It seemed like in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s all the talk was about churches that had experienced meteoric growth in ridiculously short timeframes. But the deeper question was what was actually happening in the lives of those attending church? Was genuine discipleship leading to life transformation taking place?
Not long ago, Bill Hybels, one of the early gurus of the evangelical church growth movement, took a survey to examine more closely the lifestyles and beliefs of his mega congregation. What it revealed was both discouraging and alarming. These evangelicals were not appreciably different from unbelievers outside the church. To his credit, Hybels showed wisdom and humility by looking honestly at the results and decrying his mega church movement as largely a failure since it did not lead to substantial life change.
But over the past thirty years, almost everyone was drinking in and following the techniques and methodologies of these “successful” mega church movements. People were coming to church in droves, but what were they coming for and what were they taking away from their experience? I would venture to say that many of these people came to be inspired, entertained, and encouraged, but not necessarily to be transformed and do the hard and arduous work of becoming a genuine disciple of Jesus Christ.
The same ideologies also infected our youth ministries. Young people came to the church in droves because it was good clean fun and inspiring entertainment. But when life offered new and seemingly better alternatives, many of these young people moved on to other venues and avenues of personal fulfillment. And so we watched a generation of our youth slip quietly away from the church. All the great music, all the engaging talks, all the relevant video clips, all the fun and fanfare—in short, all the awesome entertainment—failed to make true disciples of Jesus Christ.
Following the pundits in Hollywood, we created parallel personality cults with a Christian label—safe and wholesome for the whole family. We delegated the discipleship of our children to Sunday sermons, children’s church, and youth pastors, forgetting that our children were watching us every day to see what our lives were really like in the home when no one else was watching. And they saw the shallowness, the hypocrisy, the refusal to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of the cross. They saw our immoralities, our divorces, our abuses, our indifference, and misplaced passions. I personally witnessed two different pastors of two different churches I was deeply involved in during the 1990’s divorce their wives.
And so before these silent watchers, we failed and failed badly. But we still had to pretend that our lives were almost perfect because everyone else in our church came each week with bright and shining faces. Who would understand? And what if we were in ministry? Wouldn’t we lose our credibility and perhaps even our jobs to those “super saints” who always seemed to have it all together in every kind of weather?
In the end, we had huge numbers but not huge impacts because we were taken in by the subtle assumptions that full sanctuaries and full coffers translated into fully committed Christ-followers. Not only were we tragically, utterly wrong, we should have known better at the very beginning.
Am I discouraged? Yes, some. It’s been disappointing and painful to watch the confused, divided, and largely ineffectual response of the church to growing and rampant immorality. And it’s been hard to look at my generation of evangelical leaders and see that I am one of them and face squarely the fact that the rapid rise of the global feel good “heath and wealth” gospel—which is not the gospel but heresy—happened on my watch, that the legalization of recreational pot use happened on my watch, that the euphoric celebration of homosexuality and legalization of gay marriage happened on my watch, that the worldwide proliferation of pornographic filth happened on my watch, that the spread of abortion on demand to virtually every nation of the world since 1973 happened on my watch.
But what do we do now? What is the solution? Do we keep trying to produce a better show, building bigger buildings, creating better programs? Or do we go back to the hard and rather unexciting basics of making true disciples through a painstaking and messy process of doing evangelism and forming small-groups that are characterized by genuine accountability and intimate relationships displaying honesty, humility, brokenness, and yet a growing holiness and passion, alongside a deep and persistent love for God and His word? And do we teach our disciples that to follow Jesus means to suffer and die, often each and every day?
In my estimation, the only way forward is to move backward through the cross, taking it up daily to follow Jesus no matter what the cost, no matter how intense the persecution, no matter what the outcome or results might be.
Will you follow Him? Will I?