We all know the church in America is in trouble…
- More than 50% of Americans, if given a box to check, would label themselves as Christian while less than 10% affiliate with an actual church.
- While the dominant suburban white church ignores this reality, we are becoming a multi-ethnic nation. (again)
- While the church is typically racially/ethnically homogenous, our society has embraced multi-culturalism.
- While church leaders have lacked a thoughtful, tactical response our society has rapidly embraced the philosophical framework of pluralism.
In other words– society is doing things that the church has no clue how to respond to. In any given community in our country on any given Sunday less than 10% of the community is actively involved with a church. (Any church)
The only place the church is seeing growth? Circling the wagons. Big churches are getting bigger, little churches are getting littler, and medium-sized churches are squeezed.
In the last decade we’ve seen three general concepts rise and ultimately fail to reach more people:
- Political involvement. The early part of the 2000s was marked by the rise of power of the Evangelical politically. This completely backfired. Society was repulsed by our Scarlet Letter-like tactics to try to change society.
- Church planting movement. The last 10 years has seen a massive mobilization of younger leaders to plant churches. Unfortunately, these church plants are ineffective because they are just re-dressing the same pig. While it’s true that lots and lots of churches have closed in the last 20 years and church plants are supposedly out to replace them, the people aren’t fooled. Putting a nice marketing edge on the same old tactics won’t ever work.
- Christian hipsters. Also popular in the 2000s was a desire for Christians to quietly embed themselves in pop culture industries like movies, television, and music. The idea seemed to be that if Christians could embed themselves in things seen to create culture we could reach people by interweaving redemptive analogies into our culture. That backfired because it just became a marketing ploy by those industries. (A very successful one at that.)
What does this have to do with the book of Acts? EVERYTHING. The parallels between the first Century synagogue and the 21st century church are shockingly similar. The Jewish people, many of whom had dispersed to other parts of the modern world, struggled to maintain their numbers. Many congregations had shrunk to the point where they couldn’t even hold services because they couldn’t get 10 men there. (Which Jewish law requires for worship.) While they were strictly monotheistic and moralistically concrete, scattered in the Greco-Roman world they struggled to survive.
Several times in the book of Acts you see Luke mention a group of people called, the god-fearers. (Greek derivatives of the word, “theophobes”) These were people who hung out around the synagogue, worshipped with Jews, identified and sympathized with the Jews… but weren’t actually pursuing conversion. This wasn’t a rare thing. This was actually a subculture of people who hung out around the synagogue and in some contexts likely out-numbered the Jews in a community.
They were fans of God, worshippers of God, but they didn’t know God and certainly weren’t on His team.
They just kind of hung around. And the rabbi’s probably seemingly had no idea what to do with them. Maybe they even had conferences to talk about what to do with them? I’m just saying….
Does this sound familiar?
The American church is full of these people. And I think the second half of Acts gives us a few ways to minister to them. Let’s look at a few.
- Present the facts and call them to repent, invite them to join God’s team. (Acts 13:38-43)
- Raise the bar and demand painful obedience. Look at how Paul dealt with Timothy. (Acts 16:1-4)
- Call them to not only hear from God, but respond to him. (Acts 10)
- Ask them to examine the Scriptures for themselves and then ASK them to believe. (Acts 17:10-15)
- Stop wasting your time and move on. There’s no time for people who are merely looking for intellectual debate. Move on. (Acts 18:4-7)
Call me crazy on this but it’s all over Acts. Stop calling them Christians. Luke was careful to label them what they were and there was likely a community of god-fearers in every synagogue. They knew who they were and they knew what they needed to do to identify with God.
If we keep telling them they are a duck. And they keep acting like a duck. They are going to think that they are ducks.