April 29, 2018 Why Churches Struggle



Why do some churches struggle and others seem to flourish? In some respects New Salem is flourishing. There is a great deal of genuine love and care among the members here, for example. Another respect is that the teaching is solid and biblical. Βut in other respects it is not flourishing. It is struggling as are many churches in our land.


Considering all churches in the U.S. an incredible 9 out of 10 are either diminishing in attendance or are remaining the same. However, the population in most parts of the nation is always increasing. Therefore, for a church to remain the same in number actually means that it is shrinking with respect to the size of the community that it is in.  Of course, the numerical growth of a church is not the only measurement of church health. But, it is one and it is, it turns out, an important one.


There are bad churches. When I say “bad” I mainly mean churches that have left their biblical foundations and no longer heed what God has spoken in His word. Those churches should diminish and should close their doors if they will not repent and return to God’s word as their guide!


Southern Baptists, however, are not in much better shape than the rest of the churches when it comes to growth. Each year between 900 and 1000 churches close their doors. They die. And they are not just churches in small rural communities, as you might expect. They are churches in all kinds of communities: urban, suburbs, and country. There is some good news. Southern Baptists are planting, on average, about 1100 churches each year. So, by a very small margin, we are ahead each year as far as the number of churches goes. But, there is more bad news. Baptisms are a good measurement of church growth because baptism is part of the commission that Jesus gave to us. Baptism is the response to the gospel that the local church should be declaring. Today, the church is baptizing the fewest number of people as a ratio to the population since 1899!


Evangelistically, we were most engaged in 1955 when there were 25 baptisms for every 10,000 people in the United States. The second highest was 1950 when there were 24 ½. Third was 1959 when there were 24. Clearly, the 1950’s were a time of growth for Southern Baptists. Fourth highest was 1972 at 21 ½.  Does anyone remember what happened in the early and mid-seventies? It was the Jesus Movement. There were many conversions throughout our land at that time. The Spirit was moving and there was a revival. I was saved during that era, in 1975. By the way, the total number of baptisms in 1972 among SB’s was about 45,000. Praise God! 45,000 added to the kingdom in just one year! That is marvelous! That exceeds even the baptisms in the 50’s because the population was, obviously, larger in the 70’s.


Since 1972, the number of baptisms has decreased and has continued to decrease with a pronounced decline starting in the year 2000. In the year 2000 there were only 15 baptisms per 10,000 people. In the year 2005 there were 12 ½. And in 2015 year there were only 10. The last time there were 10 was 1899. Nationally, in 2016, we baptized 5% fewer people than we did in 2015. As far as evangelism is concerned, Baptists are doing worse than we have done in about 120 years!


There is more bad news.  Church membership declined by 77,786 people in 2016. Not only that, but only 1/3 of church members attended church regularly in 2016. There were 15.2 million members but only 5.2 million attended church.


Evangelical churches are struggling. Baptist churches are struggling. New Salem is struggling. Why are we? Like most answers to most questions, there is more than one answer. However, there is one factor that is predominant. If this one difficulty could be overcome then the church would cease to struggle with respect to its growth. We will always have struggles in other areas, as all churches do but, with respect to a healthy growth, we will see positive results.


Just a few years ago a pastor and evangelist was asked to help plant a new church in Idaho. Idaho is a great state. We used to live in Washington, which is right next to Idaho. We had good friends in Eastern Washington, not too far from the Idaho border. A couple of times we went with them to a big amusement park, called Silverwood, near Coeur D’Alene.  Those were fun times. Idaho also is famous for its potatoes, my favorite vegetable. I can eat mashed potatoes ‘til the cows come home and after they come home, too! So, this man, Jim Putman, before committing to help plant a church in Post Falls, Idaho – a suburb of Coeur D’Alene – wanted to impress upon those who asked the necessity of a certain matter. Without a commitment to a certain truth he would not help. Those who called upon him agreed.


I don’t know how many they started with to plant the church. Typically, church plants begin with just three or four families and maybe a few single persons, too. It is safe to say they started with less than 25 people.  The church plant took place around the year 2000. By 2010 there were 8,000 members. What did Jim get them to agree to and what did they do?


They agreed to not simply share the gospel with others, something that most church members are not even doing, but they agreed to disciple others and to teach those who they discipled to disciple others. They did it. The church grew.


The reason that churches struggle, the reason that New Salem struggles, is because the members are not discipling people. Without discipleship, any growth the church sees will only be temporary. Soon, newcomers will leave.


Let me say this as plainly as I can. The reason New Salem is struggling is because you, the members, are not sharing the gospel and not discipling those who come. It is not the leadership (although, we too, can do a better job at discipling).  We have three elders here. I know for a fact that all three of us share the gospel when the opportunity arises. We also disciple those who desire to be discipled. Ed has a class on Sunday evening for this purpose. It doesn’t matter if only three or four people in a church seek to fulfill the Great Commission. The church needs to be doing it. That means that you must do it. Who is at fault for a struggling church? When you go home today, go to your bathroom and look in the mirror. There is your answer. I preach to myself as much as to you.


