Americans are flabby. According to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention, 33 percent of U.S. adults and 16 percent of children have a body mass index of 30 or more, qualifying them as "obese."
What’s more, the incidence of obesity has risen over 100 percent since 1980, prompting the CDC to label the trend an epidemic.
But more than our physiques are soft and getting softer; our faith is as well.
From muscle to fat
Although nearly 80 percent of Americans identify themselves as “Christian,” the Pew Forum reports that fewer than 40 percent attend church weekly and just over half consider their faith “very important” in their lives. In a recent study of the beliefs, behaviors and lifestyles of the major faith groups in the U.S., the Barna group found that two-thirds of Americans are “minimally active born again Christians [or] moderately active but theologically nominal Christians.”
In short, the majority of American Christians don’t take their faith very seriously. They either fail to integrate their faith into life or hold beliefs that are counter to its core doctrines.
But how did the muscular faith, sown with the blood of martyrs 2000 years ago, turn so flaccid?
Philosophy professor John Lamont offers an explanation by way of sociologist Rodney Stark et al. In the calculus of the typical person, the “benefits” of religion are in the future, but the “costs” are paid up-front. Hence:
... [they] are prone to backslide, to get behind on their payments....Thus, other things being equal, people will always be in favor of a modest reduction in their costs. In this fashion, humans begin to bargain with their churches for lower tension and fewer sacrifices. They usually succeed, both because it is those with the most influence—the clergy and the leading laity—who most desire to lower the level of sacrifice and because each reduction seems so small and engenders widespread approval.(emphasis added)
But despite the popularity of incremental reductions, they have not proven to have any lasting, positive effects for the Church; nor have they lightened the load and made life easier for church leadership.
Ironically, the churches with the lowest expectations for members are those with the most precipitous declines in membership. For example, in the much cited 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, membership in traditionally less demanding denominations (Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal) declined up to 21 percent between 1990 and 2008, while the membership in more demanding churches (Pentecostal and Evangelical) rose up to four-fold in the same period.
Even churches with significant numerical growth, like the 20,000-member Willow Creek, have found that spiritual growth is lacking. And while most pastors recognize that spiritual immaturity is one the biggest problems in the Church today, few have formally defined what a mature Christian “looks like,” and fewer still have established a process for spiritual formation that is intentional, structured, and woven into the fabric of church life.
Information and resources
Imagine if the same thing was true of health professionals.
If a physician counseled a 350-pound patient about the dangers of obesity and the need to be healthier without telling him what “healthier” means, giving him a get-well plan to achieve it, and scheduling follow-up appointments to supervise it, the patient’s health would, in all likelihood, fail to improve.
Likewise, a church member who is given neither the information nor resources to grow in Christ-likeness most likely will not, especially if the standards for membership are set low.
When I was on the leadership team of a former church, I became aware of the need for greater biblical literacy among our members. This despite the fact that we had a gifted pastor who exposited the Scripture superbly every Sunday! To confirm my suspicions, as well as sow the seed for what I hoped would become an intentional disciple-building process, I proposed a member-wide “spiritual health” survey during one team meeting.
My proposal had a cool reception. “I think our people are pretty well balanced,” one leader temporized. “I wonder how it [answering questions about their spiritual health] will make them feel,” fretted another. Most acknowledged that it was a good idea, in principle—but one for which our people weren’t quite ready.
It wasn’t long before a bitter crisis developed that led to a church split with over one-third of the congregation leaving. A contributing cause for the fallout was the lack of understanding (or acceptance) of biblical teachings on Church mission and on the divisions of authority and responsibility in the Church.
Church leaders who, out of complacency, fear, or indifference, maintain low or no membership expectations—other than occasional attendance and a bill in the plate—enable turgid congregations to remain blissfully unaware of their biblical duties, or willfully ignore them.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote that the divinely ordained positions in the Church exist “to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
That passage contains several important points. First, the primary ministry of a church leader is to train and equip the laity for ministry. It follows from what Paul said a couple of chapters earlier, that while we’re saved by grace, we are saved for works.
Second, the ultimate goal of ministry is Body-building; that is, growing the Church in size and strength. If we focus only on size—bodies, bucks, and buildings—which is all too common today, the Body will grow in mass but not in the musculature needed to carry its own weight. But if we focus on strength, our growth will be in earth-moving muscle, not couch-sinking cellulite.
Lastly, Body strength comes as believers mature in Christ-likeness.
From fat to fit
So how does a leader take his church from fat to fit? The same way a first-class health club does.
A health club exists to help members realize their full fitness potential. The savvy owner knows that to be competitive in the fitness market, every aspect of his business—staff, facilities, programs, and equipment—must be targeted toward the fitness outcomes of members.
Consequently, when a club signs up a new member, it doesn’t collect his membership agreement, legal waiver, and money and turn him loose in the gym to discover the noble path of fitness on his own. (Yet that is what happens in many churches, as new members are largely left to themselves to figure out what discipleship is and how, or even if, they will pursue it. The result is churches that are either anorexic or adipose.)
Rather, a new member is interviewed by trained staff who assess his fitness needs and desires. With that information, they prepare a customized fitness plan covering all the information on diet, nutrition, exercise, and lifestyle necessary for success. Finally, the services of a personal trainer are recommended (with initial complimentary sessions in many cases) to coach the member through his plan.
The savvy owner also knows that the member who is given information, a plan, and a mentor who can inspire, coach, correct, and monitor his progress, is the member who is best poised to realize his fitness goals.
A church exists to help members mature into Body-building disciples—people of robust faith who think like Jesus, live like Jesus, love like Jesus, and minister like Jesus. The savvy church leader knows that to get his people “fit,” every aspect of church—services, sermons, classes, programs, mission statements, and slogans—must be structured to serve discipleship outcomes.
He also knows that his people need clear definitions for “disciple” and “spiritual maturity”—a spiritual formation process that includes challenging expectations, assessment, mentoring, accountability, and monitoring; and a compelling vision of discipleship that can inspire their commitment to lifelong spiritual growth.
Signs are pointing to a Christian faith that has gone soft. To rebuild the muscular faith that once characterized the Church and, for two millennia, has transformed cultures, civilizations and untold numbers of people, leaders would do well to take a lesson from their local fitness club.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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