Becoming Great Again


One of the presidential candidates has a slogan. It is “Make America Great Again.” Although one might say that America is still great, it is certainly true that our nation is not as great as it once was. Just looking at its recent history, it can be argued that due to an amazingly high trade imbalance with China, 50,000 factories have closed in the U.S. over the past several years and tens of millions of jobs have been lost. The trade imbalance means that we are importing from China many more goods than we are exporting. This means that we, the people, are sending more money into China  than money is coming to us from China. As a matter of fact the trade imbalance is (choose one): a) 5 million, b) 50 million, c) 500 million, d) 5 billion, e) 50 billion? Answer: 50 billion. Over what period of time? Answer: per month!! Our immigration policy is such that the safety of the American people is put at great jeopardy as we see terrorist plots against us enacted on our own soil in Ft. Hood, Texas, San Bernardino, California, and Orlando, Florida. For all we know, St. Louis may be next. Our veterans are literally dying because of a lack of health care. The very administration that was designed to care for them has neglected them. Our second amendment rights, guaranteed by both the Constitution and the Bible (the right to defend ourselves and our families even with deadly force) have eroded. And, the greatest diminishment of greatness is the moral depravity that has overtaken our country. The federal government and some states have enacted laws that codify wickedness. Then other states that still have a moral foundation, have passed laws that restrict or end the “legal” promotion of wicked behavior only to have those laws overturned by a federal judge. If the judge’s verdict is appealed it may eventually reach the Supreme Court where the local or state law will be struck down because of  an imaginary constitutional right. The presidential candidate mentioned has promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who will not invent constitutional rights that are not there, but who will honor the actual Constitution. But today’s message is not about supporting any particular candidate. I begin only by recognizing that America is not as great as it once was. It is floundering and it is in danger. It is a virtuous thing to desire our nation to be great again. The notion and reality of nations are from God. They are not merely the invention of men. When the apostle Paul was preaching at Mars hill he makes this statement about God:


            And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place,

(Acts 17:26 ESV)


Boundaries and borders are good things. Nations are good things. However, there are divinely ordained entities that are better than nations. One is the family. The family with a father, a mother, and children has been ordained by the Lord and is the absolute best environment for both the development of a person and the contentment of its members. Other living arrangements, such as single parent households, single persons of the same sex living together in order to lesson the burden of rent and utilities, and single persons living alone can all be blessed by God but, with the exception of those who have been called to celibacy for an absolute service to God and His kingdom, those are all temporary arrangements and a complete family should be the goal. Dr. Laura has said that a two-parent household with mediocre parents is better than a single parent household with an exceptional parent.


The other entity that is better than a nation is the church. The church has been created and ordained by God to both bless his people and to reach others with the life-saving gospel. It is not a man-made institution. It is from God, loved by God, headed by Christ and it is the means for all spiritual goodness. It is better to be part of a mediocre church than to not be part of a church or to be a person who only attends church occasionally and finds all kinds of reasons not to meet with God’s people every Lord’s Day.


Is anyone here satisfied with America being a mediocre country, leaving its greatness behind? I hope we are not. We should do what we can to restore America’s greatness economically and, especially, in following God’s moral law, which is for every nation and for which America was once known. Sadly, no longer.


Similarly, are we satisfied with New Salem being a mediocre church? I am afraid that is what we have become. We are not alone. Mediocre and diminishing churches are many. Misery loves company, but this is not our calling. Let us make New Salem great again!


I was blessed to attend the small church pastor’s conference two weeks ago. It was timely, for it was both a learning experience and there was an equipping to deal with some problems small churches often experience. Allow me to share with you some alarming statistics.


When 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 community 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 24½. Third was 1959 when there were 24. Clearly, the 1950’s were a time of growth for Southern Baptists. Fourth highest was 1972 at 2½.  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 seemed to be moving and there was a revival of sorts. I was saved during that era, in 1975. By the way, the total number of baptisms in 1972 amongt 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, last year (2015) there were only 10. The last time there were 10 was 1899. Presently and sadly, we are at the bottom of more than a century of evangelism.


