bits from bob....
The current cultural context in the United States and many developing countries of our world is redefining the mission field. Now the mission field is immediately outside the doors of the church building. One does not have to travel long distances to enter a foreign world where more people do not know Jesus than do. Mission is not limited to reaching people in other lands. Mission has moved next door. The claims that the church must become missional (sent) if it is to be evangelistic reflects our changing world--even the world next door.
Churches that have had a strong commitment to foreign missions in times past must continue that focus. Churches interested in converting the world and growing the home base for the continued spread of the gospel must add a mission focus next door. The world is moving to our neighborhoods. Immigration has brought to our doorstep many people who were formerly part of the mission field in other countries. The diminishing influence of Christianity in our culture has increased the number of people who live next door to our church buildings but have no idea what church is about. One estimate suggests that at least 1/3 of the population of the United States is two or more generations removed from a church experience.
If you were to accept the responsibility to plant a new congregation in a certain location, how would you proceed? Whom would you contact? Where would you meet for worship? What activities would you use for outreach and touching the lives and hearts of people? How many people would you invite? How would you reach out to families, children, and youth?
A new church plant requires planning and prayer, coupled with zeal, work, and energy. The work pays off, however, for new churches almost always grow faster than older congregations. In fact, older churches experience the same kind of life cycles as human beings. The internal energy and vitality begin to decline after 40 or 50 years, and even if a new exercise regimen and diet are added (new vision and new goals for a church), most churches 80-100 years old are technically on life support and barely existing.
Many have heard the statistic that in the two decades immediately after World War 2, the churches of Christ were the fastest growing religious group in the U.S. How much of this growth was due to the fact that churches of Christ were planting a large number of new congregations in areas where no congregation previously existed? Encouraging the church planting process was the method behind the dream of returning GIs for taking the gospel to Europe and other foreign nations. Churches were planted, not only in foreign fields, but in domestic mission fields. The congregation that was evangelistic in church planting and evangelism was more likely to be evangelistic at home. The experience of churches of Christ until the mid-1960s was similar to what we read in the book of Acts. Just as Christians in the first century answered the call of the Great Commission to send missionaries and plant churches and spread the good news everywhere, many Christians in the 1950s and 1960s were committed to spreading the gospel in every place and in every way possible.
Dr. Flavil Yeakley has conducted research about the growth patterns of churches of Christ for over a decade. In 1997 he warned that church membership in traditionally strong areas (the "Bible Belt") was declining while membership in areas traditionally considered mission areas was increasing. What factors contributed to this decline? We mention four possibilities.
Certainly other factors could be cited and other conclusions drawn. The basic truth is that congregations and members who do not see their immediate area as a mission field are much less likely to share the gospel. Congregations and members who do not see the world as a mission field and do not develop a strong commitment to mission work are less likely to share the gospel in local evangelism. Congregations that lose this vital sense of mission decline and will eventually close their doors or merge with other congregations to stay alive. No number of internally focused ministries or missions will compensate for this loss of awareness of God's surpassing mission for his church in this world!
Christians, awake! Each of us must renew our zeal for evangelism and mission, renew our willingness to work, and recognize that the energy needed is not from us but from God. It is not too late! The zeal, work, and energy required in planting churches can be applied in the local established congregation. Christians can renew commitment to taking the good news; Christians can recommit to the Great Commission and restore not only the structures and teachings of the first century church, but also the practice and success of the first century church.
Brothers and sisters, we are in a great mission field. The U.S. has the third-largest non-Christian population in the world. The North American continent is one of the few places in the world today where Christianity is not growing. A first step is for Christians to lift up their eyes and see the fields white unto harvest. The harvest is great but the laborers are too few. The problem is not a lack of interest among the non-Christians. The problem is a lack of interest among the Christians.
Do you want your congregation to grow again? Personally take it upon yourself to identify a person without Jesus and commit to using every opportunity to share the gospel with that person.
(adapted in part from an article by Mark Tonkery)
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