Have you ever heard a sermon, speech, or lecture so apt, so fitting, that you wanted to tell the world about it? The speaker was Rod Rutherford and his lesson was: “A Day of Good News.”
Here’s my summary from an outline of the sermon:
Back in the days of the prophet Elisha, Syria besieged Samaria resulting in a severe famine. Four starving lepers were talking outside the city gate. One said, “Why should we sit here, waiting to die? Let’s sneak over to the Syrian army camp and surrender. They might kill us, but they might not.”
Before the lepers could reach the camp, Syrian soldiers thought they heard the roar of a huge cavalry. They quickly fled leaving everything behind them. newstomark So finding the camp empty, the lepers ate and drank their fill. But while celebrating their good fortune, it occurred to them: “This is a day of good news, and we shouldn’t keep it to ourselves. If we wait until morning, we will be punished. Let’s go to the king’s palace right now and tell the good news.” (2 Kings 7:3-9)
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16) reminds us that we too have Good News. Christ died for our sins and has conquered death. (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) We have forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope in him. What better news could we hope for?
Unlike the four lepers, most of us today sit on our Good News. We don’t tell our neighbors, friends, or relatives. Instead, we sit in our building wondering why the world doesn’t come to Christ.
It wasn’t always that way. In fact, history shows the church has gone through three great periods of growth. Luke records the first period in the book of Acts. Beginning on the day of Pentecost with 3,000 conversions (Acts 2:41), the church was soon up to 5,000. (Acts 4:4) Later, Luke tells us: “Believers were increasingly added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women.” (Acts 5:14) In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he claimed: “The Good News has been preached all over the world.” (Colossians 1:23)
What is now called the Restoration marked the second period of growth. The church, which abandoned denominationalism for New Testament Christianity, reached 225,000 members according to the 1860 census. Churches of Christ became the fastest growing religion and the seventh largest religious body in the United States.
But it was not to last. Forty years later the church divided, and those who remained faithful to New Testament Christianity were a small minority.
From 1945-1965, the church experienced its third growth period. The Lord’s church double in size, and again became the fastest growing religion. Mission work around the world expanded rapidly.
All of that is past history. Yes, the church is still growing — but barely. A recent study on churches of Christ revealed an annual growth rate of 1.6% from 1980-2000. The world’s population grew 32% during this same period. So what happened? Why isn’t the church growing as it once did?
Our modern culture is partly to blame. Certainly, people aren’t as receptive as they once were. Today, the public wants entertainment. Reason and logic has long since been replaced by emotion and excitement in both public discourse and worship services. If you have any doubt, look at the religious broadcasts on television. There was a time when such programs was roundly criticized as “holy roller” emotionalism. Now it’s mainstream.
During the times of church expansion, Christianity was God centered. That’s no longer the case. It’s become man centered. For many, the question isn’t does a particular congregation teach the truth? But rather what benefits does that church offer me?
Furthermore, respect for authority at all levels has diminished and that even includes respect for the Scriptures.
However, the church itself is primarily to blame for our sagging growth. The Lord’s church no longer regards itself as distinctive. Many inside the church believe we are just another denomination. Oh, maybe we are right on a minor point here or there, and the other churches are mistaken. But nothing critical.
Those who take such a view are woefully ignorant of the very purpose of the church. Churches of Christ are not trying to be the only right denomination; in fact, we not trying to be a denomination at all. We’re trying to replicate the church we read about in the New Testament, the one Christ established — Scriptural in worship, organization, and practice. That is a church without human creeds, traditions, manuals, or hierarchies.
Other problems with the church include: We make fewer demands on our members. Knowledge of the Bible, which was once widely acclaimed, is no longer emphasized in our congregations. Likewise, personal evangelism is no longer stressed. We don’t even invite our friends, relatives, and neighbors to worship.
Somehow we expect people to come, but our Lord said, “Go.” (Mark 16:15)
How the church has changed over the past fifty years! We have traded Gospel Meetings for lectureships, sermons for seminars, and outreach for entertainment. Back in the 1950’s and 60’s we had city-wide evangelistic campaigns. Jule Miller’s “Visualized Bible Study Series” filmstrips were used to convert thousands. And each Christian was a personal evangelist. (Acts 8:4) But none of that is true any more.
Okay, Rod Rutherford, I believe most of us will agree that’s a fair statement about condition of the church in the early twenty-first century. So what can we do about it?