The church today needs many things, but its most critical shortfall is not larger attendance, money, buildings, or programs. Its greatest need is for revival. Our generation must experience revival, or our churches face increasing irrelevance and ultimately God’s judgment. There are those who would adamantly disagree. They would effusively point to the proliferation of megachurches emerging across the country and the world. They would highlight the sophisticated new approaches to evangelism and the numerous programs and technological wizardry available to assist churches in their mission. Yet we are reminded of the early church at Laodicea, which apparently also had all the markings of ecclesiastical success except for one thing: God’s pleasure. God noted that this congregation had grown spiritually lukewarm. They were neither hot nor cold but middle of the road, comfortably irrelevant. God’s word to them: repent or perish (Rev. 3:14-20).
We love the church and have invested much of our lives encouraging and teaching God’s people. We are not alarmists, crying wolf for the sake of sensationalism. However, just as doctors would be irresponsible to tell their patients there was nothing wrong with them to prevent upsetting them, so it would be a gross abdication of duty to declare the church healthy when there are clear signs it is in serious trouble. The following is an overview of the present state of the church as well as society at large. It is not exhaustive, and we readily acknowledge that others would portray conditions differently. Nevertheless, the issues we raise may help bring focus to the plight of today’s church. As you consider the church’s condition, our prayer is that you, too, will feel compelled to cry out to God for revival.
Condition of the Church
We do not pretend to be leading authorities on the state of the church. Nevertheless, we do spend most of our time speaking with people in churches of various denominations across North America. We also regularly meet with pastors and church leaders around the world. We have witnessed God’s activity in diverse places and have also heard the heartache of ministers who expressed frustration and bewilderment in knowing how to lead their congregations. The following are some of the current trends we see that suggest to us the church desperately needs revival.
CURRENT CONDITION OF THE CHURCH
- False Confidence of Megachurch
- Biblical Illiteracy
- Minimal Corporate Praying and Testifying
- Loss of a Shepherd’s Heart
- Rampant Immorality
- Numerical Decline and Stagnation
- False Confidence of the Megachurch
If you lived in medieval times, you might take comfort in seeing a series of lofty castles lining the major highways of the land. The sight of the majestic towers and thick walls would provide you with a sense of security should an invading army approach. Imagine, however, that an opposing horde does sweep into your country. Town after town is brutally pillaged, its men put to the sword, and its women and children led into dismal captivity. Imagine that when the enemy marches toward your village, you frantically hurry your family to a nearby castle you have long admired. To your shock and dismay, however, you are informed that the castle is willing to admit you within its walls but it has no food to give you. Further, you are warned that there is an epidemic raging among those inside and you are candidly advised that you might be better off fending for yourself in the countryside. To discover that this mighty fortress is in fact powerless to withstand the rapacious enemy and it is unable to provide basic health for its own inhabitants would be bewildering.
Today’s society is witnessing the proliferation of ecclesiastical fortresses dotting the modern landscape. These massive structures, holding enormous congregations, can endue the average Christian with confidence. Surely with such mighty bulwarks, the forces of evil would be defeated if they attempted to invade the territory. However, the reality is that the minions of darkness are ravaging home after home located in the shadows of these citadels. Megachurches are a relatively modern phenomenon. There have always been large churches. The first church in Jerusalem had several thousand members. However, its size was never what was prominent to their ministry. They were led by people who devoted themselves to prayer and studying God’s Word (Acts 6:4). The members met together regularly to learn doctrine, to pray, and to enjoy fellowship (Acts 2:42). The early church, though large, attempted to meet the needs of all those in want (Acts 2:44-45). The church, despite a diverse membership, did not tolerate sin (Acts 5:1-11). Scripture does not tell us that citizens in Jerusalem joined the church because it had the most spectacular Christmas musicals in town or because it boasted a fully equipped fitness center for its members. As the early Christians cared for one another and worshipped God with joy, the Lord added many people to their number (Acts 2:47).
