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Groceries and the Gospel

(Note: The seeds of thought for what follows came from somebody – but for the life of me I can’t remember who.  I’ve read similar thoughts expressed by Rick Warren, Tim Stevens, Ed Stetzer, and others.  Somebody said it first – I’m just saying it now.)

I want you to imagine a businessman named Joe… Joe owns a small chain of 10 grocery stores.  Groceries are something everyone is familiar with and something everyone needs.

Joe has been in business for 30 years, but he’s got real problems. Since 1995, 8 of his ten stores have been flat or declining in performance… 8 of 10 stores have seen earnings plateaued or declining every year for the last 15 years.

What would you advise Joe to do?

Would you suggest that nothing be changed, that everything continues exactly as it has been for the past 30 years? No, that can’t be right…

Do you think you could turn things around by selling Ipana toothpaste, or Schilling spices, or Hydrox cookies?  No you couldn’t – because those products don’t exist anymore, and no one would have a clue what you were talking about…

How about a return to the days when all the product was on shelves behind a counter and a clerk filled the orders, wrapped the products, and boxed it all up?  How about going back to selling things like salt, sugar, and saltine crackers by the pound from open barrels… Would that turn Joe’s business around? It’s laughable, isn’t it?

If Joe is going to stay in business – remember he’s supplying something everybody needs – he’s going to have to change… He’s going to have to find new ways of successfully carrying out his core business.

80% of American churches are plateaued or declining… more than 75 churches close their doors for good – EVERY WEEK – 4000 churches a year… Compare this to around 1000 new churches started each year, and we’re left with a net loss of 3000 per year…

In 1900 there were 27 churches in the US for every 10,000 people – by 2000 that had dropped to 11 churches for every 10,000 people. Half of all churches in the US added ZERO new members to their ranks in the last two years.

The United States now ranks third behind China and India in the number of people who are not professing Christians; the U.S. is becoming an ever increasing “unreached people group.”

People are increasingly leaving churches – not to join other churches, but to be completely uninvolved in ANY church… Those who claim no religious faith at all increased from 8% in 1990 to 15% in 2008…

How do we turn THAT around?  By doing more of the same – leaving it all just like it is?  By reaching back 40 or 50 or 60 years and doing things we did then?

Would you believe there are some people who would say, “yes”?

There are some encouraging signs – in their book “Lost and Found – the Younger Unchurched and the Churches that Reach Them” Ed Stetzer, Rich Stanley, Jason Hayes conducted a 3 year research project focusing on two groups – unchurched people aged 20 – 29, and age 30 and up.  They found the following about the two groups and their beliefs:

Believe that God exists: 81% of 20-29 year olds; 73% of 30+ year olds

Believe Jesus died, came back to life: 66% of 20-29 year olds; 54% of 30+ year olds

If someone wanted to tell me what they believed about Christianity, I would be willing to listen: 89% of 20-29 year olds agree; 75% of 30+ year olds agree

I would be willing to study the Bible if a friend asked me to: 61% of 20-29 year olds agree; 42% of 30+ year olds agree

If a church presented truth to me in an understandable way that relates to my life now, I would attend: 63% of 20-29 year olds agree; 47% of 30+ year olds agree

Here’s what I take from all that – and putting it together with Joe’s/the churches situation: The majority of unchurched people are open to spiritual things, they’re just not open to church as usual. That’s why we must change, and adapt, and be willing to meet people where they are…

That’s what Jesus did.  He told amazing stories about the kingdom of God – and for illustration and comparison, he used common, everyday things like seeds, and coins, and fish…  At least two of the stories Jesus told – the prodigal son and the rich man and Lazarus – existed long before he walked the earth. Using the common stories of the travelling story tellers, Jesus illustrated important Biblical truth.

Paul did it too – at Mar’s Hill as recorded in Acts 17.  Paul used the contemporary culture to get people’s attention.  He quoted two pagan poets, the songwriters of the day, if you will… In verse 28, Paul quotes Epiminedes (Paul really liked him – he quotes him again in Titus 1:13).  And I find most interesting that Paul quotes Cleanthes – “in Him we live and move and have or being” comes from his Hymn for Zeus.  Paul is using lyrics written by pagans to false gods to tell unbelievers the good news about Jesus…

Here’s where I’m going with all this – I want to reach lost and unchurched people, and I want us to be willing to do whatever it takes to reach them.  I’ve never seen an empty seat get saved – have you?

I want our church to be known as the church you can go to if you’ve been burned by a church or church people in the past… A church for sinners, a church for messed up people… A church where the incredible desolation of a life without Jesus can be turned around by the amazing grace of the Gospel.

But unsaved, unchurched people will not roll out of bed this Sunday and say to themselves, “Hmm, I think I’ll go to church today…”  No – they will go where their friends go, when their friends invest in their lives and invite them.

We will make the preparations – we will look for ways to be less “churchy” and remove traditional stumbling blocks… We will identify with culture – in the way we dress, our style of music, the tone and atmosphere we set – to the extent we can without compromising the Gospel… And we will work hard to make sure that the ONLY offensive thing will be the cross and the message of Jesus’ sacrificial death…

Let’s work together and cooperate with God to win our community to Christ.


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