~by Pastor Mike Middaugh
You have likely heard or read something about the recent Pew Research Center survey regarding “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” It is easy to read a study like this one and get depressed about the state of the American Church. Of course, in many ways, this study is just a numerical explanation of things we probably already know: the landscape of Christianity in America is changing, and our churches are not as full as they used to be.
However, before we are too deeply saddened by these realities or get side-tracked into wondering where we have gone wrong, I would make ask a question and perhaps seek to deepen our thinking.
Here is the question: What is the goal of the Church?
Before you read on for my answer (which is obviously coming) think for a minute about your own.
In this question you could replace the word “goal” with the words “purpose,” “mission,” or “calling,” but “goal” probably gets closer to what most of us think we want for the church – to grow. Most of us, somewhere in our thoughts or emotions would most like to see the church grow. More specifically, we would like to see our church grow. On the surface, this is not necessarily bad. Certainly, adding more people would allow for more mission work, activities and events, not to mention that it would make us feel good to be a part of something that was popular and expanding.
However, I think a word of caution is necessary here. As Jesus ascended into heaven, he didn’t commission his disciples with “building big churches,” instead he sent them to “make disciples.” Now, sometimes these two things go hand in hand – if a church is busy making many disciples it may grow larger, but often what we perceive as success is not really. For example, another far less publicized survey revealed the fascinating statistic that ten smaller churches of 100 people will accomplish exponentially more than one church of 1000 (Neil Cole, “Is Bigger Really Better? The Statistics say ‘No’!,”).
I know that church size isn’t everything, and church size isn’t really what the recent Pew study was about. It was pointing to the overall number of people who identify as Christians in America, and clearly, that number is dropping. However, I would again ask the question “what is the goal of the church?” What are we called by Jesus to do?
The answer to that question is fairly clear: be disciples and make disciples. If we want to pursue our calling as God’s people, discussing numbers and statistics is not the starting place, our own discipleship – our depth of relationship with Christ, is. When we focus on our own discipleship (our own worship of God, participating in the means of grace, regular prayer, vocation and work) we will find we become more like Jesus, and are more able to live the life he has called us into. When this happens, we also become far more influential in the lives of others, perhaps even finding ways to present the gospel and winning them into lives of discipleship as well.
Really, I think it all boils down to this: statistics aren’t everything, and they shouldn’t be the only indicator of how Jesus’ Church is doing. If the researchers set out to measure the strength of individual discipleship in America, rather than just butts in pews, they would probably have a very hard time finding an answer, and it might also be a very different answer than what the recent Pew study revealed. But none of this should distract us from doing what we are clearly called to do – be the most faithful disciples of Jesus we can be, and seek to make disciples of others.
Everything else flows out of that. Everything else is secondary.