The prayer of many of our churches is that people would come in from the local area, saved and unsaved, to add to our numbers. Yet, I’ve been troubled in recent months by the thought that many of us go to churches which are not local to our doorsteps. Instead, we go to the ones which fit our specification and forget the little faithful congregation next door. This article is aimed at everyone, Reformed, Charismatic, Baptist or Free. In essence it is a problem that hits all types of traditions in the faith, and points at the draw of a variety of churches in different spectrums; ranging from the main Reformed churches to the popular Charismatic places. I guess this comes from thoughts I’ve had recently about the marketisation of church, the commodification of faith and the comfortability of believers in the West.

Sometimes we have to travel

I should caveat this article with the point that sometimes we have to travel, there may be no local, faithful and God-honouring church in your town. I know, I live in a place where there isn’t a good church locally. This article is aimed at fighting our temptations to forsake faithful local churches in favour of bigger, fancier, or more appealing churches.

Selling church and marketing the gospel

The decline of the local church corresponds with the idea of selling your church. Trendy names (I won’t name any for fear of upsetting readers!), cool branded t-shirts, banners and websites which appeal to our senses. These represent the current practices of many churches today. This loss of local identity and understanding of our local areas means that we have lost that tradition of being a collection of local believers with the aim of glorifying God in places that we live.

Christianity has become a business, and so, we advertise our churches with the aim of attracting people near and far. We are full of young people! We have great music! We have great fun! We are social! It could be anything that focuses on a targeted audience. Apart from the obvious theological issues with such statements, they’re a reminder that many churches have deliberately moved away from the idea that we are meant to be a local, family-like and congregation of believers, to ensure they have a brand, and an image that reaches a select and wider audience. Maybe this is in response to the fear of our declining numbers; but maybe we are only accelerating this by such actions?

Local churches should be aimed at their local communities. Instead we’ve been acting like a corporation, trying to increase our customer base with a wider catchment area. ‘Come to Church and Have a Beer.’ Who are we trying to reach, what message are we trying to show?

The fact that now we sell our church means if we have visitors from afar, let’s say another city, we immediately want them to settle with us. But hang on. Surely we should be saying, ‘they would be a benefit to believers in their own community! Let’s encourage them to find a church there and if there are none, let them come here’. But I do not often hear that, instead I hear ‘Come! Come! Great to have you.’ But how can they be part of a local family if they are 30 miles away? The church family becomes disconnected and fragmented. I am reminded in this moment of Paul’s letter to the Thessalonian church where he noted how he lived among them:

For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you,  because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake.

Commodification of faith

However, the issue is not just how churches are run, but also how we see and act out our own faith. I’m not sure when it happened, but the idea that we can pick and choose a church based on our individual, not theological, preferences is pretty staggering. We live in a culture where we have limitless options of what we can buy, and we’ve done the same with our faith and our churches. It has become one big pick and mix.

We want churches with young or older people, families, cool worship bands or great coffee bars. We want the church that we enjoy the most, that meets our demands, that tickles our senses. Yet, we forget that to serve in a church is a sacrifice, that it won’t meet all our demands, that it won’t be perfect.

There will be a church nearby, earnestly praying for locals to come in to hear the truth and for believers to help serve in the church. But we don’t care about that because it’s too small, not enough young people, or it does not have enough guitars. Do we hear ourselves? It’s not just pathetic, it’s embarrassing.

The decline of the local church therefore, corresponds with the ever increasing worldliness that has come into the church. Many churches are no longer a light, and many reflect our consumerist culture rather than the word.

Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians highlights that church is a place of encouragement and admonishment, and that it certainly is not easy being a Christian in a church! We are there to serve, to be told off, to hear things we perhaps don’t like.

Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other. And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone. Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.

1 Thessalonians 5:12

Comfort

These points align on a greater issue, churches and individuals focus on comfort. For example, we go to churches far away because we can comfortably get there. There is no longer a sacrifice that we have to make. We pop in the car and we can get to a church in another city. There are no longer any barriers. I won’t turn this into an anti-car rant, as the car has its uses, but we have become so reliant upon it that we make our search for churches wider than we should. Rather than finding a faithful church first, we find our job, or our house first, and then we are happy to commute vast distances. Take away the car and would you be so willing to go to that church?

This links as well to the ending of evening services. Why go to church twice on a Sunday? It’s no longer comfortable, in fact, church gets in the way of our lives! We are busy! We have things to do, so we go to churches which fit our lifestyles!

Maybe we go to places which won’t rebuke us, make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside…but where is the growth? I fear the decline of the local church is also linked to the fact we don’t want to be confronted with our sins.

Let us face it. The local church is most likely the least comfortable option. We cannot hide, we don’t get what we want (style wise) and we will probably be held to account.  The decline of the local church relates to the steady decline of active faith in our own lives and churches!

The Doctrines of Grace

Underpinning all of the above is the theological understanding of believers. I think we have seen such a decline because we have forgotten the Doctrines of Grace. We forget God is sovereign over our salvation, our lives and our churches. We go where we want to go, not where we are called or should go. Our churches market themselves as though they are the focus, as though they are the holders of salvation.

I’m not going on some hyper-Calvinism argument here. We need to get out and proclaim the truth, and we need to have a zeal to reach as many as we can. But we are so focused on selling the gospel and our church, we forget the people we are trying to reach and we lose focus.

Paul sets this out well in Ephesians 1:11-23:

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory…And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

The decline of the local churches

All of the reasons above, plus many more that I do not have time to go into, has led to the decline of the local church. Many small and faithful congregations suffer because we have become individualistic, negligent and selfish in how we approach church. We put our own styles and wants above the needs of other believers and we often do it because we are chasing after the world.

What does this mean?

We have seen the polarisation and generational divides ever growing in churches. We find people can’t help out and serve in the church as much as they perhaps should. We see that the church no longer reflects a geographical community. There are less demands of church being a sacrificial meeting for us. It has turned church to be all about us.

I’m not sure if this can be reversed. Whenever I have this conversation with believers, the responses are always heartbreaking. Let us remember what church is, of our commitments, and above all, whom we serve, God the Father, the Son and the Spirit.