The Pitfalls of Church Renewal

The disturbing decades-long decline in church rolls along with the growth of the “nones” and rise of the “dones” has led me to believe that the most urgent business of the Church is not the evangelization of the lost, as important as that is, but the re-evangelization of the “saved.” Why so?

It is a sad reality that as few as 3 percent of professed Christians could be called disciples—that is, believers who have dedicated their lives to become more like Jesus by learning to do the things he commanded us to do.

But imagine if the discipled population was doubled, tripled, or quadrupled over the next decade; what might happen if the majority of professed Christians were actually practicing Christians—believers whose works and words align with the teachings of Jesus? I suspect that we would see a Kingdom movement not experienced since the time of the apostles.

It’s Not Working
I am not alone in recognizing the pressing need of re-reaching the “saved.”

Troubled over the systemic incongruence between Christian teachings and Christian practice, Protestant pastor Bill Hull recounted the day he stood in the pulpit and put a bracing question to his congregation: “Why should we bring … new people into something that is not working?” This, right after the church had received 83 new members!

What wasn’t working was discipleship. Years of investment in programs, strategic plans, cutting edge worship services, small groups, and outreach events, had generated a frenzy of activity, but little transformation. Against the prevailing wisdom, Bill realized that church involvement and busyness do not translate into personal spiritual growth. It is a lesson that could have been learned by close attention to biblical history.

A Timeless Lesson
The ancient Israelites had the promise of God’s presence, protection, and provision. In return, they were to live as God’s people, obeying God’s Law and blessing their gentile neighbors. But time and again, their rebellion led to discipline followed by a brief period of revival—the most sweeping of which was led by King Josiah.

Josiah came to power at a time when Israel had hit a moral nadir, characterized as lower than its pagan neighbors! To lift the nation out of its spiritual sink hole, Josiah instituted a wave of reforms: he renovated the temple; he gave a public reading of the Law; he pledged commitment to God’s covenant; he reinstituted the celebration of Passover which hadn’t been observed in 400 years; and he purged the land of pagan idols, altars, and priests.

The reform efforts continued for thirteen years, until Josiah’s death, but its effects were tragically short-lived. In less than a year, Josiah’s son, Jehoiakim, ascended to the throne and marched the nation down a spiritual vortex that ended in swift judgment: exile from their homeland and seventy years of servitude in Babylon.

Speaking through the prophets of the day, God said: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” Nearly six hundred years later, Jesus said the same of their descendents. Clearly, the greatest revival in the history of Israel produced no discernable change in its spiritual DNA.

But why?

Josiah had the right intentions, he re-established the right forms of worship, he exposed the people to right teaching and he motivated them to right practices. All this rightness produced behavior modification but not heart transformation. That’s because Josiah’s reforms were focused on the externals. And the same holds for the contemporary church that measures success, not in discipleship outcomes, but in church attendance, budget, and the number, the variety and popularity of church programs.

I once heard a cleric cheerfully report on the number of members who had just “completed” his church’s discipleship class. (Yes, he said “completed.”) I imagined the “graduates” checking that off their spiritual to-do lists, as the cleric targeted the next group to run through the program.

Contributing to the problem of nominal Christianity are churches that view discipleship as an elective for spiritual “enrichment,” a thing to be addressed through a curriculum, a teaching series, or program, rather than as the essence of the Christian life pursued through an ongoing developmental process.

What We’re Passing On
We can’t pass on what we don’t have, and if we persist in passing on what we do have, we will get what we’re currently getting: un-discipled believers with ornamental fruits that are incapable of kingdom growth, and even detrimental to it.

Re-evangelizing the “saved,” is not about reminding them of the good news of the Cross—they’ve got that—it is about teaching them the rest of the good news:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

The good news is that Christians can rest, not only from the futile folly of working for their salvation; they can rest in working out their salvation. By harnessing up with Jesus, they become operatives in his global renewal project, while experiencing the existential satisfaction (“rest”) of investing in something infinitely meaningful: making the Kingdom of Heaven an earthly reality.

The bad news, at least to individuals of modern sensibilities, is that the Yoke involves submission and surrender—actions associated with wimps and losers. In a society that panders to the little king inside, Jesus’s invitation is oft-putting to the extreme, as evidenced by the paltry percentage of Christians who have accepted his call.

Particularly telling is George Barna’s finding that “[among self-identified Christians] various spiritual disciplines—including solitude, sacrifice, acts of service, silence, and scriptural meditation—are also infrequently practiced.” (My emphasis.)

We can’t know God’s will, much less do his will, if we don’t tune in regularly to hear his will. Spiritual disciplines—especially, prayer, meditation, and holy study—create space for God to speak and for us to hear. Added to the Sacraments, these disciplines produce habits of the heart that incline us to develop Christ-shaped attitudes and behaviors.

If we want transformative communities of Christ-like Christians, devotion to the Sacraments and spiritual disciplines must propagate throughout the Church, including the leadership. When one considers the staggering percent of clergy who admit to viewing pornography or to having had an inappropriate relationship, or the incidence of sex abuse by clergy of all denominations, it is clear that the spiritual formation of church leaders is woefully lacking.

Over 70 years ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer lamented over the number of young seminarians who didn’t know how to care for their souls or teach others how to care for theirs. Today, although most seminaries offer some training in spiritual formation, it is rare that spiritual formation is given the depth and breadth needed to prepare graduates for their own spiritual direction, much less that of their congregations.

The Church will not transform the culture without transformed clergy and transformed laity who have been gripped by the Word of God and who live it, publicly and winsomely. For that to happen, the work of evangelism must begin afresh, starting with those in the pew and pulpit.

(Photo credit: Alexey Gotovskiy / CNA)

Regis Nicoll

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Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. His new book is titled Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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