If you attend any denominational meeting these days you will no doubt hear about the staggering decline of the church in the United States. While the exact numbers differ depending upon the source, somewhere between four to ten thousand churches close their doors each year in the United States. If it weren’t for God’s sovereignty, the numbers would be downright frightful.
To be sure, multiple factors play into the demise of a church. But at some point, the church must examine herself to determine if there is something amiss within. A good starting point is to ask, “Why do we exist as a church? What is our purpose in the world as God’s people?”
Jesus says our purpose is the same purpose God gave the Old Testament people of God. In his parable of the “Wicked Tenants” (Mark 12:1-12), Jesus tells a story about a vineyard owner who leases his vineyard to tenant farmers. The vineyard represents the Jewish people, while the tenants represent the leaders God placed in charge of the people, giving them the ultimate task of leading the nation to produce spiritual fruit for the kingdom of God. Ultimately, the nation failed in this task, resulting in God’s judgment. In one of the most profound theological statements in the Bible, Jesus declares in Mark 12:9 that God would remove the vineyard from the possession of Israel and give it to “others”—the New Testament people of God; the church.
We now possess the vineyard, as such our task is the same as those who came before. Lest you are unconvinced, just hear Jesus’ words from John 15:1-2:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away.”
The church exists for one purpose—to produce fruit for God’s kingdom; to make disciples of Jesus Christ. The question is: are so many churches dying because they have lost sight of the purpose of the church? Is God cutting away his unfruitful branches? It’s not a stretch, in my estimation.
Perhaps the most important question to ask is: Can the church reverse these trends? I’m convinced that the answer is “yes,” and the solution may be very simple. Consider the example of Vince Lombardi. In his first practice as the coach of the Green Bay Packers, Lombardi walked into the locker room with only a football and told his team quite simply, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”
Keep in mind these were professional football players. They knew very well that it was a football. But Lombardi’s goal was simple: he knew that his team needed to relearn the fundamentals of the game if they were to achieve any measure of success. So, he started at the most basic building block of all—identifying a football. The team then relearned the fundamentals of blocking and tackling; throwing and catching, and so on. Lombardi even simplified the play book to the most elementary levels. A few months later, the Packers won the first of many championships under Lombardi’s leadership.
When I examine many of our churches today, I see a great need to return to the fundamentals of the faith. So many of our churches have strayed from a focus on the gospel and Christian discipleship. The truth is, many churches have become weighed down by extra-biblical principles and entrenched institutionalism, informed more by human traditions than biblical fidelity. It could be that many churches would do well to simply return to the fundamentals of our faith; shaking off unbiblical church models and cluttered institutions with a renewed focus on clarifying the gospel and what it means to be a genuine follower of Christ, undergirded by systematic, Christ-centered preaching. Just think—the key to turning around the church could be as simple as relearning elementary principles. It could be as simple as saying, “Gentlemen, this is a church!”