Enticing People to Church – an Exercise in Futility

I heard recently that a church in England abandoned its traditional approach to church music.  Like the Church of Christ denomination in America, this British church had historically rejected musical instruments in worship, favoring instead the lone voices of worshipers.  Recently, however, they “plugged in,” dumping their traditional stance even as they carried new instruments into the sanctuary.

What piqued my interest in the story is not the church’s musical preferences but their motive for making the sweeping change.  The motive was to attract people to their church.  The story behind the motive was a consistently shrinking membership.  The church concluded, therefore, that people prefer music accompanied by musical instruments, so they decided to give the people what they want, hoping to bolster attendance as a result.

Apparently "relevant worship" renders that of other churches irrelevant!

Musical style is a great driver in churches nowadays, but the deeper issue is that of motive.  What motivates congregations?  Enticing more people to church appears to be the motivating goal of choice.  This deeply entrenched mindset is now so pervasive that it has become part of the expected norm of a church’s existence.  Pastors’ effectiveness is judged on the merit of their marketing skills.

One of the many ways that the goal of enticement exhibits itself in America is the barely concealed competition among local youth ministers.  Teens are fickle – everyone knows it (at least this is the prevailing thinking among youth ministers) – so churches conclude that the best way to reach teenagers is to entice them to church by offering give-aways.  Free pizza is so “yesterday” – a kid can get a pizza almost anywhere.  What it takes today is an X-Box game system or some such electronic gadget.  “Come to youth group Wednesday night,” the youth minister advertises, “and you might win a bran new X-Box!”

"This XBOX 360 could be yours!"

This prompts a simple question: Is this how churches must attract people?  Or, perhaps the fundamental question is, Should churches involve themselves in enticing people?

It seems to me that Christ presented the gospel as a command to which people should respond.  Repentance and gospel belief were the only means by which sinners could escape eternal hell.  Jesus never presented His gospel in slick, enticing ways.  As the eternal King of the universe, He lovingly extended the exclusive opportunity for rescue from everlasting damnation.  His presentation was a command, as seen from His words in Mark’s gospel, “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).  Having proclaimed the gospel, Jesus simply left the words hanging in the air, with no subsequent hooks or lures attached at the end.

Nowhere in the New Testament do we see Jesus or the disciples driven by the motive to attract people to their cause.  Nor do we see them define gospel success by measuring how many people responded to their message.  By great contrast, attracting people to churches today seems to be the norm.

Sebastian Heck, a German pastor in Heidelberg, Germany, picked up on this theme in a recent article.  Writing of post-Christian Europe, he said,

“In Germany, Italy, and Ireland, evangelical believers comprise at most one percent of the population.  In countries such as France, Spain, Austria, and Poland, the percentage is even lower.  ‘How can the church possibly survive?’ people in Europe are asking.  ‘Is there any hope for us?’  While it might be tempting to cave in, throw hands up in the air, and abandon the sinking ship, this is simply not an option.  God still has His people there.”

Pastor Heck is right, but he acknowledges that many European churches – desperate in the face of failure – are choosing the same approach as the church in England.  Fearful that they will completely die out, they are doing whatever is necessary to attract people.

Majestic churches such as this one in Germany struggle to exist in godless Europe.

Some churches argue that toning down their theological convictions is the best path forward.  It is better, to their way of thinking, to present only Christ’s more palatable teachings than the whole Word of God.  Perhaps, they think, modern man will embrace at least part of the faith message rather than rejecting all of it.

Have we not already seen the end result of this game in both Europe and America from decades gone by?  This approach merely puts a new face on the old theological liberalism, which grew embarrassed by the Bible’s miracles in the face of mankind’s newfound scientific reasoning.  The prevailing wisdom stated that if man can’t study and tangibly verify something, then it isn’t real.

As a result of this thinking, vast segments of the European and American church took scissors to the Bible, cutting away the supernatural elements.  Left with only a core of Jesus’ teachings, they presented Him, not as the sovereign God of the universe, but as the greatest moral teacher who ever lived.  They promoted church as the opportunity to be the best person possible, learning from the very admirable example of Jesus.

