When I came back to the Lord I understood sports far better than church. As a youth I played football and baseball, and in college my primary sport was wrestling. I had good coaches, I admired them, and I wanted to be like them.
As I grew older my mind-set moved from player to coach. It is through a coach’s eyes that I look at the church in America as God’s team.
A Losing Team?
I grew up in the church, and what I saw was discouraging. I even walked away from Christianity for a time. When I rediscovered Jesus, I came back with a different perspective. The hesitations and complaints of non-Christians made sense to me. I saw the church as they had, from the outside looking in.
I also looked at the church as a coach would look at his team. I concluded, “The Lord’s team is losing.” This realization bothered me. For Jesus to have a losing team seemed impossible. How could the great and mighty God have a losing team? Didn’t Jesus say the gates of Hell would not prevail against his team? (Matthew 16:18).
How did I decide the Lord’s team is losing? In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus defines winning as making disciples. Disciples are to take the message of the gospel to lost people. Disciples are to look like Jesus, love like Jesus, and be in the world but not of it.
God’s team should be able to take territory from the enemy. As I look at the church, I see it in retreat, and Satan is taking ground from us. National statistics verify it. The church is in decline, and the lives of Christians are not distinguishable from their non-Christian neighbors.
I attended a national missions conference last year. The event was both inspiring and depressing. Representatives from some of the most influential organizations in the world attended. The goal was to figure out how to reach parts of the world that had never heard about Jesus. The speakers were amazing. Most had been committed for years to reaching the world for Jesus. These heroes not only talked a good game but they had led the way to victory.
One speaker delivered a message that disturbed me. He said, “The American church is like a flower. For many years it was the most beautiful of all flowers. It bloomed and grew for all to see. As we all know, the flower is dying. But don’t fear, just before a flower dies it carries out its most important task. It casts its seed.”
He encouraged us to guide our churches to cast our seed to foreign lands where the ground is fertile. He suggested leaders of the American church commit their resources where the gospel is winning—to the world.
The coach in me began to struggle. He was saying we should give up here in the United States because we all know it isn’t working. Though I didn’t agree with his conclusion, he admitted what we have known for a while, the church is losing in
According to the Barna Research Group, there are about 386,000 churches in America. Surveys tell us only 14 percent of these churches are growing, with only 2 percent of churches growing because of new converts. Most growth is happening through transfer of membership. This means bigger churches are getting bigger and smaller churches are shrinking.
Fifty percent of evangelical churches in America did not have any converts last year. The positive twist is that 50 percent did have new converts. “Go Team! . . . right?” No, apparently not, because it seems we gain a little and lose a lot. The death rate of elderly Christians contributes to the reason the numbers don’t change. Another major contributor is a wide open back door where people leave unnoticed.
The statistic that breaks my heart is the one Josh McDowell cites in his book, The Last Christian Generation. He says 85 percent of kids who come from Christian homes do not have a biblical worldview. Most of those 85 percent are leaving the faith between ages 18 to 24, and most may never return. Many of the churches that do list conversion numbers actually report the number of children baptized from their Christian families. Sadly, we find many of those young converts do not keep their faith past their 18th birthday.
While the church loses people, cults are growing. America is one of the most spiritual cultures in the world. The growth of other religions offers proof of this. Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world and is growing rapidly in the United States. Mormonism is the fastest-growing religion in America. It is amazing to see Mormon churches being built before housing developments have even been completed. Eastern philosophy permeates our society and emanates from universities. Sadly, Christians embrace many of the doctrines of these religions without even knowing it.
When it comes to mission, it seems God’s people are more interested in their own little kingdoms and objectives than in expanding God’s territory. Evidence of this comes when you ask the unchurched why they are not a part of a Christian community. When asked why they don’t attend church, 90 percent say they have not been asked. George Barna reports most Christians will die without ever sharing their faith with anyone.
Unfortunately, even when an invitation to church is accepted, the lost will often not find what will satisfy their soul. What we offer them is devoid of relationship and real training. After all, we seem unable to keep the ones we start with in the first place.
The Rules of the Game
Isn’t God’s plan supposed to look different? Wasn’t the plan to release a supernaturally changed, relational army on a community? Instead we want the lost to answer a want ad or decide to visit on their own. Jesus was into relationship with those he led. He did not make disciples by remote control or e-mail, or by creating a show he hoped people would attend.
Many Christian leaders think we need a new game plan, but maybe we just need to run the plays the Coach has already given us. Did Jesus lie when he said the gates of Hell would not prevail against us? Did he set in motion a strategy that is limited only to the time of the New Testament? Is the game plan of discipleship outdated because Jesus did not plan ahead into the 21st century? No!
If Jesus is not the problem, who or what is? Could it be that the team ignores the Coach and the rules of the game? God is not obligated to bless a team that runs its own game plan.
When I look at how the church operated in the first century and how it operates now, I wonder if any of the apostles would recognize it. The Word of God’s influence is diminishing in our churches. We are often trying to please our culture instead of our God. Somehow the church has become about a building you attend 1.6 times a month. The church has become a show led by paid entertainers, and the people are “fans” who come to watch. Growth occurs from having the best show in town, instead of personal contact and face-to-face discipleship.
Pastors give up pastoring people in pain, and put all their energy into video, amazing music, and sermons that “Wow!” people. Having good tools is one thing, but when the production becomes the focus, people never encounter relationships with others. It’s these relationships that could lead them to a relationship with their God.
Too many ministers don’t know their people, don’t chase their strays, and don’t counsel their hurting (Ezekiel 34). People don’t know other Christians, so they are doomed to non-Christian relationships that are often more influential than the ones they have with believers. Discipleship has become about curriculum and programs rather than the relational process modeled by Jesus.
As a coach (pastor), if your team is losing you must decide what changes need to be made. If you keep doing what you have always done, you will keep getting what you have always gotten. Maybe it’s time to start asking different questions. Maybe its time to stop living in the program box we were handed.
I’m not saying we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Maybe we need to define things biblically, not traditionally or culturally. I believe if God’s team would listen to the Coach, then the Lord would again add to our numbers daily those who are being saved (Acts 2:47).
I don’t have all the answers—I don’t think anyone does—but are we even asking the right questions? Are we willing to face the brutal facts, rather than “casting our seed” to foreign lands alone.
I believe God’s team can win everywhere. I believe the right question is: “Are we producing what Jesus commanded us to produce?” If not, why not?
He didn’t send us just to make converts. He sent us to make disciples. How are we doing with that? It must start with the leadership, the coaches. May God help us ask the right questions and do whatever we have to, to be a part of God’s winning team!
Jim Putman is founding senior pastor of Real Life Ministries in Post Falls, Idaho. In 1998, he, Aaron Couch, and a handful of praying people followed God’s lead to begin a work in this small town in North Idaho. God has used Jim’s passionate preaching and team-building abilities to raise up a megachurch of more than 6,500 in eight years.
Creating disciples in relational environments is the purpose of the church, and its mission is to “Reach the world for Jesus one person at a time.” Real Life is a small-group church that believes in training up people to reach their full potential for serving Christ.
Jim speaks nationwide to pastors empowering them to train disciple-making disciples. He has written a book focusing on coaching God’s team (the church) to victory that Baker Publishing will release next year.
Jim has degrees from Boise (Idaho) State College and Boise Bible College. He was an All-American in wrestling in college, and God has used his sports experiences as an inroad to nonbelievers throughout his youth and adult ministries.
Jim is an avid elk hunter. He and his wife, Lori, have three boys: Christian, Jesse, and Will.