It is not just the church in Post Falls, Idaho that found success. It is all churches where the members, all the members, take the Great Commission to heart and obey the Lord instead of just showing up at the meetings of the church. Don’t underestimate just showing up. It is important. It is so important that Jesus and the apostles not only recommended it, but commanded it! So, if you are showing up, you are doing the right thing. But showing up is not enough! Just showing up equals struggling to survive. I don’t want to struggle! I want to thrive! How about you?


We need to be reminded of the Great Commission. Turn to Matthew 28:18-20.


18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [1]


In verse 19 Jesus says, “Go therefore…”.  When the word therefore appears in a text we need to ask why it is there for.  It links what follows with what just came before. It explains that an action must be done because of something. Because Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and on earth we must go and make disciples.


Because he has all authority he has commanded us to go and make disciples.


Because he has all authority he can and does impart that authority to those he sends so that they are able to make disciples. We see that Jesus had given authority to his twelve disciples earlier in the gospels.


7 And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.[2]


By telling his disciples that he has been given all authority on heaven and earth he is telling them that they now have the authority to make disciples. However, it is not just the original twelve who were given this commission and the authority. It is all the followers of the Lord Jesus from that time until “the end of the age.” That is, until Jesus returns.


Another important truth in this passage is that Jesus didn’t just send out his disciples to simply preach the gospel, as important as that it.  Proclaiming the gospel is essential but it is only the first step. The command is to make disciples. Disciples are made when people answer the gospel call, committing themselves to the Lord Jesus Christ, and then are taught by the one who reached out to them the things that Jesus taught.


Neither is it just the leaders of the church who have this commission. All followers of Jesus have received it. These things can be seen lived out in the early church.


And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. 3 But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.

4 Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.[3]


Look at verse 1. Who was scattered? Ans: the church in Jerusalem. Who was not scattered? Ans: the apostles. What did the scattered church do? Ans: They preached the word!


It wasn’t the leaders, the apostles, who went about preaching the word here. It was the common church members.


The Great Commission is for you!


The reason churches struggle, the reason New Salem struggles, is because we are not obeying the commission that the Lord has given us. If you wish to see New Salem thrive then you need to be sharing the gospel and making disciples. There is no other way!


As soon as almost any Christian duty is communicated, but especially discipleship, the excuses begin. Excuses like:


            “I don’t have time.”  Let me say it plainly. If you do not have time then your priorities are wrong.  The disciples in the book of Acts had time to preach the word and disciple others. Yet, they worked longer hours than we do and had no modern conveniences. They had no washing machines, no mechanized transportation, no mechanized farming equipment, no dishwashing machines. Still, they farmed, raised livestock, or ran a business, made meals, cleaned up, all without modern conveniences. And they found the time to share the gospel. If they could do it then you can do it. Not only did they do it, but they met every day! (Acts 2:46) We are not doing that. All those days we are not meeting are available to you.


I realize that if you have a large family then it can be challenging.  After working all day, running children around to various activities, and studying your Bible there can be little time left. But, it can be done. You can do what the men who discipled me did. They included me in some of their family activities. While I was there, we talked about the doctrines of God. I was able to see what a life lived for Christ looked like.


Sometimes, activities that we think need to be separated may be combined.


Another excuse is:


            “I am a private person.” In other words, “It is not part of my personality to be vocal or to talk to people much.” Let me speak plainly again. Simply because we are not comfortable with something cannot be an excuse for disobedience. Moreover, the reason why we are not comfortable with some things is not so much because of our disposition. It has far more to do with what we have become accustomed. We are not comfortable talking to people because we seldom do it. If you do it, after a few times it will no longer be uncomfortable.  Like the Nike slogan, “Just do it!” That is a good slogan! Just do it!


Another is:


            “I don’t know enough.” Or, “I wouldn’t be able to answer their questions.” These are the easiest excuses to answer. If you are a Christian then you already know more than one who is not.  Never let your lack of knowledge keep you from doing what is good and right. You do not need to be concerned about answering questions. If someone asks you a question that you do not know the answer to then it is just an opportunity to find the answer. “I don’t know but I will find out” is a beautiful sentence that always works!


One more:


            “I don’t know how to start.” At the ReThink Conference that we attended last week, one of the speakers shared a great question that you can ask any person. It is this : “What do you think happens after you die?” This question is good because, no matter what answer they give you, it informs you of what they believe and give you an opportunity to share with them what does happen after they die. (There will be a judgment by God and every person will have to answer for there sins.) You have authority to speak and this authority was given to you by Christ. Use it!


I’ve never used that line. But I think it is a very good one and I am going to start using it.


It’s not up to the “pastor” or elders to make the church grow. It depends upon the working of the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit works through every member functioning in their calling to make disciples. In other words, we all must heed the Lord’s call.


I leave you with this encouraging word. Remember the Lord’s words in Matthew 28:20 – “Behold, I am with you always…” Why were these the last words of our Lord? Because he knew that his commission could not be carried out without his presence and power! The Lord is with you! As soon as you say one word on his behalf, He is with you, giving you the words, the peace, and the power.


Let us throw away our excuses and live in his power. Then we will thrive.








[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 28:18–20). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mk 6:7). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ac 8:1–4). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.