Recently I’ve read some searching articles and letters in the NZ Baptist by Murray Robertson and others as the question has been put: Have we lost our evangelical heart? I’ve also been part of a number of conversations where that same concern has been shared. Some have spoken of a collective loss of confidence in the gospel in the evangelical church and how we share in our current cultural context.It came home for me recently when I was with a pastor friend from Canada and he talked about teaching his people “how to lead someone to Christ.” I was struck by the fact that I hadn’t heard that kind of statement for a while.
Obviously the heart of our movement is of great concern to me personally. At our 2008 Gathering I encouraged our churches to face the reality that as a movement we are in decline, something which is confirmed by our stats of recent years.
Having followed and participated in conversation here are some observations:
1. The good old days when we were a “solidly evangelical movement” were not as good as we sometimes think. We’re told that church attendance in New Zealand has never been more than 29% and it is currently approaching 20% (the proportion of the population who will regularly attend a Christian service of worship).
I remember the good old days and there were many who attended church because that was the expectation, particularly with the mainline denominations – Catholic, Anglican etc. As a result there were very large Sunday schools but that didn’t flow through into a commensurate number of committed followers of Jesus. I would suggest that the number of Kiwis attending an Evangelical/Pentecostal church is proportionately as high as it has ever been.
Also, putting it very crudely, in the past, the Baptists, Brethren and the small number of Pentecostals cornered that part of the market. With the advent of the Charismatic movement and the strong growth of the Pentecostal churches we now share that sector of the church with some very strong churches and other church movements.
2. Consumer values are very much in evidence in the Evangelical/Pentecostal Church. Many Christians will make their choice of church according to whether they like the preaching, music and whether there are programmes that will satisfy the perceived needs of their families.
Values such as the needs of the community and the mission potential of a church, particularly if they put their back into the work, are often not determining factors.
3. Because of this I believe that being a pastor is currently a very considerable challenge. The majority of our pastors are committed to the Great Commission but they live with an awareness that unless they provide the Christians with “what they want” then they may not have the people base they perceive they need to be effective in sharing Christ in their particular context.
4. This places pressure on a pastor to produce services that the Christians approve of. The result of this can be that our services can be a bit of a holy glee club with few points of connection for a genuine seeker who has come to the stage where they really want to connect with a Christian community.
We have a tremendous heritage with the model of the Church in the book of Acts and the way that the Apostles shared the gospel in ways and with language that the recipients understood.
I believe we need to be meticulous in culling out the “in house, obscure religious language” that can characterise much of our worship services and in particular our music.
I’m reasonably well educated theologically but I often have to think pretty hard when it comes to unpacking the language of some of our contemporary songs. This is a pity because many of our churches have very fine music teams and, like many of you, I love whole-hearted worship that engages us as whole people.
5. Churches have become much more dependant on paid staff members to do much that would have been very well done in the past by committed volunteers. Therefore a church that is not in a position to staff for the ministries that are perceived to be necessary can be at a disadvantage when it comes to being supported by Christians. This is a generalisation and I am also aware of wonderful work being sacrificially carried out by volunteers.
6. We live in the age of the “programme.” There are superb aids available to us when it comes to evangelism, discipleship and just about everything you can think of when it comes to running a successful church. It’s wonderful that we have creative people like Rob Harley who use their gifts to provide a framework for evangelism.
Alpha has been and is a great tool that has seen many find life in Jesus and we would be crazy not to be grateful for it and want to make use of it, but has it allowed many of us to become one step removed from faith sharing and personally leading someone to Christ?
Incidentally, Rob Harley will be with us at our Gathering in November, leading seminars focused on sharing the gospel with friends, and we have several people who came to Christ through Alpha sharing at our upcoming pastor conferences.
I don’t believe that we lack an awareness of peoples’ need for Christ in their lives and most of us are part of the Church because we’re profoundly grateful for our own relationship with Christ. Many of us do have a problem with the stewardship of our time and a good course run by someone else can be a great help in that regard, but it isn’t a substitute for our spending time and building relationship with our neighbours who don’t know Christ.
7. When it comes to mission/evangelism, we have in recent years been very focused on the method. This may have been at the expense of the message. We are now on the margins of a secular society, compared with the more central and accepted place that we occupied in the Christendom age that has ended. We have had to re-evaluate our presentation of the gospel and adopt the mindset of missionaries entering an alien culture.
Much of the current writing about mission and evangelism will focus on the church coming to terms with this very considerable change. Being on the margins is not a bad place to be and should sit well with Baptists.
If you accept some of this, what do we do with it?
1. It’s a huge challenge for the Church.
2. God has not changed and neither has the gospel.
3. As we seek with integrity to share the gospel in a changed cultural context, we need to be very sure of not only how we share, but what we are sharing, which brings me back to my friend who was teaching his people “how to lead someone to Christ.” That teaching will encompass the message and the method and should be the agenda of every church.
4. We need to pray. With the pressure of our changed context in society and the demands of church attending consumers, many of our pastors are buckling under the pressure.
5. We need to be united as we seek to be church. Paul says in Philippians 2:2, “Make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose.”
This is the consistent message of the New Testament. I actually believe that the Baptist family of churches is a great family. We have much to contribute to each other and I often see examples of this. Whilst we should aspire to the highest standards in being the church we must not be in competition with each other.
Having acknowledged the new era we have entered and some of the difficulties associated with that, nevertheless a number of our churches are growing strongly. A few factors I’ve observed with that:
1. Some of them are in areas that are poorer and where the challenge is obvious.
2. Pastors have hung in there through the tough times, weathered the storm and grown. (For that to continue to happen we need strong support structures. Life in some of our churches can be rugged, particularly where strong people are grappling with conflicting visions of how to effectively share the gospel.)
3. We have outstanding leaders, people of courage and commitment, both pastors and non-pastors.
4. Communities where there is sacrificial commitment to the gospel. The Hosanna churches, with their commitment to church planting, are a wonderful encouragement, challenge and gift to our movement in this regard.
Finally, I am greatly blessed when I meet with those who are working with our children and young people. It is inspiring to go to an Easter camp and share the enthusiasm of the young people and witness the depth of the teaching and mentoring which is on offer, teaching and mentoring which is faithful to the message of the Gospel, imaginative and adventurous when it comes to meeting the culture we inhabit.
Am I optimistic about the future of the church in Aotearoa New Zealand? Yes I am! With God, how could I not be?