We live in a small town. And across America small town churches are of two types. In one type the congregation is composed of only the elderly -- their last generation. When that generation dies, the church will fold. In another type the membership is composed of all age groups and has a large attendance of young families with children. The first church is on its last legs. The second is vibrant.
Why the difference? Why does one church grow and another slowly die away.
There are probably a number of answers to that question...the community itself has shrunk, young folk are not interested in "church", etc. But many of the failing churches with which I am acquainted have been lead by ministers who for decades have failed to clearly present the gospel. Their messages have been sentimental stories that they weave into a 20-minute presentation. The congregation considers it a good sermon if the pastor speaks with a good sense of humor and they go away feeling good about themselves, satisfied that they have been holy because they got up this morning and went to church. They never hear about their own sin and their need for a Savior. They only hear fuzzy, happy words. They "believe in Jesus" but they don't know who Jesus is. If they've picked up a Bible in the past ten years it was to wipe the dust away and lay it back down again.
Other churches are vibrant with a membership of all age groups. Children are visible in every pew. There is a buzz of activity as people flow through the doors with people warmly greeting each other. The service itself can be formally traditional or contemporary in its worship but all parts will point towards a righteous, holy God.
But the best part is the sermon! The pastor teaches from the Bible and clearly lays out scripture to his people. He reminds them that because of Adam we are all sinners (Romans 3:23 and Romans 5:12) and that as believers we are justified by grace alone (God's good gift to us) through Jesus Christ (Romans 3:24-26). He will remind his congregation that because of Adam we are born in a condition of sin (Romans 5:12) and also states the remedy, clearing laying out verses such as Romans 5:8-10. (You can run your cursor over the scriptures to read them, and on the longer passages click on 'more' to read its entirety.)
Of course, there are other scriptures that lay out the same good news and so many that are important to answering our questions about God. But I'm in Romans so I'm staying there. Romans 5:17-21 continues on with "those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ" and "through the obedience of the One (Christ) the many will be made righteous" and finally in verse 21 "so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."
I'm not saying these particular verses will be taught every Sunday. No, no, no. I'm saying that the church will be taught clear doctrines of the Bible such as the divinity of Christ (John 1:1-5; Colossians 1:15-20; Hebrews 1:2-3), the origin of sin (Genesis 3), the remedy for our condition (Romans 3:24-25; Hebrews 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10; Romans 10:9-10), the promise of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 1:22-26).
This is rather a simple overview. I'm not complex with words, and to lay out more would make this entry too long for a quick read. What I'm saying is that a growing church is one that clearly presents the teachings of the Bible in a way that invites the hearer to bow down to a sovereign God. Those whom God calls will walk into such a church and know they are home...or at least as close to home as we will get before our final destination!
I will add this ... when I am hearing clear Biblical teaching, my heart sings. We are fortunate that we attend two churches (one here and one in the city) where such teaching is the order of the day.
(I will add this note: There are mega-churches out there who teach a false feel-good religion and they draw crowds of ten-thousands. There are also large churches who teach a false health/wealth message. They fail to teach the doctrines of grace and instead teach the doctrines of man. I'm speaking here only to the issue of fading small town churches and the difference I see between them and another church across town.)