Today, however, size and programming are often the defining measurements for ecclesiastical success. People assume that if you attain large numbers God must be pleased with you and is blessing your efforts. Nothing is inherently wrong with having many members. But much of what some megachurch leaders advocate is unbiblical. Size has become the compelling measurement of “success.”When a church grows to unusual dimensions, the pastor writes a book explaining how others can do as he did and then offers seminars on church growth that immediately draw hordes of church leaders desperately seeking that one seminar or technique that will vault them into the hallowed sphere of successful ministers.
Numerical growth has become the overriding goal driving the agenda of many church leaders. If preaching on sin offends people and causes them to shop for another church home, then sermons will be crafted to focus on the positive rather than the “negative.” Pastors of some of the largest churches in North America today meticulously avoid mentioning unpleasant subjects such as sin or repentance, and the result is that their churches have swelled to enormous proportions. Now a new set of clone churches is springing up all across the country.
Bill Hybels, an influential megachurch leader, popularized the seeker-driven model to church growth. It has been effective in attracting large numbers of unchurched people within its walls. However, a recent study initiated by Hybels’s church, Willow Creek, discovered that their methodology, which has been mimicked by thousands of churches around the world, has not grown people into mature Christians. Their methodology achieved numerical growth but not spiritual growth. Notes Hybels, “Some of the stuff we have put millions of dollars into thinking it would really help our people grow and develop spiritually, when the data actually came back it wasn’t helping people that much. Other things that we didn’t put much money into and didn’t put much staff against is stuff our people are crying out for.”1 The reality is that drawing a crowd is not the same as building a church.
Megachurches can develop an insatiable appetite for finances and members. It costs a fortune to stage the elaborate, Broadway-caliber musical performances that draw large audiences. Despite boasting huge crowds, megachurch budgets have an insatiable need for more money and thus more donors. To meet their skyrocketing costs, megachurches will often attract and devour disgruntled church members from other congregations. Survey a typical megachurch, and you will discover a wide array of people who once attended or were leaders of other churches. As when a giant department store moves into a small town and the locally owned merchants soon begin filing for bankruptcy, smaller congregations can’t compete. Over the last several decades hundreds of small- and medium-sized churches have floundered and closed their doors in the shadows of a megachurch that was devouring every church attender it could entice within its walls. Impressive church empires have been built while God’s kingdom has sadly gone wanting. Many studies have demonstrated that much of the megachurch growth is merely a redistribution of the saints and not a winning of the unchurched population. Tragically many of the cities that boast the largest number of megachurches also have some of the highest crime and divorce rates in the country. While the impressive structures and slick advertising of the superchurches today may provide a sense of comfort to Christians in an increasingly secular world, these colossal organizations have not demonstrated that they are God’s preferred instrument for bringing national revival.
While churches may boast they “preach the Bible,” it seems to us that not since pre-reformation days have church members been as biblically illiterate. There are several possible reasons for this. For one, much of the preaching being done today is not a verse-by-verse exposition of Scripture, but it rather resembles a self-help seminar: “Ten Tips for Raising Great Kids” or “Five Ways to Stay Fit in a Fast-Food World.” Usually there is a token Bible verse referring to the family or to the fact that our bodies are the temple of God. Then the remainder of the sermon is built not on Scripture but on a recent article in Reader’s Digest. Clearly claiming to be a “Bible-believing church” does not ensure that the Bible is faithfully being preached or taught.
There is also a tendency among many modern pastors to teach rather than preach, to instruct rather than exhort. This trend has been exacerbated by the extensive use of PowerPoint. Now preachers give their people outlines of their sermons so they will maintain their interest throughout the presentation. Listeners are expected to follow the speaker by filling in the blanks in their sermon outlines. The result is that listeners measure the success of the sermon on whether they filled in all the blanks rather than on whether they experienced life change. The Sunday sermon has become a helpful seminar. Now the “old-fashioned” approach of exhorting the people of God to practice God’s commands seems strangely anachronistic. The shortage of biblical preaching today is exacerbated by the availability of sermons online. Now, with a click of a mouse, pastors can go on the Internet and download sermon manuscripts replete with outlines, PowerPoint presentations, and handouts. Which day of the week receives the most hits? Saturday evening of course. For many modern preachers, there seems to be far more pressing issues to attend to throughout the week than devoting themselves to prayer and the study of God’s Word.
