Saving a Seminary: The Re-imagination of the 21st Century Christian College and University (Part 2 of 2)
In part one of this series, I shared my personal affection, history and view regarding the news that my alma maters Cincinnati Christian University and Nebraska Christian College closed their doors. Both schools made bold moves, incurred massive debt, lost alumni support, failed to attract sufficient student bodies and, generally, lost their way…if not their historic focus.
To be fair, there was clear mismanagement and poor leadership at Cincinnati Christian University. However the closure of the much smaller Nebraska Christian College–who essentially failed to compete in a changing world–should not be overlooked. Most Bible colleges and Christian colleges are smaller institutions (under 300 students). They have little room for error let alone mismanaged error.
When Cincinnati Christian University faced losing accreditation, it was the nail in the coffin.
Accreditation is critical to any institution. Without it, students couldn’t afford to stay. If a school loses accreditation, it forfeits federal funding for student loans and other grants. Accreditation is also necessary to matriculate into graduate programs at other institutions. It’s very difficult to recruit to a school without accreditation. It’s why many smaller Bible colleges align with the Association of Biblical Higher Education. Accreditation gives a school outside muscle that defends its purposes, evaluates its work and supports its outcomes. It’s why it’s difficult to regain the integrity of an accreditation body once the trust is broken.
It certainly wasn’t good news for Cincinnati Christian University. It’s still not good for schools encumbered by massive debt, failing enrollments, teaching/staff reductions, and suspended academic programs. All schools face a re-evaluation of their accreditation every three to ten years. For schools aligned with the ABHE it’s once a decade. These evaluations include site visits, surveys, interviews and researched evidence to prove the school is fulfilling its educational outcomes. A school with red flags, like Cincinnati obviously had, can change everything on a dime.
As someone involved (either as a student, professor or administrator) in Christian higher education for four decades, I feel I have unique experience on this matter.
Can struggling Bible Colleges still survive?
The short answer is YES. But I’ll be honest, I have my reservations (and they’re serious ones), for the following reasons:
- Given the debt many schools now carry, the only way to save them would be through liquidating assets, courting private donors and/or recovering the church’s mission dollar. Another tuition and fee hike will not solve this problem. Cutting degrees and ending fund-sucking sports programs won’t save these schools. Reduction in salaries and staff won’t fix it it. What’s needed is for the school’s wealthiest alumni and most committed churches to return to the giving fold. Furthermore, debt-ridden schools will need to liquidate assets (sell buildings and/or land). And that’s not an easy prospect. It’s hard to liquidate hard-fought and traditional “brick and mortar” assets. It’s equally difficult to regain the lost trust with donors, alumni and churches.
- Given the current Covid-19 pandemic “moment,” many struggling schools still think they’ll shortly return to life “pre-Covid.” They won’t. The events in 2020 that locked down and shut down American schools–from preschool to graduate–was not an interruption. It will prove a cultural disruption. We are experiencing a new cultural landscape. Every industry–entertainment, restaurant, retail, news and sports–has evolved. Online, virtual and digital formats are immune to the virus, and consequently offer a portal for change and opportunity. Both the church and school initially played along with online, but still preferred traditional formats. Now, as September is at hand, many schools realize that students aren’t coming back. Church attendance is down 30-60% from pre-Covid numbers. To their credit, public educators used the summer recess to revamp, upload, create and improve new digital classrooms. Most Bible colleges, I fear, chose to ride it out. They’ll quickly discover that was a poor choice.
In summary, the present (and likely) future for learning will be through online portals. Similarly the future church will likely be smaller, home-based, digital and communal. Neither the school or church will look anything like it did to start 2020.
Why should Bible and Christian colleges consider online education?
In the early 2000s, I worked for a midwestern Christian college that was envisioning where it could be in 2020. As part of the process, the staff and faculty met for a day of visioning. At the time, I was teaching a couple online courses. I was also researching cultural change and how technology was radically altering the future. When it came my turn to “dream” out loud, I boldly suggested the school could sell its physical property and create a purely online Bible College.
The idea was met with stone cold silence. A few jaws hit the floor with a thud. Several thought the idea extreme and unnecessary. Some panned it as impossible (“We’ll always have brick and mortar schools,” one old prof said). But my youthful zeal still wondered. The digital photograph had already killed print photos. The newspaper was dying. The typewriter, overhead projector and VHS cassette–all educational staples at one time–were history. And this was before GPS, social media, smartphones, and Zoom.
I’ve now taught thousands of students through online classes at both the undergraduate and graduate level. My doctorate was a hybrid online-in person program and my dissertation project focused on reimagining a youth ministry degree into a purely online experience. I see many advantages to online platforms–for both the church and school. In the case of higher Christian education, , I posit these pluses:
- Online learning is timeless. It requires no particular day or time of day. Students log on and learn when it fits their schedules. Education moves 24/7/365.
- Online is far more interactive and experiential. The best learning happens through conversation and experience. Unlike traditional lecture-based classrooms (with scattered conversation), online learning operates via the discussion board. The online projects can be more contextual, practical and experiential. It’s not busy work. You also can’t hide or sleep online. In my classes, comments on the board are counted (if their sufficiently “substantive”) and the weekly participation grade is based on how much a student showed up. The best part? Learners can craft their responses (even edit after the fact). It’s pre-meditated and intentional learning that even the most introverted student can master.
- Online is more affordable for the institution. Online demands no classrooms, dorms, cafeterias, student centers, libraries, athletic fields, gymnasiums, large office buildings, print shops or other physical facilities. And since most professors live outside the area and work as “contracted employees,” there are no retirement plans, health care costs or other academic amenities (although such amenities would certainly be attractive). Outside of a skeletal, dedicated IT staff and hardware/software, online learning is more affordable in the long run.
- Online attracts better and more diverse instructors. I live in Boise, ID because I love to live in Boise, ID. I don’t want to move anywhere else, but I’ll teach all over the world if asked. Online professors don’t have to relocate to the institution and that means schools can draw a much higher caliber of professor.
- Online is already an accepted and expected way to learn. The youngest generations (born since 1990) grew up in a purely digital, cyber and social media culture. Many of them went to kindergarten with iPads. They prefer to “stream and cloud” (view/store digital content). They’re comfortable with e-learning pedagogy and can quickly adapt when forced into purely cyber formats. It won’t be hard for them to embrace digital learning. Most already have.
What can Bible and Christian colleges do to reimagine an online school?
This is where radical reinvention is necessary, particularly for administrators who now realize a shift is necessary to an online learning presence, whether partial, hybrid or entirely. Every school is different, with different existing resources in staff, hardware, software and programs, but here’s a possible path any Bible or Christian college could pursue to transition to an online or hybrid/online experience:
First, as much as possible, rent or sell school buildings and land to outside interests. Use the proceeds to pay down and off existing debt. Most schools need a financial jump start, if not a fresh start. Renting is a good option, but for schools blessed with the assets, the sale of unused land or buildings could prove beneficial. For schools looking to move completely online, sell off everything and move only a skeletal staff to a new location. A campus loses value every day its under-populated and/or vacant.
Second, retain (and/or rehire) only necessary faculty to teach courses in Bible, theology and pastoral training. Students currently enrolled in these courses could continue in their matriculation toward a degree (unfortunately without a dorm or cafeteria). General education subjects would now be transferred from other schools. All non-pastoral and biblical degrees and programs, including their respective teaching faculty, would end. Bible and Christian colleges need to return to their roots.
