Opportunities to be unusual

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My conversations with pastors tend to cover the typical subjects of church life, ministry in a changing culture, and who’s going to win the SEC this fall. And while all those are important, the first two take up the bulk of the conversation (no really, they do).

A look at current trends shows what many pastors see from the pulpit each week. Younger Americans aren’t going to church as much, and even when they do it might be with a different view of God. Each year the SBC Annual Church Profile reveals another drop in baptisms. It’s led to congregations, particularly those who are aging, to have more frank conversations as to the current state of their church’s effectiveness.

“The culture has changed.” Those words are uttered so much they’ve become a cliché. But that doesn’t make them untrue. Small towns used to have somewhat of a hedge – culturally – against those changes. But that’s no longer the case. Drop by the nearest Walmart, Dollar General, or boat launch at 10:30 on a Sunday morning to verify it for yourself.

Recently I was talking to a small-town pastor in the southern part of the state about this and we began discussing the mentality shift of not only the culture, but churches to the culture. In particular, how did churches reach/respond to their communities in the past versus today?

That led to us talking about established churches having a “church start” mentality.

New churches literally start from square one, he noted. There is a small team at the beginning, but also a palpable desire to get out into the community. Established churches do this as well, of course, but there’s a subtle difference in mentality. Should an outreach not go as well as hoped or attendance numbers lag at an established church, it’s easier for some faulty assumptions to take shape. This probably happens more often than we want to admit.

Those faulty assumptions point to how, at one point in time, it was a social benefit to attend church. The culture was friendly to Christianity. Today the church takes a beating from travel ball alone. There are more options for people, and they’re choosing them.

But before we get too depressed about the mountain facing the Church, it’s important to remember that Paul worked in a culture in opposition to the Gospel as well. Yet, he spoke of that Gospel’s power. He spoke of it so well, with no apologies, that it compelled the culture to listen and take note. Even the worst punishment for preaching it, he claimed, would actually be an honor (Phil. 1:20-21).

That mentality made him … unusual, in his culture. Paul stood apart; he stood for something else. Our churches today are ever closer to the same position. Because at some point individuals begin to see how the culture’s promises of fulfillment and empowerment fall empty. For as loud as that message can get – verbally and digitally – a person still senses there’s something lacking. God has placed eternity in everyone’s heart (Eccl. 3:11), and that’s a hole the culture can’t fill.

Adhering to the Gospel Jesus preached and the early church practiced makes one stand apart today. And while we all may sometimes feel we’re starting from square one, the building blocks for a solid foundation have never left.

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