by Bill Watkins
I’ll tell you a story – a story long in the making but short in the telling. It’s a story of us, of America and the church of Christ in my lifetime. It has come to me less from research and more from observation, so you may not agree with every detail. Still, it’s a story worth telling.
Where We’ve Been
Let me begin by saying that I love the church. Its truths are the ground that I walk on. Its songs are the music in my heart. Its atmosphere of worship, love and fellowship is the air that I breathe. My earliest memories involve the church. I remember sitting in my mother’s lap, leaning on her breast, and hearing her sing with the saints from the inside out. I can still feel the pew vibrate in the South Commerce Street church building when my father and grandfather sang bass. I remember the night when, with my heart pounding so hard I couldn’t hear, I walked down the aisle of the Chattanooga Valley auditorium to be baptized into Christ. My life is rich because of the love, understanding, consideration, reprimands, help, and counsel of godly men and women in the church. I would die before I would intentionally harm the body of Christ.
Unless you understand this, you will never understand why I’m telling this story.
On the morning of December 7, 1941 America awakened to a new reality. We were at war and we were not ready. On that morning we were primarily a rural agricultural nation, but that would rapidly change. Millions of young men left the farms of America to defend and restore freedom in the world. Factories were built to supply the largest war effort in history. Since major supply routes were crucial, the factories were built near cities. With the men at war, women moved to the cities and went to work in record numbers. In an unprecedented demographic and technological shift, our society changed from a rural agricultural economy to an urban manufacturing economy in less than four years.
When the war was over, men came back to an America vastly different from the one they left. The population had moved to the cities and many of the women who had gone to work to support the war effort had chosen to remain in the workplace. Employment was to be found in the cities, so that’s where the men stayed – but they longed for the things they had lost. After the horrors of World War II, Americans were anxious to reclaim order, peace, and faith.
So in an effort to recapture what no longer existed, America invented something new—suburbs. A suburb was actually a small town attached to a major city. Each suburb contained its own fire department, police force, schools, banks, grocery stores, and (because being a good American meant that you were religious) its own churches.
In the church, we discovered that the way to grow a congregation was to be in the right location in a suburb. Because most Americans already believed in God, our efforts were geared toward helping people switch churches—and they did—and we grew.
But with the disappointment in Korea and the disillusionment of Vietnam, America changed. By the late 1960’s and early 1970’s Americans, particularly young Americans, began to distrust their leaders, doubt the government, and question long-held values. For many, being an American no longer meant that you participated in government, voted, believed in marriage, or went to church.
What was happening in America happened in the church as well. We began to distrust our leaders and question their values. Books and periodicals were published among us with the purpose of identifying false teachers and uncovering what was wrong in the church.
By the late 1970’s through the early 1980’s a spirit of fear and distrust had arisen among us. Churches and speakers began to stay away from lectureships or even the gospel meetings of other congregations for fear that there might be someone in the program who had been marked by a brotherhood publication as a false teacher.
By the mid-1980’s churches and individuals were tired of living in fear and suspicion. In response, we began to emphasize the autonomy of each congregation. We said, in effect, “We are autonomous. There is no higher earthly authority than the local congregation. We therefore will do what we believe is right and you may do what you believe is right. Whether or not we are ‘written up’ in a publication - whether or not others may dislike it, we will do what we believe the Lord wants us to do in this place.”
With this emphasis we restored peace, but destroyed something even more precious. In the last two decades, we have lost a sense of brotherhood. We have forgotten that we are a part of a great movement of God in our generation.
While there are individual churches that are growing, as a brotherhood, the Restoration Movement has stopped moving. We have become more polarized, more extreme in our views, more self-absorbed, and less focused on God’s purpose for the church—and, as a brotherhood, we have stopped growing.
America has changed. We are no longer seeking to restore small-town values. We no longer believe that being an American means being religious, joining a civic group, or trusting our leaders. We are more individualistic, less committed to keeping our word, more prosperous, and less devoted to rules than the generation of World War II.
Churches are finding that having a building in the right location of a suburb is no longer a guarantee that people will come. Many are frustrated because the methods that worked a generation ago no longer seem to be effective. Some have come to believe that the golden age of the church in America is over.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The outlook of America following World War II was an aberration in world history. America today is more like the world of the first century in which Christianity experienced its greatest explosion of growth. That growth can come to us again, but we must recapture the principles by which that early church changed the world.
Where We Are
Observation of the church in America shows that in many ways we have become more isolated from one another, and, as a result, more polarized, less communicative, more self-focused and less mission-focused than in previous generations. If problems should be solved by those who see them, how do we see ourselves?
Defined by our mission, there are four types of churches that currently exist among us.
The most rare church among us is the DEAD church. Dead churches are described by the Lord in the letter to the church in Sardis: “…I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God…” (Rev. 3:1-6).
Dead churches have not closed the doors and discontinued worship services. While some may only meet for worship and go home, others may have activities going on every day. They often have good reputations among us as stable churches with a prestigious past. A good name among the brethren, however, does not insure a good standing with the Lord. There are still righteous people in most dead churches, but they do not define the church.
What is a dead church? It is a church that has no real love for each other and no real love for the lost. Activities simply keep some members busy and often actually interfere with the accomplishment of our mission to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. Members of dead churches are often more concerned about keeping their place on the pew than in seeking and saving the lost. And, by the way, dead churches are shrinking. Fortunately, there are very few dead churches among us.
