(This is the third in a 10 part series. Number 7 will be released tomorrow. If you are just starting to read this series, you will need to start with Top 10 Things That Are Killing The Church! first, then #10: Choosing Religion Over Relationship and #9 Ignoring That We Are In A War before reading this one)
A careful examination of the focus and operations of many struggling churches reveal that one of the significant causes of their declining membership, attendance and impact on community is that they simply have endorsed and embraced the wrong priorities. And what breaks my heart the most is that those churches sincerely think they have the right priorities. Churches with the wrong priorities are not deliberately attempting to kill their church. The sad fact is they believe, believe with all their heart, that by their strict adherence to these wrong priorities, somehow there will be a turnaround in membership, attendance, and impact on their community. They are looking for leaders who will have the skill sets to gladly and proudly march them backwards to the 1950’s, when membership, attendance and community impact were at the highest.
There is only ONE priority that any church really needs to change the current downward spiral. Do you know what it is? I think I just heard someone say, “Put God first!” In congregations that have plateaued or declining if asked they would say that they are putting God first but continue to decline. I’ll have more to say on this later, but for now, suffice it to say that the #1 Priority for the church should be The Kingdom of God. Some of you just said, “But isn’t that what I said when I said the one priority the church needs is to put God first?” Maybe I’m just being my Annoying Self when I put this out there for your consideration. Who knows, maybe I’m turning into a heretic in my old age. But what did Jesus have to said about what should be our ONE priority? Let’s look at Matthew 6:24-34 from the New Living Translation:
24 “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.
25 That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? 27 Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?
28 And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, 29 yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. 30 And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?
31“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ 32 These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. 33 Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.
34 So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
The cause of the decline of the Western Church, again this is how I interpret what I see, is that first word, rather the lack of seeing that first word–seek! According to Strong’s Concordance, the Greek word used was zēteō. It has several usages and the one that caught my eye is this one: “to seek after, seek for, aim at, strive after”. In these latter years I have this deep sense from God that we are missing so much, too much, by overlooking that phrase, “The Kingdom of God”. A Kingdom requires a King but here in the good old U.S.A., we fought a war so that we would be free from a King. And so, we have this problem of declining membership, attendance and influence and the reason I see is that we tend to operate the local church more like a democracy and less like the Kingdom.
I realize that some of my fellow pastors can act like a ruthless dictator, but the fact remains that God has called us into HIS Kingdom, not our democracies. What does all this have to do with the wrong priorities? Glad you asked, and I will gladly give you an answer. Churches that are losing in membership, attendance and influence are 99% of the time churches that have forgotten the purpose of the Kingdom of God. Jesus came announcing that the Kingdom of God is at hand. And the purpose of this Kingdom is defined by Jesus when He declared in John 10:10
The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life.
If we follow the example of Jesus, giving life happens when we come to know their deepest needs and then offering what we have to meet those needs. If they are hungry, give them food. If they are homeless, give them shelter. If they have trouble reading or can’t read, we teach them how to read. If they are lonely, we build relationships with them. Everything about the Kingdom is externally focused on others, those outside the Kingdom, those outside the church. And herein lies the problem.
The wrong priorities seen in declining churches is that its members see themselves as the consumers of what the church offers. I dare say that you, the reader, have heard someone say, “Well I quit that church because they just weren’t meeting my needs.” The pastor, the programs, the staff, the music, the ANYTHING–it’s all about them consuming what is produced in the church buildings. They do not seem themselves as the “providers” of mission, but the consumer of services.
Every program, every ministry, every mission, every activity is to be focused on them, the members. When the pastor and/or staff fails to serve them, it is time to get rid of them and find someone who will. Consumption, consumption, consumption! All this consumption has led to the decline in membership, worship attendance, and most of all, community impact. Programs are not to serve the members. Staff does not have the responsibility of serving the members. And the Mission does not exist to meet the needs of the members. When the focus is inward, it is leading to the eventual death of a local congregation.
But there is good news: When the focus is outward, when the local congregation readies itself to meet and welcome those who are not in church YET, the decline is reversed. We are called to serve the Mission of the Kingdom of God, not be served by the Mission. We are called to become the providers of Mission and not the consumers of ministries. To become once again people who impact communities with the power of the Kingdom of God we have to change the focus–from self to others. When our focus is outward and outside the walls of the local congregation and on those who are among the least, the last and the lost, the local church will grow in membership, attendance and best of all, grow great in impacting their community with the Gospel. Of this I am confident, absolutely confident, because our King said so:
Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.