Third, for those considering a hybrid model (no dorm or cafeteria): relocate the institution to a local church . Develop a partnership with an area megachurch, particularly one with strong, past ties to the institution. Megachurches already have the facilities to host in-person activities, events and classes. Another idea: create a regional “university” with pastoral training centers in large market areas. One school with multiple locations. The difference would be these pastoral training centers are local churches. There would be no dorms, cafeterias or costly sports programs. In-person classes would be taught by faculty living in the area, via Zoom web conferencing or the pastoral staff of the host church. Internships and field experiences would be done in house.
Fourth, recruit a Board of Trustees firmly committed to the founding vision and values of the institution. For example, Cincinnati Bible College (according to a 1927 yearbook) stated: “On September 23, 1924, the new school began its first session in two brick buildings. Two things were evident from the beginning; first, the bible was taught with the earnest desire of arriving at its true meaning . . . and second, men and women whose earnest desire was to serve God, were received in classes and given work they most needed.” The school was launched for two reasons: 1) to learn biblical doctrine and theology; and 2) to use that learning in Christian service. Christian service is best defined in our current church climate as vocational work (paid ministry staff) or para-church organizations (missionaries, faith-based organizations, Christian schools). I don’t believe the original purpose of Cincinnati Christian University, for example, was to certify school teachers, train nurses, equip businessmen or launch the careers of aspiring athletes. This is noble work but it’s not the role of the Church to equip for these professions.
Finally, a reliance upon online education to fill in the gaps. As already stated, the younger generations currently entering higher education are more attuned and acclimated to online learning options. The advantages to online education continue to grow and this Covid-19 moment only proves its merit. It’s a win-win for schools who need excellent courses and faculty, but can’t afford the physical hires.
Nevertheless, let’s face the terrible truth. Even if Cincinnati Christian University or Nebraska Christian College pursued such a radical (online) reinvention, there’s no guarantee they have survived. It’s something we’ll never know. However, I am convinced if many Bible and Christian colleges don’t do something now, it’s pretty much a certainty that their school’s days are numbered. The debt will eventually be too much. The poor enrollments will mount. The reluctance to embrace change will prove evident.
Cincinnati Christian University’s situation in the summer of 2019 was considered “dire” and “at risk.” By December 31, they were no more. Few saw closure coming, but it still happened.
The irony is its never too late to change. This grave Covid-19 situation offers a unique and glorious opportunity for change, renewal, growth and resurrection.
The best is yet to come for those willing to get outside the brick and mortar box.
“Dire” and “at risk” is how the article in the July 19, 2019 Chronicle of Higher Education described the future of Cincinnati Christian University, a beautiful institution of higher Christian education once nestled atop Price Hill in the Queen City of Cincinnati. With panoramic views of the Ohio river, winding through the urban landscape, it was a perfect location to instruct the mind, refresh the heart and inspire the soul.
Founded in 1924, Cincinnati Christian University (formerly Cincinnati Bible College and Seminary) was a historic and influential institution among a fellowship of churches known as the independent Christian Churches and Churches of Christ. These churches were part of a wider “restoration movement” that emerged in the early 1800s.
The school was reputed for its conservative biblical education, featuring a “who’s who” of scholars like R.C. Foster, Lewis Foster, George Mark Elliott, Jack Cottrell, Eleanor Daniel and Jim North. Many of the preachers, theologians, missionaries, editors/writers, musicians and Christian educators who defined the Christian churches in the 20th century were graduates (so many that I won’t even start to list them). From Standard Publishing (which produced the flagship journals The Christian Standard and The Lookout), to dozens of parachurch ministries and mission agencies, to some of the largest megachurches in America–including Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY (with a Sunday attendance topping tens of thousands)–Cincinnati Christian University was influential.
At the end of the fall semester in 2019, Cincinnati Christian University, after 95 years of fruitful educational ministry, closed its doors.
Later in the spring of 2020, my undergraduate alma mater Nebraska Christian College announced its closure. This smaller school located outside of Omaha, NE had merged with Hope International University in 2016. The move was unpopular with many alumni, but in reality probably gave the institution a few more years of existence. Nevertheless, with a Covid-19 pandemic shutting down schools across America, Nebraska Christian College opted to lock down forever.
It’s sad to me, because I know both of these schools well. After all, I am a 1986 pastoral ministry graduate of Nebraska Christian College and a 1992 seminary graduate (masters in Christian education) of Cincinnati Christian University. The latter school was particularly influential and transformative. Cincinnati Bible College and Seminary (as I knew it) was like Harvard or Yale to this kid from central Montana. A storied past. Renown scholars. Rich in academic resources. It provided me with much opportunity. I served on the staff of the school newspaper in 1986-1987. It’s how I met Rich Mullins, a young musician and former CBC student who’d later pen some of Christian music’s best stuff this side of heaven. It’s also where I met Sam Stone, then the long-time editor of The Christian Standard, who read my material and printed my first professional article (at the tender age of 25). I owe a lot to Cincinnati Christian University.
It’s the history and tradition of both Cincinnati Bible Seminary and Nebraska Christian College that attracted my attention. From the day I graduated high school, I’ve had an insatiable hunger to deepen my theological understandings, widen my historical knowledge of the Church and develop networks of pastoral relations. I moved to Cincinnati because I wanted to experience the heart of the Restoration Movement. But my enthusiasm was soon tempered by reality. I was literally told upon arrival in the Queen City (we hadn’t even unpacked the moving truck) that the school was struggling to stay open. I was encouraged to change my mind by the recruiter but I was too far down the road for that option. Some predicted Cincinnati Bible College and Seminary would not survive the summer of 1986. Only a new president and a miraculous infusion of donor dollars staunched the financial bleeding.
The ugly truth is Cincinnati Christian University had a long history of financial trouble and bad decisions.
In retrospect, the problems at Cincinnati Christian University and, to a lesser degree at Nebraska Christian College, are systemic, foundational and decades in the making. In Cincinnati’s case it started when the school forsook its original purpose to be a training institute for preachers, elders, deacons, church support staff, missionaries and other congregational leaders.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, Cincinnati Bible College slowly departed from pastoral training to chase students more interested in school teaching and business. That decision, and its eventual move to “university” (in 2004) further convoluted the original vision and values of this storied institution. What ensued was a revolving door of presidents, staff and faculty. Occasional staff additions or program changes were band-aids. Nothing Cincinnati Christian University did could produce better student enrollment and retention. At one point I even interviewed as a professor for the school but was grateful when my candidacy stalled. Looking back, the school was not a good fit for someone passionate about leadership, Christian education and cultural change. I could tell my alma mater was stuck and growing into obsolescence.
In recent years, the decisions moved from bad to worse. In a move to cut costs, the school released (some say “forced retired”) most of its seminary Bible faculty, literally gutting the school of its most endearing and enduring attraction (for me anyway). The move angered many alumni, including preachers and leaders who held the purse strings to mission giving dollars. Cincinnati Christian University, following the path of other schools, simply hiked tuition to offset the loss of church giving, creating deeper debt for its graduates and apathy among its alumni. If the product doesn’t match the cost, your graduates will let you know. They won’t give, promote, affirm…or reunite.
In 2015, to infuse some enthusiasm, the school launched the most expensive (yet lucrative, if you can win) sports program on the planet: football. This decision, I believe, was the beginning of the end for Cincinnati Christian University. They tried other moves, like a mergers and cooperative programs with other institutions, but nothing corrected the tailspin. Rumors of its demise bubbled among friends, former staff, faculty and students of the school.
