In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, it is easy to spot the Petronas Towers. These twin towers were the tallest buildings in the world from 1994 until 2008. They still remain as the tallest twin towers in the world. Building skyscrapers is an amazing process that requires a tremendous amount of planning and knowledge. One of the most unique features of the Petronas Towers is the foundation of the buildings. At 394 feet, the towers hold claim to the deepest foundation in the world. It took twelve months and massive amounts of concrete and steel to build the foundation.
Every contractor, in fact, every child who has ever tried to stack dominoes or blocks, understands the necessity of a good foundation. The reason for the extreme size of this foundation is because of the depth of the bedrock in Malaysia. Even forty stories worth of concrete must sit on something solid in order to support a structure. Without good support, every structure will eventually topple.
Understanding the need for a good foundation raises a red flag as I think about the modern church in America. Before I can explain my concern, I probably need to make a short statement of what I see happening in the church today. The majority of churches can be fit into two categories. (Don’t you love people who can classify everything into two categories?)
The first category is those churches that are consumer driven and entertainment focused. Plans are made and programs implemented on the basis of what people outside the church want. The rationale is that when the church offers what people want, they will come. These offerings include music style, recreation opportunities, children’s activities, and family events. This is why I say these churches are also entertainment focused. Great emphasis is placed on high quality because of the belief that people expect their entertainment to be good and must compete with what they can find in the secular world.
Let me be quick to ask you not to misunderstand what I am saying. In defining these churches as consumer driven and entertainment focused I am not being critical. Their intention is good. They are striving to attract people so they will hear and respond to the Gospel. Many of these churches are very effective and gather enormous crowds who are then provided with a powerful presentation of the Christian message. Tremendous amounts of time, effort, and money are expended week after week in order to bring people to the church.
Many churches in this first category have grown to be extremely large, which in turn has caused many others to follow their lead. The pressing need is for church leaders who are charismatic (in personality, not necessarily theologically), driven, good communicators (verbally and/or musically), and attractive.
This category of churches contains most of the very fast growing churches in our country. These congregations are attracting large groups of people, most of them from the second category of churches that I will define shortly. These churches are constructing a massive structure and make a huge mark on the religious landscape of our world.
The second major category of churches in this country can be described as tradition bound and struggling for survival. These churches continue to do church just like they have for the past few generations. Many of these churches have a rich history of service and success and a few of them are still doing an effective job of reaching people and experiencing growth.
For these churches, the goal is to preserve the approaches and methods that have proven successful in the past. Tradition and maintaining ties to the historic faith are important. They are typically very tenacious about who they are and what they believe. The vast majority of these churches are members of mainline Christian denominations that are all experiencing decline. In fact, most of these churches are also declining in attendance and participation.
It is not uncommon to find these churches trying to maintain large buildings that are in need of expensive repairs. It might be a church with four hundred people meeting in a sanctuary that once housed a thousand or a congregation of forty trying to maintain a building that was constructed for two hundred. These churches are common in rural communities, but are also quite prevalent in the city.
One thing that churches in both categories have in common is that they are locked into a situation where they must maintain a massive structure with a very small, inadequate foundation. The consumer driven and entertainment focused church probably has a large building to maintain, but they also have put themselves in the position of providing expensive programs that require lavish equipment. This structure often rests on a foundation of believers who do not have much of a history of church support or those who come just for the experience.
When you look at the numerous studies that have been done about the church today, you will understand my concern that we are resting on a very inadequate foundation. It has been estimated that churches are spending more than ninety percent of their income on themselves. In addition to this concern, is the fact that even among those who are regular attendees, there is an abundance of ignorance about the Christian faith. Decades of topical problem-solving preaching has produced congregations that leave their Bibles at home on Sunday, many don’t even read them during the week.
My concern is that the church cannot continue to support this structure with an uneducated, self-seeking congregation. We have expended enormous resources building a great looking church but we have neglected to provide the necessary foundation. The necessary foundation is made up of deep faith, prolific knowledge of the faith, and generosity toward others. Much of it is lacking in today’s church.
When a church is built on the idea that bigger and glitzier is better, it develops a voracious appetite for money. It is expensive to keep providing bigger and glitzier. If we had a music evangelist last year, this year we must have a contemporary recording artist, and next year we must find a Christian pop star to share a testimony. If we don’t, the mega church down the highway will and folks will flock over there.
The result is enormous buildings that require maintenance, large staffs that need good salaries, and high utility bills. Even more importantly, the real need is for mature leadership. However, when the church has invested all of its resources in attracting new people, little has been done in the way of discipleship and leadership development.
That is why I am concerned that today’s church might collapse. It seems that we have built a skyscraper by taking all the little pieces and stacking them all together without developing the necessary foundation. It can only go so far before it begins to crumble. We are gathering people from smaller churches where they provided leadership and stability, putting them in the same large auditorium, and think we are building the church. However, now that they are in an enormous congregation, all they really need to do is sit and enjoy (or perhaps help park cars once a month).
It is time to roll up our sleeves and start digging in order to repair the foundation!