With no true gospel to present, because it was too mysteriously supernatural, the church gave birth to what became known as the Social Gospel: do good unto others because Jesus did so.  While mercy ministry is Christlike and valid, it falls flat unless it finds its source in Jesus’ concern for people’s eternal condition, which the gospel epitomizes.

History repeats itself, as historians rightly contend.  Many of these faltering churches are ignorantly repeating their forefathers’ mistake, editing out entire chunks of Scripture which they feel might turn modern man off to the bigger picture.

Other struggling churches in Europe are turning to pragmatism, an anything goes mentality that suggests that times such as these demand tactics that equate with immediate success.  (The local youth ministers’ battle with give-away X-Boxes fits this approach.)

Still others argue for “thinking outside the box” when it comes to ministry in a post-Christian world, and “by the box” they usually mean the church.  These people lay blame for the church’s demise on the church itself – the actual institution.  Consequently, they believe the best path forward is to abandon the traditional church, replacing it with more authentic offers of true community.

This philosophy has built a massive head of steam here in the U.S.  Known as the Emerging Church, its participants have grown disillusioned with the organized and institutional church.  They are therefore deconstructing the structured church, which, to their way of thinking, draws them closer to the early church model – one of Christian community.

Regrettably, this approach is as full of errors as that of their theologically liberal cousins.  Sure, the organized church has problems.  Absolutely, institutional religion’s history comes complete with errors.  These errors and problems, however, are the direct product of people’s sinfulness, not the church’s inherent structure.  Even a quick reading of the New Testament reveals the God-ordained organization of the church.  To de-structure it therefore is an exercise in godless futility.

Of the many “new” approaches that Europe’s desperate churches are taking, all are looking for a magic bullet that will cut through the rock hard soil of western Europe.  Pastor Heck says, “I agree.  We need this magic bullet.  And we have it, but, alas, I disagree with the pragmatists and progressives as to where it may be found.  It is not to be found in the newest fad but in the nature of the church and the promises given to it.”

Heck is referring to what Jesus said of His church when He promised Peter: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).  While some people debate what Jesus meant by “on this rock,” the clear import of Christ’s promise is that He will build His church!

The church originated with Jesus; it is His.  He is the builder and keeper of His church, and He promised to be with His church, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:18-20).  Heck acknowledges,

“Admittedly, Christ’s promise to Peter may seem counterintuitive today, especially in Europe.  But then again, we must walk by faith, not by sight.  We need to rely on God’s promise, draw from God’s strength, and use the means He has given the church.  That is our only hope.  Such a promise-driven approach to ministry cannot ultimately fail because the church will ultimately survive.  This is the magic bullet of ministry if there ever was one.”

Sebastian Heck touched a powerful nerve.  He said that the church must rely on the “means” God has given it.  His reference to a “promise-driven approach to ministry” is an obvious, tongue-in-cheek jab at America’s recent fascination with the “purpose-driven” approach to church.

What are the “means,” the “promise-driven approach” that Christ gave His church?  They are the same means which have been present since Christ started the church: true gospel preaching, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and discipline.  These things serve as the springboard for missions, mercy ministry, evangelism, fellowship, worship, etc.

A church which embraces this “promise-driven approach” to ministry will be protected by Christ in such a way that not even the gates of hell shall prevail against its mission.  This church will not grow self-conscious even if its members represent a Christian population of less than one percent in its given nation.  This church will not fall for the world’s suggestion that enticing people to church is the proper approach.  This church will not equate success with numerical strength.  This church will recognize that it may well be camped out near the gates of hell.  By God’s design, it may exist at the enemy’s door so as to burn brightly before those upon whom God has set His saving sights.

What an awesome privilege it is to be Christ’s church!  How marvelous to be His chosen ambassadors!  May we embrace our Lord and His gospel by standing confidently on the means He bestowed to lovingly extend His kingdom of grace, soul by soul, into this world of spiritual darkness!