Becoming Great Again

Part Three


[I. Introduction] The church was once great. How was it great? It was growing. In the United States, considering evangelical churches, between the years 1880 and 1980 the church grew as the numbers of baptisms and those in church membership continued to increase. The two decades from 1980 to 2000 showed a plateau. That is, baptisms remained about the same for those 20 years. However, the population was increasing so this was not a good sign. Among Southern Baptists, the number of baptisms has not only declined each year from 2000 to 2014, but has declined rapidly: from about 410,000 baptisms in 1999 to about 300,000 baptisms in 2014.


The church was also great in its faithfulness to the laws of God. There have always been incidents of disobedience in the history of the church but, by and large, the evangelical church resisted society’s moral decline, even though some mainline denominations allowed themselves to conform to the culture rather than remaining true to the Scriptures. Today, however, even evangelical churches have left their moorings and are accepting society’s norms rather than God’s norms. In this message, though, I wish to focus upon the steep decline in growth.


The life of the church is not well in the U.S. It is much worse in England and Europe. In England, from the years 1993 to 2003 church attendance dropped by 22%! Presently, only 2.5% of the population is attending a Bible-believing church and only 6.3% are attending any kind of church at all. In 2004 an alarming thing occurred. In that year the number of people meeting in mosques was greater than the number of people meeting in Christian churches! In England, once the bastion of the Christian faith throughout the world!


If these trends continue both England and the European nations will be Muslim in 40 years. Do not think, “It can’t happen here.” England started its stagnation and decline in the 1950’s, only 30 years before ours.


Researchers have determined four main reasons for the decline of churches here in the USA. Last week we considered the main reason for shrinking and dying churches: disobedience to the Great Commission. The members of a church in decline church stop sharing the gospel. This failure characterizes New Salem. If we want to make New Salem great again we all, each one of us, must seek to “go and make disciples.” If we fail to do this then we will become one of those 900 to 1000 SBC churches that close their doors permanently each year.


The week prior to last, we spoke about two of the other reasons. Today, we must face the fourth reason. Allow me to give you some new facts about the state of the church in the U.S., which will shed light on our last reason for the church dying.

These facts come from the Barna Group, one of the most careful and reputable polling firms. For those who are in their 20s’ and who attended church regularly in their teen years:


  • 61% become “spiritually disengaged,” meaning they no longer attend church, read their Bibles, or pray regularly.
  • Only 20% of those who were attended church regularly as teenagers continue to do so in their 20s’.
  • This means that 19% stay loosely connected. They may attend church occasionally, but they are not actively serving God.
  • This means that only 1 out of 5 children of regularly attending church members will continue in the faith in a faithful way.


[II.] What these statistics reveal is that we are failing to disciple our own children. This is the fourth reason churches die. The parents fail to disciple their own children. I say the parents fail because it is the parents responsibility to disciple their children, not the local church (unless the parents of attending middle-schoolers and teens are not Christians, then some in the church must take up the challenge). The church will help, but even if a teen comes to church every Sunday and attends Sunday School faithfully, she is still only receiving about 90 minutes of instruction per week compared to 40 hours or more per week from other sources like public school, television, etc.


Some theologically minded folk may respond to these gloomy statistics by saying that the parents can do everything right and their children may still fall away because they have not been born again. This is true. Unless a young person’s heart has been made alive by the Holy Spirit we should not be surprised that they do not continue to meet with the covenant community of the Living Christ. However, this kind of response misses three important points.


[1.] The problem is not some church members not being born anew. That has always been true and there may even be some parents among us who are just coming to church because their parents did or because their wife and husband do. The problem is a failure to disciple our children. The result of that is 1 out of 5 will leave the church when they leave home.


[2.] Proverbs 22:6 says:


            Train up a child in the way he should go;

                        even when he is old he will not depart from it.


This verse is about discipling your children. Have you ever known children of Christian parents who seemed to bring them up right but the children abandon the faith and even cast aside the morals that they were taught? I think most of us do know some children like this and we may even have a child like this. It is a heartbreaking thing because we know with certainty that they will have to suffer the consequences of such a path both in this life and the life to come.


We even know some children of Christian parents who die in such a condition as I have thus described.


Since we know children who take the wrong path after being trained, has the promise of God failed? The answer is no because this is not a promise. It is a proverb. Do not confuse a promise with a proverb. There are promises in the Scriptures. Those will not fail. It is impossible for those to fail. But proverbs are not promises.


What is a proverb? A proverb is something that is generally true. It is true most often, but not always. Consider the contemporary proverb, “Haste makes waste.” What is this proverb communicating? It is saying that if you rush through a task then it will often turn out with mistakes. You will waste resources because whatever it is you are trying to do could have been done better with greater care and planning. On the other hand, haven’t you done something quickly and it turned out fine? I think we all have. It is just that there is a greater likelihood of things not turning out well if you rush through it.


It is the same with biblical proverbs. When you train up a child in the way that they should go there is a greater likelihood that they will stay true to it, especially when they get older and are able to see the wisdom in your instruction that they may have thought purposeless in their younger years.


