A huge drop in assemblies and members has occurred within the last 30-40 years. What is happening? Why are they in decline? Why have many assembly halls been closed? Why are believers leaving assemblies, especially from the young generation?
Many young people who were brought up in the assemblies (and still have admiration for their assembly heritage) have abandoned the assemblies; many for valid reasons. Some assemblies have lost their identity and have joined with other evangelical groups. Others have labelled themselves as independent churches and do not wish to be known as “assemblies”. In most places, very few new assemblies are formed.
Since this is a wounding truth to our spiritual pride, we do not want to discuss it. It is painful and humbling to admit the demise of the assemblies. But to my surprise, most assembly believers are not concerned about it. We still maintain a spiritual elitism, pride, and criticism of all other Christian groups.
It is painful to admit the demise of the assemblies. But to my surprise, most assembly believers are not concerned about it
Are we not really concerned or burdened about this problem? Don’t we feel responsible to some extent at least? Are we trying to dump all the blame on people who have left us, or on the rampant carnality, lack of spirituality and influence of superficial Christianity/Churchianity around us?
Whatever be the cause, I believe there are important lessons to be learnt from this situation. We must be willing to admit this problem and seek God’s will in trying to do what we can to remedy this situation, at least to some extent. It may need a spiritual revolution, another great revival, willingness to act, and appropriate changes made to disregard certain enslaving traditions. This venture has to be soaked in fasting and prayer. People are always talking about the need to pray for these matters, but are never willing to act.
Growing up in the assemblies, I have always heard that the Lord does not look at numbers, but only the spiritual quality and condition of the assemblies. I have heard preachers trying to prove this point from the Lord’s message to the seven churches (Revelation 2-3). No doubt, quality is more important than quantity. But later, I discovered from the Word that our neglect of numerical growth is not Scriptural.
A study of the Book of Acts convinced me that God expects His church to grow numerically and spiritually. The remarkable “church growth report” is given at least 16 times in Acts by Dr. Luke. Though we don’t need to have an unhealthy addiction to statistics, Luke had a fondness for the numerical growth of the church and he readily reports it throughout his account of the history of the early church. If we study it deeply, it is not difficult to find that this is a part of Luke’s theological purpose. Obviously, when Jesus’ disciples ended up doing what was expected of them in the power of the Holy Spirit, it resulted in the numerical growth of churches, which was in the plan and purpose of God.
It is the Lord’s purpose that churches grow spiritually and numerically — qualitatively and quantitatively. The growth we find in Acts was numerical, spiritual, and geographical. We do not have to seek to build attendance through gimmicks, entertainment, and marketing strategies. But when we are faithful to God’s Word and diligent in evangelism, God will save souls. “And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).
From a practical point of view, we may have to review our methods and strategies, be willing to make appropriate changes, and be open to the Spirit to lead and guide us, rather than slavishly following our vain traditions. Then, growth will happen. It seems to me that our tendency to downplay numerical growth is probably because many of our assemblies have no growth to report!
It seems to me that our tendency to downplay numerical growth is probably because many of our assemblies have no growth to report!
Let us not propagate the idea that small is always good and the Lord is pleased with small gatherings (I have heard this numerous times from the pulpits, even with suggestions about the maximum number in an assembly)! Then we try to scripturalise this concept with our own clever ideas. Let us not try to portray all large gatherings of God’s people as unscriptural. If the Lord enlarges our assemblies, He will also show us the way to overcome the deficiencies and limitations of being large. Be willing to follow His direction.
We are not at all sympathetic to the mega churches that do not honour the Word of God. But let us not promote a false “theology of smallness”. Both small and large churches have advantages and disadvantages. Some assemblies become smaller and smaller every day and finally cease to exist!
To my surprise, in recent years, I personally came across many young people in the assemblies who regularly go to the weekday services or Sunday evening service in other conservative evangelical churches to hear sound expository preaching by gifted men of God. It is a clear evidence that many are not spiritually fed by the Word in our assemblies. Unknowingly, we have made the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers into the ‘preacherhood of all believers’. This has betrayed the quality of the ministry of the Word in many assemblies. We have weakened our pulpit with unscriptural practices. This is a serious problem.
Since assemblies do not have a one-man preacher or pastor, it became a breeding ground for all men to be preachers and teachers. It is custom that several men, whether gifted for public ministry or not, have to be accommodated on the pulpit. The ministry of the Word is usually in the hands of ungifted men in many assemblies who waste people’s time with unprofitable ministry. This is a false, unscriptural system, perpetuated for years in many assemblies, and our young people and many sensible believers are fed up with this. It is deeply ingrained into our functioning and elders are helpless to make changes.
Not only do most of the men in the assembly have to be accommodated on the pulpit, many visitors also have to be given a chance. “One-man ministry” is replaced by “any-man” ministry. Accommodating everyone and giving opportunity to all is the practice promoted by elders in most assemblies. Elders forget the fact that they are called to shepherd the people of God and that feeding the assembly is their primary responsibility. Instead, they outsource it to others, including many visitors who may not be gifted to minister the Word, and who may not be sensitive to the spiritual needs of the assembly. The priority of pastoral leaders in the assembly is in the area of prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4, 2). When these are neglected, the assembly will starve spiritually.
