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August 5, 2018 The Incredible Shrinking Church

 

 

Scripture reading: Revelation 3:1-6; Matthew 9:37-38.

 

[I. Introduction] I am presently reading a book entitled The Incredible Shrinking Church.[1] It is quite eye-opening. Some of the things that I will communicate this morning have come from this book.

 

Churches in America are in numerical decline. I refer to the size of individual churches, not the number of churches. Actually, decline is too polite of a word. The large majority of churches are on life-support. Or, to use another analogy, they are like a black hole[2] that sucks light from surrounding areas and doesn’t let it out.

 

The quite alarming statistics are these: Eighty-five percent of churches in America are either declining or remaining the same size for a long time. Regarding those that are staying the same: since the communities that they exist in are growing, if they have come to a plateau then this means practically that they have declined. Among Baptist churches, about 1000 close their doors each year!

 

Why does this happen? And, are we going to do anything about it? If we are in the 85% (we are!) can we turn things around? I will reveal why churches shrink. I will also reveal what can be done. With respect to the last question – Can we turn things around? – I have good news and bad news. The good news is that the answer is YES! The bad news is that it is not easy and it takes a change in the mindset of all (or most) of the members, not simply church leadership.

 

[II.] Why do churches shrink? There are two primary reasons. The first one is that when members of a church have a self-centered state of mind rather than a God-centered frame of reference then this will result in either people leaving or in the second reason for the diminishment of the church or, more likely, both! (The second reason will be given shortly.)

 

A problem that arises is that most people do not think they are self-centered. People tend to think the best about themselves and the worst about others.  If you ask the average Christian, “Do you think you are self-centered?”, most would either say no or would say something like, “I try not to be.” They would be voicing humility but most would actually think that they are not. But since 85% of churches are shrinking, and if this is the primary reason, then the fact is that most Christians are self-centered.

 

Oh! Let us awaken to our own condition! We must reject our self-centeredness! It is our death knoll!

 

Besides the raw statistics, what are some of the evidences of being self-oriented rather than placing Christ first in all things? Consider ten reasons why people leave a church. These are not in any particular order.

 

  • Too much conflict
  • Perception of cliques
  • Not feeling appreciated
  • Don’t like the music
  • Too much preaching against sin
  • Hypocrisy
  • Feel lonely in it
  • Offended by something the preacher said
  • Offended by something someone else said
  • Offended by some action the church took

 

What do these ten reasons all have in common? They all have to do with something the person who leaves doesn’t like. If you forsake a commitment because of something that you do not like this is indicative of being self-focused. Proof that this is true is that when a person leaves a church for one of these reasons they will then leave the church that they go to next for a similar reason.

 

The second reason is given by Frank Page in these words: “These churches have lost their spiritual passion and become inwardly focused.”[3] You can see that there is a relationship between reason one and reason two. What does he mean by “spiritual passion”? Answer: The Great Commission! When the members of a local church cease to obey the Great Commission the church begins to die.

 

Consider this amazing fact: The older a church is the greater the likelihood that it will shrink! The newer a church is the greater the likelihood that it will grow. Isn’t that extremely interesting? Why is that true?

 

At what point in a church’s age does it begin to go from a growing church to either a stagnating church or a shrinking church? Take a guess. Answer: 20 years. After 20 years, on average, a church will begin to plateau. At some point later it will begin to decline. These ages are on average. There are, of course, probably many exceptions. But, why do older churches shrink?

 

The answer is reason number one! When a church is planted, those who plant the church (usually just a handful of families and maybe some sold-out-for-the-Lord single people) are on fire for the kingdom of God! They are not self-centered. They are planting a church and investing their lives for the glory of God!

 

They are also intent and committed to fulfilling the Great Commission. They go about sharing the gospel and discipling those who respond.[4] Those who come to faith through their outreach are taught and discipled to do the same. New churches grow because the members are deeply committed to it and to evangelism and discipleship.

 

Older churches have members who become lackadaisical and who do not evangelize.

 

[III.] How do older churches turn themselves around? The answer is to get their passion back and to live for the glory of God - to live for the fulfillment of the commission that Christ has given to every disciple of his – this means you and me.

 

And to the angel of the church in Sardis write: ‘The words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.

“ ‘I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. 2 Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God. 3 Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you. 4 Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. 5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. 6 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ [5]

The first matter that we must see is that the “him” of verse 1 is Jesus. Jesus is the one who has the seven spirits of God and he has the seven stars. The seven spirits represent the seven-fold, intensified Spirit of God that is present to see and act in each of the seven churches. The seven starts represent the messengers to each of the churches. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit and Jesus sends the messengers.

 

Then Jesus says, “I know your works.” Jesus is looking at our works right now! What are your works? What are you doing? Are you watching TV or on the internet? It is not wrong to watch a show on television nor is it wrong to be on social media. But, if that is mostly what you are doing rather than working to expand the kingdom of the Lord Jesus right here, then know that Jesus is seeing your works!!

 

He says that the church in Sardis has a reputation for being alive. Is this not the reputation of most evangelical churches? The Roman Catholic Church and the older, liberal Protestant churches sometimes (most times?) have a reputation for being dead. But evangelical churches often have a reputation for being alive. Some are! Praise God for that! But having a reputation and having the reality are two different things. I fear that many evangelical churches, including our own, mistake doctrinal correctness for “being alive.” Not the same thing! Correct doctrine is important. But it is not the same as being alive!

