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Updated: Mar 8

For my people have committed a double evil: They have abandoned me, the fountain of living water, and dug cisterns for themselves— cracked cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jeremiah 2:13, CSB)

Many people are longing to experience God in their lives as active, relevant, and transformative. However, what they often experience in church and the activities offered isn’t translating into the fulfillment of this desire.

I have this intrusive and reoccurring thought, creeping into my consciousness: "You have a rich religion but a poor spirituality." The two don't have to be at odds; often, they are. I'd like to believe I could have a rich religion and spirituality.

Time for definitions: religion and spirituality. It’s good to define our terms. It helps us to not misunderstand each other and keeps the conversation under the same assumptions. For me, my definition of “religion” is a system of stated beliefs and organizational practices that define a faith community. The term “Christianity” is also used as a form of religion. I do this later. Next, I define “spirituality” as the seeking of a personal engagement with God which brings about a transformative experience in a person’s life that progressively conforms them to the will and ways of God.

With the above definitions in mind, here is what I’m headed toward: There are people, and I may add, I believe a growing number of people, longing to experience God but they don’t or can’t see any value in attending church meetings where a non-experience of God is presented.

“Wait a minute!” You may say, “Our church doesn’t present non-experiential meetings.” Maybe so, but in most of the churches I attend, and I attend a lot, the approach is more religion that spirituality. The message we send to our members and attenders is: Decide for Christ, join the church, be baptized, attend small group, attend worship, give tithes and offerings, be a moral person, have the right set of beliefs, support the Cooperative Program. Friends, this is religion, and it is not enough anymore. It never was. But in our troubled, digital, connected and disconnected modern world it is really standing out.

Please don’t hear what I am not saying. I’m not saying that we don’t need religion nor all of the things I listed that go with it. In fact, we do. We need them desperately, but we don’t need them for religion; we need them for spirituality. We need them for the transcendent reality that they should be pointing to. Religion that ends in itself will end itself. It should point to something more. It should point to Someone more. If we forget that, we as well as our churches, will end up empty of meaning and irrelevant. Friends, we may have entered into a crisis of relevance.

Perhaps what I have written doesn’t resonate. But please keep on reading to humor me if you would. I believe we are in or at the very least, moving into a spirituality crisis in Christianity which precipitates a relevance crisis. People increasingly do not see church as a place to grow spiritually. How could they with some of the behaviors of our top church and denominational leaders.

What I want to do in the remainder of this blog is to list five factors that have contributed to the relevance crisis of Christianity. I didn’t come up with these. They are the work of Christian A. Schwarz and come from his book God is Indestructible: NCD Media, 2020. Christian has had his hand on the pulse of the worldwide evangelical church for decades through his Natural Church Development (NCD) ministry. To date, more that 90,000 churches worldwide have participated in his church health surveys. More than 47,000 of these are in the United States. This is the largest database on the church in the history of the church. Over the decades this information has become invaluable for recognizing trends.

From this rich resource of data, interactions with church, business, and community leaders we can with confidence list at least the five most significant factors that have brought us to this relevance challenge. Here they are:

  1. New communication technologies based on digitalization and globalization have resulted in new decision-making patterns.

  2. The advance in education and social security in vast parts of the world has resulted in a diminishing need to cry out to for God’s intervention.

  3. Increased individualism, particularly in Western societies has resulted in seeking spirituality without involvement in an institutional church, or even entirely without religion.

  4. The shift from heteronomy (a dependence on something else, i.e. authority, tradition) to human autonomy has resulted in skepticism toward everything that is perceived as authoritarian or paternalistic.

  5. The failure of Western Christianity to understand and communicate the full biblical image of God as being both personal and transpersonal, both immanent and transcendent, both divine will and divine energy, has contributed to an increased dissatisfaction with one’s own spirituality on the part of Christians, and to the feeling that Christianity is irrelevant from the perspective of non-Christians. (pp. 12-13)

A basic question is posed by Schwarz: “Is Christianity bound to the forms of church life practiced in the past or can we undertake the challenge of relating the unchanging essence of the gospel to ever-changing situations, even if that may result in painful reform?”

If we cannot do that, then the experience of God will be outside the church, at least outside the churches that will not use their religion enhance their relationship with God, besides those outside the church who are seeking a life-changing experience of God. We will become like the religious Jews who confused the Temple made of stone, nationalism, and their interpretations of Scripture to be as important as God himself. God had to get rid of all that in order for people to find him. Not only once but twice. He will do the same to us. He must unless we also repent. Jesus said so.

