Perry Noble’s “15 Signs Your Church Is in Trouble” — A Response

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Over at Outreach Magazine‘s website, Perry Noble of NewSpring Church in Anderson, South Carolina, has an article “15 Signs Your Church Is in Trouble.” It’s worth reading.

Normally, I advise to read the whole thing, but in order to respond to it, I’ll need to excerpt it. Noble explains the warning signs of a church on its way to losing its way.

His 15, with my responses following:

1. When excuses are made about the way things are instead of embracing a willingness to roll up the sleeves and fix the problem.

Translation: Old timers who love the church are hesitant to abandon the “way things are” to jump on another church fad or the “program of the month.”

Few things are more destructive to a church than leaders intent on ramming through an agenda.

There is a right way for changes and fixes. It is often slow, involves waiting on the Lord, and requires supernatural feedback. That way is taken too infrequently in today’s churches, resulting in high-falutin’ solutions to problems most didn’t see as problems, and which can derail a church.

Tread lightly and wisely here.

2. When the church becomes content with merely receiving people that come rather than actually going out and finding them…in other words, they lose their passion for evangelism!

Agree. The greater question: What does evangelism in the Twenty-Teens look like, and how do you stoke people for it?

3. The focus of the church is to build a great church (complete with the pastor’s picture…and his wife’s…on everything) and not the Kingdom of God.

You can’t build the Kingdom of God if no one knows what it is. And most people sitting in the seats are unclear. Heck, most leaders are unclear. Fix the lack of comprehension of the Kingdom first, then build that Kingdom.

4. The leadership begins to settle for the natural rather than rely on the supernatural.

I’ve written before that the leaders of most churches are running on the distant memories of long-past revivals. They’ve never seen a big supernatural move of God. You can’t rely on something you’ve not seen nor understand. Again, I’ve suggested before that church leaders in the U.S. just stop, drop to their knees, get their congregations on their knees along with them, and no one does ANYTHING new until God moves. THEN you can start relying on the supernatural.

5. The church begins to view success/failure in regards to how they are viewed in the church world rather than whether or not they are actually fulfilling the Great Commission!

I don’t think a lot of church leaders in America can tell the difference between the Great Commission and “success” in the eyes of the church world. See #2 above. This is especially true when one examines the quality of disciples being made. That we can’t seem to raise up future leaders from within our own congregations is a major flag here. Perhaps our standard of success is screwy.

Or perhaps we need to just stop talking about success entirely, because success in the church world starts looking more and more like quantity and not quality. Even then, when it is quality, quality easily becomes its own idol. Perhaps the ultimate answer is to stop peering down the block at other churches and instead discover what God considers progress for just our church alone. Then apply copious amounts of grace.

6. The leaders within the church cease to be coachable.

I would go even more simple than that. The problem with the upper leadership of large churches is not so much their lack of coachability but of approachability. One reason they aren’t coachable is that they’ve been walled off from the average guy in the pew. That average guy has ten layers of church bureaucracy and hierarchy between him and having lunch with the senior pastor. That kind of kingmaking hardens people. You can’t coach a stone.

7. There is a loss of a sense of urgency! (Hell is no longer hot, sin is no longer wrong, and the cross is no longer important!)

Agree–to a point. Some churches in America are on Rapture Watch 24/7/365; if Bibi Netanyahu gets a rash on his backside, they go into Harold Camping mode.

The problem is not a loss of sense of urgency, but a loss of sober consideration, both for the lost AND for the Church. We don’t need more hysterics brought on by ticking stopwatches. What we need are rational approaches to both reading the signs of the times AND carrying out the Great Commission WHILE coming under increased persecution. Christian Chicken Littles only ruin it for everyone.

8. Scripture isn’t central in every decision that is made!

Disagree entirely. There is not a decision made in an evangelical church in America that is not Scripturally justified. The problem: The decision is made by a select group of church leaders and then some verses are finagled as a stamp of approval. Too many decisions in our churches follow that inadequate model.

What we don’t see practiced are the admonitions of Paul in the Epistles for the entire church to come together and wrestle with tough decisions as a body of equally justified and uniquely gifted children of God. Instead, the average guy in the seats has his spiritual gifts sidelined and his voice silenced. How about we apply the actual Scriptures that encourage him to use his gift and voice as a blessing to the Body? Perhaps his understanding of the Scriptures as God reveals to him would take the decision in a different—but totally God-led—direction.

