Death of the Church – “Comfort Zone Christianity”

dying church

When we get up on Sunday morning and drive to church, do we ever consider the health of our church?  We expect it to be there, week in and week out, doors open, temperature set just right, music planned out, sermon prepared within the time allowed so that we can get in and then get on our way.  Church in America is comfortable, consistent, pre-planned and delivered in a tidy package each week to the faithful.  Deviate from that organized delivery model and church leaders will hear about it in no uncertain terms.  Regular complaints include temperature, too hot or cold, music too loud or too contemporary and of course the pastor went too long with his sermon.  Overall these are not seen as problematic, sort of the usual stuff, but how is the health of our churches in America?

There are two standards to be considered, attendance and spiritual well-being, one of which should be easy to gather but the other is not something that can be measured.  Of course, most would agree if spiritual well-being is thriving then attendance will be the first place to reflect it.  That should go both ways, at least in logical consideration, but that is up for debate.  In any case, let’s start with the numbers which are not as easily found as you would hope.  Gallup is a well known and respected polling institution that addresses just about every aspect of life in America as we know it, from business to entertainment, politics, and religion.  According to the numbers from a Gallup* telephone survey in 2017,  of a random sampling of about 1,000 Americans nationwide, interviewers ask respondents questions such as, “In the last seven days, did you attend a church service, excluding weddings and funerals?” to determine their church-going habits. From this survey, 40 percent responded yes, which would indicate nearly 130 million people attended church last Sunday in America.  However, according to a more in-depth research study conducted by the Evangelical Covenant Church, taking data from over 200,000 orthodox Christian churches over the past 10 years, the actual number of people in a pew each Sunday in America is closer to 52 million, nowhere near the numbers that Gallup would extrapolate from their random samples.  More troubling is the overall percentage this represents, basically 17 percent of America goes to church each week.  Numbers don’t tell the whole story, but at the surface, they do not speak well for the spiritual well-being of our congregations or for the outreach efforts from the church.

Our one true calling that speaks to all Christians is the great commission given by Jesus Christ in Matthew chapter 28 – to go and make disciples of all nations.  Period.  That is our calling, yet across America, our churches are not reflecting this in their attendance numbers.  The reasons are many but let’s take a few examples from some of those best suited to address this troubling issue.

passion and testimony

As president of the Bridgeleader Network, David Anderson, senior pastor and founder of Bridgeway Community Church in Columbia, Maryland., has consulted with church leaders nationwide. In his work, he has observed a noteworthy and troubling trend within the mid-sized congregations across the country.   He has found more than half the mid-sized congregations have lost or unintentionally turned away from their evangelistic focus, and instead adopted what he calls a “club mentality.”

He explains it like this, “You have just enough people not to be missional anymore.  You don’t have to grow anymore to sustain your budget.”  They hit that comfortable sweet spot where needs are no longer driven by growth.  They’ve arrived so to speak.

That is a dangerous place to be, just big enough to comfortably pay the bills but not so big that you have problems making room for more classes, additional services, and all the issues that come with growth.

Thom Ranier, CEO of Lifeway Christian Resources, gives this example, “We have become so comfortable and complacent with the way we do church that we don’t want any outsiders to mess it up. In other words, we will fight for the precise worship style or carpet color we want, but we will yawn at the thought of our neighbors going to hell.”

Let that sink in for a moment…

When the church embraces its own sovereign space, celebrating within the comfortable confines of its own creation, surrounded by a like-minded social circle, they stop reaching out, instead choosing to focus inwards. It becomes the responsibility of those on the outside to find their way in – while the church turns its energy towards social justice, no longer testifying to the love of their creator, replaced instead with a spirit of protest to all that is wrong in the world.  Isolated inside this bunker of truth, they lose sight of their one true calling – to share the love of Jesus with a lost world.

