The protestant church is slowly shrinking from within. And while it can be suggested that this is simply the winnowing of the chaff, that shouldn’t relieve the Church of her duties. She should not shrug with indifference when the sown seed springs to life only to wither under the heat from the sun—there is no pride of perseverance to be had when this occurs. Nor should the church observe the withered shoots and think, “if only we shaded them from the heat, this wouldn’t have happened.” Instead, the Church should be asking, “why?” Why does so much sown seed blossom, only to wither in the sun?
Admittedly, there are theological ramifications that must be considered when answering that question. From a Reformed perspective, it is the Lord who decides these things, and we are not privy to all of the mysteries of salvation. However, from an earthy, limited, human wisdom perspective, there are steps that we could and should take when we see the withering and wilting shoots of “exvangelicalism” littering the landscape of Christendom, and they aren’t what most churches assume.
To provide a statistical example of this: research shows that in the lives of young children from protestant, church-going families, the “top spiritual activity” they were involved in was regularly attending Sunday School or Small Groups—68% of responders. However, only 29% said that “reading the Bible regularly” was their top spiritual activity growing up. This means that–like it or not–the physical programs of the church are currently carrying the most influence in the lives of teens and young adults—and these physical programs only occur for a few hours each week. Now, consider the long-term effects of these statistics: middle-aged adults have grown up in a Christendom pervaded by dependance upon church programs for the majority of their personal biblical, intellectual, and spiritual development. In other words, for most adults, there is little to no spirit stimulation outside of the local church—unless you count motivational bible verses taken out of context and plastered all over Facebook!
This statistical reality has significant ramifications for the Church. While it is ultimately the work of the Spirit that determines if the sown seed is effectual, the Lord uses the work of the saints to help prepare the hearts of those he calls. It suffices to say that you cannot prepare soil for healthy growth by only investing two or three (or less) hours each week. Just as real soil preparation takes time and effort—clearing weeds, conditioning dirt, eradicating pests, fending off seed-eating fowl—the “soil” of the heart requires much work.
We Need Kaved
I believe that this means there must be a significant shift in the way the average church understands its duties of discipleship. The local church must be kaved (כבד), “weighty, heavy, or honored.” In other words, we must bring gravitas back into the local church. Yes, ministry will always need to be culturally sensitive, but as David Wells so neatly states, culture determines your context, not content. We must press upon our flocks the weightiness, heaviness, and honor of the Gospel. We must regain the understanding that it is an honor to be considered worthy to suffer dishonor for Jesus’ name (Acts 5:41). We must do the difficult (and often dirty!) work of conditioning the heart so that it looks like the good soil in Matthew 13:8—soil that is not longer limited by the lack of depth or nutrition when confronted with tribulation.
While I do not have all the answers, and I will admit that every context is different, it is my belief that local church ministry as a whole often fails to properly bring the depth and richness of the Scriptures to flocks who desperately need it. We must never forget the second seed in the parable of the sower—we must not judge effectiveness by summer camp baptisms or church attendance. Instead, what is the testimony of your church in times of trial? What biblical demographics are you reaching? Does your church attract mature believers, immature believers, or both? The withered and wilted remains of exvangelical Christendom will not find its answers in shallowed, non-confrontational, soft-truth presentations of the Gospel. I believe those attempts at a culturally appealing, socially inoffensive Gospel are precisely the reason we are seeing the evangelical fallout. The Gospel is by nature counter-cultural.
Instead, I have six initial thoughts on how the church can “till” the hearts of hearers of the word:
1. We must deepen in a world that is shallowing. We must be “seeker-challenging,” not seeker-sensitive.
2. We must broaden Scriptural knowledge, not narrow it. If you offer a Cliff-Notes version of the Gospel, you will get a Cliff-Notes spiritual walk. Teach the Old Testament. Teach the New Testament. Teach the hard truths. Teach the whole council of God.
3. We must confront with truth, not conform. The church fails to faithfully present the truth of sin when we “grey out” what the Bible shows to be black and white.
4. We must assist in spiritual disciplines, not replace. The programs of the church are supportive ministries, not replacement ones. We must work to help our members study the Scriptures faithfully on their own.
5. We must engage in worship, not entertain. The local church is where the body of Christ “does life,” it is not a venue from which to entertain. There is a difference.
6. We must model rich soil, not merely instruct. No one is perfect; we all sin. But how we respond to correction, hurt feelings, and the difficult aspects of living amongst the body of Christ must be demonstrated among the brethren. Head knowledge must produce heart change. A well-tilled heart will be evident when the sun scorches down.