The Future of the Local Church – Revival or Revolution?

–April of 2006

The Future of the Local Church – Revival or Revolution?

For over half a century men and women all over America have been praying for revival.  But it looks like we are having a revolution instead.  At least that’s the findings of America’s religious pulse-taker, George Barna, Jr.  You can read all about it in his latest book, Revolution.  The upshot of Barna’s book is that a “quiet revolution” is taking place in America. These revolutionaries are a growing sub-nation of Christians, already over 20 million strong, who are set on doing whatever it takes to get closer to God and help others do the same.  They are committed to a radical, Biblical faith that is transforming and authentic.

The unique part of this revolution is that it is largely taking place outside the local church.  (The revolutionaries  are careful to differentiate between the church and the Church.) They  believe the local church has failed to fulfill its mission.  They see most local churches as irrelevant and ineffective in equipping believers to be Christlike and advancing God’s kingdom in a Biblical way.  They believe the church has become so hidebound by tradition and so focused on its own agenda that true worship, radical commitment, spiritual growth, servanthood and authentic community have become secondary issues. They strongly believe that “we are not called to go to church; we are called to be the Church.”

Many of the revolutionaries are still involved in a local church, but millions of them have left the church and developed a new model of church called alternative faith-based communities.  Barna predicts the alternative groups will continue to see significant growth while the traditional local church will shrink by over 40 percent in the next twenty years.

 Problems with the Revolution

I want to be very careful that I do not curse what God has blessed, but I do have concerns with what I see taking place.  Barna’s research indicates that the revolution is being embraced by the most serious-minded Christians.  Nevertheless, sincerity and zeal alone do not mean that a thing is right or problem free. My first concern grows out of the very nature of the Church itself. The Church is Christ’s Body, the members are inseparably linked one to another, and anytime small segments pull away there is the danger of cultivating a “Lone Ranger” mentality.  The intent may be right and the immediate results seem good, but in the long term there is the danger of becoming exclusive and even cultish.

I’m also concerned that these small groups lack the accountability and discipline that is provided by some form of church authority such as a board of elders.  One of Paul’s first concerns in each of the New Testament churches was to appoint a group of elders and deacons to provide leadership and structure.

The most serious concern I have comes from the fact that separation from a local church can disconnect this small body from a theological and historical framework for interpreting scripture.  Most of these revolutionaries grew up in a postmodern world and are strongly influenced by postmodern thinking.  Couple that fact with their separation from a system of theological thought or the historical continuity of the Church and it can simply lead to every man doing what is right in his own eyes. Heresy can blossom in such settings.

Can we learn from the Revolution?

Yes!  I believe there are a number of things the local church and church leaders can learn from this revolution. Let me share with you four things that I believe we need to learn.

 We should guard against being inflexible and too resistant to change.

Change is not bad.  Change is a natural, positive and irreplaceable part of normal, healthy growth. When change means a compromise of Biblical truth or core values, then change is bad and should be avoided.  But when change serves as the catalyst for positive spiritual growth, it is good, normative and should be welcomed.  The local church, far too often, stiff-arms change simply because the members are comfortable with what they are doing and had rather not be inconvenienced by change.

 We should guard against elevating what is traditional to the plane of what is Biblical.

In the average Christian church, almost everything we do is based on tradition.  The times and places we meet, the ministries we offer, the structure we follow and the music and instruments we use are all largely dictated by tradition.  Traditions are helpful and at times even important, but they must not be confused with God-given commands.  Traditions should never have the same authority as scripture.  Tradition can become such a mechanical part of who we are and what we do that over time the distinction between a tradition and Biblical truth can become blurred.  Worse yet, there may be a tendency to think that faithful obedience to our tradition is well pleasing to God, when in all reality, we may be doing things He neither commands nor cares about, while the things for which He sent His Son we regard as of little or no importance.

 We should guard against the church’s being member driven rather than mission driven.

The local church is not a club, society or an organization that exists for the pleasure of its members.  It is not a democracy where everybody has his or her say.  It is the body of Christ where believers are matured toward Christlikeness and equipped for ministry and where the lost are evangelized.  Far too many local churches exist only for the pleasure and edification of their membership and have totally forgotten and inadvertently abandoned the mission that God has given them to accomplish.  A church that doesn’t exist for redemptive activity has no reason to exist.

 We should guard against becoming denominationally focused

rather than community impacting.

The local church is not just another branch office to collect revenue and promote the company brand for some denomination.   The local church must focus on and be engaged with the community in which it lives.  History has proven that a focus on what the denomination is doing rather than what the local church is doing is a clear sign of death for both.

Barna may be right about the revolution, but I hope he is wrong about the local church. I am aware that God can get His work done with or without the local church, at least as we know it.  But if the local church experiences revival, it can yet be a powerful force for God.  So while the revolution unfolds, I will rejoice in whatever good it is doing and continue to pray for and work toward revival and renewal in the local church.

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