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jpc-church2After a drastic change in marketing strategy which resulted in much negative publicity and dismal sales figures, the JCPenney Company recently released a television commercial with a simple message: We made mistakes. We heard our customers. We’d love to see you again. (View the mea culpa commercial.)

Their customers may give them another chance. Time will tell. But some analysts argue that the harm done to the JCPenney brand is irreparable.

As a former retail associate for JCPenney, I’ve given this situation some serious thought. Sadly, my thoughts have produced little to help the struggling retail giant. However, I think the Church in America could possibly learn some lessons from this situation. After all, church attendance is down pretty much across the board. Baptisms and other indicators of church health and growth paint a picture of significant difficulty connecting with people both inside and outside the Church. And many church leaders appear to be grasping at straws just to maintain their sense of relevance and impact on both congregation and culture.

Consider these thoughts, as taken from several online articles:

One in five adults have no religious affiliation. (Full Article Here)

If the current decline in church attendance were the medical case history of a hospital patient, the diagnosis would read: “Chronically ill; resistant to change; on life support; likely terminal.” The church itself is the one institution most in need of the very thing it proclaims to the world — salvation. (Full Article Here)

The overwhelming majority of churches in America are in a major decline mode. In the US alone, more than 35 million people, many former churchgoers, want nothing to do with the church anymore. Yet, if you listen to church leaders, as of course I do, you get a very different interpretation and explanation for the church’s decline. The most frequent explanation for the decline is the “secularization” of our culture. (Full Article Here)

The March 2012 Gallup poll on religious behavior in the United States exposes how lots of people are avoiding church. As Gallup reports, “32 percent of Americans are nonreligious, based on their statement that religion is not an important part of their daily life and that they seldom or never attend religious services.” (Full Article Here)

The actual rate of church attendance from head counts is less than half of the 40% the pollsters report. Numbers from actual counts of people in Orthodox Christian churches (Catholic, mainline and evangelical) show that in 2004, 17.7% of the population attended a Christian church on any given weekend. (Full Article Here)

Obviously, there is a lot of information available about the state of the Church in America. Some articles are more optimistic than others. As most church staffers can attest, almost every leadership conference we attend presents a reminder of the stark realities facing the Church today. Regardless of the times in which we live, the mission of the Church is indisputable. In what we commonly refer to as the Great Commission, Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19-20a, ESV)

Just as the executives at JCPenney are having to re-visit their mission and re-cast vision, today’s pastors, church staffers, and lay leaders must do the same thing if we are to fulfill the call of Christ.

Here’s where I’d like your thoughts and feedback:

1. What do you see as the #1 issue facing the Church in America today?

2. Does the Church in America owe people a JCPenney-style apology? If so, how would you word it?

Fishers of men — or aquarium keepers?

I’ve thought a lot about that ever since I read a post by Steven Furtick, founder and lead pastor of Elevation Church in Charlotte, NC. Outreach Magazine has named Elevation as one of the largest and fastest growing churches in America. While most of us will never attend or serve in a church the size of Elevation or Prestonwood or Mars Hill, such churches can offer some help in effectively reaching the lost in our communities.

In his original post, “Fishers of men, not keepers of the aquarium,” Furtick attributes the effectiveness of his church to one primary decision — the decision to “be more focused on the people we’re trying to reach than on the people we’re trying to keep.” Thus, the aquarium analogy.

Furtick asserts that the mentality at Elevation is one marked by an unwillingness “to cater to the preferences of the few in our pursuit of the salvation of the many.” This young pastor says that most churches are not willing to take such a bold stand when it comes to outreach and evangelism. He puts it like this:

They’re keepers of the aquarium. They say they want to reach people, but in reality they’re more focused on preservation than expansion. On keeping people rather than reaching them.

I don’t know about you, but every time I read that statement, I feel a sting — not because I believe Furtick is, as some might think, putting down other churches — but because most of the churches I’ve served could easily fit that description, at least to some extent. And sadly, I believe my own experiences are on par with that of most evangelical churches in America today.

So often churches are characterized by the loving care of their members rather than their love for and ministry to those in their community at large. And admittedly, there’s a definite balancing act required in ministry. We are rightly expected to minister to those in our churches who are hurting, hospitalized, and spiritually broken. However, the problem comes when the largest portion of our time and energy is directed toward those who are already part of the family of God instead of those who have yet to hear of His message of salvation and redemption.

From my vantage point, the older and more traditional the church, the greater the challenge to maintain proper balance of inward focus and outward focus. But on a positive note, I firmly believe that every church has the potential to do well in both regards, given the right leadership and a congregation fully committed to the mission of Christ.

Where is your church (the people)? Here are a few questions that might offer some insights:

1. How easily does your church adapt to changes in the organization, programs, worship services, etc.? 

2. How readily does your church accept and include those from different walks of life, different backgrounds, or different values?

3. How attached is your church to a particular style of music, preaching/teaching, or worship setting?

4. How much money does your church spend on membership needs/activities vs. community/evangelism/missions activities?

Every church I know has room for improvement. Now the most important question of all just might be:

God, will you use me to be a more faithful fisher of men?

What do you think of Furtick’s comparison? How does this post speak to you personally?