There are other reasons for the decline and death of churches. Wisely, church leaders are not simply sitting by and letting this happen. Research has been done in the SBC to determine the causative factors in church decline.  In one study, eight reasons were identified. Do you know what did not make it even into the top eight? Reasons that people often give. Such as a secular, antagonistic culture and poor church leadership. Maybe some churches do decline for those reasons, but that is not what the research manifested.


There are four main reasons churches decline. This morning I would like to talk about two of those.


[I] Gary Mathes facilitated the conference we recently attended and he shared an experience that speaks volumes. He was asked to speak at a church in a Missouri town, which he accepted. He had never been to this town before but had no trouble getting to it. However, once there, he wasn’t able to locate the church building. He tried calling the contact person but his call went to voice mail. Try as he might he could not locate it. He was scheduled to speak at 6:30 and it was already 6:10 so he started getting nervous. He saw a McDonald’s and stopped in. He gave them the name of the church and politely asked if they knew where it was. The girl behind the counter did not. She asked some of her co-workers. They didn’t know. Gary asked a customer. He didn’t know. Next he drove down the street a short way and stopped at a convenience store. He asked the person behind the counter and they did not know where it was. Again, he asked a customer. Neither did they. Now he was panicking. It was 6:20 and he didn’t know what to do. Finally, his contact person called him. Gary calmly told him that he needed help finding the church building. He asked him where he was. He told him the name of the street. The contact asked Gary if he could see a McDonald’s. He said yes. Then the caller said, “Look just behind the McDonald’s. Do you see a steeple?” “Yes, I do.” Said Gary. “That is our church,” was the reply.


Here was a church in the midst of a community and no one around it even knew it was there. One reason why churches die is they are irrelevant to the community. Another way of saying this is that they fail to serve the community.


I strongly believe that New Salem does not have this problem. We care about Winfield and Lincoln County. We care about people. I’ve said this before, but Josie and I were deeply impressed with the warmth and love that we sensed the first time we visited. That was a long time ago, now, but things have not changed in this respect. Two of our ministries reflect our involvement in the community. Our Back-To-School Giveaway serves the needs of the less fortunate in providing educational supplies to children as well as clothes, backpacks, and many other items. The community appreciates this ministry and word-of-mouth keeps bringing more parents and children to us in the fall.


Our Product Pantry, a monthly ministry, similarly helps those who most need help. Many in Troy even know where New Salem is located if they have needs that we can help with.


I want to personally thank Angela and Shari for all the work they do in making the Back-to-School Giveaway successful.


I also want to thank Evelyn, Suzanne, Shari, Jessica, Stephanie, Nora, and Ed Scott for their faithfulness in working and ministering at the Product Pantry. I want to thank Billie for beginning that ministry.


We do serve the community and we do so by God’s rich grace.


[II.] Thom S. Rainer, a pastor and President of Lifeway Resources, shared an experience he had as a boy growing up in a small town in the South. A country club was opening in his town. It was going to have a swimming pool, a restaurant, a lounge, and meeting rooms. Later, the owners were planning on adding a 9-hole golf course, which they did two years later. It was not an upscale club, just a small enterprise offering a few amenities to the town. But Thom was excited about it. His parents joined. Thom felt like he had “arrived.” There was no swimming pool in his town and neither did anyone have one in their yards. The burgers at the country club were good and they could have birthday parties in one of the meeting rooms.

Thom learned that membership meant perks. Membership means privileges. Membership means I will get served. Just pay the dues and get the privileges.


This understanding of membership is what many people have of the church. This is the second reason churches die. The members have a view of the church that is greatly out of kilter.


“I am a member of this church and you must play the music the way I want it.”


“My needs are not being met.”


“I am not being served well here.”


Many have a view of church membership that is more in line with a country club membership than with a biblical view of church membership. For many, membership is about:


  • Receiving instead of giving
  • Being served rather than serving
  • Rights instead of responsibilities
  • Entitlements instead of sacrifices.


