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Reversing Decline:  Transforming America



Christianity is declining in North America and Western Europe.  It’s growing, often rapidly, in the rest of the world. God wants it to grow rapidly here. We need to make some huge changes for that to happen. Are we willing to risk and lose big to gain big?


I have a dream of cities with no drug dealers because no one is buying, of towns with empty jails because there is no crime.

I have a dream of towns where single parents are rare and kids get to grow up with a loving mom and dad in their home.

I have a dream that coast to coast it’s hard to find any homeless person and there are plenty of good jobs available.

I have a dream that hundreds of millions of Christians, new and old in their faith, will demonstrate their love for God by loving their neighbors with the servant attitude and life-style of Christ.

Are those dreams possible? Absolutely. Could your community be radically changed, the result of large numbers of mature disciples? It’s happened before in other communities. Could it happen in your community? Yes!  That and more is God’s dream, and nothing is too big for God.  

But it won’t happen if the church keeps doing what we’re doing, even with major tweaks. It will require major, even radical, changes—changes many haven’t even considered.  I want to see my city, state and country as places where most people are doing their best to please God every day.  I think you do, too.  I’m sure God would like to see that even more than you and I.

Let’s look at some problems and then provide some solutions.

North American Christianity is a lot like a world class long distance runner running in the Olympics. But there’s a problem. We’re trying to run with a 75 pound backpack and carrying a 30 pound weight in each hand. With all that weight we’re falling further and further behind.

A number of unbiblical (not anti-biblical) traditions are weighting us down. It will take radical changes in what we are doing to remove those weights. Nearly every North American church, even those we think of as the best churches, are following these traditions. We must change.

We have been asking the wrong questions: How can we have great worship? What’s the best training material for discipleship? What’s the best way to train leaders? What’s the best way to plant a church?

We have been asking the wrong questions: How can we have great worship? What’s the best training material for discipleship? What’s the best way to train leaders?  What’s the best way to plant a church?

Asking the wrong questions always results in bad answers, even if you get the right answer to the question you asked.  If you think you asked the right question and have a good answer, then put your energy and resources into implementing your answer, at best, the results are limited. When your results look good compared with what others accomplish, you don’t think about the possibility of asking a better question and finding a better answer that will yield significantly better results.


Problems


Wrong Questions about Communicating with God

Church leaders will sometimes ask, “Have you had a daily quiet time this week?” By quiet time we mean prayer and Bible study. The Bible commands prayer and encourages study of Scripture. But far too often we fail to pray for the right things and sometimes pray for the wrong things, and our Bible study fails to produce what God wants. Our questions need to go beyond whether or not someone has a daily quiet time.

Wrong Questions about Jesus as Savior

For at least most of the last two centuries and especially more recently we have asked people, “Is Jesus your Savior?” When we ask that, we normally miss the more important question I’ll address later in this document.

Wrong Questions about Our Gatherings

One wrong question that has received a lot of attention in the last few decades is, “How can we have great God-honoring worship?” There is nothing wrong with great worship services, but you would have a hard time justifying that emphasis from the New Testament. A lot of Christians, it seems, have come to think of an emotional worship experience as meeting the requirement to love God. Are we encouraging people to honor God with their lips while their hearts remain far from Him?

Pastors ask, “How can I/we best communicate God’s message in our worship services?” This sounds like a good question, but the focus is wrong.

Wrong Questions about Church Planting

In 1984 the leaders of East 91st Street Christian Church in Indianapolis set a goal of planting 20 churches in 20 years. About that same time an ad hoc group of leaders in our fellowship of independent Christian churches started an effort to double the number of our churches by the year 2000. I was involved with both of those efforts and with a local church planting ministry. We were aware of C. Peter Wagner’s statement that church planting was the most effective way to do evangelism. We asked, “What’s the best way to plant a church?” I, as much as anyone, wanted the right answer to that question.

By the early 1990’s we were beginning to find and implement good answers to our question, but I was concerned that we would never accomplish what was needed the way we were doing things.  There were some other questions we should have been asking.

A Wrong Question about Leadership Training

If you are going to plant lots of churches you are going to need lots of church planters. A natural question is, “What’s the best way to train church leaders?” Again, however, it’s a logical but wrong question that produces wrong answers.

Wrong Questions about the Local Church

Most church leaders at some point ask, “What’s the best way to grow our church?” or, “What’s best for our church?”  A number of “experts” will “answer” those questions. Sometimes their advice appears to work. Often it doesn’t work.


  Solutions


It won’t be easy to solve these problems. Change, especially major change, is never easy; and solving these problems will require major changes in our paradigms.