Another trend in today’s churches is to project the Scripture passage on a large screen at the front of the auditorium. This is done so people who did not bring their Bibles do not have to feel awkward because the scriptural text is conveniently illuminated in bold letters right in front of them. However, what was done to make seekers feel more comfortable in worship services has had a deadening effect on church members. They no longer feel the need to bring their Bibles to church. After all, why lug it all the way to church on Sunday when the relevant verses will be posted on the projector screen? The result is that God’s people are not handling God’s Word as they once did. In times past church members would have a Bible in their hands when the pastor addressed a passage. Readers would notice the context of the verses being preached. Their eyes might be drawn to the surrounding verses, or they might notice a cross-reference leading them to examine a parallel passage. They could mark their Bibles at that place for further study. Now many of those attending services could not tell you the Scripture reference used that morning once it disappears from the screen. For numerous reasons modern church members are largely ignorant of in-depth biblical teaching and are therefore easy prey for shallow fads driven by simplistic clichés.
Minimal Corporate Praying and Testifying
A third alarming characteristic of the modern church is the minimal attention given to corporate prayer and the testimony of believers. The early church regularly prayed together in corporate settings. In earlier days the pastoral prayer was a focal point of many church worship services. Charles Spurgeon, one of the first megachurch pastors of the modern era, prepared his pastoral prayer as carefully as he did his famous sermons. Often people who visited London and went to hear the great orator preach would come away as impacted by his prayers as by his peerless preaching.
Time restraints have caused many pastors and worship leaders to jettison anything but the most trite, clichéd prayers that rarely last a minute. People who do not hear genuine, heartfelt praying from the pulpit have no model of what they should be doing in private.
Corporate prayer has become almost nonexistent in most churches today. Even weekly “prayer meetings” are often really a Bible study with two or three faithful church members called upon to pray briefly at the end of the hour. We have asked many pastors why they do so little praying in their prayer meetings. The common response has been: “People won’t come if we just pray.” So the problem is compounded. Today’s prayer meetings are designed to make people who don’t enjoy praying feel comfortable. In many churches today the number of people attending a church meeting is the defining measure of success, not what happens to the people when they show up.
Historically revival has spread on the wings of testimony. Hearing from someone who had a profound encounter with God electrified the listeners. However, in churches striving for a polished, professional feel to their services, the risk of allowing untrained laypersons to speak in front of a microphone seems too high. What if they drone on? What if they say something inappropriate? What if they are boring? Often when we are speaking in churches, we’ll be given an extensive outline detailing every minute of the service. Even baptisms, which are supposed to be people’s defining moment to testify to what Christ has done in their lives, are often conducted mechanically and impersonally. In larger churches new believers are baptized one after another during the offertory or while announcements are being made. No opportunity for a verbal witness is given. Some of the most powerful moments we have experienced in worship have occurred when people testified in their unpolished manner about the transformational work God performed in their lives.
Loss of a Shepherd’s Heart
An issue closely related to the megachurch phenomenon is the CEO model many pastors have adopted for their leadership style. Biblically, the word pastor connotes images of a shepherd. Shepherds walk with and care for their flocks. They live among the sheep, protect them from danger, and bind up their wounds. When a sheep wanders off, the shepherd searches high and low until he recovers the wayward animal (Luke 15:4-7). Shepherds do not become frustrated with sheep when they act sheepish. They know it’s their nature to behave that way. That is why sheep require shepherds for their survival.