The church today is not silent, in fact, speak of abortion and organizations like Planned Parenthood and you’ll have plenty of church members ready to speak out.  But is that our true calling, to beat the drum in the name of social justice? That’s not to say the church should avoid speaking out, but the priority of our mission seems to be lost in the shuffle.  If Christians embraced their duty as missionaries in daily life, demonstrating and sharing the good news of our Savior, think of the impact that would have on these other social issues.  Life Beyond Horizons conducted an unscientific review of social media posts made by various religious organizations and individuals that our team tracked over a 6 month period across several popular social media platforms and what we found speaks volumes.  From our sample of posts that referenced religion, 64 percent spoke about social justice and/or church persecution, ranging from abortion to freedom of religion to various behaviors seen as encroachment on church values, while 32 percent were uplifting messages of happiness found in religion, the Bible, or in Jesus, most specifically, how to feel better or how to become more empowered.  The remaining 4  percent were prayer requests for individuals or groups.  In all of these posts, do you see what is missing? We did not find one single message on social media that called to the lost with a message of salvation.  Not one single message of salvation, either from an individual or an organization that we tracked.  Are we afraid of offending someone? (Read our message What are you afraid of?  for more on this issue)  What if we fought for lost souls just as hard as we fight for the unborn child? What if we trusted in Jesus and believed in our hearts that He truly is the miracle worker, then set our priorities towards salvation first? Imagine saving the lost and the impact that would have on our social issues.  If you follow what I’m saying, I believe you will see that salvation trumps everything else.  Answer this question, do you think we fight for change in an effort to make this world more palatable for our own existence? We don’t like being uncomfortable, so we stand up for change, we want to protect our right to religious freedom so we can worship in the way we choose – but why? If we are not serious about reaching the lost by explaining our own salvation story, sharing how Jesus died for our sins so that we can have atonement through his sacrifice, if that isn’t our passion, then I say religious freedom does not matter.

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What many have come to realize is the church in America has become complacent, or what we would define as a “comfort zone” type of Christianity.  While speaking up for the unborn is very important, as are many other social issues that go against the moral values that we hold dear, we need to take a step back and look at our priorities, both as individuals and as congregations.  Do we care about outreach, serious outreach, not just follow up emails to visitors that took the time to fill out a card on Sunday morning?  Do we think our nice facilities or location in the community are the best outreach? As Thom Ranier said, “we became so enamored with the worship service we concluded that it was our outreach. But cool and dynamic worship services are not outreach into our communities. They are attractions to attend.”  It is similar to a church that thinks its prime location, such as being right off the town square, somehow equates to outreach.  It’s not like the premise of the movie “Field of Dreams” with its catchphrase, “if you build it, they will come.”  If that were the case, how do you explain the 83 percent of America that sleeps in every Sunday morning? Do we really yawn at the thought of our neighbors going to hell? Honestly, I wonder how many people in the church actually believe that hell exists?

I engaged in a conversation not long ago with someone that did not agree with my concerns, namely that the church as a whole is failing in preparing and sending forth its members to witness, and he used a very popular “mega-church” in the Houston area as an example.  He cited the massive crowds and even larger television audience as proof that the church is thriving.  My reply, if that’s the best example you have, you just helped make my case that the church in America is dying.  You see, it’s not all about numbers, and his example is a church of what I call “feel good evangelism” or the prosperity faith that has dominated our TV airwaves for decades.  (Read our message – “The False Doctrine of Prosperity Faith” for more about this dangerous doctrine).  Yes, I’m speaking of the Joel Osteen ministry, the “how to be your best self” and “how to be happy in life” doctrine.  His church attendance by some estimates is in the thousands each week with a television audience purportedly in the millions.  I pointed out that if you listen to his message or read his books, you will notice that Jesus is largely missing, its focus is on personal happiness while avoiding talk of sin or the consequences.  This church, and many others that model after this so-called doctrine is described to us in 2 Timothy chapter 4, verse 3, 

For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, will multiply teachers for themselves because they have an itch to hear what they want to hear.

Denny Burk, professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, an undergraduate school of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, recently shared this regarding the ministry of Joel Osteen.  “Joel Osteen has all the marks of a sincere person. I just finished watching the profile of his ministry on 60 Minutes, and there is not one thing about him that looks phony. He is one of the most likable, loveable fellows that you’ll ever see. I really think he believes everything he is saying. That is why what he does is so awful. The prosperity gospel that Osteen preaches will damn the very people he intends to help (if they believe it), and he appears completely unaware of the darkness into which he plunges his followers. Osteen’s lack of awareness of his own blindness was prophesied in the scriptures: ‘Evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived’ (2 Timothy 3:13). If anyone has ever been deluded by his own error, it’s Joel Osteen.”

To sum it up, not only is the church in America in decline, we see ministries around us filling the void with a message that distorts or outright deceives believers and unbelievers alike.  Regarding the prosperity message and being your best self, listen to what Jesus says in Matthew chapter 16, verses 24 through 26, 

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will find it. For what will it benefit someone if he gains the whole world yet loses his life? Or what will anyone give in exchange for his life?