We have the same gospel of Christ that the early church had, but we do not have the same Christianity they had. We have the same gospel that the church of the reformation had, but we do not have the same Christianity they had. In my lifetime we have had unprecedented shifts away from institutionalism and segmentation to individualism and globalism. It is time for us to understand the times and to take the insights of church history into our present challenges. We cannot go back to a form of Christianity of the past. We must go with the new thing God is doing. He is always doing a new thing: A new birth, new wine, new wineskins, a new hope, new name, New Testament, new song, new heavens, and a new earth. He’s making all things new.

Personally, I plead with God almighty to help us to be free from our blindness to our pride, ideologies, and perspectives. May we see ourselves as he sees us, and may we experience him in a way that changes us to be more like Jesus every day. Don’t let your church (religion) be a hindrance but help to that end.

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It’s commonly agreed, in most contexts that the traditional ways of doing church no longer work. Perhaps you disagree with this statement. Perhaps you are not in touch with the data concerning the plight of most of our churches in the SBC or more specifically our churches in the Fairburn Baptist Association.

Speaking of our Baptist Association, here are a few startling statistics from our Annual Church Report (ACR) provided by our churches. I compiled a few vital aggregate statistics over the last five years. I threw out the years 2020 and 2021 as Covid-19 years. I did this because the numbers would have been even more stark. I only factored the years 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2022. If a church didn’t report in any of these years, which several did, I went back and averaged the most recent five years in that category and used that average for the church’s report. Here’s the summary:

  1. The number of churches we have in the association is down two congregations.

  2. The membership in those churches is down by average of 2,107 members. By the way, this number is before I took off the numbers from the two congregations we lost.

  3. Worship attendance is down by average of 2,054.

  4. Baptisms are down by average of 27.

  5. Church income is up by average of $1,358,734.

  6. Church giving to their own mission causes is down by average of $405,902.

  7. Church giving to Fairburn Baptist Association is down by average of $11,289.

Just in case you are wondering, our associational area during these years grew in population by 24,000 people.

As you can see, in every category but one we are down. You can come to any conclusion you like, but the way I see it, on average our churches have more money and less impact. Why is that? Without the Pandemic being a factor, we are still on the decline in the numbers that really count for kingdom growth.

To be fair, not every church’s numbers in our association are down. We have several churches that have grown in numbers and baptisms in the last year. Some have even given more to missions and to associational missions. However, the vast majority of churches are in a downward trajectory. Perhaps this is the situation of your church. I hope it is not. But in order to know, we must keep good records.

Facts are our friends. This is why it is so important for churches to fill out the Annual Church Report (ACR) every year. Most of our churches have done it in the past, but many are stopping. Chances are good that your church is one of them.

Why would church leaders not fill out their Annual Church Report? I personally believe it is because their numbers are declining, and it’s an issue of pride. I’ve not seen a church that is growing stop sending in their ACR. I have seen the reverse.

If you don’t track how your church is doing, you won’t know how it’s doing. It’s like a man not going to his doctor when he is hurting because he is afraid the doctor will find something wrong. Well, there is something wrong and if you don’t find out what it is it could kill you!

That is exactly what has happened to many of our churches. They will not acknowledge the decline for fear of having to get a diagnosis and then a prescription to do something about it. Then they are put in the position of doing the hard work of changing or die.

In the Gospel of John, chapter 5 we read about Jesus finding a man who could not walk and had been laying at the pool of Bethesda for 38 years. Jesus asked him, “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6b, CSB) What a silly question. The man had been an invalid for 38 years and waiting at the water for healing. Why would Jesus ask such a question? I think it is because some people don’t want to get well. They are comfortable in their sickness. They know that if they are well, they will have to take responsibility for themselves. In short, they will have to change.

In my 15 plus years as a church consultant and denominational worker I have asked many churches the same question that Jesus posed to the lame man. 100% of them told me that they wanted to get well. But I found out later that at least 50% of them lied.

They wanted to get well but they didn’t want to change.

I’ll do it if…

· It doesn’t cost too much.

· It’s not too hard.

· It won’t be painful.

· It won’t take too long.

They have betrayed the mission of God for their religion of comfort. They have made an idol out of their religious tradition and have grieved the Spirit of God. They do not weep over the lost and seek to become all things to all people so that by all means they might save some. No chances of revival here… unless there is a change of mind. The Bible has a great word for “change of mind”. It is the word “repentance.” It’s a good word and a good one for Christians to practice.

So, does your church want to get well? Get a diagnosis. Your associational missionary just happens to be certified in administering a church health assessment, likely the best tested and documented church health survey ever created.

Once a valid and accurate diagnosis is made, then the church, under the prayerful leadership of the pastor and help of the AMS can begin to follow a prescription for greater health. But the question remains, do you want to get well? It will probably be hard. It will likely be painful. It will surely take some time. It will be costly.

