Photo by Soff Garavano Puw on Unsplash
As we look out at the landscape of the American religious culture, there is nearly a church on every corner. According to a National Congregational Study conducted in 2020, there are approximately 380,000 churches in the United States. With a U.S. population of about 331.9 million people, that means there is approximately one church for every 870 people or roughly 7,600 churches in each state. Yet, according to a report by NPR news (2023), the average size of the American congregation is roughly 65 members. This is probably surprising to many as we drive by so many churches that all seem medium-to-huge or the pastors we follow on the internet or through podcasts all seem to shepherd medium-to-large churches. What this means is that most of the 380,000 churches are hidden and out of sight, tucked away in a small neighborhood or they are meeting inside a gymnasium or a school auditorium.
This can also lead to the impression that medium-to-large churches must be doing things right and that their model is the one to follow. These churches are filled with a multitude of ministries and outreach programs. They have a different ministry for every age group, gender, and socio-economic class. They have children’s ministries, teen ministries, women’s ministries, senior ministries, singles ministries, single-moms ministries, father-son ministries, mother-daughter ministries, father-daughter ministries, mother-son ministries, ministries to veterans, to widows, to firefighters, to police officers, to young-single-career persons, to young-married-career persons, so on and so forth, ad nauseam. Many churches have so many different ministries and activities they feel more like a YMCA or the Elks Lodge than a church.
While these attractional ministries have the benefit of drawing people into the church and increasing numerical growth, there are definite negative effects. To begin with, the Lord’s Day for many can no longer feel like a day of rest. When everyone in the church is busy doing something, busy planning, organizing, and preparing for Sunday, and then when Sunday arrives people are frazzled with making sure the entire ‘show’ goes off without a hitch and that everything is in place and right where it should be, people leave church exhausted and ready to go home and finally get some rest. Now there will always be those who must do something on the Lord’s Day in church—the preacher, the music minister, the deacons—but for most, church should be a place to find rest for their weary souls, a respite from a busy week, a refuge from the storms of life.
Second, a church which provides every imaginable kind of ministry under the sun adds to the consumerist mentality that has plagued the church for the past several decades. People end up choosing a church not because that is where the Word of God is being faithfully preached, where the “whole counsel of God” is being taught without reservation (Acts 20:27), where the elements of worship are being faithfully practiced, but because this church is offering more for the whole family than any other church. There is so much to do and see, and the entire church is simply abuzz with activity, the family will never be bored.
Creating consumers within the church leads to a third problem: it sends the wrong message to our children. Per recent Lifeway Research, 70% of teens will drop out of church after high school, and only 35% of those teens will return to regular attendance. The problem is that when we create young consumers within the church who become accustomed to being entertained in exciting and never-ending youth ministries with youth pastors filled with boundless energy, when those teens move into the adult world and move away from home and soon learn that many churches only offer corporate worship and maybe an adult Sunday school class, suddenly church loses its appeal.
A fourth problem created by churches offering a dizzying array of ministries is that it can all distract from the reason we are in church to begin with—the primary reason we should desire to be there—the worship of God. The worship of God is why the church exist and is the reason Christ died on the cross to redeem a people (the Church) to himself (John 4:23; Rom 11:36; Heb 12:28-29; Rev 4:11). Yet so often many Christians attend church not primarily to offer worship to God, but for the fellowship, to see their friends, because they are expected to be there to do a job or because they enjoy being up front and center playing in the worship band, teaching Sunday school or engaged in some other form of public ministry. However, the primary reason we should desire to be in church is to worship God.
A fifth reason a church providing a multitude of ministries can be harmful to the church is that it can lead to division within the church as various ideas, and the people behind those ideas, begin to collide with one another. Which ministries should we implement? Which ministry ideas should we reject? Who should lead these ministries and who should not be a part of these ministries? Some churches, in order to avoid hurt feelings, causing division within the church or running people off, will say yes to nearly every ministry idea put forward, regardless of how off-the-chart the idea may be or how unqualified the person may be who wants to lead the ministry.
What then is the solution? Follow the New Testament model for doing church. The New Testament (NT) church was simple but quite effective. What we see in scripture is that the NT church focused on a few simple activities. They focused on the preaching and teaching of God’s word (Acts 2:42; 20:27; 2 Tim 4:1). This would have been done primarily in corporate worship on the Lord’s Day as the concept of midweek studies, Sunday school, Awana, women’s Bible studies, and youth ministries were not on anyone’s radar. Secondly, the NT church would have focused on prayer as this is a given for followers of Christ and is commanded (1 Tim 2:1-4, 8). The only time in the gospels when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to do something, they ask, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk 11:1). The NT church would have also focused on the public reading of God’s Word (1 Tim 4:13). This would have been a practice caried over from the NT synagogue (Lk 4:16-21). Fourth, on the Lord’s Day they would have emphasized the singing together of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16). They would have focused on taking up an offering each Lord’s Day for those who were in need and to provide for the minister (1 Cor 9:8-14; 16:1-2; 2 Cor 8-9; Gal 6:6; 1 Tim 5:17-18). Finally, the NT church would have focused on the weekly sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (Acts 3:42; 20:7; 1 Cor 11:18, 23-26).
Beyond these, we see only one kind of organized ministry being encouraged within the NT church—caring for widows within the church (Acts 6:1-7; 1 Tim 5:3-16). In the 1 Timothy passage Paul encourages Timothy, pastor of the church in Ephesus, to enroll certain widows into this ministry who meet certain criteria: (1) she has no adult children to care for her, (2) she is over sixty years of age, (3) she was a devoted wife to one man, (4) has a good reputation for doing good works and ministering to the saints, and (5) she has raised her children well. Widows who fall into this category and meet these criteria are to be cared for and provided for by the church. The church was to be their social security. Yet, this seems to be the one ministry churches ignore. It is difficult to know why but one suspects it is because this kind of ministry provides little to no return. Widows with no children have little to offer the church. But a robust youth ministry, Sunday school program, women’s ministry or music ministry can attract many new families. I don’t mean to sound cynical, but it does beg the question. However, in light of this, what is worth noting regarding the passage from Acts 6 is that it ends with these words: “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” The NT church was simple but effective.
In the end, God used twelve ordinary men to start simple churches who were faithful in preaching the whole counsel of God and practicing the necessary and biblical elements of corporate worship to turn the world upside down. The NT church was a simple church, and by the end of the 4th century Christianity had spread across the Roman world and had become the official religion of the Roman Empire. All this while being a simple church and practicing the basic tenets of the Christian faith. This was possible because for the early church, Christians risked their lives to attend church for one reason--to worship God. They were serious about their faith, serious about loving God, and serious about loving each other. In fact, we know from history that Sunday school, as we know it today, was started by Robert Raikes in Engand in the late 19th century, and the modern-day youth ministry began in 1941 by Jim Rayburn who started Young Life in Gainesville, TX. How then did the church grow so rapidly and spread across Europe, across the Atlantic to North and South America, to Asia and into Africa? By doing simple church and establishing congregations who were not consumers but givers and producers. They gave their whole heart in worship to God. They gave their whole selves to loving each other, and they produced converts and made disciples through the proclaiming of the gospel.
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