David Allis, a member of the Apostolic Church movement, was a guest speaker at last November’s Baptist Assembly in Nelson. He was invited to argue the affirmative in a moot entitled, The Church Has Had its Day. The following is an edited version of a paper he made available to Assembly delegates after the debate…
It is obvious that at a higher level this moot can never be true. The universal church, consisting of the redeemed from all ages, both alive and dead, certainly can never have “had its day.” The New Testament describes the Church as the body of Christ with Christ as its head. It would be dangerous to argue that Christ has been unsuccessful with his own body.
But if we narrow the discussion to the Church that we are part of, and are investing our time, energy, prayers, money and lives into then perhaps we have the basis for some debate.
Our part of the New Zealand Church is an evangelical, Bible-believing, modern, Western, organised, institutional church visible through its buildings, ministers and services based on preaching and worship. So before I launch into any critique I want to affirm the hard working godly and committed members and ministers. Any critique of our Church is not because of their lack of dedication, hard work, commitment and prayer.
Neither am I a critic throwing rocks from the outside. I am personally committed to extending God’s Kingdom and helping establish the Church as He would have it in New Zealand today.
It is also important for individual Christians to be a part of a Christian community so as to encourage each other, build accountable relationships and gather together for mutual encouragement. For the sake of God’s Kingdom it’s important for Christians to be connected with other parts of the “body.”
But, as we do with any enterprise that absorbs huge amounts of time and money, we need to honestly review the effectiveness of the “organised Church.” Is our Church working as well as it could or should be?
I want to argue three reasons why the modern New Zealand evangelical, organised, minister and Sunday service-centred Church is past its best.
1. It isn’t working.
2. It isn’t Biblical.
3. It is actually harmful.
1. Our Church is not working/effective
a). Our Church is not growing:
• A few are growing rapidly at 5%, 10% or 20% a year but most struggle to remain static and many are in decline.
• The successful “mega-churches” are few and far between, usually dependent on a unique leader, and can’t easily be duplicated.
• For every successful mega church there are hundreds of less successful wannabe mega-churches which would love to grow, but don’t.
• Many churches that appear to be growing are doing so through transfer growth – at the expense of other churches.
• New immigrants are creating an artificial impression that the Church is not declining
• Overall, census data shows the proportion of New Zealand’s population in the main denominations has decreased steadily over the past 50 years, and they now have only 45-90% of the proportion of New Zealand’s population they had in 1956.
• The Apostolic Church movement, of which I am part, grew in the late 1980s and mid 1990s but has since declined to the same number of members as it had in 1993.
• The Baptist denomination’s numbers are static and when adjusted to allow for New Zealand’s population growth since 1956, are in slight decline.
• In a typical year both the Apostolic and Baptist Churches see a third of their churches grow and the other two thirds remain static or decline
• By contrast, Buddhist, Hindu and Moslem religions have shown considerable growth in New Zealand since 1971.
• Many denominations have a huge backdoor. Baptist churches, for example, are baptising the equivalent of nearly 10% of adult church members each year, yet there is little overall growth in the denomination.
b). Our Church isn’t what we hope/dream it should be.
We dream of churches with lots of people getting saved, growing and being discipled, of queues at the door on Sundays, overflowing offering bags and so many volunteers ministries have waiting lists.
The reality is that the local church of 70 adults 10 years ago is still the local church of about 70 adults. In 10 years of hard work, prayer, programmes, and planning there has been little overall change.
But it could be worse. We are happy our church hasn’t closed, or is in rapid decline. It might not be growing but at least it’s not falling apart!
c). Our church isn’t producing obedient disciples.
Overall, Christians are little different from their neighbours.
Statistics from American sources show the divorce rate among church attendees in the United States is much the same as among non-attendees while the rate of pre-marital and extra-marital sex is about the same in both groups. New Zealand church-goers may be different in some of these areas, but are we different enough to stand out?
