The exit of the church often seems to be as wide open as its entrance. People come and go in wholesale lots. One church reported accessions of more than 1,000 new people in about eight years. The net increase for the period, however, was two people. What had happened?
Are we concerned simply because this kind of situation means a decrease in the size of our church and therefore less prestige and status as a “successful pastor”? Do we worry about its reflection on our professional competence, or rather about the kind of church our ministry has produced?
We are concerned about these people who disappear from the church because we know God has placed them under the care of the congregation. They are not like so many bank notes which we bankers guard until they transfer to central headquarters. Christ died for these persons and intends something far better for them than they now know.
Failure to Conserve Converts
I am bewildered by the fact that so many ministers who want to conserve the fruit of evangelistic efforts do not use those plans already tested by experience, or do not develop any systematic program of their own.
Some denominations have issued excellent graded courses for new members. There are also numerous plans for the sponsoring of newcomers by deacons and deaconesses, by special committees, by church school classes. Many churches that complain about losing members soon after extending the right hand of fellowship admit they have never tried any of these plans. We need to ask whether new people will fall automatically into the ways of a new church, or into a new fellowship. Do the cliques, the classes, the groups, and the committees of the church open promptly and wholeheartedly to these new members?
Too few ministers use sector zone plans for more than coffee-and-doughnut sociability. Only here and there does a plan provide study, a more intimate fellowship, and a way of reaching out to man.
The American Baptist Jubilee Advance program has suggested that one member of the evangelism committee be designated as Fellowship Chairman, to watch over the nurture of new people until they become true members of the worshiping, studying, sharing, witnessing, and serving people of God.
Some Problems Inside
I have no kit of new tricks for conserving church membership. I wonder, however, if some of our difficulty may not be found at the front door—and even inside the church itself. There may be need for us to bring our programming and practice into conformity with our basic theological convictions.
Look at the word “decision.” We urge people to commit themselves, to “have faith,” to “believe on the Lord Jesus.” We are saying, “A choice is yours to make: decide today.” What do we mean by this?
Think of a particular person. What are you implying when you urge him to decide for Christ?
In the first place, you are saying that God is seeking him. You will doubtless tell him it is the Holy Spirit who will work a work of grace in him, who will bring the things of Christ to him. No matter how we put it, we are admitting that unless the Holy Spirit is at work, nothing will happen. Unfortunately our actions sometimes indicate quite the opposite, but this is what we imply by our invitation.
In the second place, we are saying that our friend has only two options. We urge, “Choose life and not death; choose the grace and authority of Christ, not enslavement to self, darkness, and the devil.” He is free to choose, but he needs to know that the choice is his to make—and is of ultimate importance.
Third, our friend must base his choice on sufficient evidence, or else it is not a decision. If I try to ease his task by making the decision less than it is, or by prejudging the evidence for him, the decision is mine and not his.
In the fourth place, our friend must be free to decide without any coercion. He is a person, not a machine to be manipulated. The weight of our beseeching concern, however, may cause him to give assent simply to squirm out from under the pressure we apply. To slip from under pressure, to honor our concern and sincerity is not the same as exercising saving Christian faith. Decision, to be authentic, must be one’s own.
Christian decision means, in the fifth place, that our friend should decide for Christ and not for some easy formula or lovely phrasing about Christ. Let’s be blunt: it is Christ who came to earth, lived among men, died, rose again to take up the burden of walking with us. Our friend will be saved only when he places his guilt and his life in the hands of the Crucified and Risen One.
A sixth thing to remember is that while our friend’s decision is very personal and even somewhat lonely, it is not a purely private affair. Every choice we make is colored and conditioned by society and by those near us. They have a stake in our decision, for they help to make it difficult or simple, right or wrong, creative or destructive. Our friend has such a background, too. What is more, you and I are there. We should epitomize the fact that this decision is possible, and should demonstrate what its outcome is in living faith, devotion, sacrifice, and service.
Unprepared for Alternatives
What happens if these essentials of decision are missing?
Suppose our friend is a student who has not based his convictions on sufficient evidence and preparatory instruction. What will happen when he faces secular or other religious views that challenge his thinking?
Suppose this person is our own son. He has held his father’s faith through the years because this was expected, or because we had determined his faith should be of a particular kind. What will happen when he finds other faiths and ways of life in the world—and in the Church?
Suppose this person is intellectually pleased with our exact formulations. What will happen when everything seems to be falling apart for him and the Living Christ remains only an abstraction?
Suppose our friend’s decision was not ultimate and thoroughgoing. What will happen to him when the issues of life become confused, allegiances are not clear-cut, and he has no understanding of Christ’s Lordship or of the meaning of eternity for the here and now?