With the advent of the megachurch, however, pastors began adopting business leadership models rather than biblical patterns. Pastors began presuming to determine the vision for their churches and to view anyone who disagreed with them as their opponent. If the pastor decided the church needed to build an extensive facility, he expected the members to enthusiastically rally behind his vision. Those who expressed misgivings were castigated as “holding the church back” and were forced out of leadership positions or even expelled from the membership. Rather than having a shepherd’s concern for every lost sheep, misguided pastors accept the fallacy that you have to lose a lot of people before the membership becomes fully aligned with the new vision. Many new pastors clear out the existing staff wholesale, regardless of their tenure or their openness to working with the new leader. The manner in which some pastors fire their staff would cause Wall Street CEOs to blush.
The image of revival actually threatens and frightens many church leaders because they equate it with a loss of control. At the heart of this issue is the question of who leads the church, the pastor or Christ. If you insist that people keep their emotions under control, that services not run too long, that nothing unexpected occurs, then revival is an unwelcome concept. In truth revival is not convenient, and it cannot be scheduled or choreographed. When people have a profound encounter with the Holy Spirit, keeping them silent is difficult. Services can be filled with emotion. They can last hours, even days. Times of renewal, when the Holy Spirit comes in great power, can be mystifying to those outside the church, leading to criticism and even ridicule (Acts 2:13). For these reasons it is small wonder church leaders are often the most resistant to praying for revival.
The modern church is sadly a reflection of the moral depravity of its society. It used to be “news” when a pastor or church leader was exposed for being involved in lewd and immoral behavior. Now rarely a week passes without reports of pastors committing adultery, youth ministers soliciting a prostitute, and worship leaders downloading pornographic images on their church computers. People in the congregations are not being challenged to live holy lives. The divorce rate in the church is comparable to the national average. Drug use and promiscuity among church teens is common.
Even a superficial survey of the church reveals that its members are not distinctly holy and set apart from the world the way Scripture commands. One of the principal reasons for this is church leadership. Many pastors are reluctant to preach against sin for fear of offending people. They are uncomfortable preaching against something they are personally struggling with. The high standards for ministers laid out in Scripture have been explained away or excused as being unrealistic. Many fallen ministers become indignant when told that because of their sin they are no longer qualified to hold pastoral office. Churches have been bludgeoned with charges of being judgmental and unforgiving, and the knee-jerk reaction is to overlook immorality, even in the pastor and worship leaders. As a result, many churches today are led by people who have grievously sinned and who no longer have the moral authority to speak against the sin being practiced by church members.
The church is also rife with sins that do not necessarily make headlines but that are equally stultifying to its spiritual vibrancy. Church splits have become epidemic. Communities witness members of congregations parting so acrimoniously that they will not even speak to one another if they pass on the sidewalk. Within the church, members carry long-term grudges and refuse to forgive one another. Members of the worship team conduct well-known adulterous affairs yet sing on the platform every Sunday.
Numerical Decline and Stagnation
A telling sign that revival is required is when the numbers of those attending and joining the church dwindle. While numbers must be carefully interpreted, they can provide a benchmark of the church’s health. The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in North America. In recent years thousands of its churches report not one baptism during an entire year. Recent statistics reveal the only age category among SBC churches reporting an increase in baptisms was four-year-olds. Surely when the ministry of thousands of churches cannot produce one convert over the course of an entire year, it is time to get on our knees and cry out for revival.
The condition of Christianity today is certainly not all bleak. There are some outstanding churches today. But in the midst of the successes are many congregations that have become spiritually powerless. The majority of churches in America today are plateaued or in decline. Thousands of churches cannot produce one convert in an entire year. Ministerial burnout is occurring at epidemic proportions. The number of unchurched Americans is at record levels. Clearly the church needs to be awakened. Truly we live in a day that desperately calls for revival.
Blackaby, Henry T., Claude V. King, Richard Blackaby, and Anne Graham Lotz. 2009. Fresh Encounter: God’s Plan for Your Spiritual Awakening Revised. Nashville, TN: B&H Books.