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!”
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?