One area of difference is the “Christian Vote.” About 20% of the New Zealand population attends church monthly, yet Christians are ignored politically while much smaller groups have greater political influence. Politicians believe there is no unified Christian vote in New Zealand and that Christians typically vote the same way as the rest of society.
d). There is a leadership crisis in our Church
There is an overall shortage of ministers in most New Zealand denominations, along with a high level of burn-out and disillusionment. Statistics in the United States show 80% of American pastors and their spouses feel unqualified and discouraged in their role; 80% of Bible School and seminary graduates who enter ministry will leave within five years; 70% of pastors battle with depression; 50% are so discouraged they would leave the profession if they could but have no other way of making a living; 80% of pastors’ spouses feel their spouse is overworked and wish they could choose another profession.
The situation in New Zealand may not be as extreme, but we probably face similar problems.
e). There is a membership crisis in our Church
In New Zealand there is a big gap between the number of people who call themselves Christian and the number that are committed to local churches. In December 2004 a NZ Herald poll of 1000 New Zealanders showed that 67.7% of those polled said they believed in God but only 20.6% said they often attended a church. The 2001 Census shows just under 60% of New Zealanders claiming to be Christian.
Of the 60% who call themselves Christians, less than one third are regular church attendees while the rest are outside the normal church. A Massey University ISSP study of 1244 people in 2005 shows that only 37% of New Zealanders have never belonged to a church and that while 16.5% of New Zealanders are active church members, almost three times as many (44.8%) have current or previous church links but now aren’t actively involved.
f). Society is changing and our Church is being left behind.
Historically, the Church has taken the lead in areas such as the value of human life, education, and the abolition of slavery. Now we are behind in other important areas we should be leading, such as gender equality, ecology and the “green” movement, world justice and the elimination of poverty.
We find it difficult to distinguish the modernist aspects of our current church values and culture from those that are an essential part of Christianity.
g). Our Church is not impacting society, either in the local community or wider society.
Most (but certainly not all) churches are isolated from their local community and have very little effect on that community. Most communities wouldn’t notice if the church closed. Some are valued as venues for weddings and funerals but are otherwise not seen as important.
Yet, the Church should not just be different from society, it should be way out in front.
2. Our Church isn’t biblical
Our church has some theology, values, structures and practices that don’t reflect New Testament priorities.
a). We don’t love the poor.
The Bible is clear that we have a responsibility to help the poor, yet rich Western Christians and churches control trillions of dollars in assets and income, while 850 million people, including 200 million Christians, are currently starving.
UN studies show $US70-80 billion a year would provide essential health care and education for all the world’s poor. If Western Christians gave just 5% of their income towards this, it would solve the problem totally.
We rich Christians say we love people, and that the Church is the body of Christ, yet we do very little for the poor. It is sobering to reflect on how much we would do to save our own child’s life, and how little we do to save the life of other children.
b). We don’t really care about world mission.
Despite Christ’s command to evangelise, two thirds of all people from AD30 to the present day have never heard of his name.
Christians spend only a relatively small amount each year on mission to the non-Christian, non-evangelised world – $250 million annually is spent on these 38 countries and 1.6 billion people. By contrast, Western churches spend $810 million a year on annual audits of churches and agencies, $16 billion of church funds is embezzled each year with only about 5% of those responsible being caught, $8 billion a year is spent by Christians worldwide travelling to over 500 conferences to talk about missions, the combined personal income of church members is $15 trillion a year while each member spends on average $7.80 a year on foreign missions or about one one-thousandth of their income.
We are unfocused and ineffective with world mission, with the total cost of Christian outreach averaging $330,000 for each and every newly baptised person.
c). We have built a church model centred on the extra-biblical – particularly professional ministers and Sunday meetings focused on corporate-sung-worship and sermons.
Preaching in the Bible is always in the context of evangelism, whereas we typically preach to the converted (week after week for the rest of their lives). The preaching in Western churches is extra-biblical and is typically either teaching or a pep talk.
One of the main reasons we gather on a Sunday is for corporate worship, yet corporate sung worship led from the front is conspicuously absent from the New Testament.