 

Jesus says about Sardis, “You are dead.” What would he say about us? I am not sure. I hope he would not say it. But I fear he may! Oh Lord!! WE DO NOT WANT TO BE DEAD! WE WANT TO BE ALIVE! WE DESIRE TO LIVE FOR YOU! ENLIVEN US!! ENLIVEN US!!!

 

Then Jesus says, “Wake up!”  I believe that this word is for us! Wake up, men and women of God! Wake up, New Salem!

 

I asked the question, “How do we turn ourselves around?” Here then are the first two things we must do.

 

[1.] We must know that the resurrected Christ is watching us. We are not just some social club. We are a lampstand. Christ is walking among us! He knows our works.

 

[2.] We must wake up! We have been slumbering. Not all here. But many here have been slumbering. Wake up!

 

Then he says,

 

[3.] “Strengthen what remains and is about to die.” It is up to you and me to strengthen what remains.

 

How do we strengthen what remains? I am going to tell you this, too.

 

Just as in Sardis, there is something that remains here. We have mostly, I believe genuine followers of the Lord Jesus Christ here.

 

  • This means the Spirit of God is dwelling within each one.
  • We have the Scriptures, God’s precious word!
  • We have good, biblical doctrine being taught here.
  • We have Spirit-filled musicians to lead us in worship.
  • We have love among the members. We love one another.

 

These things remain and are a foundation so that we can be strengthened, standing upon the truth.

 

How do we do it? The answer is in our other passage.

 

Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” [6]

Jesus tells us to pray to the Lord to send out laborers. Who are the “laborers”? The laborers are not somebody else! The laborers are us! The laborers are you! This is shown by the parallel passage in Luke 10:2-3 in verse 3 Jesus says, “Go on your way. I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves.”

 

Again, in John 4:38 he says,

 

I have sent you out to harvest a field that you haven’t planted… (Passion Version)

 

How do we strengthen what remains?

 

[A.] We are to pray that we will go out to harvest the white fields! We can pray this prayer for ourselves as individuals. “Lord, send me out to harvest what you have planted. Bring opportunities to me this day.  Help me to see the opportunities.” We can pray for others in our church. “Lord, send many out in our church into the harvest. Give them a heart to reach the lost.”

 

[B.] Second, we commit to stop being self-centered and we commit to reaching out. In other words, we do what Jesus told the church at Sardis to do. We repent! (Rev 3:3)

 

[C.] We prepare ourselves to share the gospel. We all know the gospel. We only need a very small amount of preparation.[7]

 

This is how we strengthen what remains. We pray. We repent – we repent by committing ourselves to the Great Commission. We prepare.

 

[4.] The last step in turning ourselves around is actually talking to people about the Lord. In other words, actually going, actually teaching people, actually making disciples. Not just talking about it. Doing it!

 

Do not excuse yourself by saying that you do not know enough or you do not have a certain gift. If you have even read one book out of the Bible – Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Genesis – any book – then you know more than the average person. And, you neither need the gift of teaching nor the gift of evangelism to do them. Some of you have read the entire New Testament. Some of you have read the entire Bible. Some of you have been attending church for years and have heard hundreds of sermons. You know enough already!

 

[IV. Conclusion] We must decode whether we are going to be a statistic or whether we are going to get our fire back. If we are going to get our fire back and turn around then this is what we must do:

 

  • We must have an awareness that the resurrected Christ is watching us.
  • We must wake up!
  • We must strengthen what is about to die. We do strengthen ourselves, through the Holy Spirit, by praying, by committing ourselves to the Great Commission, and by preparing.
  • Lastly, we must actually do it, not just talk about it, not just dream about it. This means we open our mouths. Stop being a secret agent Christian.

 

To these ends I have a sample prayer for each of us to say daily and a diagram of the Four Circles, a simple gospel presentation.

 

“Lord Jesus, you are the Lord of the harvest. The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. I beseech you, Lord, to send out laborers into the harvest. We are the laborers. I ask you to send out many from our church into the harvest. I have been called to be one of the laborers. Send me out into the harvest.

 

Make a divine appointment for me today. Make me aware of it. Give me the boldness to speak for you. Fill me with your Spirit so that I may speak.

 

Lord, enliven me and revive us!

 

Yours is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory! Make me a laborer in your kingdom and not a spectator.

 

In your holy name I pray.”

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Page, Frank, and John Perry. The Incredible Shrinking Church. Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2008.

 

[2] Frank Page wrote this book from a presentation that he used to do that he called The Black Hole Baptist Church.

[3] The Incredible Shrinking Church, p 8.

[4] See the sermons, Why Churches Struggle (http://nsbcwinfield.com/april_29_2018_why_churches_struggle) and The Method of Jesus (http://nsbcwinfield.com/march_22_2015).

[5] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Re 3:1–6). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[6] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Mt 9:37–38). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[7] See the sermon Four Circles for an easy-to-remember gospel presentation: http://nsbcwinfield.com/march_20_2016