We’re presently living an an age of church decline across America. Every year we see the statistics plastered before our eyes in printed reports regarding the decline of the church and the rise of paganism. The Pew Research Center reported that the adult population claiming a Christian identity has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Many people have answers for this decline, but before we jump on any train, we should first consider its destination. Are these methods of addressing church decline God’s answer or man’s pragmatic approach to the deep rooted problem? How will the church answer the culture in day when everyone is doing what seems right in his own eyes? How will the church respond to the cultural pressures? How will the church rebound from the recent downward declining trends?
I have the privilege to meet with a group of godly pastors each month for lunch. During our meetings, we typically discuss theology and ministry. Right now, we’re reading Iain Murray’s documentary on D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and discussing a chapter each month over our meal. This time of fellowship is refreshing, encouraging, and profitable to my soul. This week, we discussed chapter 7, “A Different Kind of Preaching.” This chapter is devoted to the ministry of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in Sandfields, Aberavon. From the very beginning, he demonstrated his method and devotion to the Word of God as opposed to the broken pots of human schemes and tricks of church growth programs.
When D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones entered the church at Sandfields, people wanted to know what he would do. In that day, the church was in decline and they were, in many ways, doing everything they could to answer this problem. Everything except for what The Doctor would do upon his arrival. With the looming black cloud of church decline, many churches were seeking to appeal to people by the use of more “high church” approaches by the use of liturgy, choirs, and organs. Other churches felt that people didn’t want to come to church to be “preached at” – so they repackaged the sermon as a relevant address which contained modern topics, poetry, and quotations from secular authors.
The church at Sanfields had sought to answer these problems. They had various activities going on within the church such as football, musical events, and a dramatic society. Some members approached D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and suggested that they could be successful if they majored on their children’s ministry. However, to their surprise, the new pastor wasn’t interested in using such things to attract people. In fact, the secretary was very surprised at D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ response to the question of his direction and the needs of the church. He was interested in the regular church services of 11am, 6pm, a Monday evening prayer service, a mid-week worship service on Wednesday, and a Saturday morning men’s meeting. In the words of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, all of the other things could go. When the Committee asked what they were to do with the wooden stage for the dramatic society, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones responded by saying, “You can heat the church with it.”
In a sermon, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said:
The world expects the Christian to be different and looks to him for something different, and therein it often shows an insight into life that regular church-goers often lack. The churches organize whist-drives, fêtes, dramas, bazaars and things of that sort, so as to attract people. We are becoming almost as wily as the devil himself, but we are really very bad at it; all our attempts are hopeless failures and the world laughs at us. Now, when the world persecutes the church, she is performing her real mission, but when the world laughs at her she has lost her soul. And the world today is laughing at the church, laughing at her attempts to be nice and to make people feel at home. My friends, if you feel at home in any church without believing in Christ as your personal Saviour, then that church is no church at all, but a place of entertainment or a social club. For the truth of Christianity and the preaching of the gospel should make a church intolerable and uncomfortable to all except those who believe, and even they should go away feeling chastened and humble.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones remained steadfast and refused to entertain people and attract them into the church. He preached the Word faithfully, week-by-week. The results were amazing. Men who once squandered their money on liquor and were known around town as drunkards, became upstanding citizens, faithful church members, family men, and all of this without schemes or abstinence politics. It was by the power of the gospel. One particular woman was a well known spirit-medium in the community. On one particular Sunday, she was feeling ill and wasn’t able to do her normal work. As she observed the people passing by her house on their way to church, she decided to attend too. Upon entering, she would later recount, she could sense an overwhelming power in the room. She would later say, “I had a feeling that the power in your chapel was a clean power.” On that first visit to the church, under the preaching of the gospel, she became a Christian.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones did the hard thing at first, he addressed the failed attempts of church growth and broken strategies of man. His decisions were not popular. In fact, when The Doctor announced that there would be no more stage dramas in the hall, a Mrs. Robson said to herself, “You’ll learn young man, you’ll learn!” However, as she would later tell her story, she said, “It was I who learnt.” In 1927 when D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones arrived at Sandfields, the church had enough seats for 400 people, but only 70 seats were occupied on the Lord’s Day. Under the preaching of the gospel, God added to His church. In 1930, the church at Sandfields recorded 88 new additions, and according to their records, 70 were “from the world.” These additions continued as the gospel was proclaimed. In 1931, the church experienced an addition of 135 new members, and 128 of those people were new converts to Christ.
As the downward trajectory in church numbers in America (especially in the Bible belt regions) continues onward, may God raise up pastors and church members who will be fearless and faithful like D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and keep their focus on the gospel of Christ. We cannot expect the decline of church attendance to be reversed and baptism numbers to increase through broken schemes of man and church growth techniques. Children’s ministries and other ministries in the church are important, but we must see the gospel of Christ as the central means of growing the church. Away with the power lifters, ventriloquists, and comedians – we need the gospel of King Jesus to echo loudly from the pulpit to the hearts of men, women, boys, and girls. Jesus and the apostles were committed to the preaching of the gospel. Men like The Doctor, all throughout church history, have followed in Jesus’ footsteps. May we be found faithful in an age of cultural compromise and church decline. Jesus is enough and His gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.
The annual Southern Baptist Convention is always preceded by the Pastors’ Conference on Sunday night and Monday. This year’s Pastors’ Conference was very helpful for pastors on many different levels. Several different types of messages were preached that addressed struggles in ministry, doctrinal issues, and Great Commission efforts.
