I frequently hear bad news about the state of the church.
To be sure, some of the bad news is true. We’ve been rocked by scandals and divisions along political lines. Many churches need revitalization. Jesus’ letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3 continue to apply to the church today. We’re always in need of renewal and revival.
But I’m still bullish about the church for three reasons, and you should be too. God’s at work in the church. Without denying the problems, we have every reason to be expectant and hopeful.
We’re Making Disciples More Than We Think
First, we’re making disciples more than we think.
It’s common to hear that we face a discipleship crisis within the church. To some extent, it’s true. But the criticism also often includes a disparaging of what happens on Sunday. I can’t tell you how many times I hear criticisms of a church because it focuses too much on Sundays, or that all it worries about are things like preaching and worship. Sundays aren’t everything, but they’re crucial. Never underestimate the formative power of the ordinary means of grace and the power of Sunday worship. It’s not everything, but it’s more important than we think.
A recent article reminds of the discipling power of the regular ministry of a local church:
“Somewhere along the way I picked up the idea that discipleship was about finding one mentor who could, with his wit and wisdom, heal my wounds and bring me closer to Jesus.”
“I thought there’d be notebooks, coffee, and in-depth Bible studies. I imagined he’d be older, wiser, and profoundly interested in my life. Maybe you’ve found that kind of person — if so, great.”
“But here is what actually happened: I was discipled by the church. My regular old normal church. I showed up and heard sermons. I attended classes and groups and get-togethers…”
“God never gave me a spiritual father who would play Paul to my Timothy, but I’m not sure that’s very common anyway.”
“Instead he gave me his very body. I was discipled by the church.”
I recently spoke to a pastor who was evaluating his discipleship efforts. He described the books his elders had read and the steps that the church had taken to disciple others. He felt like he wasn’t doing enough. Perhaps his feelings were due to the messiness of church ministry, but I also wonder if they’re because pastors are constantly being told that they’re failing at making disciples.
The good news: we’re making disciples more than we think. Don’t underestimate the formative power of the regular means of grace.
Young Leaders are Hungry for God and His Word
I once attended a conference and spoke to a well-known Christian leader a little older than me. “I’m pessimistic when I look at my generation,” he said. “I’m encouraged as I look at the younger leaders in the church.”
He was right.
I frequently talk to people in their 20s and 30s. I see their desire to dig deep into God’s Word. I observe their desire to bypass fads and learn from people who, a generation ago, might have been viewed as out of date. “I don’t want to be hip and causal,” one told me recently. “I long for the weightiness of someone like Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones.” I see a hunger to plant churches, to learn theology, and to live and serve for God’s glory and for the good of the world.
I spend a lot of time with younger Christians, including pastors, and I’m encouraged. God’s at work in the younger generation, and it’s hard not to feel hopeful by the men and women God is raising up within the church.
God Often Works in Times of Crisis
We’re facing challenges, including the decline of Christian influence in society, the growth of secularism, and a sifting within the church. But times like this are times when we’re shocked out of our complacency. God seems to birth renewal and revival in times like this. I’m seeing people who used to put a lot of stock into best practices and coolness turn to an emphasis on praying for revival. Who knows what God might birth in these disruptive times?
Don’t get me wrong. I see the problems within the church. Some churches are in trouble. We shouldn’t minimize the very real issues that need correction.
But pastors and churches that are serving God faithfully have every reason to be encouraged. God is at work in your faithfulness. Don’t believe all the press that what you’re doing doesn’t matter, or that you’re a failure because your church doesn’t look impressive. Don’t buy into the narrative that the ordinary things you do as a church don’t matter, or that you need the latest approach to ministry or you’re in trouble.
What you’re doing matters. Your hunger for God and his Word are signs that God is at work. As we look to him in this time of cultural upheaval, we can expect that God will work. Don’t despair. Continue the good work that God has given you to do, and continue to pray for renewal. Don’t deny problems, but don’t give in to pessimism.
Reports of the church’s sickness and death are greatly exaggerated. We have every reason to hope.