Early in my time here in Stephens, I was talking to a member who was trying to be active in sharing his faith, but he was frustrated.
“Everyone here is saved, you know,” he said. Then he cracked a wry smile, “But no one goes to church!”
It has become a running joke/lament in the years since as we have tried outreach in our area. People will affirm the gospel truths as we share them, claiming them for their own, and pointing to some salvation experience in the past. It’s just about impossible to lead someone to the Lord when they claim that they’re already there. By their own testimony, this town is almost 100% evangelized.
You wouldn’t know it on Sundays. There are a few thousand that live in a ten-mile radius from our church, but there a only a few hundred that are in worship services in the various churches on a given Sunday morning. Besides that, the brokenness, the addictions, and the general darkness you observe all around give clear testimony that the gospel has not come to bear on this community or its people.
Normally, I like to write about some issue where I think I can offer at least a portion of a solution, but this time I can’t. It is my hope that by writing about this problem that I can bring light to it as a matter of prayer for small Southern towns, to describe the issue well so that other ministers who are coming can be prepared, to offer a few of my own observations, and spark some discussion if some of you readers have some thoughts on this matter.
This is a uniquely “Bible Belt” problem, obviously. Cultural religion and gospel saturation have made it so that most folks in the South have heard things like “Jesus is the Son of God” and “Jesus died on the cross for your sins” enough and have been in a church enough to at least mentally assent to these ideas or know the “right answers” to give when someone shares the gospel.
The small-town factor adds its own dimension to the problem. In areas that consistently have new move-ins, there are folks considering if they will be attending a local church and where they might go, but in small towns these questions have been answered for decades. People who haven’t been to a worship service in years still identify with a particular church, and/or they decided not to go to yours a long time ago. (It almost seems rude for longtime residents to invite people to church when they haven’t come for all the decades they’ve known them. Why would that change now?)
In this way, knowing how to give the “right answers” when someone tries to share their faith serves as a defense mechanism: “I’m already saved. Don’t worry. Everything’s good with me and God.” But this “salvation” doesn’t make them want to worship with other believers. In fact, it seems that the belief is that since they are “saved,” that’s exactly why they don’t have reason to be part of a church.
So one of my reactions to this belief over the years is to develop a doctrine of church membership and involvement that’s easy to share, trying to answer the question of why it is essential for a Christian to regularly attend and serve in a local church. The short answer is that it is impossible to be an obedient believer without being a part of a local body. To demonstrate this truth, I first point to Jesus’ command to love “one another.” It’s a call to love as Christ has loved us, specifically a sacrificial love for other believers. A person cannot do that as a disconnected Christian. There are countless other passages to discuss, and I try to point these out as I preach and teach, so that my members are equipped to answer these questions as well.
Of course, that a professing believer could be so dismissive of church involvement at all speaks to a lack of understanding at the time they accepted Christ. I have come to believe that these issues may begin with the preference for the “sinner’s prayer” over baptism as the response to the gospel.
Now there are lots of these “saved” unchurched folks who have been baptized, too. And I realize that baptism does not save in and of itself, and that confusion has led to the widespread use of the sinner’s prayer. But I have seen the damage of what leading people through a prayer and then congratulating them and assuring them they are going to heaven has done to the last couple of generations of people with casual associations with the church. The problem is obvious: you tell people they are going to heaven when they probably aren’t and their hearts are often hardened to further discipleship.
Although I still will lead people in a prayer to receive Christ, I am placing more and more emphasis on baptism for a couple of reasons. First, baptism is the response to the gospel modeled in Scripture. Second, it takes time to develop. A person has to meet with me, we have to set a day on a future Sunday to perform the baptism, and then they have to show up. It’s disappointing when a person does not make it through these steps, but it’s also an indication that they may not be ready to fully receive the gospel. Third, baptism is tied to church membership, so we have a chance to talk about the importance of being a part of a local church and to discuss our church covenant.
These are just a couple of ways I have tried to meet the challenge of “everyone’s saved, but no one goes to church.” I know that prayer and persistence must be the foundation of the solution as well. I am still seeking answers. I invite you readers to offer your thoughts as well. May God use these gospel seeds that are in the hearts of many to produce a great harvest for His kingdom.