There is nothing wrong with being happy, but in the context of Christian faith, we find true happiness through dedication and perseverance.  If we are led to believe that happiness is found in worldly possessions or by putting ourselves and our own well-being first, we are being deceived because this message runs in direct opposition to the teaching of our Lord.  Jesus warned us that we will be hated for his sake, life as a true believer in Christ comes with the promise that you will be persecuted for your faith, but we have the added assurance that Jesus will not forsake us and one day we will be together with Him in glory.

Matthew chapter 7, verses 13 and 14 states,

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Do you have the assurance of salvation today, knowing in your heart that you have accepted the free gift of salvation that only comes through faith in Jesus Christ? If not, please don’t wait for the “right time” to make that decision, reach out to us right now with your questions or concerns and let us help you gain that blessed assurance that you have been redeemed.

Romans chapter 10, verses 9 and 10 give us the following guidance to salvation,

If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.

To the faithful, are you evangelizing according to our shared calling from Jesus? If you truly believe that you have been saved through grace, that Jesus Christ died for all sinners, then step up and share that message!  The world is lost and we are the light, but if we hide that light under a bushel then what good are we? Share the gospel, as Charles Spurgeon exhorted, “anywhere and everywhere!” Make sure that you are doing your part and if needed call out your church to do the same.  Is your congregation actively involved in true outreach in your community? If not, or if you’re not sure, ask the question and push for real outreach.  It’s not a hobby, it is a direct order from our Savior.  We should feel anguish in our hearts to know that narrow is the gate and few will find it.  Get involved, don’t wait for someone else to take up the charge, follow our Lord’s instructions and lead the way.

 

John Stephen Frey is the author of this message and serves as our director emeritus and member of the prayer team

 

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*data for this post taken from churchleaders.com, article dated April 10, 2018, titled “7 Startling Facts: An Up Close Look at Church Attendance in America”

**additional statistics from Lifeway Christian Resources, Evangelical Covenant Church research project 2017 and Gallup.

What are you afraid of?

As we grow older doesn’t it seem as if time passes faster and faster? Days turn into weeks, then months, and before we know it, another year has come and gone. What do we have to show for it, other than the realization of being another year older? All those plans we made in our youth somehow seem to slip away as we find ourselves established in a work a day lifestyle, paying the bills, running from one function to another, pushed to the brink by deadlines and unexpected challenges that come at us from all directions. At times it can be overwhelming and we need that place to escape. We find our refuge in sports, movies, television…maybe we get a vacation now and then, but Monday always takes us back to the reality of life.  What does it all mean, what is our purpose in all of this?

For believers, we have our purpose, our commission, as given by our savior Jesus in Matthew chapter 28, verses 18 through 20, 

Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth.  Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

For those that have not come to know Jesus as their personal savior, the world becomes a road to nowhere. Without God, there is no purpose or meaning, the grave represents the final destination.  I appeal to anyone reading this message if you have not experienced the true love of our heavenly Father, the one who loves us so much that while we were yet sinners, He sent his only begotten Son, Jesus, to live among us and become a sacrifice for all sin so that we can have eternal life, that you would come to know Him.  If you’ve never made that decision, please visit the following link to find out what it means to be saved and how you can take that life-changing step of faith – Pathway to Salvation 

Again, speaking to the believer, have you found your purpose in life? Beyond paying the bills and building your career, what are you doing for the kingdom of God? Have you answered the call or have you become so engrossed in the daily grind that you, like so many other believers, have pushed God into a small corner, a place you visit once a week at best, then it’s back to the world.  What are you waiting for…what are you afraid of? Are you a living testimony to the love of Jesus Christ that resides within you? Have you shared that love with those around you? What are you afraid of?

Lukewarm as defined by Merriam-Webster is to be moderately warm, tepid, such as a lukewarm bath or lukewarm coffee, also lacking conviction, halfhearted, cold, without conviction.  We live in a world of moderately warm Christians, going through the motions, lacking in purpose and conviction. This isn’t how it is meant to be and certainly not what we have been called to do.  

So what are you afraid of, what is holding you back? Why have you settled, you know there is more in life, where is that life more abundant that Jesus promised? The answer may lie with you….why haven’t you answered the call of our heavenly Father and taken up the course which He has laid out for you? For most people the answer is simple – it is hard to walk that line, being a Christian is not easy.  Follow the lives of those first disciples, only John lived out his years and even at that he was exiled to a solitary existence on an island after having survived his intended execution. Watch this short video, listen to the message, then ask yourself this question – am I living the life that my heavenly Father has called me to undertake? What am I doing to add to the kingdom of God? Step up to the challenge, get out of the pew, start living the life God has for you – be the strong disciple that Jesus called you to be – starting now!