They see tithes and offerings as membership dues that entitle them to privileges instead of cheerful gifts to God Himself.


This view of church membership results in people leaving whenever they perceive their needs are not being met. This same low view of marriage results in partners leaving whenever they perceive their needs are not being met. But neither church nor marriage is about you. They are about the other person.


What is the biblical view of the church?


[A.] Like marriage, the church is a divine organism. It is divine in two ways. It was originated by God and it is filled with the Spirit of God, which is to say that it is filled with God. God’s presence is here. It is more of an organism than an organization because of the Spirit of Christ that operates within each member.


The church is the Lord’s ordained means of both reaching the world and transforming those who belong to Christ into His image. Without the church these things will not be accomplished.


[B.] As an organism, we are all necessary parts of a whole. When the apostle Paul speaks of church members in I Corinthians 12, he does not mean members as in members of a gym or a country club or a political organization. He likens us to members of a human body, the body of Christ. (12:27-28)


[C.] Membership means that we are different but we still work together. We all have different gifts and talents. I cannot do what Angela does and neither can I do

what Sid, Maggie, or Amy do. You have a gift that the Lord desires for you to exercise. We are different in our spiritual maturity; some are weak, some are strong. Most are in-between. We need one another both in function and support.


[D.] Membership means that everything we say and do issues from love. After I Corinthians 12 comes I Corinthians 13, the chapter about love. The context of chapter 13 is the church. Paul knew that for the church to succeed, we need love. “Love is patient. Love is kind.” Those six words alone are enough to change a local church if taken to heart.


[E.] Finally, every member is a functioning member, not an attendee. Do you know how to remain a member of a country club? Pay your dues. Do that and people will be able to serve you. Do you know how to remain a biblical member of a church? By giving abundantly and serving without hesitation.[1]


Many people remain on church rolls and you hardly see them on Sunday mornings. Similarly, many do faithfully attend but that is all that they do. These types of membership are not God’s design.


  • Biblical membership gives without qualification.
  • It views tithes and offerings as a joy and a privilege to participate in God’s work on earth.
  • It serves.


Biblical membership is functioning membership. One reason why churches die is because too many become spectators and do not function.


We must serve the church in the capacity in which God has called us. That will look different for each person. One question you should ask God in prayer is “How can I best serve my church?” One question we should never ask God, or ourselves, is “Should I serve my church?” Why? Because that answer has already been given by the Lord.


Here, brothers and sisters, is where New Salem fails. This is where we are in danger of losing our lampstand. Therefore, I am calling upon all to either recommit yourselves to God’s purpose in the church or to have a commitment that maybe you did not have before.


We can make New Salem great again! We will by God’s help!


Therefore, I am going to ask everyone to take a pledge. As you read this pledge you will see that it is nothing more than what God has called each one of us to do all along. It is just that we have gotten sidetracked.


I hope you all will do your part as authentic citizens of our nation to make our country great again. I hope you will become involved in supporting those candidates right now and in the fall who will make a difference. Christians should be the best citizens and citizens expend effort and resources to support their community and their nation.


More than this, though, I hope you will each do your part as members of Christ to make the church great again. Taking this pledge is a first step in order to do that. This is not for you to turn in. This is for your own benefit, to remind you of your joyful part in God’s work on earth. Take the time now to sign this pledge and put it on your bathroom mirror so that this will not simply be a one-week phase that comes and goes.


Let’s make New Salem great again!


The First Pledge


Because I am a member of the Body of Christ and its local expression, New Salem church, I must be a functioning member.


As a functioning member, I will give. I will serve. I will minister. I will share the gospel. I will study. I will choose to subordinate my leisure time to the work in God’s church to which I have been called.


I will seek to be a blessing to others.


All these things I pledge to do, and will do, by the Lord’s grace and by His Spirit.






















[1] This paragraph is taken from the book, I Am a Church Member, by Thom S. Rainer.