CHURCHES OR MONASTERIES?
T. PIERCE BROWN
In the 50 years or so I have been trying to preach the gospel of Christ, I have noticed several trends which are very disturbing. It is not my desire to be classed among the prophets of doom who see in the church only those things that point toward apostasy and disaster. Neither do I want to look at things as some brethren seem to, always with rose colored glasses, seeing nothing wrong with anything. Next to Jesus, Paul was probably the best balanced man who ever lived. He was able to see the good in the worst situations, but was never so blind as to be unable, nor so unfaithful as to be unwilling, to point out the bad direction things were going (Acts 20:29-30).
Therefore, without being unduly critical or negative, let me point out some of the things I have seen that need attention and correction. Many years ago we were the fastest growing religious body in theUnited States. In my judgment, the main reason for that was the upswing of interest in personal evangelism and the practice of it, along with the fact that the majority of preachers were neither ashamed or afraid to show the distinctive nature of the Lord’s church. Churches all around the country ordered hundreds of filmstrip projectors, had personal evangelism classes and baptized on a daily or weekly basis. The last few years, I find as many as a dozen projectors and sets of film strips in a closet gathering dust, with no evidence of any effort in personal evangelism at all. This especially grieves me when I see it in congregations that are doctrinally sound and have some of the best preaching I have ever heard. In my judgment, this is one of the things that gave rise to the Crossroads andBostonmovements. When people saw the lack of devotion and commitment in the average (and above average) member to really follow Jesus and become a fisher of men, they apparently followed the false philosophy that doing anything is better than doing nothing, and were led into many false and hurtful practices.
There are many reasons for this decline in growth and lethargy that is so apparent nationwide. I shall mention only a few that seem apparent to me. First there is an emphasis on the importance of sound doctrine without an equal effort to practice it. This causes a tendency to complacency, indifference and lethargy because we become like the scribes and Pharisees mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 23:2-3, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat: all things therefore whatsoever they bid you, these do and observe: but do not ye after their works; for they say and do not.”
When I speak of emphasis being given, I do not mean merely verbal emphasis from the pulpit. Some of the best sermons I have ever heard on personal evangelism came from some who knew how to put a good sermon together, but seldom practiced it. In most churches of my acquaintance, neither the preacher nor the elders teach the flock how to do personal evangelism by their example. If they emphasize it at all, they do it by urging the members to get involved in a program or effort of some kind.
Most of the elders whom I have known, even when they are good at making great plans for the members to get involved in something (and even those elders are all too rare), do very little in actually shepherding or leading the flock in doing anything that increases the spiritual condition of the flock.
The church building has become a sort of monastery where we withdraw from the world and its needs instead of going out into the world to find and meet those needs. The buildings, fellowship halls and classrooms were built and maintained for the pleasure and convenience of the members, not for the purpose of converting the lost. The preacher sits behind his desk and plans sermons, schedules hospital visitation, does his managerial duties, writes bulletin articles giving the news of the activities, afflicted and dead, has coffee, plays golf or otherwise visits the members if he is especially dedicated. With his schedule of attending lecture programs, conducting funerals, writing articles, making speeches at various occasions and meeting with the elders to talk about how to get all the members involved in various interesting projects, some of which may help increase the spirituality of anyone who can be enticed into participating, if he can find time to spend an evening each week actually involved in doing the task for which Christ died, he is unusual.
The elders, dedicated as they are to shepherding the flock, have generally decided that the primary way they can do their job of shepherding is to try to get the members excited about some project or activity. It does not really matter whether it is building a fellowship room where we can more easily meet and eat, whether it is planning some congregational activity in the homes of various members where we can meet and eat, or whether it is hiring some public building where we can meet and eat, anytime they can get large number of members together, they are shepherding the flock. Whether it contributes to the individual’s spiritual growth is not really evaluated, but if we can meet and eat, it surely is good to have fellowship, and we can find out who is sick, shut in, or otherwise in need of a visit which will be properly assigned to a visitation committee.
Remember that I am talking about the best preachers and elders in the brotherhood, not the lazy, indifferent ones who spend more time fishing, golfing and playing around than they do in any work directly related to the work of the Lord. I am not finding fault with those activities. I would probably be a better preacher if I had spent more time fishing or golfing. By the time the elders and preacher(s) have met to plan the fellowship meetings, the building program, the youth meetings, the visitation program, the teacher’s meetings, song practice, general gripe sessions, and an occasional personal evangelism class for the four or five who are willing to talk about doing personal evangelism some day, there is simply no way they can find time to do the work Jesus died for.
If they are an especially outstanding eldership, going beyond the normal call of duty, they meet an additional day or night each week or month to converse with disturbed members and explain why things are as they are, and make sure the members understand that they are the authoritative leaders of the church who are making the best decisions they can in the limited time they have. They have businesses and families just like the ordinary members, and scarcely see their wives and children, for they are meeting so often to carry on the work of the church. Then, if they are really earnest about doing their job of overseeing the flock (by this, they understand that it means overseeing various works the church is doing, such as benevolent work, building and grounds, education, missions and financial matters) they divide the work so each elder can meet with the appropriate committee of deacons and properly supervise that activity, whether it be painting the building, or planning a fellowship meeting. That is, those elders who get beyond simply trying to do the work of deacons, and letting the preacher do their work, try to shepherd the flock by overseeing all organized activities. They never get it done, of course, for the administration and oversight of all the committees, activities and programs in addition to providing for the needs of their own household is simply too much. The harder they try, the more criticism they get, so those who are dedicated and conscientious keep trying harder to please the members, so they never have time to do the task God assigned to all of us and for which Christ died. Since they cannot do it, they can never lead anyone else to do it. So any nagging or teaching that they do to get all the members involved in saving souls sounds like so much hypocrisy, so they eventually cease to do any, if they ever did.
There may be no simple solution to the problem, but some suggestions may help. When any activity or work is planned, ask and prove the answer, “Is this the best way to spend time and money to accomplish the task for which Jesus died?” If the leaders of the congregation, including preachers and elders, would spend at least one night a week being an example to the flock and training them in doing something that will increase their spirituality and build the congregation numerically at the same time, many problems would be solved. After 60 years of looking at church activities (or inactivities), I know of nothing that will do that as well as practicing individual personal evangelism and showing one other person how to do it.