By many accounts, the American church is in trouble. This is what John Dickerson refers to as the “great evangelical recession.” His first sign of the presence of a recession in Christendom is that the church is “inflated.” We’ve overestimated the “size and ‘value’ of the evangelical church.” This is a departure from the sober-mindedness we are called to in Scripture (Rom. 12:3) and a good grounding in reality. In short, we’ve believed our own press reports.
Three specific aspects of the American church belie the presence of this unrealistic self-appraisal. Consider the following aspects of the local American church:
The American Evangelical church typically centers on the charismatic personality of the key leaders (most often the senior pastor and/or the worship leader, think Louie Giglio and Chris Tomlin). Our “pastors,” a term derived from the Greek word poimen which means “shepherd” pointing to the arduous task of herding sheep, are now considered “professionals.” In so doing, they have removed themselves from too much contact with the sheep and the smell of sheep and shepherding. Instead of sleeping by night with their flocks, they live away from those they “serve.” John Piper laments this development:
We pastors are being killed by the professionalizing of the pastoral ministry. The mentality of the professional is not the mentality of the prophet. It is not the mentality of the slave of Christ. Professionalism has nothing to do with the essence and heart of the Christian ministry. The more professional we long to be, the more spiritual death we will leave in our wake. For there is no professional childlikeness (Matt. 18:3); there is no professional tenderheartedness (Eph. 4:32); there is no professional panting after God (Ps. 42:1).
I don’t always or even often agree with Alan Hirsch, or for that matter with much of the missional mindset he tends to typify. However, in a recent work, Hirsch and others argue for the restoration of the Ephesians 4 model of the church (APEST). In particular, they argue for the restoration of a key missing piece of the current equation, the shepherding task.
At its core, the shepherd is tasked with creating a healthy community, with nurturing people in the faith, and caring for the welfare of the people. . . This impulse to nurture and protect the community leads us to say that shepherds operate primarily out of a communal impulse. They are invigorated by a sense of cohesion, inclusiveness, and stability. In a sense, they are the ecclesial equivalent of an organization’s human resource department.
In the place of a robust expression of the five main gifts of the Holy Spirit operating among the body and in the leadership, we find a lot of passivity in the pews. Followers sit by and watch the “show” we call worship. There is little user participation. Corporate prayer is almost non-existent. We typically spend twenty minutes in stimulating musical experiences followed by thirty to forty minutes being entertained by talented speakers. Many senior “pastors,” in keeping with full disclosure, should probably change their titles to “main speaker.” We have almost exclusively narrowed in the focus of the pastor to “teaching” and almost entirely neglected the other four primary aspects of Spirit-gifted leadership.
The missing piece, for those who are willing to admit it, is community. This continues to be the thing that the American church lacks. Despite our efforts to do better, we are still woefully disconnected from one another in these institutions that we call “churches.” Why would passively listening to the same person week after week connect us to one another or even to Christ and the Godhead? This person-driven approach, when that person is anyone other than Christ, is partly to blame for the lack of spiritual depth in our local congregations.
I often comment to my wife, with a combined sense of disillusionment and confusion, that it seems to me that the average attender at today’s average evangelical church has about as deep a commitment to that institution as they do to their supermarket of choice. One shops at Wal-Mart, because the prices are always falling and they are able to obtain everything from groceries to hardware to a new set of tires in one convenient stop. Another prefers the convenience of Albertson’s. It costs a bit more, but they can get in, get out and be home much more quickly. Another prefers the organic section at Fred Meyer’s where they can buy the things they need to live a healthier lifestyle. It costs quite a bit more to buy organic and/or healthy foods, but it contributes to a better quality of life.
So it is with our ecclesiastical, church-related, choices. We choose a church to “attend” (where did we get this expression?) based on the charisma of the pastor or the worship leader and preferably both. Some of us still choose on the basis of the facility or the quality of the children’s program, but in any case we are all approaching the situation as consumers. We say that we “go” to this church or that church, which is a far cry from New Testament language.