9. The church is reactive rather than proactive.

A church that is entirely natural and not supernatural can NEVER be proactive. Here is the rationalist church’s shame:

Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.
—Acts 11:27-30 ESV

If God is not currently directing the Church in this same way, why even bring up being proactive? The Church can’t be. See #4 above.

10. The people in the church lose sight of the next generation and refuse to fund ministry simply because they don’t understand “those young people.”

???

Show me a church today that hasn’t thrown way too much money at youth ministry for way too meager results. Noble’s statement may have been true 40 years ago, but it’s not true today. If anything, I think we need to stop tossing cash at youth programs and re-evaluate the entire way ministry to people under 25 is done in America.

11. The goal of the church is to simply maintain the way things are…to NOT rock the boat and/or upset anyone…especially the big givers!

Pie in the sky. Until the Church in America ends its obsession with the coffers, it will be owned by those who fill them. Sadly, our model of successful church today demands huge cash reserves. You end the problem Nobel laments by moving money off center stage.

Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting over here by the strobe lights and the $25,000 digital mixing board for that to happen anytime soon.

See also #1.

12. The church is no longer willing to take steps of faith because “there is just too much to lose.”

If “too much to lose” means abandoning what is biblical, but not flashy, to adopt another faddish program or do what the church down the street is doing, then I can see why the average folks in the seats might dig in their heels.

Is it just me or is the message to pastors getting stronger that their congregants are the enemy of progress. That’s sick, when you think about it. No wonder those same congregants show up less and less often on Sundays.

13. The church simply does not care about the obvious and immediate needs that exist in the community.

This may be true. The horror stories abound.

Still, we have to understand that the Bible repeatedly puts the people in the church ahead of those in the community. Now the people in the church SHOULD be people from the community, but still. You have some churches that value everyone outside the church most, taking their attendees for granted, and this is bad too.

Balance, yes, but with a lean toward those inside the church walls.

14. The people learn how to depend on one man to minister to everyone rather than everyone embracing their role in the body, thus allowing the body to care for itself.

Until I see your average church service in an evangelical megachurch like Perry Noble runs move beyond 20 minutes of rock music worship, 10 minutes of announcements and miscellany, and a half hour message, I’m calling shenanigans. The entire way we do church stymies the real participation of 95% of folks who show up. The worst part is that concerned leaders who reiterate what #14 says are using models that only entrench that dependency. None are ready to let the people lead. They just aren’t. You don’t see a 1 Corinthians chapters 11-14-style church ANYWHERE in evangelicalism. Like I said, shenanigans.

15. When the leaders/staff refuse to go the extra mile in leading and serving because of how “inconvenient” doing so would be.

Really? Most people I’ve met who are on church staffs go the second mile all the time. I guess some slackers exist, but they are the minority. I think most church staff are routinely inconvenienced. All ministry is inconvenient because people are inconvenient.

What I don’t see happening: Church leaders on the national stage working actively to address the MANY aspects of American life, work, play, and culture that amplify those inconveniences. If anything, they (and we too) are leaving them status quo, which means nothing changes because they are afraid to take on the systems underlying the surface problems we see. In truth, I find that shortsighted and even cowardly. If we Christians don’t tackle the systems that imprison us, we will not go free.

*****

That’s my take on Noble’s 15 warnings. Please feel free to discuss in the comments below.

Thanks for reading.

Plugging Mockingbird

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In an age that too often passes off legalistic moralism as “The Gospel,” even in supposedly Gospel-centered churches, it’s refreshing to find a source of genuine Law/Gospel preaching. Add to this that the preaching in this case is young, intelligent, hip, and conservative Episcopalian (yes, shocking, I know!), well, it’s worth sharing.

Mockingbird (mbird.com) was born in 2007 in the heart of David Zahl and a couple of his friends as a way to reach disaffected, young, urban hipsters. They not only succeeded, they drew in a few old, rural charismatics too. 😉 The site consists of intriguing writing that covers contemporary culture, events, lit, and music, and it offers some truly excellent preaching podcasts. They even publish a slick quarterly.
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Most of all, the Mockingbird crew tackles 21st century life in a way that is astute, grace-filled, humble, and relevant—a combo sorely needed in the modern American church. I’ve found the preaching of Jacob Smith, in particular, to be some of the best I’ve ever heard.

Yes, the writing occasionally strays into East Coast literary journal-like esoterica, and love for certain aspects of culture sometimes exceeds its quota (if you don’t consider Seinfeld genius, well…), but overall, this is a great resource. Nothing thrills me more than to hear other Christians talking about the kinds of topics I tackle here at Cerulean Sanctum. I don’t agree with their take on everything, but even when I don’t, it still gets me thinking—and Gospel-driven thinking in the American Church should be something we celebrate.

