I still remember the time in Bible college when our class was confronted with an Internet article about implementing various methods in order to increase congregational numbers. The author explained that many congregations altered their music and services in a way that would reflect the culture more. Nobody really commented. The discussion that ensued in the class was generally tepid. But my blood warmed rapidly as I learned that the professor actually favored this unfavorable position. That hot blood soon turned cold when I considered that this professor was also one of the pastors in the area’s largest and most influential church and someone that many of the pastor-hopefuls looked up to. That story has been in my mind from time to time over the last decade as I’ve encountered both pastors and laypeople alike who have lamented poor and/or declining attendance.
Admittedly, it angered me back then simply because I thought the church should not become like a circus. However, I’ve since grown to realize that something much more sinister is at the foundation of these ideas. The changing of methods to appeal to the populous is the fruit of the problem. Bad theology is the root. Thinking that there is a problem with low numbers or decreasing numbers reveals poor biblical judgment. We live in a time where quality is based upon how many Twitter followers accompany a thing or person. That selfish and skewed thinking is imported into the church, potentially creating the many church-turned-circuses we see.
Many biblical compromises are made in order to fill the church, much like the girl on Instagram who knows that more cleavage will get more likes. Unfortunately, many churches don’t think this is even a problem and that anything goes as long as people are brought to Christ. Some have even said that God has given them the vision to do what they do. In an effort to remain constantly relevant, churches need to drop a lot of money on shows, stage props, branding, and the like. It’s like a dog chasing its tail because the bigger the show, the more money needed to fund it. In order to have the funds, people need to come.
For people to show up, the show has to not only be big. It has to be sultry. And since expository preaching is outdated and irrelevant and as sexy as a corpse, sermons should be based upon relevant topics like relationships, sex and money. Sermons like “Dropping F-Bombs” or “Go Elf Yourself” or “RELATIONSH*% UNCENSORED” are much more appealing to our sinful natures than “Kinsman Redeemer” or “They in Glory Shine” or “Lord I Believe; Help My Unbelief.” To be fair, Jesus sometimes gets a quick mention as someone that you need in your life for whatever reason. He usually serves as more of a point of confusion than anything, and is probably best left unmentioned in most cases. A half hour of: “Our relationships don’t work because we need to listen to each other more. You don’t listen enough, so start listening more. Learn not to let haters bother you.” Then in the last 5 minutes: “You also need a relationship with Jesus because He loves you.” Uh, what? Jesus who? He loves me? Why is that anything? A lot of people love me already. I don’t really get it, but this place is cool and has Starbucks coffee and recliners and places to take selfies, so I’ll probably keep coming.
There are congregations that are personally committed to discipling, teaching the Bible and administering the sacraments, but also believe there is nothing wrong with doing things that engage people more during the service. “If it’s more engaging, if the pastor is a great communicator, and if the music is and sermon are relevant then it will be worth something to stick around for. Those things can each be tweaked, without messing with the message. In a culture where we are constantly looking to be entertained and thrilled, who would waste time watching a horrible live show?” Believing that people will stick around if things become more attractive is also wrong. People might stick around, but will be doing it for those enticements. The skittish beast of relevancy can’t be caged and is always leaping from one end of the room to another. Unless you constantly jump with it, you’ll lose those who are latched on to its haunches.
The lasso of relevancy hugs the neck of the visible church, and it tightens with the fear of congregational decline. The purpling that this chokehold causes can be seen in many ways – dimming lights, soft music while praying or speaking, playing popular Christian music, provocative sermon series titles, sermon methods, etc. Each are forms of psychological manipulation intended to pull at the heart, convincing it to stay. Without trying to oversimplify things, I understand that sometimes there is pressure to fill a church because peoples’ salaries are at stake. Pastors whose livelihood is teaching the Bible might have to get another job. Sometimes the pressure to grow and maintain high numbers is due to the fact that there has been a great deal of money invested into your “success,” as in the case of church planting. Investors want to know they haven’t wasted their money on you. This sounds hypothetical, but it’s more common than you think.
I once saw an online fundraising campaign that a pastor was promoting. He had just planted a church and was looking to raise money. In his plea for money, he explained that his grandfather was a pastor a while back. Though he had certainly done great work as a pastor, it was a different time back then and he wasn’t able to be as successful as he could have been had he had the money to do more. In other words, this pastor needed money in order to be as successful as possible. The implication was clear. There was the minimal success of a man who had reached only a few people. And there was the potential massive and much more desirable success of the man who could reach many more.
Scripture doesn’t lay out a particular desired amount of congregants or people reached. It doesn’t give tips on church growth. In fact, oftentimes, it seems like Jesus is much more interested in driving people away. Paul doesn’t provide Timothy with methods on how to keep people engaged and staying in church. Paul never left a book discussing how to keep men in the church or how to make sure that the wealthiest people in the congregation are giving despite all of the books written on these subjects. Rather, pastors are encouraged to simply preach the Word of God in and out of season, make disciples and administer the sacraments. They are told to reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. They are told to be sober in all things, endure hardships and do evangelistic work. That’s what success looks like.
The service is the place where we come to receive from God in Word and sacrament. He serves us good news and comfort in knowing that Christ gave His life in our place. Christ lived a perfect law-keeping life, volunteering to be punished for my sins in His crucifixion, died and was raised to life so that my sins would not be counted against me. He took on the punishment that should have befallen me for what I have done and will do, so that I could be treated as though I had never committed them. The debt I incurred against God because of my law breaking has been paid off by Christ. Any other man couldn’t have done this because every person is born with a sinful nature and has a debt of their own. But Christ, Who was and is Himself God in the flesh and without sin, accomplished these things for me and all those who believe.
Many churches worry over making church an engaging experience, when God laid out and is pleased to prescribe seemingly bland and mediocre means. I’ve been to plenty of concerts that were the furthest thing from Christian events. And they were absolutely packed. Numbers are no indication of the success of a church. It’s difficult to pinpoint why numbers fall or grow. It might be that a pastor is preaching in an imbalanced way. The law could be preached so heavily, that the gospel is made valueless. The hearer may always feel as though they are on probation. They might also feel as though Christianity doesn’t “work” if they believe that if they do the right things, then they will receive God’s favor. They might also never hear the gospel, and the preaching might always feel like a list of common sense things to accomplish. In that case, they might not see any difference between going or watching it on television. On the other hand, the law could be so absent and the freedom of the gospel preached in such a way that congregants see no need to ever go to church. A view of the sacraments as ordinances or works of obedience rather than life giving means of grace also lowers the importance of going. The service is usually portrayed as law rather than gospel for you.
Lastly, remember that humanity is sinful and that Scripture tells us the natural mind is hostile to God. So when numbers dwindle, if you are being faithful to what Christ has commanded, it should be expected that the natural mind will react negatively to that unless God changes their minds. And even once the mind has been changed, we still struggle with sin. That’s why the law and gospel must be clearly preached week after week. Martin Luther once said faith, “clasps Christ as a ring clasps its jewel.” That is the thing to latch to and jump with and obsess over. Make it clear week after week so that, when people leave, there might not be any doubt about what Christ has done for them.