This, then, is the second reason that the “well, some children have not been born again” response does not address our problem: We are encouraged and commanded to train up our children in the ways of the Lord. This is what we are called to do. (See also Deut. 6:4-9 and Ephesians 6:1-4)


This brings us to the third reason why such a response does not address the problem.


[3.] Training up our children in the ways of the Lord, including participation and commitment to a local church, will keep them in the midst of Christ’s covenant community where they are exposed to the means of grace. What are some of those means of grace? Things like the counsel of godly men and women, the hearing of God’s word expounded publicly, the reminder of our need for Christ’s sacrifice through the Lord’s Supper, and the refutation of wicked moral principles that are being promulgated by a rebellious culture.


The very best place for both our underage children and our adult children to come to a living, transforming faith in Christ is in the church. Hence, even though some or most of our children may not have had a supernatural change in their hearts yet, being associated with the church, which is the “pillar and base of the truth” (I Tim. 3:15), is the best place for that to occur.


Let me tell you a story about a typical girl in the church.[1] Susan is in fifth grade and she loves it. Typical of children her age, her learning curve seems to be going straight up. She loves making friends; she loves reading books; she loves her mom and dad (though she’s not sure about her big brothers that pick on her); and she loves Jesus . . .. sort of. In all honesty, she’s not too sure about Jesus right now. Yes, Susan grew up in the Church and faithfully attended with her family on a regular basis. For the last several years she has enjoyed the bliss of faith as a child. Now, however, on the verge of adolescence, she is beginning to make her faith her own . . . or not. Her spiritual life is hanging in the balance and no one even knows that’s the case.

On Monday morning, with a ponytail sticking out from the side of her head and her favorite cartoon character embossed on her backpack, Susan will go to school.

At school, Susan learns many things. She learns about history, mathematics, language, and science—both observational and historical science. She learns the science from men and women who wear white coats and safety glasses. They use test tubes and Bunsen burners. They dissect animals and use microscopes to look at cells, and they carry clipboards under their arms to record all of their scientific findings. To Susan, they look smart. They do research. They test hypotheses. They prove them with their experiments. Susan knows that these people deal with real things—things that you can touch and feel—the kinds of things that matter. She spends many hours per week learning from these people. And she sees that they are dealing with fact. Because of this, when the same people talk about the history of the universe, dinosaurs, fossils, the origin of life, and the like, and interpret them in a particular way (e.g., millions of years and evolution)—Susan thinks they are speaking with the same authority as when they discuss their observational science that involves what you can observe and experiment with directly. Susan can’t discern the difference between observational and historical (origins) science; to her, it is all science. And, that is how it is usually presented anyway.


On Sunday morning Susan’s mom and dad will dress her up and take her to church. For two hours or so, she will enjoy the company of friends under the care of committed Christian volunteers. To Susan, they look nice. They read stories to her. She is not sure if they are true or not—but they are nice stories. They don’t really connect to reality and they come from an old book anyway. They help her with her crafts. They sing songs together. Susan knows that these are good people and that they are teaching her about things that can’t be seen. They tell her what to believe about many things.


However, there is a very strong likelihood she will get the idea she can believe in millions of years. Yes, this is a Bible-believing church after all. Or they will tell her what the Bible says, but they don’t tell her why to believe. No charts, no time-lines, no experiments. She’s learning about things that she can’t touch or feel, and she’s not entirely sure anymore that these things really matter. All in all, Susan will get less than 30 minutes of focused, spiritual input from adults this week at church, and none of it will include science. And she knows that they are dealing with faith.


She learns “facts” outside the church (in school and on television) that contradict what she has been taught either by her parents or in church. She realizes that church people seem to have faith in spite of the “facts” that she has been told. That didn’t matter so much as a child, but now on the edge of adulthood, she begins to feel the disconnect: The facts are relevant; faith is not. If you want to learn something that’s real, important, and meaningful, you do that at school. If you want to learn something that is lofty and emotional, you do that at church. At school, they teach about everything—fossils, dinosaurs, marriage (different views, gay marriage, etc.), sex, the origin of life, what is “right” and “wrong,” different religions—they learn about everything!


On top of that there are questions that she has that no one is asking. Questions like:


  • Why is there death and suffering if God is a good God?
  • Why can’t people of the same sex who love each other get married?
  • Isn’t it better to get divorced than live unhappily?
  • How can the earth be only a few thousand years old when it “looks” so old?
  • Why is Jesus the “only way”?
  • How come dinosaurs have nothing to do with the Bible or church?


She thinks, because no one talks about these things or asks these things, that there are no answers. Or, she may have asked some of these questions herself and been given a bad answer like, “It’s just what the Bible says.”


By the time Susan graduates from High School she will have formed a worldview that does not include the Bible as God’s infallible Word and she will have left the church. But her problem started long before she graduated from High School. She started thinking in Middle School, “Did God actually say all these things in the Bible?”


However, her problem started even before that. Adam and Eve had it made. In fact, I don’t even think we can imagine the beauty, the harmony, and the intimacy that they shared with each other, with the world, and with God. It was all “very good,” as God proclaimed. In unhindered exploration of God’s creation, they walked freely in the Garden of Eden, “naked and unashamed,” without fear, without condemnation, without threat. Yes, it was very good, but it didn’t last. God placed only one parameter on Adam and Eve: “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17).

