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Every year, pastors and church leaders in America collectively spend tens of millions of dollars on church growth strategies, advertising and marketing, and evangelism training, while at the same time sponsoring hundreds of conferences and events focused on the same topics. There's nothing wrong with it, and it comes out of a sincere desire to reach more people with the gospel and grow local churches. After all, in today's challenging, distracted and post-Christian culture, every idea is worth considering.
And yet, in spite of all that money, effort and training, the church continues to lose ground in the culture. Think about it – during the lifetime of most people reading this article, has the church moved the dial in a positive direction on any social issue? Have we made the kind of difference that causes today's culture to be astonished, as they were during the days of the apostles?
It's that burning question that motivated my friend Jonathan Bock and me to write our new book, The Way Back: How Christians Blew Our Credibility and How We Get it Back. As two marketing and media guys (who are both committed Christians) our goal was to discover where we went off the rails and how to get the greatest news in history back on the world's radar once again.
One thing we discovered was that the earliest Christians had no idea what a "church growth strategy" was, no experts to teach it and no money to do anything in the first place. For the most part, they were what we'd call today "blue-collar workers"—laborers, fishermen or farmers, and had no training in evangelism or marketing.
And yet the early church exploded.
Literally without any plan, the early church spread across the empire in a remarkably short time. But there was no strategy, no organization, no mission effort, no influence and certainly no money. In fact, there were plenty of reasons not to join a local church, and chief among them was persecution. During those years, persecution of believers was a very real threat, and because of that danger, churches simply weren't used for evangelism. They were used for worship, attended by people who were already members. Because of the fear of spying or betrayal, many churches even assigned deacons as monitors to make sure the arrivals were indeed part of the community.
So what was the deal? What caused the early church to grow in the face of so many obstacles, when today with money, training, strategy and experts, we continue to shrink?
One of the chief reasons was commitment. Those early Christians actually believed in the message. They believed that Jesus was real—so much so that they were willing to follow Him to the very end, no matter what that end might be.
As historian and sociologist Rodney Stark relates in his book, The Triumph of Christianity: "How could mere mortals remain defiant after being skinned and covered with salt? How could anyone keep the faith while being slowly roasted on a spit? Such performances seemed virtually supernatural in and of themselves. And that was the effect they often had on the observers."
Through it all, these early believers held fast. Their remarkable and unrelenting commitment to the faith gave Christianity a credibility that transformed their perception in the eyes of the Romans. Ancient accounts report that the impact these martyrs had on nonbelievers was powerful and compelling. After all, the Romans weren't prepared to suffer like this for their gods, so who were these people, and who was this god they served?
Those questions had to be answered. Rome was the most powerful empire on the planet—but when it came to unwavering commitment, the Roman authorities had met their match.
But today, Christians rarely do anything that astonishes the surrounding culture. That's not to say many serious believers aren't making great sacrifices for the kingdom, but when it comes to the church overall, what are we doing that baffles those around us?
- How many Christians today evaluate a church not on how we can contribute to the body of believers, but on how well it meets our needs?
- In cities across America, Christians change attendance and membership with such frequency that the term "church hopper" is now in our lexicon. Sadly, we know of a church that lost hundreds of members on a single Sunday when the cool, new church opened up a few blocks away.
- The internet has also given rise to Christians who "feel called" to criticize their local church through blogs and social media, instead of working through disagreements in person as the Bible outlines.
- In our city of Los Angeles, a little rain keeps church attendance down.
- And by the way—how many of your co-workers even know you're a Christian?
- The list goes on....
The bottom line? The early church was 100 percent committed. But today our churches are filled with parishioners with a lukewarm "401K faith" (joylessly saving up in the hopes of having enough for the end.) Those first believers relied 100 percent on God, and we don't. That's why the modern church has become fixated on leadership building, worship debates, organizational structure, church networks, the hip factor, social media and other easily controllable strategies. There's nothing wrong with many of these techniques, but none is a sufficient replacement for the primary reason churches exist: the transformation of people's hearts. Like the early church, until the church today as a whole is chasing dreams that are impossible without God, we are always going to be receding.
What would happen if you scheduled half as many strategic planning meetings and replaced them with community outreach? What would happen if you set higher standards for attendees or asked them to find another worshipping community? The Army Rangers and Navy Seals don't lack for men and women desiring to join their ranks even though they have nearly impossibly high standards. Neither do elite universities.
We believe that, with a renewed commitment to the original message of Jesus Christ by our community, the best days of the church are ahead of it, not behind it. We believe that there are still billions of lives ready to join the great and celebratory cloud of witnesses, and that we on Jesus's team have a critical role to play in packing that party out.
With the ever-evolving world of media platforms, global connectivity and technological marvels, there are now immeasurable opportunities to share the gospel in ingenious and inventive ways. Beyond the horizon, there are innumerable lives that will be transformed in ways we've not even yet begun to imagine.
But renewing our commitment is where it all begins.
Phil Cooke and co-writer Jonathan Bock are media producers and marketing professionals based in Los Angeles. They have just released their new book The Way Back: How Christians Blew Our Credibility and How We Get It Back from Worthy Publishing.
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