All those who are united to Christ in the likeness of His death and resurrection, who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God, are part of the church, the body of Christ. With our emphasis on receiving, we’re missing the greater blessedness of giving. Why is it so hard to obtain the volunteers we need to run the children’s or other areas of the church? In part, because the American church does not live out the servant-model exemplified in none other than Christ Himself (Mk. 10:45). He came to serve. We come to be served. And when we feel like we haven’t been served well-enough, we take our attendance and our finances to the next church down the street.
Even though we all, at this point, know better, we continue to measure our effectiveness by the wrong means. We all know in our core that numbers don’t tell the whole story and yet, we continue to discern signs of God’s blessing upon us by either financial or numerical statistics. “God’s providing our budget needs and then some. He must be pleased with us.” Meanwhile the bodies that are experiencing financial well-being and popularity as a consumer choice for attendance are often the same ones that struggle to even begin to see real expressions of the kingdom among us such as: real relationships that connect people, true transformation, and, don’t forget, real evangelism and discipleship(new converts coming to faith in Christ and being nurtured toward maturity in Him).
It’s true that some local churches are growing. Budgets are up. Attendance is increasing. In the bigger picture, a kingdom perspective if you will, things appear a little different.
An understanding of larger trends tells us that at least three in four of those ‘new’ attendees left another church to attend the growing megachurch. In other words, the majority of that ‘growth’ is not growth, but transfer of existing evangelicals. More importantly, an understanding of the grand scheme informs us that total attendance at all evangelical churches is declining in almost every state.
So, it’s growth, or at least numerical transfer of people and money, but it’s not real kingdom growth, either in depth or breadth. Our congregations continue to lack depth in three areas. In terms of orthodoxy, what we believe, we tend to be biblically anemic. We know enough to be dangerous about the apostolic faith once delivered to us. In terms of orthopraxy, how we live, it may be even worse. “Christians” are just as likely to fudge on their taxes, to walk away from their upside down mortgages, to slander their opponents as are non-Christians. The ethical contrast, described in the Scripture as the difference between darkness and light, is almost indistinguishable. In terms of orthopathos, a healthy and maturing emotional life, the American evangelical may be one of the most unhealthy subsets of our society.
We’re measuring with the wrong yardstick. If we begin to measure health instead of outward signs of success, the results are quite different. Are lives being truly transformed from the inside out? Are our lives “living epistles” that draw non-believers to the reality of life in the power of the Spirit? Are people’s ethics becoming more aligned with kingdom principles? Are lives being intertwined together by the presence of “one anothering” described in the New Testament? You be the judge.
Restoring Christ to the center
The answer is simple and yet profound. We need to return to Christ. He needs to be the center of our local bodies of believers. The graces of His Spirit need to flow among the body as it ministers to itself in love (Eph. 4:16). He is the Personality on which we are to center. He is the heart of the gospel. He is the Good Shepherd who leads His flock by His Spirit. If we are going to consume, let us consume Him by faith as we abide in Him (Jn. 6:56). Our lives will be changed as a result of this vital union. Then, it will be His approval that we will seek. His estimation of us will be our sole concern. We will no longer measure things as we have in the past.
The difficulty here may be found in the attachment that we have to our current status, appetites and assessments. The change we need begins with radical repentance. If we are unable to seek things as they are, as He sees them, we will remain disabled in our pursuit of true change. These things that we tend to hold, the trophies of our outward success, may need to be laid down in order that we may obtain the one prize worth obtaining.
 For a good analysis of some of the factors of decline, see John S. Dickerson, The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors That Will Crash the American Church . . . and How to Prepare (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013).
 Dickerson, 21.
 John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals: A Plea to Pastors for Radical Ministry (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 1-2.
 Alan Hirsch & Tim Catchim, The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012), 43.
 Dickerson, 23.
 I’m indebted to John Frame for this three-fold description of true maturity.
 For a good discussion of this reality, see Peter Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Church: A Strategy for Discipleship that Actually Changes Lives (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003). A good example of this need for healthy emotionality is seen in the ongoing value provided and good work of Aphesis Ministries (www.aphesisgroup.com).