The serpent in the garden was more sly than anything else that God had made. Having rebelled against God and having been thrown down from heaven, Satan laid down the doubt that would lead to the sin that would distort, decay, and bring death to the perfection that God had created. It was a simple and subtle scheme. It wasn’t a direct accusation at first—just a hint of a suggestion. It was the beginning of doubt—the same doubt that plagues the generation that is now exiting the Church. Satan simply brought up a slight possibility:


Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden? . . . You will not surely die.” (Gen. 3:1–4; NIV)


Did God really say . . . ? It was the first attack on the Word of God. Since then, the attack has always been on the Word of God. The attack manifests itself in different ways during different areas of history. But the question is really always the same. Did God really say . . . ? Throughout the centuries, Satan has attacked the Word of God and attacked the human soul by casting doubt into the truthfulness of what God has said and the relevance of God’s words in practical everyday life.


That event happened 6,000 or more years ago. But in this day and age, we must see that an attack on the Word of God is an attack on the gospel.


  • Without the Word of God, we have no gospel.
  • Without the Word of God, we have no morality.
  • Without the Word of God, we have no record of our past
  • and no prophecy for our future.
  • Without the Word of God, the faith of an individual, like one of our children, cannot stand.


It comes down to an issue of authority. What is going to be the authority in our children’s lives? They are only under our authority for a short time, until they are 18 or so. Wise children will continue to honor, respect, and obey their parents even when they are adults. But, practically speaking, most will move out from our households when they are between 18 and 22 and our influence over them will continue to diminish. When they move away, what will be their authority? It will either be the Word of God or their own desires coupled with their own reasoning. This is the same choice that faced Adam and Eve. Therefore, we must disciple our children or we will lose them from the church, which is the pillar and base of the truth. And which is the place of spiritual safety – the house of the Living God.


Contrary to what some teach as a watered down gospel, a gospel of easy-believism, there is no such thing as a person who is saved but never meets with God’s people. If you are separated from God’s children, the church, then you are separated from Christ because the church is his Body and He is not severed from Himself. ISIS has not decapitated Jesus. He is one. He is one with his body. The apostle John said,


            They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.

(1 John 2:19 ESV)


Foremost, we must disciple our children for their own salvation. And, we must disciple our children to make the church great again.


[III.] How can we disciple them? Four simple things to do yet many parents have failed to do.


[A.] First, recognize that it is your responsibility to disciple them, not the church’s.


            “Hear, O Israel: Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one. You shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

(Deuteronomy 6:4-9)


A Christian household is one that should be filled with the word of God.


This is also the covenant that the founding members of New Salem Baptist Church promised each other in the year 1843. At yesterday’s Remembering Our Heritage Picnic we read the covenant together. Part of it reads thus:


    We will not omit closet, and family religion at home, nor allow ourselves

    In the too common neglect of the great duty of religiously training up our

    Children, and those under our care, with the view to the service of Christ

    And the enjoyment of heaven…


[B.] Second, baptize your children. Explain to them the meaning and purpose of baptism. If you are unclear on this then educate yourself first. The church has resources that can assist you.


[C.] Third, teaching our children to observe all that Jesus commanded. This entails a familiarity with the gospel accounts, for there we find the commands of Jesus.


[D.] However, for our children to respect and take the words of Jesus to heart they must recognize that the Bible is the word of God. Therefore, the fourth thing we must do is specifically demonstrate to them that the Scriptures are the very words of God. The church also has resources to help you in this.


[E.] Practically, what will this teaching look like? One easy way to practice this is to have family devotions. Whether your children are four, fourteen, or eighteen tell them that at such-and-such an hour on certain days of the week you will have a time of discussing truths pertaining to God. You may decide to read and discuss a resource, such as a book that establishes the divine nature of the Scriptures, or you may discuss a chapter out of the Bible itself.


Do not be apprehensive about questions that your children may have that challenge the truth of what you believe or what the Bible teaches. They are taught things outside the home and they will naturally wonder which one is true – what they are taught in school or what they hear from you. This is normal and even healthy. Children are only trying to understand what is real. Show then what is real. This means that you may have to do some homework yourself. If you cannot answer their questions, tell them you will look into it and find out the answer. Then do it! If you do you will establish them in the true faith of Christ and his apostles.


[IV. Conclusion] We want to make New Salem great again. Let us be one of those one out of ten churches in America that is growing. As a church we are failing in three out of the four areas that weaken and destroy churches.


  • Let us, each one, serve, in the church. Let us, each one, not be only an attendee. Let us, each one, be fully committed, to our church.
  • Let us take the Great Commission personally, recognizing that it is not just for church leaders. It is for all.
  • Let us disciple our children.


If we will call upon the Lord, knowing that all success is from Him, and live obediently in these three matters then I believe we will see an outpouring of His Spirit and we will be rekindled as a people of God.


May the Lord bless you, and not in a small way, as you step out in faith.








[1] Taken from Already Gone by Ken Ham.