Editor’s note: This is the first article in a two-part series.
In Q & A sessions with pastors and ministry students, I am often asked, “What trends do you observe affecting GARBC churches today?” During the GARBC Conference in Clarks Summit, Pa., I addressed that question in a session designed for men in ministry. I identified eight trends affecting churches in the association. I share the following observations to stimulate conversation, promote assessment, and encourage strategic thinking.
Trend #1: Soteriological imbalance
The local church’s emphasis in teaching and ministry can shift in its balance to being heavily weighted toward sanctification, rather than toward reconciliation. Established churches and movements of churches tend to gradually focus more of their attention and effort on developing spiritual growth, rather than on reaching the lost. As a result, the gospel has a less prominent place in ministry communication and strategy.
In the early days of planting a church, the ministry is weighted toward reconciliation. Without that emphasis, the fledgling church will not survive (unless the church is being built on membership transfers). As the church family takes shape, the responsibility of feeding the flock, discipling believers, and maintaining programs gradually takes precedence. Without a concerted effort, evangelism progressively retreats into a less prominent place in the church’s work.
The same is true in an association of churches. As a fellowship is forming, the culture is naturally focused on fostering a vision of church recruitment and expansion. Evangelism and church planting prominently factor into the strategy and work. With time, the focus and energy of the association shift to that of maintaining the operations, helping churches, clarifying nuanced doctrinal positions, and enjoying fellowship.
When considering whether the focus should be on reconciliation/evangelism or on sanctification/discipleship, the choice should not be for one or the other, but for both. Balance is the key. To capture the essence of the Great Commission and to express what we should strive for in our ministries, some ministries use the phrase “More and better disciples.” The early church in Acts seemed to exemplify that balance.
On a continuum with sanctification at one end and reconciliation at the other, and the midpoint representing a healthy balance, where would you say your church is located? How about the association? What steps can we take to bring ourselves into balance?
Trend #2: Knowledge disparity
A growing gulf exists between the Biblical knowledge quotients of the believer and the non-believer. An established church that has been blessed to have a strong teaching ministry can inadvertently disenfranchise nonbelievers or new believers. The vocabulary and thought patterns used in pulpit and classroom teaching may be far beyond the comprehension level of some listeners.
Churches in our association have a reputation for being well taught in Bible content and theology. Many in our circles desire in-depth teaching. This is not something about which we are ashamed. Unfortunately, this enviable competency can also be an obstacle to reaching and assimilating newcomers.
In two ministry opportunities I am confronted with the problem that this disparity of knowledge can cause. In my home church—a church plant—I teach junior church during the morning service. Following the service, I teach an adult class composed primarily of new believers and unsaved people. I use an excellent resource, The Story of Hope (available at www.RBPstore.org), to help class members gain an awareness of the storyline of the Bible. For many of them, that storyline is not familiar. In either of these instructional settings, I could easily bury the participants by talking over their heads. I could assume that everyone understands all that I know about the Bible, which does happen to be far beyond their stage of development. If I communicate in that esoteric manner, I would dishearten the learners, causing them to lose interest and disengage from instruction.
The Biblical illiteracy that is increasingly present in our culture is necessitating that we rethink our educational strategies in the church. If we are determined to create a seminary level congregation, we will most likely preclude the possibility of reaching and assimilating the lost. Only by the intentional effort of ensuring that our communication interacts with people at their point on the learning curve, will we see a fresh flow of new believers into our churches.
Trend #3: Truth connections
For churches like ours that place a high priority on preaching the Word, the church auditorium is considered the epicenter of ministry. The educational facilities may run a close second. Though legitimate, this system can produce an insulated greenhouse environment over time. Growth is taking place, but not the natural kind of growth that occurs as seed is scattered in the real world where the wayside, stony, thorny, and good soils are found.
When Paul made his way into Athens, he did not confine his ministry to the greenhouse of the synagogue. He also entered the concourse of the agora, or marketplace, to converse with the common people in the hustle and bustle of their daily lives. In addition, he ventured into the risky arena of ideas, where powerful minds wrestled with philosophical questions.
Paul intended truth to connect with people beyond the greenhouse. Truth was to be taken with the assertiveness and initiative of an ambassador imploring people on Christ’s behalf to be reconciled to God. Truth connections seldom happen through passivity. Truth connections require initiative. Churches in the GARBC and the collective regional and national fellowships should be known as those who are making real world connections.
Trend #4: Learning models
Most ministry professionals are comfortable in the conventional instructional settings of an auditorium or a classroom. They are most experienced in these venues. They know from Scripture that preaching and teaching are essential to authentic ministry.
Ministry professionals look to the example of their favorite preachers, whether from the past, such as Charles Spurgeon, or from the present, such as [insert your favorite preacher’s name]. These gifted communicators rely almost exclusively on a singular conventional approach to instruction. They stand face-to-face in front of their audience and use audible words as the sole medium of instruction. Their mastery of vocal technique, language, and subject matter hold people enraptured to the instruction. The nonverbal impressions of body language and character are part of the instructional package.
These examples may cause us to conclude that this singular conventional approach to instruction is the only valid method. Alternative approaches are assumed to be vastly inferior and would compromise the high standard of instruction the ministry demands. By reaching these conclusions, ministry professionals limit themselves to a conventional approach to teaching.
Consider this question: What implications can we draw from the apostle Paul, who not only preached in a conventional face-to-face approach, but greatly expanded his ministry through the distance-learning technique of letter writing to individuals and groups out of sight? His nonconventional distance-learning approach, in reality, has produced a longer lasting impact than his conventional face-to-face instruction.
The pulpit and the classroom podium will continue to have a central place in churches’ instructional strategies. However, we must recognize that nonconventional approaches made possible by digital distance-learning techniques hold enormous potential to expand and enhance our instructional strategies. Let’s not limit our influence by relying exclusively on what is most comfortable and familiar.
Four additional trends coming next issue.
John Greening is national representative for the GARBC.