink. It had even been used to build the playground at church. The important thing was the children were included.

Put Out the Welcome Mat!

Over and over I’ve heard churches complaining they aren’t growing and I wonder sometimes if we aren’t our own worst enemy. Here are some more suggestions and questions:

  • Do we send our visitors a personalized follow-up letter and call telling them how happy we were to meet them?
  • Is there any information available in the foyer about our congregation, our history, and the services we provide?
  • Are parents told about Bible School, Children’s Worship, or the Nursery facilities?
  • Are guests invited to join in with activities, service projects, or even just asked to sit with them during services?
  • Does anyone ever invite the guests to lunch after services or to coffee later during the week?

Perhaps the solution is as simple as the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”




A Subway Sermon

At the Radio Station in Seoul

I loved riding the subway trains in Seoul. They are incredibly clean, amazingly safe and very efficient. One day I was riding home after we finished taping a radio program for the Christian Broadcasting System. The train pulled into a station and a street evangelist hopped on carrying a life-sized cross and an amplified sound system. He set up his pulpit in the center of the train and preached with all his heart to the captives on the subway who did their best not to look at him. When he finished his two-minute lesson, he looked around the car and his eyes lit up when he saw me watching him. He lit up and rushed over. Then he bent down so we were face to face, smiled from ear to ear and asked, “Are you,” he struggled to find his words in English, then he demanded, “Are you … Christian?”

Now the whole train was watching us. “Yes,” I replied smiling.

He danced triumphantly speaking in tongues and then shouted, “Hallelujah! Amen!” at the top of his lungs. People started to grin at my predicament. Then he stooped down again and asked, “Are you … Presbyterian?”


Undaunted, the little man continued, “Are you … Catholic?”

“No,” I answered again.

Puzzled, he simply asked, “Baptist?”


He was truly puzzled now. “Methodist?”


In desperation, as the subway was slowing down to enter the station, he asked, “Mormon?”


He couldn’t stand it. People were beginning to pick up their belongings as we slowed to a stop. Finally, he cried out, “What are you?

I grinned from ear to ear and replied, “Just Christian!” and I jumped off the train.

People are shocked to learn there are over 33,830 different denominations in the world today.[1] This is true despite Jesus’ telling his Father, “2My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you,” (John 17:20-21).

So how can we all be one? Perhaps we need to first ask, “What divides us?” A simple answer might be our different doctrines and dogmas, that is, our different interpretations of what it means to be a follower of Christ. For example, the battle cry of the Reformation was “Scripture alone!” The Protestants were opposed to the idea that God’s will was revealed in the Bible and by the traditions of the church, but what is ironic is, the Protestants, whose war-cry was “Sola Scriptura” quickly codified their interpretations into creeds with the practical result, they were doing the very same thing they were protesting – following the Bible and their codified traditions.

Enter the American Restoration Movement whose cry was “Just Christian! Just Bible!” How is that possible? By depending on “book, chapter and verse” for their interpretations. The key is to have scriptural support for their practices and beliefs, but not write them down. Unfortunately, the written traditions reflected in creeds was oft times simply replaced by oral traditions. Rather than each generation searching afresh to see what God said in his Word about various questions, people began to rely on customs and traditions. (“That’s the way we’ve always done it.”)

To truly be “Just Christians” requires continual renewal and three special attitudes: (1) an agreement to allow the Bible to speak, (2) an agreement to recognize some things are simply “matters of opinion,” and (3) a commitment to love, because without love it is impossible to be a Christian.


[1] According to the World Christian Encyclopedia published by Oxford Press, in 2001 there were 33,830 denominations claiming to be “Christian.”

The Seed Principle

Methuselah – Judean Date Palm

They were dark days for the land of Judah. Josiah’s grandfather, King Manasseh, was captured by the Assyrians who put a hook in his nose and led him captive to Babylon. Josiah’s father, King Amon, was completely corrupt and his officials assassinated him. Josiah was only 8 years old when he was crowned king.

In those days, people worshipped any number of deities and idols and who was to say if there really was only one true God? Confusion reigned in the land, morality plummeted and corruption was everywhere.

At 16, the young king decided to worship only the Lord, the God of his great, great, great, great grandfather, King David. By age 20, his zeal knew no bounds as he systematically destroyed the idols that filled his kingdom. At 26, he began to restore the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem and the workers discovered an ancient scroll, the Book of the Law.

Now Josiah had the guidance that he needed. Before, his reform was blind. He did what he thought was the right thing, but now he had a plan and the reform, like all good reforms, began with the king’s own heart. On hearing the words of the scroll, the king tore his robes, humbled himself and wept bitterly. With the Bible before him, Josiah learned how to be pleasing to God. King Josiah discovered the “seed principle.” (See 2 Chronicles chapter 34.)

The Seed Principle

In 2005, Israeli scientists announced to the world, a Judean Date Palm – a tree long thought extinct – had just germinated. Today that plant is over 3 meters high and doing well; the first of what will hopefully be many, many more. How did that happen?

Forty years before, archaeologists, excavating King Herod’s desert palace at Masada, uncovered a jar full of 2,000-year-old date palm seeds. No one thought seeds that old could possibly grow, so they sat in a professor’s desk drawer for four decades! Then a botanist planted one and the rest is history.[1]

The Apostle Peter told Christians the word of God is seed. When it is planted, it produces people of God (1 Peter 1:23). Josiah understood that and so do we. Rather than becoming enmeshed in the minutiae of people’s opinions, dogma and theology, why can’t we just be Christians and read the Bible for ourselves? Just as tomato seeds produce tomatoes and strawberry seeds produce strawberries, so the word of God, when planted in good and honest hearts, produces Christians. It’s ancient seed.