Won’t you step up and join us in serving our most loving heavenly Father….reach out to us, leave a message, request prayer, read our message Can I get a Witness?  then seek God in prayer.  You can make a difference in your community, become a Trader, read our message Trader or Traitor?  and join us in the mission field. We encourage you to follow our site and tell your friends, neighbors, co-workers, strangers – use our resources as a place to steer the lost to come to know Jesus Christ. Many of us have that person in our lives that need the good news of salvation, but it never seems to be the right time or place. Maybe it just seems awkward or you’re really not sure what to say.  Try this approach, break the ice by telling them about this website you’ve discovered, how you think they might find it interesting, a site that doesn’t ask for money and allows it’s users to remain anonymous.  That’s why we started this site and it has helped us bring many to the message of salvation – your friend, co-worker, or that stranger that God brings across your path might be changed forever.  Step up and may God truly bless you in your journey.

 

 

John Stephen Frey, Director and Senior Editor, Life Beyond Horizons

J Stephen Frey

*video is provided by our partners at Right Now media

 

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Like Taking Candy from a Baby

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As believers in Christ, we have a higher calling, known commonly as the “great commission” which comes from the book of Matthew chapter 28, verses 18 to 20, which reads as follows;

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  

To put this into proper context, Jesus had been crucified and now risen from the dead, speaking before his disciples for the final time, after which he would ascend into heaven. This message is not limited to those early followers but is carried forward by all that accept the free gift of salvation thus becoming disciples of Christ. Jesus is passing the torch so to speak and giving us His direct guidance, we are to share the light of salvation to a lost world.

It seems simple enough, as a believer, we have all come to that point where we’ve confessed our sins and professed our belief that Jesus died for our sins and was resurrected by God. Romans chapter 10 verse 9 states;

because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 

Yet somehow we complicate matters, allowing our own agenda and bias to enter the equation, or we fall into traps laid by our adversary. Our best intentions are thus lost in the fallout. I believe we often underestimate the craftiness of our adversary.  Have you ever stopped to consider that Satan has existed much longer than man and throughout time has worked long and hard to destroy what God created in His own image. 1 Peter chapter 5 verse 8 offers this warning,

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour. 

Basically, Satan has a huge advantage over us in that he has been working at his craft for thousands of years and many of us have been followers of Christ for a few decades at most. Thankfully, through Jesus Christ who lives in us through the Holy Spirit, we have power over Satan. 1 John chapter 4 verse 4 states in part;  because greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world. 

The world is ignorant in the ways of God, but that is not their fault.  How can they know the truth unless we allow the light of Christ to shine through ourselves in all that we do? This is the very foundation of our call to service through Christ’s great commission to His disciples. Yet often times in our best intentions, we fall into Satan’s traps….the very tricks that he has laid out for believers throughout history. Satan may have lost our souls to eternal life in Christ, but that doesn’t mean he is finished with us. His work goes on and he will stop at nothing to silence our witness.  I often wonder, does our enemy sit back and laugh at how easily we are sometimes derailed and rendered ineffective. As the old saying goes, at times it must be like taking candy from a baby.

Let us take an example from recent headlines, this story came out of Oregon, regarding a Christian couple that owned a bakery.   Their website proclaimed the sanctity of a man and a woman coming together in marriage and included John 3:16 at the bottom of the page.  Anyone visiting their business would know beyond any doubt that the owners are believers in Jesus Christ.  One day two women approached the business seeking a wedding cake for their upcoming same-sex wedding.  I do not believe for one second that they chose this particular bakery at random.  This brings me to my point, which is not to condemn the bakery or its owners, but to shed light on an alternative scenario that I want you to consider.  Whether this couple came in with an agenda or not, the way the story played out is not only predictable but also tragic in the fallout for this bakery. The owners refused to bake a cake for the wedding and took the position that to do so would go against their beliefs as Christians.  They denounced same-sex marriage and refused to provide service to the couple. The owners soon found themselves in court and all over the news media as intolerant and hateful people that had discriminated against the gay and lesbian community.  A judge would eventually rule against them, they were fined a hefty sum upwards of one hundred fifty thousand dollars and ultimately closed the bakery.

Pending before the Supreme Court today is the same story but it involves another Christian business in another state that also refused to provide service to a same-sex couple. You can read our message on that story through this link – What Price Victory?

