Alarm over national statistics can give way to outright panic when a pastor realizes that attendance is steadily declining in the church he serves on Sunday mornings. Elders and church members alike may wonder out loud, “What is wrong?” and, “How can we fix this?” It is a fair question: How does a church respond to apparent decline?
In some churches, the default response has to do with staff. New personalities, new faces, and new voices are the key to reenergizing the church! A new preacher with charisma is the ticket! Another approach in recent decades has been to import whatever programs and methodologies seem to be “working” at churches like Willow Creek, or Saddleback, or, more commonly of late, from any number of megachurches whose pastors have reached celebrity status. When the new programs that worked in Chicago, or Southern California, or New York City don’t bring much change to small towns and rural churches in other parts of the country, yet another approach may be tried: Change the worship style!
In the face of this, the word of God through the prophet Jeremiah comes to mind:”…My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jeremiah 2:13) Is this not precisely what we do as God’s people when, out of a proper concern for the effectiveness and faithfulness of the ministry of His church, we turn first to personalities, methodologies, and ministry styles, rather than humbling ourselves before God and examining our hearts and ministries in light of His word?
The Moderator’s theme this year is “Fresh Insight from Ancient Paths,” and the emphasis for this month is “Insight into a willful rejection of Old Paths.” Could it be that instinctively turning to the latest, most popular methodologies in church ministry out of concern for the effectiveness of the ministry of the church is a willful rejection of “Old Paths?” I’m not suggesting that there are no helpful programs of ministry which might help sharpen the ministry focus of our churches. Neither am I suggesting that we cannot or should not learn from others in ministry. But I wonder, when our default response to declining attendance, or lack of new members, or similar concerns, is to look for a program, or a strategy, or a personality to “turn around the church,” if we lack trust in the means God has promised to bless in building His church. Rather then looking for something “new” to effect change, should we not first examine whether or not we have even tried the “Old Paths”?
What are the “Old Paths?” The faithful ministry of the means of grace is the most important place to begin an examination of any church’s ministry. Is the word of God being faithfully preached? Are pastors offering more than moral instruction or, worse, clever homilies that are meant to entertain a congregation? Is Christ Himself being proclaimed and the free offer of the gospel held forth before sinners so that redemption is celebrated and offered week by week to the glory of God? In my own ministry of preaching, I have recently realized that clear explanation of the gospel from the pulpit is not the same as issuing the gospel call and pleading that sinners should repent and turn to the Lord. Our forebears in the Seceder Church emphasized the absolute importance of the free offer of the gospel. This is a goodly heritage, and to neglect this “Old Path” of faithful gospel preaching is surely to reject one of the primary means that God has given for the building of His church.
Hearers of the Word
Of course, an effective ministry of the word requires more than a faithful preacher. There must be faithful hearers. The Westminster Shorter Catechism exhorts hearers of the Word of God to “attend thereunto with diligence, preparation, and prayer, receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practice it in our lives.” (Q. #90) If there seems a dullness to the ministry of the word in our churches, the need may not only be for the minister to recommit himself to the faithful preaching of Christ, but also for church members to give themselves to a more faithful preparation for and participation in worship. If our weekends are so full that we take no time to prepare spiritually for worship; if we stay up late into the night on Saturday, with no attention given to the word of God and to prayerful confession and repentance, if we do not plead for His blessing upon our worship on the Lord’s Day, then perhaps we should expect worship to be nothing more than a perfunctory, lifeless exercise of duty. Yet our God has called us to so much more than this! If we neglect the “Old Path” of faithful anticipation and preparation for worship, and the hearing of His word in our observance of the Lord’s Day, where will we find refreshment in the joy of our salvation? Would we turn to entertaining personalities or some hip new church program for this? Would that not be turning to broken cisterns that hold no water, while our God has offered us “the fountain of living waters”?
Of course, prayer is essential to the ministry of the word. In fact it under girds the exercise of all the other means of grace. Prayer for the preaching and the hearing of the word is vitally important. What is more, prayer is indispensable for the ministry of evangelism. Is there anything more obvious than that we should gather for prayer when we are concerned for any matters in the worship and life of our church? When there is concern for declining attendance and evangelistic effectiveness in the church, a humble, passionate pleading with God in prayer by the church family should be the first priority. But to which are we more likely to turn: A new strategy or program to generate some excitement or interest in the church, or a call for the church family to meet to pray to God that He would draw sinners to Christ through the ministry of the church? For which do we have a biblical mandate? I hope the answer is obvious.
The sacraments are also important means of grace. But even as these well known priorities of Scripture are presented, it may be easy to think, “Of course we preach and teach Scripture, and pray, and administer the sacraments. Tell us something new we can try!” But I have more than a hunch that all too often our people have become accustomed to “sermonettes” and even prefer these to faithful, biblical expository preaching of Christ from the Scripture. I greatly fear that our prayer meetings, if they are held, are more a rehearsal of the sick list of the church before God than a passionate pleading for the outpouring of His saving and sanctifying power upon H is church. I can’t help but think that there may even be some in our churches who resent the fact that the administration of the sacraments prolongs our time in worship, because we prefer to think of Sunday as a day that contains “the Lord’s hour,” rather than as the Lord’s Day.
And all the while we are wanting a new strategy, or a new personality, to brighten up the programs and the prospects of the church, we may, wittingly, or unwittingly, be rejecting the “Old Paths” which our God has given in His word as paths of righteousness for His people and paths of blessing for His church. We may not even have tried them! This should be more alarming to us than any set of statistics, or even a declining attendance in our own churches. In fact, as we give ourselves to the “Old Paths,” we should be reminded that our God has called us to be concerned with faithfulness in these. When we are faithful, He will bring fruit that w ill last, whether or not that fruit is seen in increasing attendance, or conversions, or excitement in our churches. Our part is to faithfully and continually turn to the “fountain of living waters” rather then hewing our own broken cisterns that will never hold water! Return to the Ancient Paths!
Rev. Rob Patrick is the pastor of Bartow ARP Church in Bartow, FL.