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The Fastest Growing Churches in America

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

Every year Outreach Magazine releases a list of the fastest growing churches in America.  This year, the #1 slot belonged to a church right in my backyard: The Church of the Highlands in Birmingham, Alabama.

Last year a friend and I visited Highlands’ campus to hear John Maxwell lecture on leadership.  It wasn’t a religious service, but we were able to see from the church’s facilities one reason, at least, that so many people flock to Highlands for worship every Sunday.  I have never seen a church building like the one located on Highlands’ Grants Mill campus.  Large, flat panel television monitors decorated every wall, a bright, well-equipped children’s center was visible, there was a Starbuck’s in the lobby, and the auditorium featured comfortable seating and a first-rate P.A. system.  Every comfort imaginable was provided.

It would be naive, though, to think that comfortable facilities is all that it took to make the Church of the Highlands the fastest growing church in the country.  In fact, a quick glance at Outreach’s list for 2008 suggests another possibility.  Only one of the churches in the top ten is ostensibly affiliated with a denomination.  The rest of the churches wear names like “Elevation Church,” “Triumph Church,” or “The Rock.”  The community church movement has not been shy about its objective of removing the “barrier” of denominational affiliations from the names of their churches.  The strategy seems to be working.

I have made references before to a recent study showing that Americans are losing interest in denominational affiliations. Forty-four percent of American adults have left the faith of their childhood for another. The demographic benefiting the most is the one that carries people who claim no religious affiliation. People moving into that category outnumber those moving out of it by a three-to-one margin. These changes in affiliation are swelling the ranks of nondenominational churches, while Baptist and Methodist traditions are showing net losses.

The churches of Christ once grew and thrived because of a nondenominational spirit.  It is my conviction that the public’s distaste for denominationalism is nothing new.  The success of these community churches once belonged to the churches of Christ.  The reason they are growing faster than we are today is because they are promoting this spirit, while we are talking about something else.

This is tragic because the churches of Christ have a unique approach to Christianity, combining doctrinal purity with a nondenominational appeal.  The community churches may have the nondenominational appeal, but they cannot claim doctrinal purity.  They would rather draw from cultural mandates than scriptural authority.  But the churches of Christ seek to restore the New Testament church, which was neither unscriptural nor denominational.

Take a lesson from the fastest growing churches in America.  People don’t want division.  They’re seeking unity.  Let’s show them what true unity is all about and build churches on the solid foundation of God’s Word.  Growth is sure to follow.

Building Churches with the Proper Tools

Tuesday, January 16th, 2007

There are two ways to build something. You can either plan first, get the proper tools and materials before starting the project, and do the job right, or you can get started without making any preparations, using whatever you have on hand, and wind up with a shoddy end product. Having the proper tools makes all the difference in what you build.

Building churches is not that much different. Of course, the tools and materials used for church-building are spiritual, not physical, and the most valuable tool in the spiritual woodshed is the human mind. Some churches want to grow by cultivating minds to be more like Christ’s, and then building upon that strong foundation with spiritual exercises like faith, worship, and service. Others, however, take whatever’s laying around and rig it into something that in the end bears little resemblence to the religion purchased on the cross.

Preachers working in the twenty-first century struggle as they try to build churches, because relativism has robbed them of their tools. There has always been a shortage of open hearts (cf. Lk. 8:4-15), but today it seems that all one can find are dull axe blades and hammers with busted handles. In a pluralistic society like ours, it is blasphemy to teach only one truth, for in doing so, you condemn all others. The only thing that is not tolerated is intolerance. Therefore, it takes hard work to convert someone to Christianity. First you must attune his mind to the authority of the Scriptures, and then you may proceed with turning him to Christ.

But some would rather leave irrational, relativistic minds where they are, and build a church that is open to everything, one that celebrates Christ without excluding anybody else. A good example of this can be found in a recent interview with the leader of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori. Pay attention to Schori’s commentary on John 14:6, as it is given in the interview, which ran in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

When asked to elaborate on the statement, “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life,” Schori replied,

I certainly don’t disagree with that statement that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. But the way it’s used is as a truth serum, or a touchstone: If you cannot repeat this statement, then you’re not a faithful Christian or person of faith. I think Jesus as way – that’s certainly what it means to be on a spiritual journey. It means to be in search of relationship with God. We understand Jesus as truth in the sense of being the wholeness of human expression. What does it mean to be wholly and fully and completely a human being? Jesus as life, again, an example of abundant life. We understand him as bringer of abundant life but also as exemplar. What does it mean to be both fully human and fully divine? Here we have the evidence in human form. So I’m impatient with the narrow understanding, but certainly welcoming of the broader understanding.

She was then asked to explain the rest of the verse, where Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” She responded,

Again in its narrow construction, it tends to eliminate other possibilities. In its broader construction, yes, human beings come to relationship with God largely through their experience of holiness in other human beings. Through seeing God at work in other people’s lives. In that sense, yes, I will affirm that statement. But not in the narrow sense, that people can only come to relationship with God through consciously believing in Jesus.

Aside from being struck by the strange way Schori speaks without the assistance of the indefinite article, I take issue with the way she twists a simple statement into a “broader construction” that really means nothing.

Jesus had been talking about the afterlife. He comforted his disciples, assuring them that, even though he would be separated from them for awhile, they would be united again in heaven and enjoy the presence of the Father. Thomas, who was always struggling with doubt, said, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” That is when Jesus showed them the way to heaven–himself. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one come to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). Many Jews did not accept Christ as God’s Son. Jesus was saying to Thomas, “Believe in me, follow my way, and you will get to heaven. But dismiss me for one of the alternatives, and you will never see the Father.”

I understand that my interpretation is offensive to Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and others who do not accept Jesus as their Savior. By upholding exclusive statements like this, I alienate a lot of people. I also know that by professing Christ, I am excluded by the beliefs of these world religions. Moreover, I am aware that religion has always been offensive, especially when it was preached by Christ and his apostles (1 Cor. 1:23-24).

We are not going to build a church by leaving men where they are. Christ and the apostles used the word ekklesia to describe their fellowship. The word means “called out.” It described a consecrated body, separate from the world. The church grew rapidly in those days because believers knew what they were asked to do, and they could see a difference between what they professed and what was accepted by the world.

But don’t take my word for it. Look at the Episcopal Church’s numbers, which are down by 8.3 percent between the years of 2001-2005. By incorporating pluralism, tolerance, and immorality into their religion, they have shored up the world and have weakened they own body.