On the one hand, we have people in a business that have publicly declared their faith in our savior Jesus Christ.  I believe that our adversary, the very one that Peter warned us about as being a lion roaming about seeking those he may destroy, was squarely behind this directed public attack on these owners.  As I stated earlier, I do not believe these customers simply picked this establishment out of thin air, I believe they went there with an agenda and they received the denial of service that they anticipated all along. In the aftermath, we have a business shut down and more importantly, we have an enemy that has furthered his cause in the court of public opinion.

I want to put forth an alternative scenario, one in which the bakery does not compromise their beliefs, but takes advantage of the opportunity to follow our number one expectation, the sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ. To go back to the beginning, the couple walks in and requests a cake for their same-sex wedding.  What if, instead of denying service, the owners engaged this couple in a conversation. You see, at this point, I think they had an opportunity to share the love of Christ with this couple, to be the light in an otherwise darkened world. If the owners seized this moment, possibly asking the couple to sit down, enjoy a free cup of coffee while perusing the many examples of wonderful cakes they could provide, they would have opened the door to untold possibilities in sharing their faith. While discussing their faith, they could and should acknowledge that they do not believe in same-sex marriage, that the bible defines marriage as between one man and one woman.  But having said that, the door is now wide open for them to share their own personal testimonies…to acknowledge that they were lost sinners and how God brought them to salvation through Jesus Christ who died for all of our sins and conquered both sin and death through the resurrection.  What response would this couple have to such an outpouring of the love of Jesus Christ? How would this have ended if they had chosen this path as opposed to the denial of service?

I would take it a step further, at this point what if they had not only offered to make the cake but told the couple that they would pray over every ingredient and make this cake with all the love they could muster. What if they took this opportunity to ask the couple if they could pray together, to ask that God watch over them and guide them and if they have not yet experienced the free gift of salvation, that the Holy Spirit would work in their hearts to one day bring them to that place of amazing grace. What if they told the couple to please share with those that attend the ceremony that the wonderful cake they are enjoying came from their bakery and they would love to have all of their business as well.  How many more opportunities could there have been to share Christ with their circle of friends? After all, isn’t that the point, the reason we are here? Matthew chapter 5 verse 15, 

Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. 

I would say at this point, maybe the couple is receptive or maybe they would turn and leave….the choice would have been theirs to make, not the bakery in denial of service. This would not have ended up in court and all over the national media.  Either way, the seeds would have been planted and this bakery would still be in business today. Most important of all, at the very least, a dialogue would have been started and maybe this couple and some of their friends would have returned for more visits.

Think about the calling we have from Jesus Christ, then think about the role we play and the outcome we desire. Do you take a firm stance and refuse to do business with those that participate in activities that go against the beliefs we share or do you consider the opportunity you have before you to share a witness? On a personal level, I have to wonder, did any of these businesses have a vetting process to ensure they did not serve anyone that was violating the sanctity of their beliefs? Did they serve the adulterer? How about the client that is drowning in envy and hatred? Are these not also sins that go against the beliefs of the Christian church?

I’m not trying to stir the pot, but what are the goals and determined outcome….to lead a lost world to know the love of Jesus Christ.  The same love that covered a multitude of our own sins and brought us to salvation.  A lost world knows nothing of this love and unfortunately, many of today’s TV evangelists are doing nothing to bring the lost to salvation, they are speaking that message of comfort, self-help, and prosperity to the itching ears of a restless world.  We should never expect the lost to act in a way that is pleasing to our God but that’s why we are here…..to serve as His missionaries right where we are each and every day.  What a tremendous opportunity to bring the unconditional love of Jesus Christ to those that may never hear or experience that love any other way.  God knows our heart and I dare say, any bakery owner or florist that extends the love of Christ to sinners, by sitting down with them at their table, serving them, witnessing to them, will always be supported by our heavenly Father. The world, the church, in particular, may throw stones, but how else can we reach a lost world?

Through it all, we have to remind ourselves, what is our goal and what are the outcomes? We should not compromise our beliefs, but don’t let that become a trap whereby we miss opportunities to share the joy and love that we have experienced through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  The enemy will set the trap, we must allow the Holy Spirit to help us see and avoid it, otherwise, our best intentions will fall to the wayside…and for the enemy, like taking candy from a baby.

 

 John Stephen Frey, Director and Senior Editor, Life Beyond Horizons

J Stephen Frey

*(photograph courtesy of Olivia Kay Photography used with permission)

 

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