We have made the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers into the ‘preacherhood of all believers’
In the case of Bible studies, it is the same story. In many assemblies, the studies are not systematic, consecutive, or profitable. They are all piecemeal, “hit and run” type of ministries. Then only can everyone be pleased and accommodated. The elders are not willing to take a stand in this vital area of ministry probably because of many pressures, or because they have no vision or understanding about the primacy of systematic teaching. The primary goal in all this is to give “opportunity” to others without discernment about their spiritual giftedness. Thus, the God-ordained rule of the edification of the gathered body of Christ is ignored.
In many assemblies, those who plan and schedule the ministry of the Word and Bible studies also do not know how to wisely plan it as they themselves lack pastoral, theological and biblical understanding or training so as to organise these ministries in the proper way. They seldom enlist help from others for fear of changes that may be made to the traditional methodology. We have to be more discerning, careful and vigilant in assigning preaching/teaching responsibilities. If only we were like the sons of Issachar, “men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32)!
Most assemblies also do not train and equip young people who have potential leadership abilities and who have demonstrated spiritual maturity to be future spiritual leaders of the assembly, if the Lord appoints them to such ministries. Those who have demonstrated gifts of preaching and teaching will benefit from some basic training within the assembly in expository preaching and homiletics. Usually no concern, interest or vision is seen in these vital areas of equipping and mentoring ministries. Have we outsourced all our responsibilities to Bible colleges and seminaries? The neglect of mentoring, training and equipping ministries have also weakened us.
Unedifying ministry is a total disservice to the people of God. This is one of the serious problems that have adversely affected the assemblies. The standard of the Word ministry has to match with the education, and also the pastoral and practical needs, of the congregation. There is a need to “fence” our pulpit so that it is not wide open to all. There is nothing scripturally wrong for gifted men to take a series of messages consecutively. We try to give the impression that crowding the pulpit with too many preachers is scriptural and it is the New Testament pattern. How did we get this idea? We are sadly mistaken.
The proclamation and teaching of the Word should not be in the hands of “one man”, “any man” and “every man.” It should be in the hands of gifted and godly men, called and equipped by the Holy Spirit, who can rightly divide the Word. There is no Scriptural reason or argument against this. It is ironic that we, who claim utmost commitment to the Word, do a great dishonour to the Word in the practice of our Word ministry. We know that many believers, especially many in the younger generation, have left our assemblies because of the unprofitable ministry from the pulpit week after week. A shocking truth — but we are reluctant to admit it.
Unedifying ministry is a total disservice to the people of God. We have weakened our pulpit with unscriptural practices
I believe a lack of positive leadership and pastoral care is another important reason why people are leaving the assemblies. The word “pastor” has always been an anathema in the assembly circles. But Biblical eldership is plural and pastoral. The pastoral aspect of eldership (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2) is not emphasised in our teaching. Most of our books and commentaries also are silent about it.
Whenever we refer to the word “pastor”, our single aim has been to prove that the denominational pastoral system is wrong. We always portray the word in a negative way. I have never, in my life, heard a positive biblical teaching on the aspect of pastoral leadership in assembly circles. Thank God, that situation is slowly changing, at least with some concerned Bible teachers.
There is no “pastor” over a church, but there are “pastors” (shepherds) in a church. Our whole emphasis has been on plurality of leadership and, unknowingly, we have neglected the pastoral aspect of church leadership. This may be an over-reaction to the denominational system of one-man leadership or a pastor ruling the assembly. Let us be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water.
We need more spiritual leaders in our assemblies with caring and shepherding hearts, who are sensitive to the struggles and problems of believers. They must be equipped and trained to effectively minister to the varied challenges people face in a sin-trodden society. Weak and insensitive leadership and non-functional elders will not be able to minister to the needs of God’s people. We cannot let the bleeding and wounded sheep suffer for too long, lest they go after other shepherds. “Where is the flock that was given you, your beautiful sheep” (Jeremiah 13:20)?
Another major issue facing the assemblies is the lack of full-time elders. We have never encouraged this idea. I have even heard some of our teachers speaking against it. This is never a prayer item in the assembly prayer meetings. We do not even recognise the need for it!
The word “pastor” has always been an anathema in the assembly circles. But Biblical eldership is plural and pastoral
It is true that many of our elders along with their secular employment try to do their best with great sacrifice on their part. But we have to be more practical and realistic. In the fast-paced, busy world we live in, along with the various challenges facing us every day both at work and at home, there are a lot of factors that can make things harder. An elder’s responsibilities at work, home, and church create a real time crunch. Hence, many of them are not able to do their pastoral work as of high priority, though they may have a heart to do it. This is a built-in weakness which we have ignored.
This practical problem has nothing to do with the elder’s sincerity, commitment or honesty; it is simply the reality of life. I believe it is high time for assemblies to think more seriously about encouraging some of our elders to be full-time shepherds for the flock of God. I wish that we could make this a matter of urgent concern and prayer and seek the Lord’s will in this matter. We have to have practical and apply remedial measures to bridge the gap in pastoral ministries in the assemblies. Implementing the principles in 1 Timothy 5:17-18 can be of much help to us in this crisis.
