We’re presently living an an age of church decline across America. Every year we see the statistics plastered before our eyes in printed reports regarding the decline of the church and the rise of paganism. The Pew Research Center reported that the adult population claiming a Christian identity has dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years, from 78.4% in 2007 to 70.6% in 2014. Many people have answers for this decline, but before we jump on any train, we should first consider its destination. Are these methods of addressing church decline God’s answer or man’s pragmatic approach to the deep rooted problem? How will the church answer the culture in day when everyone is doing what seems right in his own eyes? How will the church respond to the cultural pressures? How will the church rebound from the recent downward declining trends?
I have the privilege to meet with a group of godly pastors each month for lunch. During our meetings, we typically discuss theology and ministry. Right now, we’re reading Iain Murray’s biography on D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and discussing a chapter each month over our meal. This time of fellowship is refreshing, encouraging, and profitable to my soul. This week, we discussed chapter 7, “A Different Kind of Preaching.” This chapter is devoted to the ministry of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in Sandfields, Aberavon. From the very beginning, he demonstrated his method and devotion to the Word of God as opposed to the broken pots of human schemes and tricks of church growth programs.
When D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones entered the church at Sandfields, people wanted to know what he would do. In that day, the church was in decline and they were, in many ways, doing everything they could to answer this problem. Everything except for what The Doctor would do upon his arrival. With the looming black cloud of church decline, many churches were seeking to appeal to people by the use of more “high church” approaches by the use of liturgy, choirs, and organs. Other churches felt that people didn’t want to come to church to be “preached at” – so they repackaged the sermon as a relevant address which contained modern topics, poetry, and quotations from secular authors.
The church at Sanfields had sought to answer these problems. They had various activities going on within the church such as football, musical events, and a dramatic society. Some members approached D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and suggested that they could be successful if they majored on their children’s ministry. However, to their surprise, the new pastor wasn’t interested in using such things to attract people. In fact, the secretary was very surprised at D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ response to the question of his direction and the needs of the church. He was interested in the regular church services of 11am, 6pm, a Monday evening prayer service, a mid-week worship service on Wednesday, and a Saturday morning men’s meeting. In the words of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, all of the other things could go. When the Committee asked what they were to do with the wooden stage for the dramatic society, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones responded by saying, “You can heat the church with it.”
In a sermon, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said:
The world expects the Christian to be different and looks to him for something different, and therein it often shows an insight into life that regular church-goers often lack. The churches organize whist-drives, fêtes, dramas, bazaars and things of that sort, so as to attract people. We are becoming almost as wily as the devil himself, but we are really very bad at it; all our attempts are hopeless failures and the world laughs at us. Now, when the world persecutes the church, she is performing her real mission, but when the world laughs at her she has lost her soul. And the world today is laughing at the church, laughing at her attempts to be nice and to make people feel at home. My friends, if you feel at home in any church without believing in Christ as your personal Saviour, then that church is no church at all, but a place of entertainment or a social club. For the truth of Christianity and the preaching of the gospel should make a church intolerable and uncomfortable to all except those who believe, and even they should go away feeling chastened and humble.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones remained steadfast and refused to entertain people and attract them into the church. He preached the Word faithfully, week-by-week. The results were amazing. Men who once squandered their money on liquor and were known around town as drunkards, became upstanding citizens, faithful church members, family men, and all of this without schemes or abstinence politics. It was by the power of the gospel. One particular woman was a well known spirit-medium in the community. On one particular Sunday, she was feeling ill and wasn’t able to do her normal work. As she observed the people passing by her house on their way to church, she decided to attend too. Upon entering, she would later recount, she could sense an overwhelming power in the room. She would later say, “I had a feeling that the power in your chapel was a clean power.” On that first visit to the church, under the preaching of the gospel, she became a Christian.
D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones did the hard thing at first, he addressed the failed attempts of church growth and broken strategies of man. His decisions were not popular. In fact, when The Doctor announced that there would be no more stage dramas in the hall, a Mrs. Robson said to herself, “You’ll learn young man, you’ll learn!” However, as she would later tell her story, she said, “It was I who learnt.” In 1927 when D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones arrived at Sandfields, the church had enough seats for 400 people, but only 70 seats were occupied on the Lord’s Day. Under the preaching of the gospel, God added to His church. In 1930, the church at Sandfields recorded 88 new additions, and according to their records, 70 were “from the world.” These additions continued as the gospel was proclaimed. In 1931, the church experienced an addition of 135 new members, and 128 of those people were new converts to Christ.
As the downward trajectory in church numbers in America (especially in the Bible belt regions) continues onward, may God raise up pastors and church members who will be fearless and faithful like D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and keep their focus on the gospel of Christ. We cannot expect the decline of church attendance to be reversed and baptism numbers to increase through broken schemes of man and church growth techniques. Children’s ministries and other ministries in the church are important, but we must see the gospel of Christ as the central means of growing the church. Away with the power lifters, ventriloquists, and comedians – we need the gospel of King Jesus to echo loudly from the pulpit to the hearts of men, women, boys, and girls. Jesus and the apostles were committed to the preaching of the gospel. Men like The Doctor, all throughout church history, have followed in Jesus’ footsteps. May we be found faithful in an age of cultural compromise and church decline. Jesus is enough and His gospel is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.