Russell D. Moore’s “Farewell, Cultural Christianity,” the Dones / De-Churched, and the Gospel

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A long-time reader, Robert, pointed out an excellent article in Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal, “Farewell, Cultural Christianity” by Russell D. Moore, one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s leaders and rising stars. As they say, read the whole thing.

The gist: Recent changes in American culture will shake the American Church but in a positive way, forcing out nominal Christians who drain the Church’s vitality, and leaving us with an energized remnant. While this is not a new idea, the article has some good insights. Moore notes churches have focused too much on delivering a Gospel of self-help that appealed 20 years ago to lost people but not today, which is true. He also notes that our past political engagement and “values voting” are obsoleted by an America that learned to value other ideas more. Again, worth the read.

I like Moore. He’s not afraid to say it like it is and to question sacred cows. But as much as the article makes good cases, it reveals blinders representative of many leaders in the American Church.

This passage is telling:

Those who were nominally Christian are suddenly vanished from the pews. Those who wanted an almost-gospel will find that they don’t need it to thrive in American culture. As a matter of fact, cultural Christianity is herded out by natural selection. That sort of nominal religion, when bearing the burden of the embarrassment of a controversial Bible, is no more equipped to survive in a secularizing America than a declawed cat released in the wild. Who then is left behind? It will be those defined not by a Christian America but by a Christian gospel.

He’s absolutely right about nominal Christians. They’re dropping out. What he misses entirely though is that those who are leaving our churches are not all nominal Christians.Leaving, walking out of churchurch In fact, it can be argued that the exodus contains a frighteningly large percentage of those who are our most devout believers, the so-called Dones or De-Churched. You can read about them all over the Web.

These are not nominal, cultural Christians. These are the folks who worked in the nursery for years, veteran Sunday School teachers, elders, the 20%, seasoned missionaries, and even pastors. It’s not that they’ve lost their faith. It’s that the present way we do church in America became too taxing, stifling, lonely, frustrating, and debilitating, and it left them with no other choice than to walk away–for their own spiritual, mental, and physical health.

We must ask this: Is the empty pew a result of cultural Christians fleeing genuinely Gospel-centric churches, or is it the result of Gospel-centric Christians fleeing culture-centric churches? My bet is the latter is just as big, if not a bigger, reason. And doesn’t every church leader think his/her church is Gospel-centric? Who then will own up to the present exodus of Gospel-centric Christians?

It’s frustrating to read the Moore piece and think he’s ignoring the Dones / De-Churched or that he’s lumping them with the nominals and saying, “Good riddance.” But the lack of mention is telling. Again, this is someone who leads America’s largest denomination. The blame instead shifts to those who left, with little reflection on those who once led them. Convenient.

Moore ends his article with this statement:

The shaking of American culture will get us back to the question Jesus asked his disciples at Caesarea Philippi: “Who do you say that I am?”

I think Moore is misunderstanding again.

While Who do you say that I am? was definitely a question for those who once had never heard of Jesus Christ, it’s one most Christians have resolved over the past 2,000+ years. (Whether they do anything with the answer is a whole ‘nother issue.)

But the real question, the one at the heart of the church exodus, whose mis-answering has plagued the American Church for the last 100 years or so, is this: What is the Gospel?

The term moralistic, therapeutic deism defines a good chunk of the central teaching of many churches in America. It’s Old Testament Law wrapped in an American flag and the Protestant Work Ethic, then blessed by Oprah Winfrey and Sigmund Freud. But it’s not the Gospel. Some may call it the Gospel, but it’s actually anti-Gospel.

Personally, I think the exodus of devoted Christians from the American Church is as much due to a failure to have the Gospel preached to them as it is with anything else. People have had it with performance-based Christianity. Grace, the very heart of the Gospel, may be the single most lacking element in American Christianity. That dearth ultimately drives away those who need grace the most.

Sadly, even churches and leaders who claim to be Gospel-centered fall back on preaching a moralistic melange when it directly benefits them. The resulting confusion further alienates the most discerning, those who can’t reconcile mixed messages, especially those messages proclaimed in the name of God.

If Moore wants to say farewell to the flee-ers in a way that honors God, as a denominational leader, he needs to own up to the American Church’s hand in creating not only the nominal, cultural Christian, but also the Dones / De-Churched. Until then, church leaders around this country will have no answers to stemming the exodus, continuing to preach a pseudo-Gospel to the self-justified for which they will one day answer.