By far the most common church in our brotherhood is the INSIDE-IN church. Members of inside-in churches truly care about one another. If a member is sick or has suffered the loss of a loved one, inside-in churches respond quickly and well. People in inside-in churches love coming to worship. They often greet one another with hugs and genuine feeling. They encourage, support, and admonish one another. All of this is good and acceptable to our Lord. He said, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Preachers for inside-in churches often stand in the pulpit and say, “We are the friendliest church in town.” But what they really mean without realizing it is, “We are the friendliest church to each other, but if you are a visitor we will ignore or marginalize you.” Outsiders must prove themselves before they will be accepted in inside-in churches.
Inside-in churches are not reaching out to the lost and are primarily baptizing only their children. As a result, inside-in churches are either shrinking or just holding their own. If they are growing, it is generally through a merger with another congregation or through taking sheep from another flock. That kind of growth has all the benefit of swapping deck chairs on the Titanic.
There are many congregations, however, who are very open to visitors. They understand that in both growing and non-growing congregations visitors make up about 5% of their attendance. They realize that the difference between whether congregations grow or not is often directly connected to keeping and ultimately converting those who do come to worship.
These churches are OUTSIDE-IN churches. Outside-in churches know that the first 45 seconds that a visitor walks into the church building is critical. If visitors are not greeted and made to feel at home in that time, they will have a first (and often permanent) impression that they have come to a church that doesn’t care about them. Outside-in churches realize that people are not looking for a friendly church; they are looking for friends. They fulfill a prophecy of the church by Isaiah: “Many people shall come and say, ‘Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths’” (Isa. 2:3).
Outside-in churches design classes, worship, and ministries with “seekers” in mind. And they are generally growing. But for all the good that they are doing, they are still missing the vital point of the commission that we have been given.
Jesus said to “Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” The churches that define their mission by this standard do not see evangelism as inviting people to church. They understand that Christ and his gospel must be brought into the places where they work, play, live, and interact with others. These churches are few in number, but they are the only ones who are truly faithful to Christ’s mission for the church.
These are the Inside-Out churches. They are not primarily interested in entertaining one another or even in their own security. They are going beyond their own walls and comfort zones to reach those who may never enter the door of their facilities. They understand that their security is in the Lord who honors them as they do His will. In inside-out churches it is often the case that the first time a person comes into the church building is the day that he or she is baptized.
Foundational Concepts for Becoming Inside-Out
I’m certainly not a Moses, who has been tasked to lead us out of our wilderness, but it is apparent that there are biblical concepts that can help us become more “inside-out.” Here are eight concepts that will help.
1. God has a purpose for the life of each human being (1 Tim. 2:3-4).
God desires that all people be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. While we know this, we have often failed to let this concept be our guiding thought in relationships with others. We must begin to filter our perceptions and reactions to others through this thought: “This is a person that God wants saved.”
2. The primary mission for Christians is in the world not on the church property (Mark 16:15).
The thought of Mark 16:15 and Matt. 28:19 is not primarily to go. It is “As you go, preach the gospel and make disciples.” We are always going, make sure that we bring Christ’s gospel with us as we go.
3. Many Christians are unskilled in relating their faith to daily life (Heb. 5:12-14).
If we only know how to practice Christianity within the walls of a church building, our faith isn’t worth having. Christianity is a life to be lived in the real world. We need more “street-wise” Christians!
4. The primary task of the church is to develop mature disciples for ministry in the world (Eph. 4:11-12).
The task of elders, evangelists, and teachers is to equip the saints for works of service. We must rethink our preaching and curriculum to help Christians learn how to be lights in the world. Too little of our teaching is directed toward training for outreach.
5. Christians must learn how to live and articulate their faith in a sometimes-hostile society (Matt. 28:19; 1 Pet. 3:15-16).
It will never be enough to simply live a faithful life. Christianity must be taught. It is not an “either-or” (either living the Christian life or teaching it to others). It is a “both-and.”
6. Preachers must begin to see preaching as a life-choice, not as a career (Rom. 1:14-15; 1 Cor. 9:16; 2 Tim. 4:1-5).
The church has too many professional office managers, organizers, promoters, expert mixers, and eloquent speakers. It has too few who have a message from God in their heart and a fire in their bones, and they can’t hold it in.
Those who see preaching as a career are careful not to say anything that will jeopardize their position. When people quit listening, “career” preachers quit.
Those who have made a life-choice realize that they are God’s servants with God’s message and that message must be spoken. They can’t quit even when no one listens.
7. Spiritual leaders must be more concerned about authority and less about control in the life of the congregation (1 Pet. 5:1-4; Col. 3:17).
Every decision of the church and its members cannot be controlled by a small group of men. Elders must lead the congregation, guide it in God’s truth, and keep its ministries going in the right direction, but they can never control the church. In ministry, what you oversee and empower grows—what you control dies. Oversight and empowerment grow out of faith. Control grows out of fear.
8. Brethren and congregations must begin to communicate again (Mal. 3:16-18).
Congregations and elderships must reclaim brotherhood and the sense that we are a part of God’s great work on earth. We must begin talking to one another again.
What Will You Do?
The need is great, the time is short, and eternal destinies are at stake.
The work is difficult, the task is demanding, and it will cost you your life.
Christ did not come to give us a life of ease. He offered us the gospel. And He made it clear that it involved a life, a mission, a cross, and a resurrection.
Christ did not just come to give us a part-time job. He came to give us His dream—a dream of a world united with heaven, a life that stretches beyond the seen to the eternal, and a love that lasts forever.
It is worth everything that it costs and more.
Bill Watkins preaches for the Crieve Hall Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.