We hear of how some churches in recent years have been losing numbers, or not growing like they once did. Everyone wants to throw in their idea about why this is happening. Many believe it is because people aren’t being true to God’s Word like they used to be years ago. Some will blame people they label as “change agents” and liberals. Others would say the church has stopped growing because of the effects of legalism and people getting stuck in their traditions.
I believe there is another factor at work which has far greater impact on the slowing growth of the church. This factor is the lack of critical thinking and objective study of God’s Word. Most of us in the Churches of Christ have taken very seriously the restoration spirit which has driven Godly men and women throughout the last two thousand years to evaluate their life by what the Word of God says. This restoration spirit is largely responsible for movements such as the American Restoration Movement, whose roots spawned the churches of Christ as we see it in our country today. Restorationism is a wonderful topic when studying with people coming from world religions or religions that practice and teach error. The church grew rapidly when those in the church were active in evangelizing people locked in denominationalism or in non-Christian religions.
The question now becomes this … ‘”What happens when a person converted (because of restoration principles) continues to see the importance of the restoration principle as a life-long principle which does not stop at their conversion? If the restoration principle is so clear and important, why do the rules fail to apply when we evaluate our OWN practices and teachings throughout the years to make sure they continue to stand up to the scrutiny of God’s Word? Why is it that when good brothers with honest and intelligent hearts come to a different understanding of God’s Word which happen to fly in the face of conventional or established procedure, many lament as if people are falling into apostasy? When a member of some religious sect evaluates their position and sees a flaw in their logic, we rejoice that they come to the truth. But far be it if someone within our own fellowship evaluates their own upbringing and recognizes inconsistent arguments, exegetical fallacies, or faulty conclusions with which they have been raised. The restoration spirit is good for everyone in the world except for churches who feel they no longer have a need to restore anything.
I believe many in the church have created an unhealthy fear of honest Bible study which might lead us to see things differently than we have in the past. After all, it is only the ones in error who really need to think, right? It is THOSE people who need to think and understand how scripture contrasts to THEIR erroneous ways. But when one is not in error, there is no more need for serious Bible study. All the thinking has been done. All that is left to do is bask in the glory of our established conclusions. This is what Paul clearly is denouncing as the major problem with the church in Corinth. Their arrogance and boasting over their inflated knowledge had caused them to break into party wrangling and divisive splitting of the body of Christ. Hmmmm! What was killing the church in Corinth were not change agents OR legalists. It was people who thought they knew all they needed to know. And I hear the words of Paul echoing clearly, “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know.” (I Corinthians 8:2)
So why are churches not growing today, and in fact in many places dying? I would venture to guess it is not primarily because of change agents or legalists. Heresies and Judaizers have abounded in God’s church throughout the ages and the church has managed to survive them all. My conviction is this … the church is not growing because people have stopped thinking for themselves. They have allowed the thinking of others to be their guide, and so don’t know what to do if someone challenges that thinking other than to argue and fight. Unlike Lydia whose heart God opened to receive the words of Paul, God’s Spirit cannot open the heart of anyone whose mind is already made up.
I heard it said somewhere, “A church teetering on rotten timbers is in a perilous position to roar too loud in its pride.” Pride is that dangerous element of any dying church which would ascribe the blame for its demise on others, rather than looking to the part we have played by our own failure to study God’s Word afresh. Let us have the courage not only to study, but to live with the convictions of that study despite what others might feel about you.