What Do You Think Are The Church’s Biggest Problems?

Mariano DiGangiDr. DiGangi is a member of the Board of The Renewal Fellowship Within the Presbyterian Church in Canada, Professor Emeritus at Tyndale Seminary (1975-1985), and Pastor of Knox Church, Toronto (1987-1992).

That's the question that was put to me recently. I've thought about it for a while. My reluctance to write about our "biggest problems" was not due to the scarcity of problems, but to the risk of being judged "judgmental" by some who may actually have read what I've written.

Let's get one thing straight. My motivation is a genuine concern for the future of the Church in which I have been privileged to serve over the past fifty-six years. I hope that you will receive these comments in the spirit they are given.

1. Moral Erosion

In a thoughtful editorial that appeared in Channels (Winter 1999), Calvin Brown, the Executive Director of our Renewal Fellowship underlined the need of maintaining faithfulness to Holy Scripture, with particular reference to the issue of a homosexual and lesbian life style. Both our Committee on Church Doctrine and the General Assembly have consistently taken a scriptural stand on the matter, but pressures still persist to re-open the issue. Such persistence, to change the Church's mind, when it has repeatedly spoken so plainly and pastorally, comes close to following a divisive course.

Our ordination vows for ruling and teaching elders acknowledge the lordship of Christ and the authority of Scripture in shaping our creed and conduct. Disobedience to Christ's revealed will — whether sexual, racial, social, or financial — is sin. This is unequivocally stated in texts such as 1 John 3:4, Romans 1:18-32, and Ephesians 5:1-17. But the God of amazing grace also promises the remission of sins and personal renewal when sin is penitently confessed (1 Corinthians 6:9-13, 1 John 1:9-2:2).

Every time the perversion of a pedophile priest is exposed, every time a minister is forced to resign because of fornication or adultery, every time a trusted administrator is proven guilty of misappropriating funds sacrificially given for the Church's work at home and abroad, the acrid smell of scandal drives people away from what they once thought was "the house of God and the gate of heaven" (Gen 28:17).

There's no doubt in my mind that we can all benefit from radical repentance and renewal, wrought by the Spirit who speaks in the Scriptures.

2. Liturgical Tensions

The elements of worship include praise, prayer, preaching, and the presentation of both gift and giver to serve the true and living God. Praise is particularly calling for reconsideration because of the liturgical tensions being experienced by more than a few congregations. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with having "traditional" and "contemporary" services. But when these options become occasions of conflict, we must ask ourselves some serious questions.

Are we using the traditional or contemporary approach to manipulate and dominate those whose preferences are not ours? Some people refuse to use anything written after the era of Moody and Sankey. Others choose to use blues and rock, and have no appreciation whatsoever for "the old hymns of the Church." Beneath this cultural squabble, however, there may be the politics of control. It is of the utmost importance that the words we sing are true to the Scriptures and the melodies are appropriate to those words.

In Ephesians 5:18-21, we are told that genuine spirituality creates a sense of community. With a feeling of fellowship, we sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to the praise of God. It all begins with making melody in the heart, and continues with the sort of harmony that can only be produced when there is mutual submission within the fellowship and the willingness to edify one another.

3. Declining Churches

Our symbol is the burning bush — burning, but not consumed. Surviving persecution, depressions, and wars across the centuries. But anyone who reads the figures must be concerned about our vacant churches and declining memberships.

It may be suggested that "we don't play the numbers game," and so dismiss the agony of coping with decline. But the book of Acts contains several progress reports that are worth reviewing. This is what Luke records:

  • Acts 2:42-47, in response to the preaching of the Gospel, many received the Word gladly and the Lord added daily to the Church those who experienced salvation.
  • Acts 5:14, those who put their faith in Christ were joined to Christ and his people, both men and women.
  • Acts 6:1, the number of disciples increased (even though such growth also had its problems, resolved when the Church got its priorities straight, 6:1-7).
  • Acts 11:19-24, as some Christians evangelized people who were "not of their kind," a great number of converts put their faith in Christ and became members of his body, the Church.
  • Acts 12:24, the Word of God grew and multiplied, even though tyrants sought to restrict its spread.

Statistically, we reached a peak just after the end of World War II, with emigration from Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Holland. Hungarians, Chinese and Koreans also came to Canada and received a welcome by our Church. But for several decades, we have experienced a decline in membership and an increase in vacancies. Evangelistic preaching missions, area visitations, and literature distribution, seem to be no longer in vogue. The passionate preaching of Christ in his atoning death, glorious resurrection, and exaltation to universal lordship, seems to have been replaced by global pronouncements on controversial issues that we cannot substantially alter. Do we take the realities of sin, judgment, redemption, and sanctification seriously? Or can it be that we expect an educated and ordained ministry to be a "one-man outreach committee"?

Experts who have made a careful study of church growth tell us that three factors seem to be present in a growing church: first, the pastor preaches the Word, both law and grace; secondly, the pastor delivers the message in a language people can understand and find relevant to their lives; thirdly, all the members see themselves as responsible and accountable for spreading the faith by whatever means God in his providence gives them. These findings are validated by the evidence of church growth in the book of Acts and New Testament churches today.

But some will say, "Isn't it harder to be a Christian and spread the Gospel today than it was in the days of the Roman Empire"? Nonsense! Would you rather be a witness to Christ in the times of Nero, or Decius, or Diocletian-compared to our times, with freedom of worship, comfortable buildings, fellow Christians in positions of influence, and occasional affluence?

Whatever our circumstances, we are called to be Christ's disciples, and commissioned to make disciples. To pray for conversions, and seek reversions-Presbyterians who have drifted away and should be warmly invited to come home again.