As a graduate of the seminary (1992) and a professor of Christian education who deeply values the learning I received from this storied Christian institution, I was saddened to read that my alma mater closed its doors forever. It’s clear that a mismanagement of funds, poor priorities, and a loss of leadership vision created this “dire” and “at risk” situation. As the article noted, if Cincinnati Christian University loses accreditation, it would likely produce the closing of its doors. And that’s exactly what happened.
Nebraska Christian College’s story is slightly different. In a bold move, the school moved from sleepy Norfolk, NE to the outskirts of Omaha in 2006 . This move angered many alumni who saw no need for the change of address, but I think it needed to happen. Omaha was a growing city with better resources and opportunities for pastoral ministry students. It also had more large churches capable of mentoring and hiring students. Nebraska Christian College eventually focused upon Christian leadership, which was lacking in traditional Bible colleges. They were doing a lot of things right.
Nevertheless, the move to a remote farmer’s field in Papillion, NE proved disastrous for student recruitment, local interest and the church mission dollar. In the 2000s, many churches re-focused their funds away from the Bible colleges (forcing schools to become more tuition-based). Many megachurches also stopped hiring Bible college graduates, preferring to grow their leadership in-house. Finally, a new Millennial generation (and their Gen X parents) now demanded facilities, regional accreditation, sports, educational programs, online learning and collegiate experiences that smaller schools simply couldn’t provide. It’s why the Hope International University merger was attractive. Unfortunately, it likely came too late to save the school.
So “what’s next” for the Bible college, Christian university and religious seminary?
Who will be the next Bible college or seminary to close its doors? What struggling school will hitch their future to a larger institution in order to survive? And how many of these larger schools can afford to risk their future by merging with institutions with wings clipped by deep debt, alumni apathy, failing enrollments, disintegrating facilities and loss of interest.
Furthermore, will this Covid-19 shutdown of schools (moving learning institutions to online portals) reimagine 21st century higher Christian education?
And, finally, can higher Christian education return to its original purpose and design?
I knew the American evangelical church was in trouble 20 years ago.
That’s when I first noticed the emerging Millennial generation (like Gen X before it) starting to leave the Church. But they weren’t leaving their faith necessarily (although many formerly-churched now have done that too) but only the building.
In the early 2000s, Millennials just stopped going to church. As young adults they “loved Jesus but not the church.” It was a wake up call the American church essentially chose to snooze through. This exodus created some alarm but most church leaders were too busy building and branding their churches.
Instead of figuring out WHY Millennials (and even Gen X) before them had their issues, most churches (most still led by Boomer clergy, elders and deacons) moved to cheaper imitations of the cultural expressions that Millennials (they thought) liked. We put coffee shops in our foyers. Video clips in our sermons. Fog machines in our worship. Still other churches doubled down on their own boomer-driven “Woodstock” worship and passive “sit and soak” sermon-heavy discipleship model. Still others chose to be locked inside a nostalgic pre-1990 church (these types doggedly clung to their hymns, pews and pulpits).
These strategies were not without their successes, but they only worked to attract a certain cohort: more Boomers (now graying nicely and in their 40s and 50s). It turns out that Boomers loved good coffee, lighting schemes and pop culture-infused sermons.
But what was lost in these ecclesiastical 1990s remodels? Actually quite a bit.
Evangelism turned into “sheep stealing.” As some mainline denominations turned to the left, their congregations exited to the right…choosing a new nondenominational Christianity. Smaller churches, unwilling to change with the times, closed. Meanwhile the larger churches evolved their “seeker-sensitive” model to new levels. Altar calls, church membership and evangelistic revivals were left behind like a pagan at the Rapture. Most churches now grew by transfers. Most adult baptisms were “re-baptisms” of the sprinkled or improperly immersed type. Some “outskirt” churches grew simply because their rural setting was now a new, popular crowded suburb. People were on the move.
Worship turned into a concert or “Sunday show.” People were encouraged, some forced, to stand through entire worship sets. Auditoriums were darkened and the stage lit. Theater chairs replaced hardback pews. Pulpits were eliminated for bar stools and music stands. Applause was encouraged. Lighting and sound were the new stage rage. Large video screens replaced crosses. And, in some cases, fog and smoke rolled. The volunteer worship director or song leader role evolved a full-time paid professional music artist position. Choirs and organs were abandoned for worship teams, full bands and background singers.
Preaching turned topical, social and “feel good” (boring texts, “hell, fire and brimstone” and deeper theology were largely abandoned). Relational activities and interactive traditions (responsive readings, greeting times, congregational prayer, testimonies) were cast aside. With some notable exceptions, most churches saw their “outside the sermon” discipleship programs and activities–Sunday School, small group, elective studies, revivals, retreats–fade and fail. Everything was now focused on the weekend “service.” It was discipleship by sermon. We counted nickels and noses.
During the 90s and 00s, a third generation (Gen Z) grew up even more irreligious, agnostic and post-church than the Millennials and Gen X.
Today, as the boomer generation grows long in the tooth (currently in their 60s and 70s), the writing is on the wall. The rock and roll generation is dying off. And with it the boomer-driven church model introduced in the 1980s.
It’s WHY the evangelical, nondenominational American church will face extreme reductions in church attendance–even to the point of massive closures–in the next 10-20 years. By 2040, with the Boomer generation mostly gone or too old to attend church, there will be few left to fill their chair space. Gen X is “done.” And the Millennials/iTechs/Gen Z are choosing “none” (no religious preference, agnostic). Many megachurch children’s and youth ministries are already in stagnation and decline. The average age of the average, regular and semi-regular church attenders is north of 50. In general, the American church is balding, graying and wrinkling.
Yes, there are some Millennial models that still work in select markets…but again they are mostly attracting a remnant group who has stayed with church. The majority of young adults and teens are spiritually discipled through social media (YouTube videos, Facebook conversations, Instagram memes, Twitter blurbs). This cyber-discipleship has produced an increasingly shallow, narrow, biased and warped view of biblical ideas, theology and practices. It’s also opened up our formerly-churched kids for easy pickings by atheists, agnostics, evolutionists, cultists and other false religionists.
WHAT WE NEED IS NOT ANOTHER REFORMATION OR RESTORATION…BUT RATHER A DECONSTRUCTION AND RECONSTRUCTION OF “CHURCH.”
We need to “system restore” the operating system. We need erase the hard drives and get back to the Original DNA of “church.” And we need to do it sooner than later.
Our ecclesiastical DNA is found in Acts 2:42…“They (followers of Christ) devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
In this simple DNA statement we learn WHO met, WHY they met, and HOW/WHAT they did WHEN they met. It’s how the Church has operated for 2000 years and still operates in many places around the world even yet today. But it’s not widely seen in America.
What does this “Original DNA” Church look like?
INTERACTIVE: a place of fellowship. Connective. Conversational. Collaborative. Communal. I Cor 14:26 says every person contributed (a hymn, testimony, teaching, revelation). When’s the last time you attended a church service where anyone (other than someone especially allowed on stage) said a prayer, sang a “special” number or gave their faith story? It’s getting pretty rare. If you attend a large church, when’s the last time you made a new friend at church (not just a quick hello)? If you attend a small church, when’s the last time you had a visitor return because felt included and wanted?
