The vast majority of evangelical churches in the U.S. are aging and declining. As consultants to more than 1,400 churches from 67 denominations, networks, and nondenominational congregations, we have seen this profile 90% of the time.
During the last 17 years, we have studied what God is doing in turnaround churches in the U.K. In our analysis, England is about 20-23 years ahead of the U.S. in the spiritual cycle. (1) England hit the pinnacle of secularization a couple of decades before the U.S. (2) The turnaround churches in the U.K. represent a “classroom” for church leaders in the U.S. to look into the future. (3) In this investigative context, we began to collect data about spirituality in U.S. churches and put it up against Jesus’ approach toward the spiritual formation of the disciples and the vitality of the early church reflected in the Epistles of the New Testament. We began asking the question, “How did Jesus shape His followers, and how did they put that into action?”
We know from history about the amazing effectiveness of the church to reach both Jews and Gentiles in the first few centuries of the Mediterranean world. Our quest has been shaped by the desire to help U.S. congregations become more effective for the Great Commission, to make disciples of Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:19-20).
Our consultants have been influenced by my training with Lyle Schaller. Lyle taught me, “Peel the onion, layer by layer, until you get to the causative issues.” We recognize that most church leaders are focused on symptom-solving. This “drill-down” perception led us, ultimately, to focus on Jesus’ teaching in the gospels, especially His focus on the “Kingdom of God” (“Kingdom of heaven” in Matthew).
The Kingdom and the Local Church
Jesus’ method of launching the longest-lasting, most effective movement in the history of the planet was quite simple. He told stories, sometimes called parables. He used picture language, images common to His audience: sheep, water, harvest fields, etc.
We believe the breakthrough for church leaders is Jesus’ focus on Kingdom culture. The Lord reoriented the culture of His disciples, and they reshaped the culture of those they reached with the gospel. Jesus taught, “The Kingdom of God is like….” We see this culture rejuvenated in the growing churches in England. I have seen it in the revivals found in several countries in this century: in Africa, South America, even in the harder ground of the former Soviet Union and in India, where government persecution is common. So why wouldn’t God use this in the U.S.?
On occasion, Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not of this world.” What does that mean? For some evangelical Christians, this implies, “The Kingdom is not here, it’s in heaven, where believers will be someday.” Yet, biblical scholars agree, what Jesus clearly meant was “My Kingdom isn’t anything like the kingdoms of this world…it’s very different than the secular world around you, and you are citizens of that Kingdom.” Consequently, the New Testament writers of the letters to the churches could say to believers, “You are the Kingdom of God, citizens of the Kingdom, children of the King,” etc.
If you take the collective Kingdom teaching of Jesus and put it up against the operational framework of most evangelical churches, you will discover a great disconnect. We don’t mean this unkindly but see it as a great point of encouragement. This disconnect doesn’t disrupt basic belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior for salvation. However, it renders many churches less effective in the mission of making disciples. Could this be a subtle approach of the enemy? Perhaps, but one thing is sure: it is disruptive to the future of your church!