It was 1972. I was 13 years old. Most people planned on attending weekend services wearing their Sunday best. Going to church in my Sunday best meant wearing a suit and tie and finely shined shoes. (By 1977 the suit had turned into a leisure suit and the shoes weren’t quite so shiny.) I wasn’t alone in my Sunday appearance. Most of my friends were dressed to the nines and some of them were far more dressed up than I was in my off the rack Sears & Roebuck suit.
Moving forward to the 1980’s, I was now on the pastoral staff of a large Los Angeles church. Very few teenage boys or young adult males wore suits to church. A few wore ties and most continued to wear dress pants and nicely shined shoes. The older adults – most of them – still wore suits, at least to the Sunday morning service. Sunday evening services and Wednesday evening prayer meetings had become a bit more casual. Nevertheless, I can still remember being called on the carpet by the senior pastor one Sunday evening simply because I hadn’t worn a tie. I was needed to fill in on the platform due to the illness of another staff member who had been scheduled to serve up front. In spite of the circumstances, the fact that I had not worn a tie that evening meant that I could not be used in that role.
Now we are just weeks away from ushering in a new year, 2015. Virtually no one wears a suit to church on Sunday morning. Certainly, most teens don’t. Very few ties are spotted in the average congregation. It is not unusual to see the senior pastor wearing jeans and an untucked shirt. I personally know of a pastor who often even preaches without shoes. However, it is not just the attire that has changed; the Church itself has changed!
Arguably, the Church has lost much of the influence that it had in previous decades, even among its faithful. According to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, “twenty one percent of respondents said that religion is ‘not that important’ to their lives, compared to 16 percent who said the same in 1999.” In a 2009 report, the Christian research organization, The Barna Group, noted, “With people spending less time reading the Bible, and becoming less engaged in activities that deepen their biblical literacy, faith views are more often adopted on the basis of dialogue, self-reflection, and observation than teaching.” (If this was true back in 2009, how much more might it be true as we prepare to close out 2014?) As a result, the pews (or chairs, as the case may be) in our churches are all too often filled with those who possess a potpourri of conflicting theological beliefs and lack the biblical literacy necessary to recognize the conflict.
This is nothing new; it has been building for years. Perhaps we brought much of this on ourselves with our emphasis on the superficial programs, slick productions and shallow Bible teaching as we sought to attract the unchurched into our houses of worship. No doubt, the degree to which we ourselves are responsible for the present condition of the Church, rather than the outside forces we so often impugn, will be debated for many years to come. But right now, today, we are at a critical point in the life of the Church. Something has to change!
It may sound overly simplistic and somewhat trite, but I believe the answer to the problem the Church is currently facing is a return to the basics of prayer and the study of God’s Word. Somewhere we’ve gotten off-track. In an attempt to be relevant, sermons often resemble humanistic rhetoric full of self-help philosophies more than they do biblical illumination and a call to repentance. Our small groups experiences, while often effective in connecting people relationally, more often than not lack any significant study of God’s Word. The education hour of the past, Sunday school, is non-existent in most churches. Rather than focusing on every evil the world is committing around us, it appears obvious that the Church needs to shift its focus back to those inside its walls and return to the basics.
I personally have no desire to return to the days of suits and ties and brightly shined shoes. I do, however, desire to hear the Word preached with boldness, to participate in in-depth studies and discussions of the Bible, to experience the power of a congregation submitted to Christ as they unite in prayer and ultimately to see my world reached for Christ.