I grew up in what might best be called the "Church Culture" of southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, and southeastern Ohio. Dad was a fiery Free Will Baptist evangelist as well as a pastor of several smaller churches over the years. I have been attending church since conception! My formative years were spent dangling my feet off the front seats of a variety of evangelical churches - including several Heinz 57 variety types of Baptist congregations, as well as Nazarene, Evangelical United Brethren, Community Churches, Independent congregations, and even some old fashioned Methodist Churches. Most of these congregations, both country and city churches were made up of some of the finest folks you would ever meet anywhere.
My brothers and I sometimes joke that we had a "drug problem" while we were growing up. That is that Mom and Dad "drug us" to church all the time. The only time I ever saw the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights is if I happened to be sick. Not "feeling bad" mind you, but gut wrenching, high fevered, compound fracture, can's stop the bleeding kind of sick. That was the only excuse to miss church. As a teenager, I didn't think I was ever going to see the Beatles perform live on TV, because Ed Sullivan's time slot on CBS was in direct conflict with Sunday Evening Worship Service. Heck, Bonanza was already half over by the time we usually got home on Sunday nights.
Many of the kids we went to school with also attended church on Sunday mornings. That was the common thing to do in the 50's and early 60's. In fact, there wasn't much else to do anyway on Sunday's back then, as our town's "Blue Laws" kept most businesses closed on The Lord's Day. While many of my schoolmates were church goers on Sunday, and some even attended Wednesday night services, most of them couldn't grasp why I was in church most nights of the week as well. Dad led in anywhere from 12 to 20 revival services per year, while working his day job at International Nickel Company in Huntington. Generally speaking, when he was in revival - so was the rest of the family. That is just how it was.
There is a lot to learn from attending more than 300 church services a year! A lot of it is good, some of what we learned was not so good. First and foremost, we learned the Bible. From Sunday School to Young People's League, to preaching services, I was exposed to the Word of God. That is good. Nothing can be better for a young person (or an older one for that matter). I learned a lot about human nature - both good and bad. I have seen professed believers in Christ at their best - and I have seen some at their worst! As an older child and a teenager, I naturally scoped out the young ladies in my home church and the various churches we visited. In some areas the church was the dating and social center of the community.
At the age of 10 I first felt the convicting power of the Holy Spirit in my life. I knew I was "lost" and that I needed to give my heart to the Lord. A year later, I (and several other "junior boys") responded to an invitation at the commencement of a summer Vacation Bible School. We went forward and knelt at the altar and were set upon by a number of Godly saints who wanted to help us learn how to "pray through". The dear old sister kneeling to my left whispered in my ear telling me to "hang on to God". Meanwhile the deacon to my right clenched my arm and firmly told me "Just let go, son. Let go of everything." Somebody behind me kept slapping me on the back, pleading with Jesus to save my poor soul. I was frightened and confused, and I cried like a baby, but no one simply shared the plan of salvation with me. I guess they figured I was a preacher's kid so I surely had a handle on this salvation thing.
The pastor knelt across the altar from me and asked if I felt better. "Yes", I sniffled - and I did feel better. (You always feel better after a good cry!) We got up and everyone in the building filed by, shaking our hands, patting us on our crew cut heads, and hugging us with great emotion. Unfortunately I had not really accepted Christ. I had just responded to an invitation - made a "decision", and no one knew the difference. I was baptized on Fathers Day, 1961 in the Ohio River, by my Dad and my maternal Grandfather (also a Free Will Baptist preacher), and was accepted as a member of the Thomas Memorial Church. I had mistaken "conviction" for "conversion" and, as a result, lived a life of pretense for the next 7 years.
I was called upon to lead in prayer from time to time. As a teenager I took my turn at leading prayer meeting, and at the age of 17, even agreed to teach a 3 and 4 year old boy's Sunday School class. The whole time, I was lost as a goose in a whirlwind. Fortunately in the spring of 1969, at the age of 18, the Holy Spirit again began to draw me to repentance, and I fully trusted Jesus as my Savior and Lord. I believed it in my heart. I confessed him with my mouth. I turned from my way to His way, and my life was changed for time and eternity.
In 1970 I began to feel the call of God in my life to surrender to the ministry. After yielding to that call, I enrolled in Bible College, and began a life long journey of study of God's Word, and attempting to preach and teach it to others. By the mid 80's my study had helped me better understand the doctrines of Grace and the security of the believer, and I moved my membership to a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. For the past 38 years, I have been preaching, teaching, and living the culture I knew from the time I was a child. I practiced the things I had learned from the older preachers. I tried to put into action the truths and practices I had picked up through college and seminary courses, and years of OJT. After growing up in the church, and thirty eight years of "doing church" as a pastor, the light bulb has begun to flicker on above my hard head.
Maybe I'm just a slow learner, or perhaps the Holy Spirit has just recently been able to crack my concrete cranium with the revelation that many of us relate more to "churchianity" than we do to "Christianity". The emphasis all around us seems to be more on "church growth" rather than the spiritual growth of our members. While focused on programs and plans to "build better members" many of our churches have lost sight of our mission to take the Gospel to lost people, bringing them to Jesus and helping create disciples. There is a world of difference between nominal "church members" and true born again "Christ Followers".
In recent years, there has been much talk in Southern Baptist circles about the problem of "unregenerate membership" in our churches. I have been asked if I thought that was a real problem, to which I have replied, "I sure do. I lived it for seven years!" Somewhere along the line we have become obsessed with the number of baptisms in our churches rather than the number of changed and changing lives as a result of our ministry. In many circles, "joining the church" is easier than joining a service club or fraternal organization. The idea of Holy Spirit conviction, and the new birth has seemed to take a back seat to marketing. In the rush to be "seeker sensitive" how far are we slipping from being "Savior sensitive"?
That is only one of the symptoms of our ecclesiastical illness. The changes are subtle, but very real. I am constantly hearing the mantra repeated about reaching the "unchurched". As a child growing up, I remember hearing Dad and other preachers trying to reach the "unsaved" not the "unchurched". Our convention leaders and evangelism directors are constantly telling us about how many unchurched are around us. The truth of the matter is that these multitudes don't need to be "churched", they need to be SAVED, by the Grace of God, through faith in Jesus Christ.
It's more than just a matter of semantics. It is a sickness that has nearly crippled us in carrying out the mission of the church. Reggie McNeal points out in his book, "The Present Future" that the church culture is quickly becoming irrelevant in the 21st century. He gives us a number of questions that should challenge us to re-examine what we are doing and how we are doing it. If we don't make a course correction soon, the gap will grow greater as each day passes.
Now there is nothing wrong with The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It's His church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 90 percent of the references to the "church" in the New Testament refer to a local congregation of believers rather than the larger, "universal" Body of Christ. Jesus is not through with His Church, but we'd better understand quickly that He may be close to being finished with us for what we are making it! It's high time that we refocus on the mission rather than the methods. It is not nearly as important as how we "do church" as much as it is mandatory that we "be the church"!
We are casting the vision before our congregation at Westmoreland Baptist, that we focus on three simple tasks. To Magnify God... to Make Disciples... and to Minister to People. This slogan is not original with us. In fact, we have borrowed it from First Baptist Church of Westwego, LA. It's not so important who says it, but that we DO IT. This is our three fold mission. This is our vision. I pray our people will catch it, and practice it.
"Churchianity" will bring no one into right relationship with God.
Following Jesus will!
May it be resolved that we "be the church" - filled with the power of the Holy Spirit - taking the Gospel to the culture around us.