Is there a better option? Continue the same course. As Dr. Phil says, “How’s that working for you?”

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As a pastor, for years I would calendar my preaching in February to deal with issues related to mental health. I’d jokingly call February “Mental Health Month.” I had several reasons for this. One, was just the nature of the season. It is winter and has been winter for some time and now I’m sick of it. Give me spring!

February In Oklahoma was ice storms, winds, tornadoes, earthquakes, and loss of electrical power. It was still dark late in the morning and then again early in the evening. During the day it was often overcast. Okay, maybe I’m lumping a whole month of events into what may seem like one day, but I guarantee you, we’ve had one day like that, and it was in February! So, you get my point. The weather can be a real downer in February unless you are a weather forecaster, then you're excited.

A second reason for the mental health focus as a pastor was the inevitable letdown after the Christmas and New Years holidays. As now a grandparent, I miss seeing every one of my grandkids since Christmas. I miss my children as well, but there is a special feeling of loss not seeing the grandkids for a while after Christmas. For many, it is a feeling of isolation and loneliness.

Then there are all the bills! For some people, Christmas is binge shopping! “Let’s buy this for the kids, they need it!” “Sure, this is expensive, but it’s the holidays!” You know the feeling. It’s the high of impulse buying something nobody really, really needs while you are hyped up on a Starbucks Americano Grande. Wow! It’s like a drug.

The emotional high of materialistic procurement goes away after Christmas, sometimes that very evening. Your mental health is in danger when you open up the credit card bill in January or the first of February. You just can’t believe you spent that much money. Someone must have hacked your credit card! But no. The financial woes are self-inflicted.

There you have it. Four good reasons for making February Mental Health Month: The weather, the holiday let-down, isolation, and financial debt.

But with all of these things, some might say that all I’m doing is providing some sort of moralistic therapeutic deism instead of Christianity. I will admit that there is always a danger of this happening. Especially if we don’t stand firmly on the Gospel of Christ. Jesus came to call us to himself, not to our version of a happy and fulfilled life. Holiness (in the theological sense, not the pejorative sense) is more important than happiness. We seek God and His kingdom first, not our best selves.

Does it mean that focusing on mental health is not Christian? This is really a good question. It’s a good question because the subject of mental health is now front and center in the various fields of government, medicine, education, self-help, helping professions, business, nonprofits, religion, and spirituality. Each of these fields has a different take on the subject. As Christians, we need to look at this subject of mental health through the lens of Scripture and the practice of the church in history.

Here is one Scripture describing God’s will for your mental health.

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely. And may your whole spirit, soul, and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5:23, CSB)

Sanctification, or being set apart as God’s own is the goal. This is achieved by all the various parts of us as human beings kept “sound and blameless.”

God and his church are interested in your whole spirit, soul, and body’s wellness. But this wellness and the prescription for it is very different from the worlds' interest.

The world doesn’t have the “soul” resources that the Christian faith has. It doesn’t have the offer of forgiveness found in repentance supplied by the atoning death of Christ. It doesn’t have adoption as sons of God (both male and female), being co-heirs with Christ. It doesn’t have the abiding and empowering “right now” presence of the Holy Spirit of God, the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. It doesn’t have the power to renew minds so that we will discern what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.

I’ve written all this to get to this point. God has equipped his people to help not only his people but the world to come to know Jesus. One of the ways is by helping those who are bent under the weight of the problems of modern-day life.

This is why I’m recommending you check out a very timely and free virtual Mental Health Conference this Saturday, February 11, 2023. It is Christ-centered and need focused. It’s called Voices of Hope and I’m actually one of the presenters. But you don’t need to attend my seminar, there are over +35 Voices of Hope to speak into your life! – With featured speakers like Kay Warren, Colleen Swindoll, Laura Howe and many more, this conference promises to be amazing!

Voices of Hope has been created for anyone who is either experiencing a mental health challenge or has a loved one who does or is needing to heal trauma and grief, those experiencing Post Pandemic Distress who are searching to improve their emotional health, and Churches and Ministry leaders who are looking to increase their church’s capacity, awareness and offer hope to their community.

The conference will be covering 6 main tracks:

  • Living with a Mental Health Diagnosis

  • Resources for Loved Ones

  • Trauma and Grief

  • Parenting When There’s a Mental Health Challenge or a Disability

  • Pastors and Ministry Leaders

  • Post Pandemic Emotional Health

You are invited to participate in this unprecedented virtual event in the history of Fresh Hope. We will have many guest Voices of Hope and you can register FREE now!!!

Go ahead and click the image below to check it out and register. If you know of someone who could benefit from this, please forward Fresh Hope for Mental Health Virtual Conference to them as well.

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