PHYSICAL: a place of contact. Hand to hand. Face to face. Eye ball to eyeball. Acts 2:44-45 says people were so close that they KNEW everyone’s needs (and met them by doing things for them). In this Covid moment, social distancing is popular. But it’s also inaccurate. We are physically distancing ourselves (isolation, separation, sequestration) but we’re not truly social distancing ourselves at all. Social media has kept us all connected during this time. Its physical moments–in churches, halls, arenas and stadiums–that are lacking. It’s why cyber connection can be just as real as in person. In a Zoom or video chat we look at each other’s faces. We enter their homes. Is it tiring (Zoom fatigue)? Absolutely. But most physical meetings are just as wearisome. This new cyber culture hasn’t disconnected us at all. It’s given us a new mission field for relationships to develop…in places far away and unimaginable…if the Church will only catch that vision!
EDUCATIONAL: a place of learning. Learning is what’s left after the facts are forgotten. It’s why lectures and lecturers fail. To learn we must practice, experiment and experience. We learn best through conversational, sensory moments. It’s why Jesus taught faith on a lake in a storm. Or used manipulative objects (wheat, rocks, dirt) to teach truths. The early church “learned” (Greek: mathetes)–just like how we learn math–the “apostles’ teaching.” Biblically, preaching and sermons were for the unconverted while teaching and lessons were for life transformation and discipleship. Ephesians 4:11-16.
SPIRITUAL: a place to experience God intimately and personally. There was a devotion to congregational (not just pastoral) prayer, the Lord’s Supper (“breaking of [the] bread”), silence, stewardship of time, talent and treasure. Worship was more than singing three or four songs. It’s why experiential liturgy is attractive. Pentecostal and Catholic/Orthodox traditions have some edge here. People want to “feel” God when they attend a church. A lot of churches don’t even have a prayer anymore. Opening prayers and long pastoral prayers are history. Few preachers pray prior to their messages. Most prayer is tagged to bless an offering or to end a service.
SMALLER: a place where everyone knows each other’s names, backgrounds, interests, needs and issues. It’s why the original church–following Jesus’ lead–planted in HOMES not a public facility. It’s not that public facilities were bad or wrong, but they weren’t conducive to “smallness”: connection, transparency and intimacy. Until 20th century electrification in sound and video tech, churches were largely SMALL and limited. It’s why EVERYBODY had a part to play, even if the educated clergy created a natural “clergy-laity” divide.
I love THE CHURCH (of all sizes, types, shades and formats), but I’m no fan of “churchianity” (formulated religion).
I love the fact that Covid-19 has forced the CHURCH to get outside it’s boxes (facility, programs, curriculum, staffing) to do something NEW and DIFFERENT. We’ve been needing this moment for a long time and we best not waste the opportunity.
We need an ACTS 2:42 church. We need to reboot the system and recapture our organic, transformational, decentralized, experiential, participatory and communal FAITH…as Jesus revealed, the apostles modeled and the Church lived until AD 312 when Constantine legalized Christianity, moved house churches to converted pagan temples, created a paid clergy, gave tax exemptions to churches and, essentially, put Christianity into a box. It’s been a great 1700 year road trip…but we’re now out of gas.
We are also experiencing the greatest technological and cultural shift since 1500 and perhaps the greatest in all of history. Thanks to digital, cyber and wireless tech we can be global without leaving our living room. We can influence millions with one tweet, post or video. We can change the world with a keystroke. That’s never been possible since the dawn of time.
It’s why I like the CHURCH’S chances in this new world.
Christianity is the only religion tethered to RELATIONSHIP and that’s what we all need (more than a mantra, ritual or liturgy). Christianity is about God building a bridge to man to become culturally relative–not to embrace the culture but to TRANSFORM it. It’s about a personal, transformational relationship…and that’s highly attractive in an isolated, segregated, divisive and lonely world.
If there’s any religion that has staying power in the 21st century it’s CHRISTIANITY. But don’t be fooled: “churchianity” is fading and on life support. The current model (facility-driven, clergy-based, passive, non-interactive, corporate, entertainment) is likely not sustainable. In America, we are only a step away from losing tax exemption for religious organizations and churches–and there are movements to this end in some places. Most churches, if that happened, couldn’t afford the property tax on their buildings. It would be a game-changer overnight.
It’s why we need think outside the BOX (building)…because the “box” is dying or faces destruction.
THE GOOD NEWS?
With Jesus, the Church is always wired for RESURRECTION!
We face no ends but rather only fresh starts. Death is a new birth. We are an eternal Kingdom not a physical commodity.
It’s Friday…but Sunday is coming, friends.
Actually, I think we’re well into Saturday now.
Tomorrow is a NEW DAY.
Today is the last gasp of a retail Goliath.
Either Sears ponies up $120 million dollars and supplies a clear plan for restructure, or the store will be sent to bankruptcy and formally liquidated. It will be the end of a megastore that ruled American commerce for 132 years.
Sears was originally founded in 1886 as a watch company and within two years launched a catalog that attracted both attention and customers. Like Amazon.com would do a century later, Sears eventually began selling “everything from sewing machines to sports equipment” through its mail-order catalogs. America was largely rural and Sears revolutionized how retailers operated. They succeeded by engaging modern middle class desires, mainstream print media and mechanized business formulas.
Sears revolutionized how retailers operated. They succeeded by engaging modern middle class desires, mainstream print media and mechanized business formulas.
Sears didn’t open its first physical store until 1925. Let that fact sink in. For forty years the company operated purely from a mail-order model, but now began to reinvent. In 1927, they launched the Kenmore brand, followed by All-State insurance (1931) and the famous Christmas catalog (1933). Everything they did, worked…and the company was highly profitable. At the end of World War 2, Sears was topping $1 billion in sales.
By then suburbia was bubbling in post-war America. Sears led the way and built new stores all over America (1946). They pioneered credit cards and innovated fresh brands like DieHard batteries and Craftsman tools. Sears could do no wrong. In 1973 they built the world’s tallest building: Chicago’s Sears tower. At their zenith they boasted over 3000 stores, many anchored to a new shopping destination called a “mall.”
But in the 1980s the Sears brand fumbled. Despite their anchor store status, Walmart emerged as the new retail giant. People liked “super store” variety but with affordability and convenience. In 1991, Sears finally lost their “top-selling retailer” mantle to the Arkansas superstore. Three years later Sears sold its namesake tower. In 1993 they stop producing their catalog and moved the Christmas catalog online (1998). In the early 2000s Sears merged with Lands End (2002) and Kmart (2005) but profits continued to slide. Sears was in a free fall.
In the past four years, Sears has been selling everything just to keep the lights on. Nothing’s worked. In the fourth quarter of 2016 Sears lost $607 million. Christmas never came for Sears that year. Nor Kmart. Nor other juggernaut stores like Macy’s and JC Penney. The mall they anchor is also dying a slow death. Toys R Us is history. Claire’s jewelry boutiques is in bankruptcy. Even Walmart has faced difficulty.
The new retail Goliath is cyber store Amazon. It’s now the most valuable company (and brand) in the world, overtaking Microsoft computers. Originally specializing in books, this online retailer now delivers groceries (something Sears originally did) and a zillion other things. Amazon gift cards are popular Christmas presents. The online retailer continues to rake financial fortunes as it pioneers future home deliveries through automation (robots, drones, driverless vehicles).
It’s a jungle out there and it’s called Amazon.
What can the church learn from Sears’ story?
1. Reinvent or die.
For most of its celebrated history, Sears innovated and led but when it relaxed, focusing more on maintenance than mission, it lost traction. In a 21C culture that’s fluid, fast and flexible, churches need to continually respond, reinvent and reimagine “wineskins” (but not the Wine). The Message or “gospel of Jesus Christ” never changes but the models, strategies, styles and frameworks do.
