The invitation to discipleship is your
consumer point of purchase.
Having done all that singing, all that praying, all that preaching, this is the time for the congregant—saint, sinner, visitor, member, church mother, pastor—to decide for themselves where they’ll want to spend eternity. Drowning out meditative thought with up-tempo head-banger music is unwise. There is no more important, no more vital a moment in your worship service, and this is one of the worst things the black church does.
What the Black Church does well is pageantry. They put on a good
show. What they do worst is connect people to Jesus. In 50 years
in the Black Church, no one has ever asked me if I knew Jesus.
They ask me what church I go to. The church
connects people to each other and to itself. But, sooner or
later, many move on because there’s no anchor to God. God is
often a guest in His own House while we celebrate endlessly and
work tirelessly for the next big show: Usher’s Annual Day,
Pastor’s Anniversary. There is a rich social contract within
these organizations. Leaving feels like a divorce: it’s painful
and destroys trust. But, sooner or later, amid all the noise and
warm embraces, we find unanswered questions forming the water’s
edge between religion and relationship. We begin to mistake our
relationship with the church or pastor with a relationship with
God. Most of us, myself included, have simply not been taught
very well. The dreary task of educating people about the basics
of doctrine and the nature of God is often colorless, thankless
work performed perfunctorily by willing workers who are
nonetheless reading from a script rather than illustrating
from experience. We slog through it over six miserable weeks,
and now back to our show.
There’s nothing quite so sad as an empty church. I’ve visited a great many empty churches, churches with proud legacies now reduced to a shadow of their former glory. Entire pews empty on Sunday morning, huge gaps in seating with people scattered into little clusters around the sanctuary. Some churches have even taken to roping off pews to encourage people to sit closer together rather than scattered about.
A half-empty or, worse, three-quarters empty church will usually have a hard time growing. The churches that grow are churches that are routinely filled to capacity every week. People want to be where people are. It’s like the night club syndrome. Back when I used to club, my crew and I would cruise the clubs looking for the hot spot. The hot spot was typically the hardest place to get into, the place with the lines out front. Usually, if we could get into a club too easily, or if the cover was too cheap, we knew the place wasn’t happening.
This mentality extends to the church. People become self-conscious and critical of churches with empty pews while churches busting at the seams are afforded a certain positive outlook. If you expect the service to be good, the energy is going forward. The pulpit has your attention and cooperation, and your positive energy fuels the worship experience. If you walk into church expecting it to be tired, because there’s only a handful of over-worked faithful there, chances are you won’t be disappointed. The energy is going the opposite way and the pulpit, the choir, the deacons, the ushers—everybody has to work three, four times as hard as the packed-out church. Worship at the packed-out church is usually good because people arrive expecting it to be good. Worship at the half-empty or three-quarters empty church is usually tired because that’s what people come to expect. Thus, the prosperous church prospers, and the struggling church struggles, dwindles, and may ultimately close its doors.
Now, here’s the harsh realty: many of them need to close.
Not because they’re small, or even because they’re tired. But
many black churches simply don’t need to exist. A quick
inventory of what the church is doing, in terms of evangelism,
spiritual growth and community involvement, comparative to the
model established in Acts Chapter Two, will tell the whole
story. If you cannot name a single family who lives on the same
block your church is located on, your doors need to
This has nothing to do with money. This has nothing to do with
head count or any of those usual benchmarks. This has to do with
whether or not your church is, in fact, a church. Too many of
our churches are not churches at all, They have been allowed to
become social institutions—night clubs and elks clubs—more so
than a body of believers.
For God to bless your church, your church needs to be in a right place with Him. Your church needs to be so sold out to God that it is willing to do what God wants done and not stubbornly dig in, clinging to a withering, fruitless branch of the tree. Jesus cursed the fig tree that did not bear fruit [Mark 11:12-14]. It’s fair and reasonable to evaluate your church over the previous months and years and to soberly ask yourself if it is in fact bearing fruit. Not how much fruit—not your head count of members joined—which is often our mistake. God is not the least bit concerned with our head count. We should ask God, soberly, prayerfully, about the quality of our fruit. These people who joined your church: are they actually saved? Do they actually have a thriving and productive relationship with Jesus Christ? Do your members actually have family devotion with their spouses and children?
Bottom line: we're talking about an inconsistent witness, church being marginalized to Sunday mornings. The church should exist in our hearts, should be part of our daily lives. The main reason our churches are struggling is we are not being taught this. we have far too many lousy, useless pastors, their names writ huge on the side of the church bus, but they can't even effectively communicate Christ to their own wives and children, let alone the church flock. Ministry is top-down: the rebellious godlessness of youth is a direct reflection of what is being preached in the home—nothing. The nothing being preached in the home is a direct and accurate measure of the quality of the pastor's leadership.
There's plenty of blame to go around, first and foremost to this pastor writing these words. In seeking answers to the frustrations of church growth, it is important to find the strength of character within yourself to ask God, soberly and in the fear of God, if your ministry actually has much of a purpose. If your church, and your church alone, is not indispensably effective in its community, if the very well-being of people is not directly impacted by your church, then all options can and should be on the table, including the dissolution of your church or a merger with another ministry or ministries. A merging would create a larger body of believers who can be more effective at serving because the burden of service is spread across a wider base.
The obvious financial concerns can be eased somewhat, and all of the ministries involved can become more focused and more effective. The main objections to such mergers usually have nothing to do with ministry. Those objections are about vanity, about selfishness. Them versus Us. About money, about pastors unwilling to give up their power over the twelve people left at their church or the paycheck those twelve people finance. Churches that resist working together are usually led by people who are not allowing God to speak to them or through them, which is reason enough to allow such places to wither on the vine.