Just the other day I got a call from a local pastor. He pastors a church very similar to our own–a traditional Protestant church with a long history. He said he’d like to get together with me and bring some of his lay leaders. He said he wants to learn the secret of our success. He confessed that his church is dying.
I was a little taken aback by his call. Certainly, Salem is a strong church. We’re in a very good place in many ways. I guess I just kind of assumed this was the case with other churches as well. I wasn’t used to thinking that we’re unique. The more I thought about it, however, the more I realized that many older, traditional churches are dying. I then realized that if we hadn’t gained new members over the years we’d be in the same place.
I don’t really know what I’ll say to this pastor and his lay leaders. I can’t really point to this or that program and say that’s it, that’s how you stay vital. The only thing I can think of is that we have really made the gift of our faith our own. What I mean is we’ve stayed connected to who we are.
The way I often hear people speak about this at Salem is they say we’re a Bible-believing church. That really makes me feel good. That makes me think that people are learning the Bible’s teaching and that they’re seeing how what we do is based on a desire to be faithful to the Bible. We’re not just making things up or blindly following tradition.
In this way you might say we have changed with the times. There was a time when churches could get away without explaining why they do what they do. People didn’t seem to need a reason. Going to church was what everyone did. People call this Christendom, meaning a Christian culture, but Christendom is quickly fading away. Now more than ever people need a reason for going to church and doing the things church people do. We can’t count on the culture to push them through our front door.
Of course, cultural Christianity was never a substitute for the real thing. Saving faith means knowing you’re a sinner and putting your trust in the only answer, Jesus Christ and him crucified. The result of such faith is a new life and spiritual vitality. To the degree that got lost in the days of Christendom we can be glad things have changed. Not having cultural approval may just be what the doctor ordered. Didn’t Jesus say his Father is the gardener and like a good gardener he does some pruning now and them (John 15)?