Too many churches fear change, particularly in technology that creates fresh social interactions. We live in a visual culture–an experiential society that learns through screens, podcasts and videos–and yet remain wedded to passive, lecture-driven communication formats.
2. Watch the lure of success.
Pride comes before a fall and Sears is a classic tale of hubris. Too many churches build towers rather than bridges, monuments rather than movements and legacies rather than living vision.
I had a Millennial couple recently join my home group. Afterwards, the young man enthusiastically shared how he finally felt he had found a real “church.” I asked him if he attended a church (like the rest of our group does every Sunday) and he said no. The reason? He struggled with how much money the church spends on its facilities. It turned him and his wife off. They felt it was wrong. He’s the son of a missionary, by the way.
3. Know your culture.
The same year Sears sold its tower (1994) Jeff Bezos launched Amazon.com. Three years later Sears finally entered dot.com world, but it was too late. Sears was tied to a dead man’s name. Amazon was the biggest river (and soon store) in the world. Too many churches overlook, dismiss or oppose cultural changes when they need to interpret, understand and embrace the opportunities change creates.
Since 1960, the modern culture has been on life support. Christendom, founded 1700 years ago, is equally fading into history. In a post 9-11 and Great Recession world, the Industrial Revolution is over. We now live in a post-modern, post-industrial, post-Christian world…but the Church is still operating like it’s 2005 or 1995 or 1985 or 1975.
Want to study the “generations” and how technology has changed our world and what the Church must do to reinvent? Book Rick to come share with your church, conference or training event in 2019!
Ultimately every living thing dies.
It’s the way of the world. Just ask Kodak (another one of those giants who failed to reinvent).
Fortunately the Church is Eternal and Living.
The Wine is always fresh. Sears simply teaches us that wineskins do fissure, fracture and fail if we don’t pay attention.
Church, we truly need to pay attention.
The Millennials have left the building.
Countless kids who grew up in children’s and youth ministries, who memorized scripture at Vacation Bible School, who spent summers in church camps, who worshipped in age-segregated “children’s” and “teen” churches, who served as youth mentors, participated in mission trips around the world and enjoyed the finest youth ministry resources, events, concerts and experiences in the history of the Church…no longer attend church services.
In general, they’ve been tagged the “nones.”
When it comes to church affiliation, they mark themselves “none.” They don’t attend church. They don’t appreciate church. They don’t think it’s necessary to their spirituality or Christianity. Many profess atheism or agnosticism. They want “none” of it.
Even Gen X is quitting.
Known as the “dones” this cohort of American Christians are tired of the games, the “show,” and the politics of “churchianity.” They endured the worship wars between the Boomers and their G.I. elders in the 1980s. They suffered through the “mega-fication” of the Church, particularly in evangelical strains. They watched the quaint church of their youth evolve into malls, performance halls, schools and corporate offices. They’re now in their 40s and 50s and growing tired, cynical and cranky.
It’s why most American churches are graying fast.
The Baby Boomers are the only ones left.
I recently enjoyed two insightful conversations with formerly churched individuals.
- Bryan (not his real name) is a twenty-something Millennial who grew up as a pastor’s kid. He attended church every Sunday with high participation in the events, programs and studies his church offered. He volunteered to lead worship, counsel and mentor. He went to Bible college but eventually dropped out. He stopped attending church recently, mostly due to work conflicts on Sundays.
- Jerry (not his real name) is a fifty-something Gen X pastor who rarely missed a day of church until five years ago. He’s got a degree in theology, served as a small group leader, youth minister, lay counselor and elder. He and his wife moved to town a few years ago. They found a church, but not “community.” Now they stay home and “live stream” services and fellowship in a small group Bible study.
Both men are committed to Christianity. They believe deeply in Jesus, but have grown cynical of what they experience at church.
I asked them both “Why don’t you personally attend church anymore?”
“It’s not engaging.”
Despite all the bells and whistles, lights and fog machines, video and sound cues, both Bryan and Jerry found their church experiences dry and “ho hum.” Bryan says most Christian music bores him, even though he played in a worship band. Jerry was more complimentary. He likes the contemporary worship and preaching, but has tired of fighting traffic to just “sit there” for an hour.
Both Bryan and Jerry say church isn’t worth their time. In fact, it’s often a waste of time.
Now before we judge that harsh view of church, let’s be brutally honest. We raised our Millennial kids in an “entertainment” church model. We suckled them on “Veggie Tales” and weaned them on Crowder and Tomlin worship sets. We incentivized their spiritual practices with “Bible Bucks,” candy, toys and money. We reduced discipleship to entertaining curriculum, youth pastor “talks,” large events, youth lock-ins and retreats, and annual teen conferences.
So it’s no wonder they’re walking away. The church will never compete with Hollywood (nor should it try). We taught Millennial Christians to conform (to the rules) and perform (to our expectations) but not to be transformed by Jesus Christ. And, frankly, if we’re honest most of our churches today are just doing “youth ministry for adults” and that’s the problem. That model failed to attract young disciples yesterday and it’s failing to retain adult disciples today.
“I don’t need it.”
Which produces the second general reason Millennials and Gen Xers are done with church attendance: it’s not necessary to their Christianity.
I asked Millennial Bryan where he goes to be nurtured and discipled in his faith and his answer was sobering: a small community of Christian friends, podcasts and the Internet. Gen X Jerry expressed a similar sentiment: “I can get the same experience in my pajamas at home on Sunday morning as I do in physically attending a church service.”
Again, this brutal critique has some truth to it. The modern Church, driven by Enlightenment values in reasoning and Industrial Age principles in business and operations, essentially created a conveyer belt religion that focuses on producing numbers (attendance, offerings) and things (programs, staff, facilities) rather than discipling persons. We see it in the vocabulary of the “modern” Christian: “I went to church last week” or “I’m attending church tomorrow.” Modern Christianity was about place and time, but in a post-Christian and post-modern world that’s 24/7/365 both space and time are irrelevant. We can learn without a physical school and the dying modern church is discovering that postmodern Christians don’t need a “place or time” to spiritually grow.
“They don’t miss me.”
Ironically, both Bryan and Jerry echoed this same refrain: after several weeks of absence their churches showed no concern.
Millennial Bryan views this as hypocrisy. He says his church was always preaching “community” and “friendships” but as soon as he stepped down from his leadership role (to ease some burnout) and missed a few weeks, he realized no one really cared about him. Gen X Jerry said the same thing. He still goes to church occasionally (“out of guilt,” he confides) but no one acts like he’s been gone. “It’s just easier to stay home and mail in the check,” he adds, “besides I find my ‘community’ in my small group and that’s good enough for me.”
The dirty secret reality of many churches today is the average church-goer moves on within a few years and many leave within months. People join a new church hoping to find friends but end up disenchanted.
Ironically, when I asked both Bryan and Jerry what it would take for them to return to active church attendance, they both quickly answered: a friend. I want to hang with people who have similar values, said Millennial Bryan. Essentially, they’re not going to church for the worship (though inspiring) or the preaching (though instructive). What they want is connection, cooperation, companionship, collaboration and community. They hunger for a spiritual experience with friends and most churches don’t offer (at least easily) these opportunities.
“When was the last time you went to church and made a new friend?” Gen X Jerry asked.
Friendships and authentic community is what’s missing.
It’s definitely what the first century church enjoyed:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).
