Currently, Cross the Culture is in the third week of a four-part series examining the changing face of the American population and the implications for ministry these changes necessitate. Based upon a presentation by Dr. Jim Slack entitled, Realities, Trends and Implications Concerning the Future of the USA, Evangelicals and Southern Baptists, Part One of the series addressed the hypothesis that within the next ten years Anglo-Americans will be an ethnic minority in the USA. You can read Part One here. Part Two, examined the rise in illiteracy in the USA and its implications for the Great Commission ministries of local congregations. You can read Part Two here. This week we examine the “open back door within the American evangelical church”.
The “open back door” within the American evangelical church.
The “open back door” is a metaphor in church health circles referencing the result of a lack of effectiveness of local churches in assimilation and/or discipleship. When new members fail to engage in the life of the church through her ministries, activities, programs, etc.; relationships, critical to growth in Christian maturity, fail to be established. As a result, in a relatively brief period, the new members are no longer engaged in the life of the church. They have simply entered the “front door” of the church through membership and exited the “back door” of the church through inactivity and/or the failure to establish meaningful relationships.
More significantly for the church an “open back door” may also indicate a failure on behalf of the church to effectively disciple new Christ-followers. Our command from Jesus is to “make disciples” and effective disciple-making takes times, requires intentionality and demands prioritization by the church.
While multiple studies have addressed the “open back door” across the evangelical spectrum, Slack offered two specific observations addressing the “open back door” within my own denomination – the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Slack stated,
- “An example of the large Southern Baptist back door losses is that from 1990-1994, a five-year period, a number equal to at least 69.31% of all those baptized in SBC churches were no longer there by the end of 1994. This high percentage has continued beyond 2000 A.D.”
- “The most significant and heart-rending losses of all are among our ‘Twenty Somethings’. It has been discovered and confirmed in at least three major studies, two of them from SBC life, that 73-77% of our eleventh grade born-again, active (meaning regularly in church) young people…, by the time they reach twenty or twenty-one years of age are gone and no longer attending any denomination’s churches.”
Implications for Ministry
Several implications for ministry flow from the “open back door” across the spectrum of the evangelical church in America.
- A fresh, intensive study of the Great Commission is in order. We must remind ourselves that in Matthew’s Gospel, Christ commissioned the church to make disciples not decisions. For too long the “score card of success” in the evangelical church only measured decisions for Christ registered through “conversions”, “professions of faith” or “baptisms”. While these are important measurements our “score card” must move beyond the baptistry and focus on disciples made, not decisions registered. While disciple-making is much more difficult to quantify, the church in America must turn our focus to the life-long process of making disciples. That is our command from Christ.
- The evangelical church must reexamine the Gospel message she is communicating with the American populace to ensure our Gospel message is biblical. We should reject all temptations to share an “easy believism” Gospel and in our Gospel communication we must issue a call for repentance from sin, the Lordship of Christ in the life of the Christ-follower and life-transformation.
- The church in America must focus more on assimilating new Christians into the life of the church. Strategies to assist new believers in establishing relationships and building community within the church are critical.
- We must stress life-transformational discipleship for every believer and understand the essential nature of life-on-life relationships in the transformational process. We must not allow discipleship to be regulated to a “program of the church”. Discipleship flows from intentional, Christ-centered relationships where mature believers model Christ-likeness and every believer is engaged in holding their fellow believers accountable for becoming like Christ.
- The church must be proactive in teaching, modeling and challenging her members, even new followers of Christ, to live missionally. We must communicate that the Christ-life is lived daily, intentionally and redemptively. Our lives are not to be filled simply with mission activities but to be lived, from the outset of our new life in Christ, “on mission” for His glory and the expansion of His Kingdom.