For years, the church thumped its Bibles and banged its lecterns and boldly declared that Jesus was a decision that you'd have to make for yourself. No one else was going to save you from hell-fire and damnation but Jesus, and no one else was going to welcome Jesus into your life but you.
And this, we thought, was the mission of the church.
The mission of the church was to get as many individuals as humanly possible to make a private commitment to Jesus Christ as the Savior of their own personal lives, in order that they might go to Heaven when they die and reap the benefits of His death upon the Cross. We told you that was important. We told you that was what this is all about.
In fact, it's how we kept our statistics. How many lives did we convert this week? How about this year? It's how we trained our congregations, teaching them to knock on doors and invite their way into the lives of complete strangers in order that these strangers might then invite Jesus into their lives. (Why someone would invite Jesus into their lives when we pushed our way in without an invitation is beyond me, but that's what we said, and that's the approach that we took.)
And when all the church doctrine and decorum and decoration stood in the way of getting you to give your life to Christ, we changed it. You said you weren't sure about all this baptism stuff and public declaration and whatnot, so we told you it was much simpler than that - all you had to do was pray a little prayer in your own heart, you didn't even have to so much as whisper it out loud, and Jesus would come and dwell in you and you'd be good as streets of gold, at least as far as salvation and all that.
You said you didn't want to come forward with your family and be recognized as placing membership with us, so we stopped doing that. We even stopped making you stand up so we could all wave at you. We looked the other way when you weren't sure about chipping in on the offering. We didn't say a word when you passed the Communion tray without taking any. We cheered in support for your kids at their sporting events/clubs/contests/whatever, even when they interfered with your being with us on Sunday mornings. (Sinners.)
Because, hey, this Jesus thing? It's important. And it's something you've got to do for yourself.
So we stood beside you as you did it, and we counted you among our ranks, whether you were whole-in or half-hearted or whatever. Whether we'd dunked you or sprinkled you or you whispered once that you think you might have said "the prayer." Welcome. That's what this Jesus thing is all about.
And it worked. Countless numbers of individuals count themselves Christians because of this work that we did, because of this evangelism. Counted this way, there are just swarms and swarms and swarms of Christians, like locusts in Egypt.
Yet, the church is struggling. These Christians are leaving our congregations in droves, striking out to do their own thing or nothing at all, but still calling themselves Christians. Today, all kinds of places are called churches - hunting stands, athletic contests, sleeping in on Sundays - and all kinds of things are called "Christian" - social activism, justice movements, good works, non-profits. Yet, the church is struggling.
They took us seriously.