It’s the type of church Bryan and Jerry long to experience.
Come to think of it, it’s the type of church I want to attend too.
America is deeply divided.
This past election cycle has only deepened and widened the chasm between the Left and Right, conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat. The Church, unfortunately, is caught in the crosshairs with both sides claiming they alone possess THE truth, God’s favor and the right path for the church’s future.
In reality, we’re following a similar trajectory as the Civil War churches (1860-1865). Back then, both northern and southern churches claimed they alone were doing God’s Will (casting aspersion towards brothers and sisters on the other side). Both northern and southern preachers taught God was on their side. Both northern and southern believers advocated their positions were biblical, true and righteous. Our eyes have seen the glory…and God’s marching with us.
Today, the new battlefields of the Culture War aren’t called Gettysburg or Antietam, Shiloh or Bull Run. They’re called Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. Every day, Americans draw their weapons of mass instruction to trumpet their “truths” and advance their agendas. We bomb each other with memes. We rattle the Sword of God’s Word and then righteously puncture, slice and wound those who post against us. We slaughter brothers and sisters in Christ with words of angry argument and strident slander. We gloriously push our brand, often unknowingly reposting fake news and doctored evidence.
The question is WHY? Why is America so divided? And why is the Church a reflection of wider culture’s tendency toward hate and hubris? Is it merely political, religious, philosophical or personal ideologies that separate us? Is it our chosen lifestyles, beliefs and values that drive the wedge? Is it, as some claim, a Satanic conspiracy to infiltrate the Church or an “end time” prophetic plan to usher in Jesus’ Second Coming?
Maybe. But I actually think it’s something much deeper.
I think the real reason America is divided (including the Church) is a natural tension every human carries between our need for LOVE and our desire for JUSTICE. With every choice, preference and attitude we either decide to LOVE or we choose to JUDGE. The deeper the LOVE or JUDGEMENT, the greater the resulting tension. From this tension a side is preferred, an argument is accepted and a narrative is created. When our narratives solidify into “our truth” then divisions emerge.
Every political post on Facebook reflects this tension of LOVE (“can’t we all just get along?”) or JUSTICE (“wrong is always wrong”). And if you’re on the “wrong” side of the issue, then pox be upon you. You’re ignorant, unstable, loony, uninformed or bigoted. The Left labels the Right as racist, homophobic, misogynist, hateful and evil. The Right labels the Left as socialist, anarchist, hedonist, hateful and evil.
It’s just our narratives speaking, reflecting our desire for LOVE or passion for JUSTICE.
Think about it.
LOVE is the answer and all we need is love, right? It’s true. But authentic LOVE also carries consequence, responsibility or accountability. Are we free to love anyone (or thing) we choose? Certainly. But that doesn’t negate responsibility and consequences (especially if our choice is outside of God’s desired Will). Love the wrong person (or thing) and you can suffer, even die. You see, there really is no such thing as “free love.” Even the Grace of Christ cost Jesus His very life.
JUSTICE is also desired. The truth is we’re all prejudiced to some degree. We all carry bias from which we JUDGE the world around us. We all believe our own press and suckle from sources that support, enable and promote our prejudices. There really is no such thing as “objectivity.” We all see through rose-colored glasses with biased shades.
Let me cite a couple controversial examples:
- Many liberal and progressive Christians today feel that being gay is okay. We should be able to love anyone (of any sex) we choose. Besides, culture has evolved and ancient biblical passages no longer apply. Conservative Christians believe homosexuality is a detestable sin that God forbids. Culture may have evolved but God is the same yesterday, today and forever, and hasn’t changed His mind. In both cases there is LOVE and JUSTICE happening. The gay Christian believes he was born homosexual and a LOVING God wants him or her to be happy (gay). Therefore, it’s divinely JUST to lift the stigma on homosexuality and cease the bigotry. On the other hand, traditional Christians choose to LOVE the sinner but hate the sin, and a JUST God will not be mocked. Consequently, homosexuality is not right and the most LOVING (and biblical) response is to help the homosexual out of the bondage.
2. During the Brett Kavanaugh hearings a sense of JUSTICE emerged. The Left argued that Kavanaugh was not qualified for the Supreme Court due to his past “partying” indiscretions, including sexual predation upon women. The Right saw these midnight charges as fabricated and false, an injustice and travesty to the long legal career of Judge Kavanaugh. Both sides wanted justice. Both sides felt an injustice was happening. But, ultimately, only one side was justified.
It’s always about LOVE or JUSTICE.
One side says LOVE while the other side says JUDGE. One side feels distressed, oppressed and suppressed (by the judgments) while the other side feels emboldened, ecstatic and enthused (by their affections). It’s why Christians, for example, can be deeply divided left or right, conservative or liberal, pro-life or pro-choice, anti-gay or gay pride, capitalist or socialist, Tea Party or anarchist, Trump or Never Trump. It’s why Christians can look at the same Bible (or situations) and walk away with completely different conclusions: our LOVES or our JUDGEMENTS drive our prejudiced interpretations and conclusions.
It’s something to consider because America has been in a culture war since the 1960s. We’ve now come to the place where everyone has taken a side. Everyone has their narrative. There’s little middle ground with neutral opinions. Furthermore, this culture war could be far more costly, ugly and bloody than the Civil War. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve seen the worse.
All I know is JESUS CHRIST and authentic Christianity resolves this tension between LOVE and JUDGEMENT through attitudes and acts of GRACE. And this Grace is messy, nonsensical, strange, glorious and beautiful. Jesus felt this tension in his humanity but executed flawless love and justice. With tax collectors, zealots, whores and adulterous women, Jesus showed LOVE, but with religious conservatives (Pharisees) and liberals (Sadducees), he expressed indignation and JUDGEMENT (see Matthew 23). Jesus gives us a model to follow, even if we follow it imperfectly at times.
Civil (or cultural) wars rarely end well.
America has been here before and it took decades to recover.
America the Divided again? Yes.
And may God shed His Grace on thee!
Sometimes God doesn’t show up.
Sometimes prayers aren’t answered our way. Sometimes we lose, fail, stumble, break and never find restoration, healing or blessing. Sometimes bad things happen to good people for no reason. Sometimes people die, cancer spreads, finances fail, careers end, injustice prevails, evil wins and all seems lost. Sometimes life is Hell and salvation never knocks. Sometimes prodigals never come home.
But that’s a short (and shallow) view of life.
God is ALWAYS working a Purer Plan, weaving my blues into His Majestic Quilt. Ultimately, it isn’t about my puny prayers being answered to MY good or for MY glory, but rather to HIS Grand Desire and Great Design for my life. Therefore, I don’t need to be right, first, avenged, healed, placated, patronized, lionized, or have all things work out to my needs, desires or purposes. I believe in God even if there is no blessing, no healing, no reconciliation, no restoration. I believe in God even if all I ever experience is Hell on earth.
The secret of life is there is no secret. If anything, maybe it’s answering a simple question: Do you know YOUR birthright?
For whatever years I live, with whatever blessing I enjoy, I am but a homeless heir to a tycoon Dad desperately wondering where in hell I am. I am a filthy rich vagabond, sometimes selfishly lost in my own agendas, ever seeking God through my own rose-colored glasses, but always positioned with a Father patiently waiting my return. I just have to remember MY place and keep walking Home.
Because what is won’t forever be. Someday this wretched and weary, tried and tested, soiled and surly soul will top eternity. Someday I will stand before the King who haunted my heart. I will praise the God who pursued me relentlessly and recklessly, willing to harbor the grandest hypocrite and secure the greatest sinner. Someday I will completely understand the Mystery, fully recognize the Reality and absolutely accept the Promise.