[1] Science 13 June 2008, pp. 1464

Photograph of Methuselah By Benjitheijneb – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Accountable Christian

I was wrong. I felt pressured and I snapped at my wife and said somethings I’d later regret bitterly, but it was too late. What could I do to make it better? How could I smooth over those hurt feelings? She said it was “okay,” but I knew better and I felt awful. Have you ever done something like that? What makes you feel guilty and how do you deal with it? Flowers? Dinner out? Offer to do the dishes?

In ancient times, when people felt they had offended God, they offered costly sacrifices. Blood was shed. Our “sin” cost the lives of innocent animals. A priest arrayed in special robes performed a solemn ceremony and we expressed our sorrow with a price. The more elaborate the ceremony and the more costly the sacrifice, the more certain we were that the gift was effective in reconciling us to God.

But now comes Christianity and the end of sacrifice, clergy, elaborate rituals and a palatial temple. For many people, it just didn’t seem to satisfy their deepest need for reconciliation with God.

Do you remember the story of Naaman? He was a Syrian general afflicted with leprosy. Upon learning of the power of the Prophet Elisha, Naaman went to Israel to be healed, but it was too simple. “Go dip yourself seven times in the Jordan River,” the general was instructed. Listen to his response:

But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage, (2 Kings 5:11, 12).

Likewise, sometimes the Christian Gospel seems too simple. Human beings seem attracted to pomp and circumstance. We love elaborate rituals and mysterious ceremonies. To simply be forgiven is just too easy and people felt the same way in the first century. Many of the Jewish Christians still felt a longing for the old ways of sacrifice and ritual. That’s one of the reasons the New Testament book of Hebrews was written. Notice chapter 10:

For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins, (Hebrews 10:1b,2)

The writer incisively points out if the temple sacrifices had truly taken away sin, why did they have to keep being repeated year after year? In fact, all the sacrifices did was serve as an annual reminder of our sins (v. 3). It would be like buying your wife an expensive gift to make up for your foolish actions, but every time you saw the present, it just reminded you again and again of how awful you were. Rather than reconcile, it just reminded you of your guilt. How futile! And so:

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins, (Hebrews 10:11).

Thus, true reconciliation isn’t a matter of repetition – offering the same sacrifice over and over again. Consider the Christian “Plan of Salvation.” It begins when our eyes are opened and we see things the way they really are. That is, we “believe.” Not only is that experience an eye-opener, it cuts us to the heart and we turn around: “repent,” but to ensure our repentance is genuine, we need to “confess.” That means admitting first to ourselves, then to God and to everyone else that we have sinned. At that point, believers are born again, that is, baptized, and their sins are washed away.

Now consider how the same steps can also work in relationships. When I realize, I have hurt someone (the believing stage), it genuinely cuts me to the heart and I begin to behave differently (repentance). It may take great courage, but I need to admit I was wrong (confess). My confession is believable because I have changed my behavior. This is an opportunity for a new beginning – a new birth if you will, in the relationship.

Notice how this approach is different from the first. The old way of dealing with our guilt calls for elaborate sacrifices. The new way calls for a change in behavior. The old way depends on someone else: a priest, a counselor, a friend. The new way places the responsibility on us for our actions. The old way didn’t involve the other person at all. The new requires confession.

Simple? Perhaps, but the Gospel is truly good news for every aspect of our life.

Yawning Your Way Through Worship

It’s something we have felt for a long time, but a book published in 2014 by George Barna and David Kinnaman, Churchless[1], confirms fewer and fewer Americans are attending church. In the 1990’s, 30% of Americans were classified as “unchurched.” That is “someone who has not attended a Christian church service, other an a special event such as a wedding or funeral, at any time in the past six months.” In the 2000’s that number rose to 33%, and in 2014, 43% of Americans were classified at unchurched.

Here is the breakdown for 2014:

  • 10% are “Purely Unchurched – they do not currently and have never attended a church.”
  • 33% are “De-Churched” – They once were active in church but are no longer.”
  • 8% are “Minimally Churched” the attend church infrequently and unpredictably.”
  • 49% are “Actively Churched” and Barna defines that as “Attend church at least once a month.”

The two groups classified as “Churched” are interesting, but the group that worries me most are the “De-Churched.” What happened? Why aren’t they part of our fellowship? I was relieved to learn, according to Barna, that we aren’t actively driving people out of our churches, but the sad truth is, we are boring them to death.

“Our surveys reveal that about one-quarter (24 percent) of the unchurched believe the typical church experience is boring or tiresome. In addition, they don’t see church as a place of meaningful community.”

Barna and I agree the answer isn’t to put on a better show – we don’t need to add pyrotechnics and improve our choreography – what we need is to “do things in and for your community that are valuable, visible, and memorable. … What does your church offer to the churched and churchless people that is too valuable, too meaningful, for them to ignore?”

That is not to say we must focus entirely on community service (as important as that is), but we need to learn to help people discover how relevant a relationship with God and one another is. “Churches should be places where we experience God’s presence in the company of his people. … People don’t come to church for the carnival rides. They come to meet God. … Our studies consistently show a large majority of people leave their church’s service without feeling as though they have connected with God.”

Brothers and sisters, as we gather for worship, fasten your seat belts because we have come to encounter God!

[1] Churchless: understanding today’s unchurched and how to connect with them: based on surveys by Barna Group/ Barna Group; George Barna and David Kinnaman, general editors, 2014.