We say we believe in the “priesthood of all believers” but typically centre our churches on a paid (or volunteer) professional minister or leader.
Many churches say they are “purpose driven” yet in practice they are usually quite programme orientated.
d). We offer theology that is over-simplified and doesn’t accurately reflect Biblical values.
We offer “cheap” salvation which results in untransformed lives. This salvation appears like a “get into heaven free” opportunity, rather than an encounter with the living God who calls us to radical discipleship.
We focus on narrow areas of sin such as those relating to sexuality and honesty but neglect other important ones such as pride, gluttony, greed and materialism
3. Our church is harmful for the Kingdom
The Church is often focused on building itself, rather than building the Kingdom.
a). We value our local church more than the Kingdom.
Where does the first of our money get spent? It typically goes towards operating a Sunday service, including the costs of buildings, ministers, sermon preparation and music equipment. Only a small proportion of the income is spent on Kingdom activities outside the local church.
Our model of church is expensive with a huge financial cost involved in operating organised churches in the Western world. For New Zealand Baptists the cost per church attendee is about $750 income a year, plus $10,000 capital per attendee.
As well as financial cost, there is a huge cost in volunteer time in operating the normal organised church in New Zealand. Millions of hours are given to running the church and its programmes each year.
We waste our resources on maintaining church for Christian consumers.
Church volunteers’ time is also used predominantly for activities associated with operating the local church, rather than wider Kingdom activities. I estimate that, typically, 90% of a church’s time, energy and finances are spent on maintaining the church for its members.
Society has a poor perception of Christians and the Church and we are known for the wrong issues. For example, in New Zealand we’re more known as the people who are pro-smacking, than we are known as people who love the poor.
b). Our church is harmful for Christians.
It insulates and inoculates Christians, usually keeping them dependent on sermons and church programmes, and leaving them biblically and theologically illiterate or immature.
Our church drains people’s time, energy, vision, finance, enthusiasm, initiative and responsibility. It generally suits “yes” people who fit in and help maintain the status quo.
Because of our structures and practices we disempower and create dependence on Sunday meetings, sung worship, sermons, professional ministers, programmes and buildings.
Church styles foster a brand of consumerism, as we create and adjust programmes to cater for the needs of our members and those we are trying to attract.
Typical church members aren’t discipled, and their lives aren’t radically transformed. We typically “write off” any Christians outside the organised church and think that people only leave because they are “back-sliding” or have unresolved issues. Yet in reality people leave for a wide variety or reasons including spiritual survival and a realisation their church doesn’t accurately reflect biblical priorities.
The New Zealand Church has major problems, yet many church leaders are unable to see these, or are reluctant to face them directly, or are unsure what to do about them. Many church members see these problems and have become uninvolved, problematic, or even left the church.
But pointing out the problems is always easy. Doing something about them is much harder. The challenge facing all of us is how to transform our imperfect church into a church that we and Jesus can be proud of. This can’t be achieved by minor adjustments, or designing new programmes. Major reformation is needed – the sort that would make Martin Luther proud – a reformation of the core values, purpose and methods of the church.
There will not be just one answer, or any on way of “doing” or “being” church in New Zealand. Rather, we need a variety of experiments, models and attempts to be relevant in this changing society.
Some of these will work and others will fail but we need to be committed to honestly evaluating what we are doing, communicating and working together to find relevant solutions, so the Kingdom of God will grow.
• Unabridged copies of this article are available at http://www.edgenet.org.nz/ideasfromedge/thechurchhashaditsday.htm
David Allis is married to Margaret and they have six children. He has a theology degree, and was involved in full-time Christian work for 16 years, including missions work in Calcutta, and running a Bible College in Auckland. Two years ago, he transitioned from leadership in a large city church, to joining with Margaret in developing a missional church in their home and attempting to extend the kingdom in their community. They network with other house churches in New Zealand (www.edgenet.org.nz ), and have started some businesses “to pay the bills and feed our hungry children!”