That’s when EVERYTHING will make sense and my Reward finally revealed.
I will, in that moment of Truth, see my life for what it was, what it is and what it will be.
That’s when I know I’m Home.
That’s when I will relish how God used me for HIS good, for HIS gospel, for HIS glory…,even in my trials, troubles and tragedies…even in my poor choices, pathetic sins and pitiful perspectives.
The truth: I am not the center of any universe.
I am merely a moon that reflects the Son.
But what a moon I am! And so are you.
The world is changing, Church.
Blockbuster Video is down to it’s last store in Bend, OR. Toys R Us closed it’s doors in June 2018. Meanwhile, Sears and KMart continue their selloff. Everywhere you look there’s change and if we can’t adapt in this new culture we’ll fare no different than Kodak, Betamax or Tower Records.
Maybe that’s why this New York Times article caught my eye: “Sorry Power Lunchers, This Restaurant is a Co-Working Space Now (July 9, 2018).”
I was particularly attracted to this quote by the Millennial co-founder of Spacious, Chris Smothers:
“Actively consuming isn’t what we want to do with the space in our neighborhoods anymore…Retail spaces are designed for you to come in, make a transaction and get out, and that’s why you feel weird in a coffee shop all day, because all of these spaces are designed for you to leave.”
As I read that last sentence all I could think about was what “church” has become in the past thirty years, especially those of the evangelical non-denominational type.
After all, thanks to the “megafication” of the Church in the 1980s and 1990s, churches of all sizes and stripes reimagined their Sunday mornings into an event (featuring a full-band worship and culturally-relevant sermon). These events were specially-hosted inside an auditorium that’s “designed for you to leave.” Pews were out, theater chairs were in. The larger churches, with multiple services, are particularly prone to this mentality. It’s why we build performance halls, hire specialized staff, study people flow and focus on traffic patterns. We need to get people in and out…fast.
I call it “drive thru” churchianity. We’ve designed “church” as a space to come…and leave.
This shift, led by a Baby Boom generation returning to their spiritual foundations in the 1980s, turns out to be nothing more than adoption of consumer culture. We built our churches on biblical purposes that were guided by business principles. It’s why we focus on body counts, offering totals and ecclesiastical CEOs. We mass disciple like we mass market. Our facilities look like warehouses, our services like concerts, and our programs like fast food menus. This attractional model certainly was successful with boomers and many Gen Xers, but has fallen flat with Millennials.
Millennials aren’t looking for a passive show. They seek an active experience. They want to interact, collaborate and share. They were early adopters of social media, from Friendster and MySpace to Facebook and Snapchat. And now these same Millennials are reinventing the workplace, especially through companies founded by Millennials (Spacious’ co-founder Chris Smothers is 30 years old, by the way).
But I still can’t get that quote out of my head: “designed for you to leave.”
Is that what we did to the Millennials? Is that the type of Christianity we gave them? It seems so. We designed a faith experience that was easy “to leave.”
Maybe it was the gimmicks we used (and still use) to motivate Millennial faith development. Instead of leading them to memorize God’s Word, attend Sunday School or bring their Bibles because it would be helpful and beneficial to their faith as adults, we bribed them with candy and prizes to invoke their participation. As a result we gave them a faith that was easy to leave. After all, if the prize is no longer “helpful and beneficial,” then let’s move on.
Maybe it’s how we programmed Millennial youth ministries. In the 1990s, we shifted from a discipleship (Sunday School, small group, retreats, personal discipling) to an entertainment model (Wednesday night worship and preaching, festivals and large youth conferences) to better reach this postmodern generation. Consequently, we reduced Millennial’s biblical learning to clever PowerPointed messages packed with hip clips from movies, grooved by youth culture lingo, and delivered by cool dudes (and dudettes) with grunge fashions, body piercings and tattoos. As a result, we gave Millennials a fashionable faith that wore terribly thin when reality bites.
But it’s not just the Millennials who have headed to the door. Gen X is just about “done” too. For decades they’ve waited in the wings for their opportunity to lead, suffering through various battles and changes that Boomer elders engineered to create the ideal church. But now, as aging Boomers overlook Xers for younger voices (especially to hire), Gen X has grown apathetic, disillusioned and tired.
A lot of Gen Xers and Millennials now stay away on Sundays and prefer to find faith community in small Bible fellowships, spiritual mentoring and Christian service. Faith, they have found, is better lived out on Tuesday nights, Thursday afternoons and Saturday mornings. If they follow a particular pastor or church, it’s done so through live stream, vidblog or podcast.
Remember, if we created spiritual spaces that are “easy to leave” then we shouldn’t be surprised when people no longer come.
What’s happening in the urban restaurant industry is something churches should heed and consider. Essentially, Millennials aren’t taking lunches like their elders and the lousy noon time crowds have dried up the profits for local eateries. Enter Spacious. It’s a company that reimagines a restaurant into a working “office away from the office” space for individuals and small groups. Now these struggling restaurants are booming with Millennials sweating away on smartphones and laptops.
Church, did you hear that? Once struggling restaurants are attracting (and growing) with young people because they moved from a delivery and sales model to a communal, interactive experience.
You see, Faith was never intended to be a ninety-minute once a week presentation (which is one of the reasons postmodern generations find the Sunday-only event so spiritually anemic). Rather, authentic Faith is best experienced within a dynamic collaborative “working” environment. Which begs a question: What if Sunday morning looked more like a gym or practice field (with coaches and mentors) than a concert and lecture hall? What if our worship experiences resembled what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14:26:
What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.
Paul’s description reveals the collaborative, interactive and experiential nature of the first century church. It’s a far cry from what we see delivered on most Sunday mornings. After all, Church was meant to be more than one person from a stage with a microphone.
But there’s another kicker: What if a church reimagined itself into a collaborative space the rest of the week too? It’s a shame that we have buildings that sit empty Monday through Saturday, except to house the staff and an occasional meeting or extra service.
It’s critical that we get more “spacious” in our gatherings to reach postmodern audiences.
The Church of Christ is alive, moving and interactive.
And that’s attractive to any generation.
I love sticky stuff.
The world loves sticky stuff. From Velcro to Gorilla glue to duct tape we like to stick things together. And yet, one of the least sticky things on the planet is Sunday morning church. For whatever reason, we prefer Teflon tactics and smooth strategies that slide people in the front door but also skate them right out the back door.
The problem is we don’t understand the “Rule of Threes.”
These standards are the social “stickers” that guide and guard how we attract, retain and empower individuals. It’s how we draw and join them into authentic community. All of these “stickers” are deeply rooted to human needs for grace, relationship, ownership, worth, laughter and security. Meet the right needs at the right times and you will naturally be “sticky.” Do them long enough and you’ll grow your small group, Sunday School class, children’s/youth ministry and church like crazy.
3 MINUTES (FIRST-TIMER): When a first-time visitor darkens the door of your church (or class or small group), you only have three minutes to scratch the two most primitive human needs: security and pleasure. People want to feel emotionally and physically safe. And they long to participate in enjoyable experiences.
I attended a church recently for the second time. I knew few of the unique traditions of this church. Other than personal family, I knew nobody else. I was handed a bulletin with an order of service and sat down. I needed to visit a restroom but didn’t know where it was. Nobody gave me any instructions. They just expected me to know.
