Many people are bored in church. They are afflicted with a nagging sense that they ought to be doing something—that there is some meaningful mission they are supposed to be a part of. But they can’t quite get their mind around what that is, and so, in the meantime, they sit in church, try to pay attention, give their tithes, behave as best they can, and wonder if when they get to heaven they are going to be rebuked for failing to do whatever it was God wanted them to do.
Perhaps these people go to churches where they hear that Jesus is
building his church and that the gates of hell will not prevail against
them. But they don’t see themselves, or their church,
prevailing against the gates of hell. They seem to be just getting by.
Many can’t remember when a single adult convert—one truly brought out of
darkness into light—came to Jesus in their church. And they certainly
can’t remember one whose story they were personally a part of.
Study after study shows that most Christians have never even shared their faith—most indicating that somewhere 90 percent of evangelicals have never shared their faith with anyone outside of their family. (Kind of makes you wonder how we get away with using the name “evangelical”!)
Most churches have a difficult time maintaining their ground, much
less storming anything that belongs to Satan. Gates, after all, are
defensive ramparts, not offensive weapons. “Prevailing against the gates
of hell” does not mean keeping Satan out of our backyards, but
plundering his kingdom. According to a recent Lifeway Research
study, in the next seven years 55,000 churches in the United States will
close their doors, and the number of those who attend a church on the
weekend in the United States will drop from 17 percent to 14 percent.
Only 20 percent of churches in the US are growing, and only 1 percent are growing by reaching lost people.So 95 percent of the church growth we celebrate merely shuffles existing Christians around.
Don’t you think these two problems—believers who don’t know how
effectively to disciple others, and a gradually shrinking church in the
West—have to be related in some way? Yet very few pastors and church
leaders see raising up disciple-making leaders as their primary
objective. We measure success by size. In so doing, however, we neglect
the one thing that can propel the church forward into the next
generation … and to the ends of the earth: Spirit-filled,
I believe we need a fundamental shift in how we think about the mission of the church. Let me illustrate, using three types of ships.
Some Christians see church as a cruise liner, offering
Christian luxuries for the whole family—sports, entertainment, childcare
services, and business networking. They show up at church asking only,
“Can this church improve my religious quality of life? Does it have good
family ministry facilities? Does the pastor preach funny,
time-conscious messages that meet my felt needs? Do I like the music?”
If their church ever ceases to cater to their preferences … well,
there are plenty of other cruise ships in the harbor. In fact, often
they get involved with three or four of them at once. After all, the
music is great on Cruise Liner A, and the kids enjoy the youth program
at Cruise Liner B, and we do most of our fellowship and Bible study with
friends at Cruise Liner C, and we occasionally podcast the angry young
pastor down the road who tells the funny stories.
Other Christians believe their church is more like a battleship.
The church is made for mission, and its success should be seen in how
loudly and dramatically it fights the mission. This is certainly better
than “cruise liner”; however, it implies that it is the church
institution that does most of the fighting. The role of church members
is to pay the pastors to find the targets and fire the guns each week as
they gather to watch. They see the programs, services, and ministries
of the church as the primary instruments of mission.
I would like to suggest a third metaphor for the church: aircraft carrier.
Like battleships, aircraft carriers engage in battle, but not in the
same way. Aircraft carriers equip planes to carry the battle elsewhere.
My grandfather served on the USS Yorktown during World War II,
and he explained to me that the last place an aircraft carrier ever
wanted to find itself engaged in battle was on its own deck. In fact,
anywhere near it. We used to watch old World War II movies together—the
kind where they intersperse actual battle video clips—and my grandpa
once paused a John Wayne movie to show me where he was standing on the
deck when a plane crashed on deck and broke in half. When you are on an
aircraft carrier, he said, the goal is to keep the battle as far away
from you as possible. You load up the planes to carry the battle to the
Churches that want to “prevail against the gates of hell” must learn
to see themselves like aircraft carriers, not like battleships and
certainly not like cruise liners. Members need to learn to share the
gospel, without the help of the pastor, in the community, and
start ministries and Bible studies—even churches—in places without them.
Churches must become discipleship factories, “sending” agencies that
equip their members to take the battle to the enemy.
But to do this, we’re going to need a new metric for success beyond
size. We need to start celebrating not just how many people are coming in, but how many people are going out. It’s time that we get excited about how many people we are losing.
By James David (J.D.) Greear (born May 1, 1973) is the Pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, North Carolina (a position he has held since January 2002) and the 62nd President of the Southern Baptist Convention. Before coming to work at The Summit he worked with the International Mission Board. He entered the Ph.D. program at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1999, graduating in 2003 with a doctorate in Philosophy, concentrating primarily on Christian and Islamic theology. He is also a graduate of the Word of Life Bible Institute and received his Bachelor of Arts from Campbell University. Greear comes from Winston-Salem, North Carolina
See David Olson, The American Church in Crisis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 176–80, and Pat Hood, The Sending Church: The Church Must Leave the Building (Nashville: B&H Publishers, 2013), 19.