It was a question for which I didn’t have a good answer. We were coming back from Greenville after an East Carolina football game a few years ago. It was a crisp fall day traveling the usual route from Greenville through Kinston, Mt. Olive, and back to Clinton. Looking at the passing scenery, we noticed that there seemed to be a church around every curve as we traveled along. Then Terri asked me the question that I didn’t have a good answer for at that time, and am not sure I have now.
“If there are so many churches, why aren’t people better?” she asked. I don’t exactly remember my answer. I think I stumbled through some answer about all the evil in the world and quickly changed the subject. (Back then, I didn’t want to appear like I didn’t have all the answers. She knows better now.) But I didn’t forget her question.
Because it is a good question. There are so many churches here and across this country. It has been estimated that there are over 300,000 churches in the U.S. Why don’t they have more of an influence on our society? In other words, why aren’t people better?
Let’s think about it locally. A friend of mine told me that there are around 250 churches here in Sampson County. According to the latest U.S. Census projections, there are around 64,000 people living in the county. That’s one church for every 250 people. Each one of these churches has a minister, and many have additional ministers and staff. Thousands of dollars are given to these churches each week, with probably thousands of hours of manpower given voluntarily by church members to their churches each week.
Then why all the crime, drug use, family turmoil, and other social problems that we see around us every day? Some will counter by saying that conditions would be much worse, if not for the church. That is true, but shouldn’t the church have more of an impact in the lives and landscape of our county and our country? Is something wrong with the message, the way the message is delivered, or the messenger?
I think Oswald Chambers in the devotional classic, “My Utmost for His Highest,” must have seen this same problem when he lived back in the early 20th Century. He wrote, in his own unique style, “The church ceases to be a spiritual society when it is on the look-out for the development of its own organization.” In other words, the church can be more concerned about itself than its message. And it can be just as true for any organization, like a political party or a civic group. The purpose of any organization can end up being the continuation and growth of the organization, and not its original purpose or calling.
But not always. A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to be involved in 2014 Illuminate Youth Camp. I’m sure many of you are familiar with the ministry that this year involved around 200 young people. According to their website, “Illuminate is an annual ministry, where young people come together and work, serve, and help their community, and in doing so glorify God and show his love.” Once again, wheel chair ramps were built, yards were cleaned up for those unable to do so, dresses were made for little girls in Haiti, a food drive was held to collect food to help those who need it locally, over 10,000 meals were packed for the “Stop Hunger Now” organization, Vacation Bible Schools were held in parks around town, and the gospel was shared by an evangelism team.
Many churches and adults were involved in the four day camp, which was led by the Illuminate board of directors. Each night, one of the directors would speak at the youth oriented worship service. They would be introduced with no mention of which church they were affiliated with. (I did know a couple of them already so I knew where they ministered.) I had no idea what church or churches the excellent praise band who led the music each night came from. It was never mentioned. Who and what church someone belonged to was not important. What was important was enabling and teaching the young people to reach out to those around them who need it in the name of Christ.
There were many young people impacted in a positive way by the Illuminate camp. And they, and all the adults who assisted and took part, impacted the lives of many in this area, and in other parts of the world. So, that’s one way the message of Jesus Christ can actually make people better. Thanks, Illuminate. Just don’t get too organized.