And then the church service began and, frankly, it was one of the most boring experiences in my life. They sang songs from hymnbooks like funeral dirges. They gave long announcements about stuff of no interest (even to the faithful). There were few smiles, no laughter and little joy. Seriously, it was that bad and boring. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
It only takes minutes for a visitor to decide if he or she will return. It’s why guest relations or “front door evangelism” should be a church’s highest priority. If you can’t get them back, everything else is for naught. When a church fails to meet the security and pleasure needs of visitors it produces discomfort and that’s enough for anyone to look elsewhere. The “one and dones” are sending a message: you’re boring and I don’t feel safe (emotionally, physically or spiritually).
3 VISITS (FOLLOWER): When people enjoy their visit and sense security, they’ll return, but it”ll take these returning guests three positive and productive experiences to decide to “camp.” And that means a new need starts to surface: the longing to belong. We all hunger to connect, collaborate, cooperate and commune. We want to go, as the old sitcom “Cheers” used to promote, to a place “where everyone knows your name.”
Followers are doing just that: following. They’re interested, but they’re not fully committed. They’ve got one foot in and one foot out. What they’re looking for is a friend. Humans are wired for relationship and we naturally seek community. Unfortunately, churches are more interested in producing a “service” or a “show” on Sunday morning. We’re lousy at connecting people. And it’s why we lose so many guests. They like what they see but don’t like what they feel.
When a church fails to create social connections and spark friendships, it generates disconnection and early exits.
3 MONTHS (FRIEND): If a church can get a person to attend faithfully for three months, a “member” is created. People feel a part. They understand and agree to the basic rules, traditions and doctrines. They probably have made a friend (or two or three.) Of course, the problem today is many church growth analysts define a “regular” member as someone who attends Sunday services once or twice a month, but this isn’t true.
The reality is regular, faithful attendance shows a deepening commitment to community. Such individuals sense security, enjoy their experiences and have found friendships. Now the needs shift to grace and dignity.
To be honest, this is the stage that many churches, including celebrated megachurches, fail. Many, perhaps most, churches are pretty good, even excellent, at attracting newbies and fostering irregular guests, but when it comes to producing a committed regular member, they fall short. It’s because these congregations fail to meet a person’s deepest spiritual need for freedom and forgiveness (grace). We preach these topics well but don’t live them well. Instead a lot of churches can foster judgmentalism and legalism in a process that only creates clones and robots. We also fail to meet our deep need for dignity. Every regular member wants to know: Is this church a place where I can be me (grace) and be valued (dignity)?
It’s why churches must exercise caution in rushing people into leadership roles too quickly. These “regular members” (of only a few months) might be energetic and enthusiastic but they haven’t been tested. And if they aren’t prepared well for service, they’ll burn out fast. When churches fail to scratch our deep spiritual need for grace and our desire for dignity and self-worth, they produce disappointment. And that means bad attitudes, complaining, criticism and unexpected departures.
3X3 or NINE MONTHS (FAMILY): In reality, if you can groom and grow a member to be a regular part of the church for nine months, you now have an individual ready for leadership roles. This is a person who not only understands the routines, traditions, core beliefs, traditions and values of your church, but can communicate these ideas and ideals to other people. After nearly a year of regular attendance, a person feels a part of the family.
A “family” member senses security, enjoys attending and feels connected in the community. They feel safe enough to make mistakes, fall short, create messes and miss the mark without getting judged, criticized, condemned or excommunicated. They also sense they’re liked, wanted, valued and appreciated. So now the need shifts once again to empowerment.
This new “family” member wants to know: Is this a place where I can grow, contribute and make a difference? And, once again, a lot of churches (especially larger ones) surprisingly turn these potentially productive persons around and point them to the door at this juncture. It’s all a matter of politics, personal agendas and cliques. Every church has it’s political forces and if a “new family member” doesn’t see a pathway into leadership and contribution, they’ll begin to disengage and retreat.
3 YEARS (FAN): The most productive churches know it takes three years of positive contribution and leadership to create a raving fan. Jesus clearly modeled this discipleship time frame. He worked with his troops for three and a half years before they were ready to reproduce the values and vision He inculcated into their lives.
For a lot of churches, this is too long a frame. We want to microwave faith and discipleship. We want things done fast and immediately, but spiritual growth (like physical development) isn’t something you can engineer. Spiritual maturity happens on it’s own time and in it’s own contexts. Churches need to exercise patience as they grow people in their spiritual communities, otherwise a person can lose heart, discourage, tire or burn out.
A “fan” is a highly committed, productive leader. They exude enthusiasm and energy. They spark attention and affection. They invite others to embrace the vision and fan the flame that replicates this “sticky” process. They are a church’s most valuable (and sticky) people, essential to it’s continuing growth and success. After all, when a church no longer has “fans” (and many don’t today), it begins the death process.
The Rule of 3’s.
It’s how a church becomes and stays sticky.
Two thousand years ago human history was friended by God.
For three and a half years, those who followed this Galilean guru saw the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk and the dead rise. With a word this man could calm seas, feed thousands, forgive sinners and call out demons. No one who met him left unchanged.
And yet, the religious elite didn’t believe him. The lawyers sought to trap him. His hometown didn’t want him. Even his own disciples betrayed, denied and left him.
Nevertheless, this man still loved everyone regardless of his or her status, religion, circumstance, behavior or past. He loved the outcast, the forgotten, the despised, the prejudiced, the homeless, the young, the old, the injured, the oppressed, the sinner and, yes, even those critics who didn’t like, want or understand him.
He loved because he was LOVE in the flesh.
Then one dark Friday this man who claimed to be God surprisingly, willingly and purposefully gave up his life. He was charged with crimes he did not commit so one day the truly criminal (you and me) could enjoy Freedom. He was abused with obscenity so one day the horribly profane (you and me) could experience Peace. He was punctured, beat and whipped so one day those who get crucified by life (yes, you and me) could embrace Healing, Joy and Hope.
Basically, he died so that you and I could truly LIVE. For those who accept this Truth and follow His Teaching, death no longer stings. Death no longer separates. Death no longer has power. And that makes LIFE worth LIVING.
Yes, many religious leaders have proposed to know the way to God, but Only One Man claimed to be The Way. Many prophets have proclaimed they had found special truth but Only One Man professed to be The Truth. Many spiritualists have promoted soul work to improve your life but Only One Man testified to be The Life.
How do I know? Because This Man did something they couldn’t.
He backed up his claims of Divinity by His Own Resurrection. I know, that’s crazy, right? But He did. Check it out for yourself. His tomb is still empty…He has RISEN. Indeed. And He is still Alive!
Jesus of Nazareth was fully human and fully God.
He is the Messiah. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords.
You can believe it, reject it, deny it or mock it.
But everyone will one day will face the Truth.
No one gets out of here alive.
Except this Jesus…and those who trust Him as Lord and Savior.
It’s unbelievable to consider. It’s amazing to comprehend. It’s beautiful to embrace…and IT’S OUTRAGEOUSLY TRUE!
That’s why if I was the last voice to confess Jesus is alive, I would. If it meant losing everything to share Jesus is The Way and Truth, I would. If it meant dying to proclaim He is The Life, I would. What can anything or anyone do to me? I fear no man, no weapon, no challenge, no demon, no trouble and no circumstance. My Faith is in GOD alone. My life is not my own. My sin is forgiven. My Calling is clear. My Joy is complete. My Hope is secure.
I believe with all my heart that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.
Do you? Will you? Can you?
I hope so.
Today is a very good day to start.