This sample of possibilities should be enough to point up what is involved in decision. Some go out from us “because they were not of us”; their decision was not really theirs, or they accepted our appeal to words, to moral action, to social concern, to familial responsibility. They soon discover that such acceptance of us and our words provides no bulwark against the pressures of life.
Narrowing Our Salvation
Another possible area of trouble concerns our familiar doctrine of salvation. We often speak of sarong or winning souls, of the cure of souls. Do we mean by this to divide mattesr from spirit? Or do we mean what the Bible means when it calls man “a living soul”? “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he” simply states that whatever a man is, he demonstrates in all of life’s relationships.
Perhaps we leave an impression of what God saves that is quite different from what we mean. Or we may forget that we are dealing not with some inner, secret part of man that is unrelated to his existence as a parent, husband, citizen, and church member, but with the person, entire and whole.
This raises the question of our doctrine of man. Is man a bundle of strangely mixed components? Or is he a person confronted by the claims of God in Jesus Christ whose Christian decision has bearing on every facet of life? If man is a total person, we begin to see what God intended in Christ’s incarnation. The Gospel should tread wherever the feet of God’s people walk. Yet too often we keep it safe, very safe—safest of all, many times, in the pulpit. We feel uncertain and frightened when we think how the Gospel in us ought to stride out to meet the scholar, the man of power, the corrupt and the venal, the harlot and the drunkard, the confused and the needy. We are afraid it can’t really be good news out there.
Many fall away from our ranks because we program our training sessions and organize our churches for everything but a realistic witness in daily experience.
A group of churchmen in our nation’s capital once uttered the usual comprehensive platitudes about Christian living, then finally asked what the Gospel really meant in terms of the Berlin Wall, Cuba, Laos, steel, and so on. This was their life, and they sensed that the Lord who once came into this world of religious malpractice, political expedience, civic corruption, racial prejudice, and international tensions to transform lives and to revolutionize society must have something to say and do now through them. The problems of most men are far less dramatic. But salvation is no less essential for the distraught mother, the wayward father, the tested juvenile, the businessman, the farmer, the professional person, even the minister.
The Church Itself
Then let’s look at the Church itself. Nothing in the New Testament indicates that the Church was to be the protector of the status quo, the sustainer of values, the watchdog of budgets and buildings. Rather, the Church was an informal movement of people who went everywhere “good newsing”; it was a dynamic force that challenged religions, governments, and cultures.
This does not minimize the inner task of the Church to sustain and chastise, to strengthen and rebuke us, for this is part of our life together in Christ. But have we properly equipped and deployed our troops? We recognize the spiritual illiteracy of our day but do little to tighten up our teaching procedures. We brush theology aside as something irrelevant to the “real work” of the pastorate.
Many of our people are unspiritual, petty, divisive—incapable of directing the Church, let alone of being witnesses of the Gospel. So said the returns on a recent questionnaire to ministers. Of the 16 functions of a minister to be set in order of importance most of the clergymen placed preaching and visitation at the top of the list. Dealing with special problems, adult work, group work, and training lay people came far down, however. Children’s work was near the top—perhaps because ministers find it easier to work with pliable, responsive children than with adults and their thorny problems.
To the question of God’s purpose for newly won lay people some answered, “Christlikeness,” or “the new person in Christ.” What they meant by these terms turned out to show little understanding of the New Testament guidelines for social, personal, and spiritual maturity, for the service, worship, and witness to which people are called. Have ministers failed in their teaching about the Church and its ministry in the world?
We speak of the Church as the fellowship of the Spirit. “How these Christians love one another,” was an early statement about the Church and something that the new convert today expects to find. But not only have Christians forgotten how to pray with the lost; they have also ceased to pray for and with each other. Our atomistic, individualistic concept of man and salvation has made us a conglomerate of lonely, isolated particles held together by interests often quite secondary to the basic purpose of the Church. To share the life in Christ is something almost alien to us. New Christians, and older ones, too, are often surprised, shocked, disillusioned, and finally alienated by what they find in the Church. True, we may expect too much from the heterogeneity that characterizes most of our churches. The fact remains, however, that we offer so very little of what men have a right to expect from the people of God.
Unless our faith has something important to say to people in the world, unless it presents God’s great and challenging purposes, unless its values go beyond the tawdriness of our day, men will neither listen to our words nor shoulder the work of Christ and the Church with any great seriousness.
We need to check the back door of the church—maybe even the front door—to understand why so many go out from us. The problem is not a simple one: the solution may call for a radical review of our ministry and our life together in the light of the purposes of God.
DONALD F. THOMAS
American Baptist Jubilee Advance
Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
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