The Science of Church
Peter BeckPeter serves as assistant professor of religion at Charleston Southern University where he teaches church history and theology. While serving as senior pastor in Louisville, Ky., he completed his PhD in historic theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His dissertation, The Voice of Faith: Jonathan Edwards's Theology of Prayer, is soon to be published. He, his wife Melanie, and their two kids, Alex (12) and Karis (7), live near Charleston, SC. Peter's goal for his teaching and writing ministries is "love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Tim 1:5).
- 2009 Jun 08
Ministerial staffs the land over are gathering today to review the activities of yesterday. They’ll analyze the order of service. They’ll critique the music. They’ll praise the sermon. They’ll fret over the offering. They’ll plan for next week, usually hoping that it will be different, better, more inspiring. And, next Monday, they’ll wonder why little has changed.
Contrary to popular opinion, science is not our enemy. Science is more than a sermon illustration. Science can reveal to us the church’s greatest problem: us. Well, more specifically inertia.
Inertia is the scientific concept that states matter tends to remain in its present state. If an object is resting, it will remain at rest until acted upon by an object that is moving. Likewise, an object that is moving will continue to move so long as it is not acted upon by another object or force.
The same thing is true of the church today. Listen in on those staff meetings and what you’ll hear are ministers and their staffs, people who spend their time thinking about such things, talking about inertia in the church. Oh, they’ll use other language. They’ll blame brother So and So for being a stick in the mud. They’ll point to sister Such and Such as the anchor that’s holding everyone else back. Then they’ll look to the latest guru of church growth, I mean missionalism, and seek inspiration from Dr. Mover and Shaker. In all three examples, the principle in play is inertia.
Churches that aren’t growing, that aren’t making any kingdom progress probably haven’t done so for years. Somewhere in memory past they probably were on the move for God. They probably were making a spiritual difference in the world. Then, something happened. A split over the color of carpet, or the hurt feelings of an important deacon, or something equally temporal stepped in and knocked things off track. No one even noticed. If they did, they thought that things would right themselves quickly. They didn’t. And, now, the Good Ship First Baptist is stuck on the sand bar of inertia and isn’t going anywhere fast.
Churches that are growing do so by the grace of God. But, humanly speaking, we have a role to play. We have a responsibility to bear. Those churches that are making progress do so because the people are moving. They’re not waiting for someone else to step up and start that vital ministry. They’re doing it. They’re not reading about someone else’s 12 step plan of spiritual success. They’re writing their own. Like the proverbial rolling stone that gathers no moss, the church that is moving in the right direction rolls with the ease created by spiritual inertia.
There is one other category of church being discussed in staff meetings today. This type of church lives by the law of inertia also. The problem is their movement is the wrong kind. They’re chasing phantoms, trying to be what they once were. Or, they’re chasing dreams trying to be what someone else is. They’re doing something. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong thing. Until something acts upon this bullet train on the tracks to spiritual nowhere, inertia will keep it moving in the wrong direction.
The key to all inertia, both active and inactive, is that unnamed external force that causes a halt to forward progress or causes movement and forces a change in direction. Eternally speaking, that force is God. He can stop the downward spiral. He can bring the dead church back to life. He can turn the Fellowship of the Titanic in a new direction before it’s too late. You, see in the end, only God can change the direction of church and get it going again.
The sad thing is, many ministerial staffs will spend the day talking about the problems, complaining about the symptoms, and looking to the current crop of church experts for a solution to their inertia. They’ll assume that God is in the process and they’ll assume that He approves of what they’re doing. And, they’ll keeping mistaking motion for progress.
To those church staffs that gather today and begin their reflections and the projections with prayer, a hearty “amen” goes out to you. The church that truly looks to God for direction will be successful. It may never be the biggest. It may never be the hippest. It may not be the model that all others will try to follow. But, it will be moving in the right direction – God’s direction.