In assemblies where there is more responsible pastoral care, we see growth and blessing. Meaningful pastoral care is the strength of many evangelical churches. Pentecostal and Charismatic churches all over the world attract more people to their fold, not through their doctrine, but by gracious and caring pastoral ministry. It is a general complaint or accusation against us that assemblies are not ideal places for hurting people. Many people who go through trying situations in life usually leave the assemblies knowing that they will not “survive” there, as there is no ministry towards them (especially those who are in the midst of marriage/family crises).
Even youngsters constantly accuse us of being non-compassionate, judgmental, ungracious, and ministering only to “perfect” people, holding on to the “truth” without “grace”. Have we been too harsh and ungracious in applying the Scripture, clinging on to the letter of the law than the spirit of it? I believe all these problems have something to do with the lack of caring and trained pastoral leadership. Many assemblies are led by people who may be faithful, but lack leadership skills.
Positive changes are not compromises. Transformational change is biblical (Romans 12:2). Transformational renewal of the mind leads us to discern the will of God. This will help us to bring necessary and appropriate changes for our growth, testimony and blessings. But most assemblies are very reluctant to make changes. Tunnel vision, built-in traditionalism, legalism, parochialism, and an attitude of uninformed ignorance serve as a defence mechanism against being realistic about necessary changes.
These changes may be needed in relation to a number of areas: a review and evaluation of all ongoing ministries, the format of the meetings, schedule/timings, curriculum for Bible Study, special ministry needs to various age groups in the assembly, methodology in evangelism/outreach etc. There is a great need to renew our efforts, especially in evangelism. Since meetings and ministries are not periodically evaluated, we seldom understand the need for making appropriate changes without doctrinal compromise. Don’t we think we must responsibly formulate a philosophy of ministry that is truly biblical, practical and relevant to our needs, which will help us to move forward?
“Our way is the best way” or “we have been doing it for years” is usually the cherished argument. In business meetings, camps and conferences, the need for change is sometimes discussed. But nothing really happens because we don’t want to make changes. There is little scope for change when we adamantly think that Sunday, 9am or Wednesday, 7.30pm is as sacred as the virgin birth or the second coming. Think about the many splits in the history of the assemblies. Most of them were over petty, non-essential and peripheral issues. It is the same even today: we are often ‘majoring in the minors’.
There is little scope for change when we adamantly think that Sunday, 9am is as sacred as the virgin birth or the second coming
It is true that the Lord is building the church, but the saints have the responsibility to ‘shape’ it. If we are open and willing, the Spirit of God will lead us in relation to the challenges and issues facing us today. I believe this is the path of renewal, revival and revitalisation.
Traditionalism and legalism are placed in many assemblies on par with Scripture and many believers do not know which is what! Many traditions are stifling the work of the Spirit in assemblies. Personal preferences and traditional practices (most of them may be good and noble) are interpreted as infallible doctrines and imposed upon others without any Scriptural warrant. As one young man recently told me, in his assembly, everything that is done is an “assembly distinctive” and there is no room for any flexibility on any matter.
Though we claim we are non-denominational and non-sectarian, many times, our policies and practices are sectarian to the core. Matters of fellowship, reception, commendation letter, song books, Bible translation etc. are taken in some assemblies to legalistic extremes and imposed as Scriptural norm. The original ideal of non-denominationalism, non-sectarianism, unswerving commitment to the Word (and the Word alone), and unity and fellowship in the Body of Christ are all a thing of the past.
That is why we have so many ‘varieties’ of the assemblies today. Most of these ‘branches’ have no meaningful fellowship with one another and even despise one another. This party spirit has evidently tarnished our testimony around the world. Lack of cooperation between assemblies, lack of shared information, and reluctance for united gospel efforts have all weakened us. The cherished doctrine of the autonomy of the local assembly has been blown out of proportion in many places at the expense of interdependence for fellowship and mutual ministry efforts.
There is a general trend prevalent among us for an “exclusive claim” for Scriptural truth and that we are the only ones “gathered unto the name of the Lord Jesus Christ”. This has created an isolationist and narrow-minded mentality of total detachment from other sound evangelical believers. This opens the way for spiritual pride.
“Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). How true! Over time, every movement becomes degenerative. No Christian movement, church or denomination has ever been automatically self-renewing. To recapture the original vision, we need power from on high and a courageous spirit for action. We all need to challenge ourselves on how we feel about all this. Don’t we care? Are we comforting ourselves that our own assembly is not yet closed? Are we as Biblical as we think we are? Let us confess our failures and be willing to rectify them. It is time for a reality check and realistic action.
In some parts of the world, we can see growing assemblies and believers who practise New Testament principles. They are an exception to the rule. I am sure that, until the Lord comes, there will be churches like these that will grow and prosper. Let our assemblies be a place of teaching, caring, serving, and loving in a hurting and broken world. Let them be grace-oriented fellowships, and not law-oriented closed groups. May the Lord increase the number of such gathered unto His name.
“He who has an ear, let him hear.”
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