Communicating with God

Prayer allows us to talk to God.

The first paradigm shift we need to make is from prayers focused on me/us to prayers focused on God’s kingdom and lost people. We ask God to bless our meetings and to bless what we already plan to do. Often we don’t ask God what He wants us to do and then take time to listen.

How often do we pray for the salvation of our neighbors? How often do we mention our neighbors by name? As you walk or drive in your neighborhood, do you pray for the people living in the houses you pass? What would happen if you regularly, earnestly prayed for God to transform the people of your city, county, or state?

How much time do we spend in our corporate prayers praying for the sick and hurting in our congregations?  How much of our corporate prayer time do we spend praying for the harvest and our part in the harvest? Do we always or even often pray for laborers for the harvest? How often do we pray for our government leaders?

It is right to pray for the sick and hurting, but do we neglect other important matters in our prayers? What we pray about most in our corporate prayers will be what the people in our congregations pray about most in their private prayers.

Bible study can be an excellent way for God to speak to us, but we need to shift from a focus on knowledge to a focus on behavior. Bible knowledge is helpful only if it helps us behave more like Jesus. Otherwise it’s worthless. We should be asking, “How has your Bible study helped you live more like Jesus?”

Jesus as Lord

Another paradigm shift must be from focusing primarily on Jesus as Savior (which He is) to the New Testament focus on Jesus as Lord.  The apostle Paul preached Jesus as Lord (2 Corinthians 4:5a).  In the New Testament Jesus is called Lord about 20 times for every time He is called Savior!

Are we deceiving people when we ask them to accept Jesus as Savior without insisting they need to also accept Him as Lord?  Can Jesus be someone’s Savior without being recognized as their Lord? If we accept Jesus as Lord, it changes everything. If we only accept Jesus as Savior, it is like buying fire insurance. But if we accept Jesus as Lord, we begin asking, “What does Jesus want me to do in my current situation?”

Church Gatherings

Another paradigm shift is to move away from an emphasis on large group gatherings to an emphasis on small group gatherings. The large group has to be seen as an optional bonus, not the main thing.

Instead of asking, “How can we have great God-honoring worship?” we should ask, “How can we have great love for God and great God-honoring love for our neighbor?” The New Testament defines loving God as obeying God and loving your neighbor as you love yourself. It’s not about worship as we typically define it, which is very largely absent from the New Testament, where the focus is on living like Jesus, being imitators of Christ. New Testament worship is presenting our total selves as living sacrifices (Romans 12:1).

The sermon (basically a lecture) is the other focus of our large group gatherings. Research shows that a presentation followed by small group discussion is much more effective at communicating than the presentation without the small group discussion. Sermons would be more effective if we followed them with small group discussion of the sermon. The shorter the time span between the sermon and the discussion, the more effective it will be.

The Bible emphasizes loving our neighbor, but often little is said in our church services about loving the neighbor sitting next to us, the neighbor across the street, or our neighbor at work. Jesus took it further when he said, “Love one another just as I have loved you.” It would be difficult to love a couple of dozen people at that level. As the group size increases, such love becomes impossible. Life change rarely comes from a large group gathering.

We need to be intentional about getting people into small groups. We also need to be intentional to see that those in small groups are held accountable for actively loving their neighbors.

Leadership Training

Solutions to our problems have to begin with leadership training. We’ve asked, “What’s the best way to train leaders?” That’s the wrong question and we’ve gotten the wrong answer. Instead we should be asking, “What’s the best way to rapidly multiply church leaders at every level?” The way we currently train church leaders will never allow for the rapid multiplication of disciples and churches.

We’ve focused on knowledge, but Jesus focused on behavior. Knowledge can inform behavior, but correct knowledge doesn’t necessarily lead to correct behavior. In the Great Commission Jesus said “to teach to obey [not “know”] all that I’ve commanded.” During Jesus’ ministry He often condemned the people with the most knowledge, not for having incorrect knowledge, but for their incorrect behavior.

Ralph Winter, founder and long-time director of the U.S. Center for World Missions, said, “Every church movement which has come to depend solely upon residential school (Bible college or seminary) products for ministry is dying.”

Behavior can best be learned in a relationship—one-on-one or one-on-a-few. It thus becomes essential for us to make another paradigm shift from primarily classroom training to primarily apprentice training with classroom training as a supplement.  Church consultant Bob Logan says, “Whenever you have a choice between hands-on learning and classroom learning, go with hands-on learning. It sticks better anyway.”  (Emphasis is in the original) This is how Jesus trained the twelve.

