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The Forgotten Mission

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“Are you guys really sure that this is what Jesus told you to do?” Those words were spoken by a confirmed atheist to his Christian friend after they visited several of America’s largest and best known churches—and they have haunted me for nearly two years. (You can read the whole story of this interesting research project in Jim and Casper Go to Church by Jim Henderson and Matt Casper.)

As I travel across this land and speak with pastors and leaders who are genuinely concerned about what is happening to the church, I grow more concerned about the future of true religion in America. How could it be otherwise? While the Church grows in both numbers and strength in Africa, South America and Asia (even in the face of opposition and persecution), the churches in our own land grow weaker and consistently smaller (in percentage of total population). Here and there we see vibrant, growing churches that stand firm for Christ and influence the culture around them, demonstrating that all is not lost. But these churches are alarmingly scarce.

That might not be disturbing if we knew that the quality of Christian education and character in those churches was getting better. After all, God has demonstrated a preference for a smaller number of truly holy and committed followers instead of a larger number of compromised and unfaithful people. That, at least, is what I take from the story of Gideon and his 300 and a host of other Bible stories and passages. It is still true that, in the power of the Lord, “one shall chase a thousand.”

But it is not true that the kind and quality of Christian found in America’s churches is getting better. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case. For example, if we compare the basic biblical literacy found in today’s evangelical churches to that of one or two generations ago, I fear we are woefully lacking. Survey after survey has shown that members of modern churches possess little knowledge of God’s Word. Try asking five people at church next Sunday to name the Twelve Apostles, to recall the names of several of the Minor Prophets or (better yet) to list the Ten Commandments. Your experience will not be an encouraging one. I know. I have tried.

And if we try to measure the behavioral “distance” between the professing Christians inside our churches (even the ones that are vibrant and growing) against that of nonbelievers in the world around us, our dismay may turn into despair. One recent study concluded that the rate of divorce among American Christians is actually slightly higher than among the general population! The people inside our churches seem to have just about the same struggle with alcohol, drug and pornographic addictions as those on the outside. There is little sense among the watching world of the presence and power of God in the lives of most of His professed followers!

The question posed by Casper the atheist—“Are you guys really sure that this is what Jesus told you to do?”—has an answer: NO! Jesus never said that we should build mega-churches, develop externally focused churches, plant culturally relevant churches, establish simple churches or create intelligent churches. In fact, I seem to remember Him saying that He would build His Church. What Jesus told us to do (Matt. 28:18-20) was to make disciples who identify with Him through baptism, who obey His commands and who share His values and priorities. Please do not misunderstand me. As a “career” church planter, I have not lost my passion for planting churches. It is just that in our preoccupation with the organization, form and activities of those churches, we may have lost touch with the core of the mission.

Is it possible that in our efforts to do many good things related to the mission, we have lost our focus on the mission itself? “And as you are going, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

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