Overall, the Pastors’ Conference was profitable, but there was one sermon that distinctly stands out from the others. The sermon on Monday night by Andy Stanley was not exactly what the pastors at the Convention needed to hear. While there may be a place for leadership models and corporate business plans – it certainly isn’t from the pulpit that is addressing thousands of SBC pastors. Andy Stanley was given the pulpit after a tribute to his father, Charles Stanley, the pastor of FBC Atlanta. Although Andy Stanley is a gifted speaker and has good oratory manners, his message lacked sufficient meat from God’s Word. It was like he was the chef at a large steak house standing there serving up cotton candy and lemonade to men who desperately needed a thick juicy steak. Many men were seated in the Convention hall listening to Stanley speak who desired to hear a message from God’s Word, but they didn’t receive it. They instead received a message full of leadership quotes, business plans, and stories from corporate America.
One of the most troubling parts of Andy Stanley’s message was his main objective that was quoted multiple times throughout his sermon. He continuously stated, “If you make your church better, they (the unchurched) will come and make it bigger.” In other words, Stanley was emphasizing numbers, growth, and catering to the unchurched in the local community. He stated that one of the main reasons that the unchurched do not come to our church is due to the fact that we have made it uncomfortable and unattractive to them. As he made these statements that were sandwiched between stories from corporate America, his points were lacking biblical evidence. He was given a great opportunity to minister to thousands of pastors, and he served up stories from the business world rather than preaching a text of Scripture and allowing the Holy Spirit to minister to the people’s lives from God’s Word.
After considering the implications of Andy Stanley’s message for one week, I would like to address his main points from Scripture.
1. The unchurched should be extremely uncomfortable in a gospel preaching church.
The term, church, in the New Testament is the Greek word, “ekklesia” (ἐκκλησία) which means literally, a called out assembly. Therefore, from the beginning, we should note that the church is a term that always means a group of born again Christians. These individuals who have been called out of darkness into the marvelous light of life by the sovereign hand of God are transformed into a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). They have different views regarding life and a worldview that is gospel centered. Therefore, any person who comes into that context and is surrounded by a group of gospel saturated people while hearing a gospel centered message will naturally be uncomfortable. In fact, they should be miserable in their sinful condition. However, Andy Stanley continued to press the point that we as pastors need to strive to make our church “better” so that we can become more attractive to the unchurched who will in return come and make it “bigger.” That idea does not seem to square with the truth of what the church is according to the Scriptures.
2. The “better to get bigger” model does not make sense in the context of the New Testament church. It may work in corporate America, but God’s Word does not instruct us to get “better” in order to get “bigger.”
Our central efforts in ministry should not be to grow our “church” but to evangelize the lost in order to see perishing sinners rescued by the Grace of God. According to Romans 3:10-11 and 2 Cor. 4:4, lost people do not desire to come to God apart from a sovereign work of Grace in their hearts by the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we design our church to be “better” in the sense of attracting “seekers” to come and make our church “bigger” we have missed the point of missions. The Great Commission is not about making our church “bigger.” The Great Commission is about fulfilling the calling of God upon our lives in order to see guilty sinners reconciled to a Holy God, worshiping, praising, and serving Him until He calls us all home. We must not design our church after business models or movie slogans such as, “If you build it, they will come.” That model may attract a crowd, but many of the people in that crowd may be unregenerate.
3. God’s Word is sufficient and is what the men in the Convention hall needed to hear.
The primary objective for any man who stands in the pulpit is to preach the Word of God. Andy Stanley did not do that at the Pastors’ Convention. The only time he used Scripture was once or twice during his message when he used the Word of God as a proof text to back up his points. The preacher’s job is to stand before people and tell them what God said. Anytime a man stands up before people and elevates any literature, plan, program, or book above God’s Word, he has undermined the very authority and sufficiency of Holy Scripture.
Sprinkled out through the Convention hall were pastors who were hurting from troubles in their ministry. Some were struggling with depression. Others were experiencing the weight of a failing marriage due to the demands of ministry life. Undoubtedly, some pastors were sitting in that hall listening to Andy Stanley who were ready to quit the ministry. Today, many of them have already submitted their letters of resignation. Andy Stanley had an opportunity to proclaim the truth of Holy Scripture and allow the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to minister to the people, but instead he spoke about Chick-fil-A and Intel.
During the era known today as the “Conservative Resurgence” of the 80’s and 90’s, the SBC fought a battle over the inerrancy of Scripture, and by God’s Grace won the battle. Today, the SBC (and the evangelical church at large) is facing the challenges regarding the sufficiency of Scripture. Andy Stanley did not help the cause by modeling a non-Bible based delivery method before the thousands of pastors who were in attendance on Monday night. Rather than elevating the Word of God as the sufficient and powerful single tool for a minister of God – he led men toward a corporate America solution that will ultimately fail.
What the church needs today is a return to solid expository preaching that elevates to the people a strong understanding of the inerrancy and sufficiency of Holy Scripture. The models and methods that Andy Stanley delivered to the Southern Baptist Convention’s preachers will not work. Sure, we have the liberty to add new methods and ministry options to our churches, but we must not forget what the church is along the journey. We must also remember that lost people should be uncomfortable within our church – until the gospel of Christ transforms their lives. We must also remember that evangelism and gospel missions is the answer to reaching the lost rather than making our church appealing to the unchurched.
May God lead the SBC to greater things than corporate America can provide – all for His glory and praise!
Pastor Josh Buice