We need to change the leadership culture so leaders at all levels expect to regularly reproduce themselves. They should expect to train people to do what they do. We need our Bible colleges and seminaries to include reproduction as a key part of their training, as something they frequently emphasize.

One of John Maxwell’s 21 irrefutable laws of leadership is “The Law of Reproduction.” Great leaders regularly reproduce themselves.

Right now we recognize and honor leaders of large ministries. We need to come up with a way to provide similar or even greater recognition for leaders who regularly reproduce themselves.

Church Planting

We have become good at answering the wrong question. Instead of asking, “What’s the best way to plant a church?” we should have been asking, “What's the best way to rapidly multiply churches?” That question results in very different answers.

In North America most churches are mules.  (They never reproduce.)  Elephant churches are highly honored and most groups trying to plant churches try to have baby elephants. The result is decline. In the places where Christianity is growing rapidly, most church plants are rabbits. Given a normal life span and reproductive cycle, in five years a pair of rabbits and their descendants will weigh more than twice what a pair of elephants and their descendants will weigh.  

In the last couple of decades most church planting has been a lot like half a dozen couples coming together to have one baby! (1+1+1+1+1=6 is not multiplication.) At the times when Christianity grew most rapidly in America, the church didn’t try to have baby elephants; most new churches were planted by an individual or a single small church.

The research of Dr. Richard Myers shows that the number of sheep (active church members) you have is determined by the number of shepherds (teachers/small group leaders) you have. That is true of churches also. Lots of churches in an area result in lots of sheep, but few churches in an area results in few sheep. Dr. Myers found that every church has a sociological limit to its size, and most stop expanding their limit by the time they are twelve years old.

It is almost always true that two churches in an area will reach more people than either one of those churches by itself. Normally, the more churches there are in an area the more people they will reach.  Bob Logan says, “We planted a church a mile away and if we could have gotten the property, we would have planted a church across the street because I know that church would reach people our church would never reach.”

If the large gathering is not the main thing and we’re not trying to plant baby elephants, that opens the door to a lot more church planters. If you’re trying to plant baby elephant churches, only the “hundred fold” people need apply to lead them. However, if you’re trying to multiply rabbit churches the “sixty fold” people and even the “thirty fold” people will often do fine.

If Christianity is to grow again in North America, it will require three major paradigm shifts in the way we plant churches. The biggest shift may be moving away from trying to plant elephant churches and planting rabbit churches that rapidly reproduce. A second shift will be away from organizations and large churches being the main ones planting churches to all churches, even small churches, recognizing that they can and need to regularly reproduce themselves by regularly planting new churches. The third paradigm shift concerns the leaders who plant the churches. Where Christianity is growing rapidly and when it was growing in the past in America, many of the church planters had received all their training in their local church.

We need to begin training leaders to start (facilitate) Church Planting Movements. Those leaders would need to:


 1. Be willing to lose control.

 2. Be willing to train new leaders in the local church.

 3. Be willing to be bi-vocational (although not all would be).

 4. Be willing to embrace small to achieve big.

 5. Be willing to think long term (years, even decades, not days, weeks or months).

 6. Be willing to trust God enough to do things that could cost them their job.

 7. Use T4T (training 4 trainers).  


The Local Church

Questions about how to grow a church are really the wrong question. A much better question is, “What’s the best way to grow God’s kingdom in our community and city or county?” You come up with very different answers when you ask that question. For one thing, you’ll realize that you and your church can’t do it alone, even if you’re a megachurch. Good answers to that question will almost always result in greater kingdom impact!

Also, rather than ask, “What’s best for our church?” we should ask, “What’s best for the kingdom in our area?” It will frequently result in a very different answer.

Conclusion

The kind of radical changes I am talking about will require a major commitment to prayer. Without God’s intervention they will be impossible. Even with God’s help they won’t come easily. They will require a lot of work. It will help if we eliminate the unproductive things we do now. We need to work smarter, not harder.

Remember to pray regularly and frequently for harvest workers and for the lost. Ask God for a kingdom BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) for your community or state—a goal so big only God could achieve it.

If, with God's intervention, we can get church leaders to regularly, frequently reproduce themselves and their churches and get their followers to see that being a Christian is about Jesus being Lord 24/7—their daily behavior reflecting Jesus—Christianity can again grow rapidly in the United States and beyond.  It can transform our nation and more. This is what God wants.


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This document belongs to Jesus. It can be duplicated and used in any way that honors Him. (If you receive compensation for its use, sharing with the author would be appreciated but is not required.)


Author

Bruce Webster

BruceW@ChristTransformingPCN.org

Home/office 317-846-1628 or Cell 317-370-7900

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Indianapolis, IN 46280