Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Why Churches F-A-I-L

Photo of an abandoned church building in Europe
It is common knowledge that the Church in the West is going through a decline. Church attendance have fallen. The number of active members have also declined. In a recent study of the spiritual health of churches, the REVEAL survey of more than 1000 churches shows that even for churches that show numerical growth, there is a worrying lack of spiritual growth. Willow Creek Community Church is one example, where they measure erroneously "Church Activity = Spiritual Growth." Greg Hawkins, who analyzes the data, confesses:
"Once we got over ourselves and let the data do the talking, we learned three shocking facts about our congregation: (1) Increased participation in church activities by themselves barely moved our people to love God and others more; (2) We had a lot of dissatisfied people; (3) We had a lot of people so dissatisfied that they were ready to leave." (Greg L. Hawkins and Cally Parkinson, Move, Zondervan, 2011, 17)
One of the key movements toward spiritual growth comes from a sense of ownership. In other words, ownership essentially means:

"I don't go to church. I am the church." (229)

I believe the lack of ownership and the detachment from ourselves being church is the key reason why churches fail. Let me further expand on this by using the FAIL acronym to talk about the lack of ownership. The first three, Fear, Apathy, and Indifference is inspired from Brad House's new book on Community. The last one is my own contribution.

A) Fear

The opposite of faith is fear. It is precisely the presence of fear that results in the absence of faith. If one has faith, one will not be afraid to venture to the unknown. If one is fearful, one prefers to stick to the known paths, do the predictable, and takes no risks. When doing church becomes one that demonstrates no faith, it is certainly one that has succumbed to fear.

  • What if the people do not come? (Fear of non-attendance)
  • What if the people do not like the worship? (Fear of not becoming good enough people pleasers)
  • If I do not go to church, what will people say? (Fear of not meeting expectations)
The signs of a fear-driven mentality are everywhere. Children fear the parents will be angry if they do not follow them to church. Youths fear parental disapproval if they do not conform to their parents' wishes. Leaders fear about their members' spiritual health when they do not see them coming to church. When church becomes a matter of attending Sunday services or participating in church programs, it makes church-going a chore, rather than a pleasure. When there is no sense of ownership, people tend to become people pleasers or simply toeing the line of tolerance. Without conviction, they let fear take the steering wheel from faith. Indeed, fear is like a long shadow casts by something very small. Fear amplifies the improbable, shrinks the able, and makes the possible impossible. 

B) Apathy

Brad House calls apathy as the 'passive sin of omission,' a 'silent killer of passion,' and an 'antithesis to the gospel'. 
"Apathy is indifference to sin and its destruction in our lives and in the lives of others. It is an unholy contentment with the status quo. You might say apathy is the intentional closing of our eyes to the carnage on the battlefield." (Brad House, Community, Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011, p201)  
Recently, the world is shocked by the apathetic behaviour of several pedestrians who deliberately choose to ignore a little child bleeding by the roadside after the child was hit by a truck. For nearly 10 minutes, people pass by nonchalantly past the little toddler bathed, in a sea of red. It takes a garbage collector to finally call for help. [see video but be warned. It is very graphic and shocking.]

This kind of apathetic behaviour can be traced back to a 'rental-car mentality,' where people do not normally treat rental cars like their own. This is the same for churches. When there is a lack of ownership, there is a heavy dose of apathy.

C) Indifference

Indifference is quite related to apathy. Unlike apathy which is an indifference to sin, indifference is basically nonchalance about everything else. Indifference is a result of a lack of ownership, a lack of any sense of identity with the church, and no sense of belonging to the church. In fact, if apathy is bad, indifference can even be worse. If apathy is about a total disregard to what is wrong, indifference is a total disregard about apathy itself. That makes indifference a far more dangerous attitude. 

House traces the roots of indifference to serving Mammon. He writes:

"When we are more consumed with our stuff and our comfort than the advancement of the kingdom, we have chosen to keep our eyes closed." (House, Community, 203)
This is sad. If apathy is nonchalant about something, I suppose Indifference is nonchalant about everything, including apathy itself.

D) Laziness

Also known as sloth, this has been highlighted as one of the seven deadly sins. It can be practiced through using fear as an excuse not to do good works. It can be masqueraded as apathy. It can be channeled through indifference. Proverbs frequently warns us about sloth.

"Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in slave labor." (Proverbs 12:24)
"Laziness brings on deep sleep, and the shiftless man go hungry." (Proverbs 19:15) 
"A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest— and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man." (Proverbs 24:33-34)

The book of Hebrews show us that sloth is the antithesis of faith.
"We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised." (Heb 6:12)

Without a sense of ownership, people attend church so as to have their needs met, instead of becoming the church that God calls them to be. Without a sense of ownership, people substitute paranoia and fear instead of exercising a kind of faith that is pleasing to God. Without a sense of ownership, apathy and indifference rules. Without the responsibility of ownership, members sleep and slumber, and allow poverty to come upon them like a thief in the night.

The first step to any church recovery or revival is to identify the FAIL factors. Weed them out. Replace them with a deep sense of ownership. Leaders can continue to cast the vision of God for the whole church, to empower the rest to participate, instead of being mere spectators. Have lots of opportunities for members to give ideas and suggestions. Let me close with Brad House's words on ownership.

"Ownership inspires passion and leads to action. Yet, for the Christian ownership does not come from believing in a good idea but from faith in the good news. Our ability to own comes from the fact that we are owned by Christ. We inherit ownership from our Father. Thus, we don't need to manufacture ownership as much as we need to awaken the Church to the reality that this is our mission. We are agents of the king. It is already ours; we need only to exercise that ownership." (Brad House, Community, 71)

Yes. We need to be reminded. Again. Let us rise to take ownership of the church, for the glory of God.



Alex Tang said...

It is interesting that fear is listed as one of the factors for 'lack of ownership and the detachment from ourselves being church'. While I agree with apathy, indifference or laziness (all three is covered by acedia/sloth), I am curious about fear.

I wonder whether fear plays a part in church decline in this post-modern and post-Christian culture.

Conrade Yap said...

Hi Alex,
Thanks for commenting.

Fear is a strange animal. The more it is fed, the hungrier it is. There are many ways in which fear becomes prominent in the lives of church members. For example, I know of some who are afraid to become too involved, for fear of being called upon to do more work. The one who suggests anything ends up doing everything. On the leadership side, there is a fear of men, fear not not meeting expectations, and fear of giving in too much, lest one gets taken advantage of. Even Paul when he urges Timothy not to give in to a 'spirit of fear.'

Brad House says of fear, that 'every instance of fear of man in the Bible leads to sin.' (Community, Crossway, 2011, p204)

On the surface level, popular literature refers to acedia as sloth, apathy or laziness. However, on a deeper level, the Greek word for acedia is the 'absence of care' or the inability to care. From the spiritual tradition of Evagrius Ponticus, when he fights acedia, he is not fighting sloth per se, but the lack of care.

Thanks for your input.


Timothy P said...

Thanks for your article, Conrad. When we had to take a module on Church Growth in SBC, I was initially worried that we'd end up reading stuff from Warren's Saddleback or Hybel's Willow Creek. I was thoroughly refreshed by our lecturer Rev Peter Poon's selection of Mark Dever's Nine Marks of a Healthy Church instead. For one, it focused on church or spiritual health, rather than just church or spiritual growth. Also, it was theologically and doctrinally grounded in God's Word, focusing on the theological basis and meanings of key concepts such as biblical theology, the gospel, conversion, etc.

I tend to lean more towards a balanced focus on growth and health, as well as discipleship and service/outreach. Most who complain or end up backbenchers, pew-warmers, would probably fall into the category of getters or receivers, rather than givers. Yet at the same time, the spiritual needs and growth/health are important for them to serve, reach out from a deep relationship with our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. And of course, small groups, ministries and churches need to be healthy enough environments for newcomers, seekers, and pre-believers to be integrated and welcomed into.

Conrade Yap said...

Thanks for your comments. Regarding your concern about reading stuff from Saddleback or Willow Creek, do note that Mark Dever does include their models (esp Rick Warren) in his book as well. My article refers to the results of a Willow Creek research model too. It is an example of Willow Creek adopting a critical self-examination of themselves.

I feel that we need not be too afraid of where the models are coming from. Both Warren and Hybels have done a lot of good for many churches. Their teachings can still be useful even for many of us in different churches.

The key is not 'balance' of models. Neither is it spiritual health/growth or whatever spiritual terminologies. The key is how the Holy Spirit is telling us about our indentity. Models, marks, distinctivenesses are but secondary items. What is most primary is our identity in Christ. This brings us to the main gist of my article: "I believe the lack of ownership and the detachment from ourselves being church is the key reason why churches fail." We can only own what is truly our identity. If models become our identity, that is a big problem. Only God can reveal to us our identity, and we are to faithfully live our church identity accordingly.

Latest Posts