“Do Something!”

I’ve been asked to speak at an event called “Prophetic Preaching for Anxious People” in Tampa, Florida, next week.  I’m not sure how I got the job; I don’t know that much about prophetic preaching.  On the other hand, I do know some anxious people.   

I talked with one a few months ago.

It was shortly after our big vote on membership, when we decided that committed Christians from other denominations could join our church without having to be re-baptized.  Although the motion passed decisively it didn’t pass unanimously, and for several weeks afterward there was tension in the air.  The big, happy family at First Baptist had been shaken.  It affected our giving and our attendance. 

On one of those Sundays a member of the church knocked on the door of my study, holding a worship bulletin in his hand.  He showed me the attendance figures from the week before—a number so low I was sure there had been a mistake. 

“Look at this!” he said, waving the bulletin in front of me.  “What are you going to do about this?”  He wasn’t angry; he was anxious.  He loved his church and didn’t want to see it go into decline.  “What am I going to do?” I asked, smiling.  “I’m going to get a recount!”  He didn’t know what to say to that.  He stood there for a minute in silence, fumbling with the bulletin, and then he looked up at me with pleading eyes and said, “Do something!”

Do something.

As in, “Do something about attendance.  Do something to get our numbers up.  Do something that will get people to come to church.”

I think that’s the anxiety a lot of churches have been feeling in the last few decades.  The churchgoing boom of the fifties and early sixties was followed by a mass exodus in the late sixties and seventies.  The church’s response was to panic, and to do anything it could to get people back into the pews.  One of the strategies was to turn Sunday morning worship into a kind of youth rally in an attempt to win back those Baby Boomers who had been active in church youth groups, but dropped out of church when they went off to college. Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago practically invented something called “Contemporary Worship,” where you didn’t have to dress up, the preaching was relevant and edgy, and the music was more like what you listened to in your car.  And Willow Creek was successful.  Soon more than 15,000 people per weekend were coming to that church and soon after that almost every church in America wanted to be like Willow Creek.  

But I can still remember the day I went to a meeting in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and one of my colleagues—the successful pastor of a large Baptist church—came into the room complaining that he had spent three years trying to develop a contemporary worship service and he’d just heard on the radio that what people wanted these days was “liturgical worship.”   In that moment I thought, “Yes, and that’s how it will always be if you try to chase the latest fad.”

If we ask, “What do people want?” then we begin to design our programs and worship services around that, and we measure our success by how many people come and how much they give.  But if we ask (and keep on asking), “What does God want?” then we begin to structure everything around that, and measure our success in a different way.

People are fickle.  What they wanted last year is not what they wanted this year.  But here’s the good news: God is not fickle.  God wants what he has always wanted.  He wants us to make disciples of every nation.  He wants us to love him and love our neighbors.  In short, God wants the world he made to know him and love him, to do his will and love one another. 

He wants heaven on earth.

So, maybe what we need to ask is not, “How do we increase church attendance,” but “How do we bring heaven to earth?”  Regardless of what it does to our numbers—whether they go up or down—I think the church of Jesus Christ was called into existence precisely to answer that question.

What do you think?

10 thoughts on ““Do Something!”

  1. What do I think?
    We could host a circus event on Sundays to bring up attendance!
    We could have celebrity speakers and singers on Sundays!
    We could offer a free lunch each Sunday after church!
    We could have a raffle during Sunday worship!
    Or, we could do the Jesus way by loving the people that Jesus loves. We might laugh and play more. We might find ways to be good neighbor, and by practicing hospitality by using our homes. Perhaps we should focus less on church attendance and more on enjoying God! There is a lot of anxiety in our world. Maybe our worship can be a joyful experience for those who attend—a place where we can be reminded that we are loved and forgiven, a place where we can celebrate and re-discover that the joy of Lord is our strength!

  2. I have loved being a part of First Baptist since I joined in 1943 when I was a 14 year old high school junior. I met my husband there; we were active in the Vesper Club & Forum, and married in what is now the library (then it was the chapel), The pews were crowded nearly always, on Easter Sunday & other special days there was standing room only for both services, and even on Sunday evenings & Wednesday nights there were “respectable crowds” … but then the world changed and people changed, and I have watched the progression through several decades. First Baptist is still First Baptist to a lot of folks ~~~ a loving, growing, changing, relevant church that is true to its current mission of bringing heaven to earth in Richmond, and outward from there as we follow God’s leading. There are always those who can find something wrong or hypocritical or whatever ~~~human beings make up the body of Christ! and we often aren’t able to live up to our aspirations. That doesn’t mean we should not have them or not want to be a part of a loving church that is trying to follow His desire for a grand relationship with us.
    I have buried my husband, mother, and father from the current chapel, and gone on with a life that has led me in many directions, but my church home is FBC, and I love it, and want to share it with as many as I can encourage to look us ov er and find good friends in Christ. Cheers for all your work with us, Jim. My children have grown into other places, my last husband and I were active in UR’s Interfaith Chaplaincy, but I have remained a part of FBC, and now as a widow once more to love having the church family that I do. Blessings for all of us as we try to bring heaven to Richmond VA through FBC!

  3. Brother Jim:
    As a born again Catholic, I feel your pain. After the Protestant reformation, the pews were empty. After the sex scandals in Europe and America, the pews have become emptier again. There is a disconnect in our society, and you get it Jim, it is about community building, in the most tactile way possible, because as we Irish say: God sends not mouths, but meat…

    Is it one of the Proverbs that we are instructed to be sincere with sincere men, and cunning with cunning men???

    I have a very golf buddy who is a Baptist preacher…he is as vigilant about his ministry as he is about his golf…he is frustrated about the chronic disconnect, hopelessness, and blank stares, but Jim, he’s helping me, to be a Christian first, a Catholic second, and if I am lucky, anonymously be the Christ, if only for fifteen minutes…

    So Jim, this is my very verbose response to your last missive: You reached me, preacher man, and there is nothing you can do about it!!!

    Peace
    Love
    Respect

    Hugh

  4. Here’s what we need to do….

    or….

    and if all else fails, then we’ll need to get really serious and replace the hymnals!

    PS FBC in Hammond IN already took Ralph’s raffle idea…gave away $200 Best Buy gift certificates! They had a Wheel of Fortune they spun to give away various gifts to those in the congregation whose names were drawn. Wish that video was still available, but they have pulled it.

  5. Charles: that Doritos commercial is shocking! Did they ever air that one? I think it says something about the way Americans look at the church these days that someone would even consider poking fun at communion. Yikes! Thanks for finding these and sharing them. I think you’ve made my point.

  6. Jim: I don’t believe the Doritos commercial ever aired, and in fact I think Pepsi tried to pull it off the web due to the offense Catholics took. Frankly, though, the one that is more concerning to me is the FBC Hammond one. I don’t expect to get too much spiritual leadership from the folks on Madison Ave who created the Doritos ad, but when a church starts running a game show raffle from the pulpit….well, something just doesn’t seem quite right with that, does it?

  7. I had the privilege of hearing your sermon in Tampa. You said there were only seven people who read your blog. If true, I’m one of the seven!

    Thank you for encouraging us to ask “How do we bring heaven to earth?” Thanks for giving us good questions to ask. Thank you.

  8. I think it’s safe to say that there are more than 7 people who read your blog Jim. We just lurk and don’t comment much, heh. I read through several blogs a day, and always start with your blog to see if you’ve written anything new. My mother is a long-time FBC member, and her homepage is your blog!

    You are a master story-teller, and your words never fail to move me. Move me toward change, move me toward Christ, move me toward thinking/feeling my faith more. Thank you!

    David

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