A New Restoration: American Christianity in Decline (Part 1)
The American church is in trouble. Do I need to even cite the statistics or quote the sources? I doubt it. It’s common knowledge, both inside and outside the Church. Every major denomination has faced the music. It’s not 1995 anymore and clearly fewer are dancing. The baby boomerang that launched the megachurch movement is no longer relevant. Gen X, Millennials and the emerging iTech generation are staying away from church in droves. Yes, there are some great things still happening and some American churches continue to grow, even rapidly. But in general such churches are the exception, not the rule.
The reality is the majority of American churches are smaller (under 200 active members), and most of these are stagnant or dying. Even the poster child of church growth–the megachurch–is on ecclesiastical pause. Some are in outright decline. Of those enjoying growth, far too many rely upon stolen sheep to pad their numbers. Evangelism is the dinosaur in the room. The recent fad of satellite campuses receives much attention but the mortality rate of these campus churches–with live video feeds of pastor so-and-so–is fairly high. We celebrate the successes (and should) but there are plenty of failures–too many in my opinion–with this model to applaud without caution.
The core issue, regardless of congregational size or age or context, is authentic community. In a word, how “sticky” is your church? How well do you create instant connection and fast-track relationships? Friendships begin wide (but must grow deep to create life change). They blossom quickly but root slowly. So how well do you attract (evangelize), disciple (edify) and mature (equip) believers? For the most part, in my experience and observation, American churches lack stickiness. Far too many fail to create genuine friendships or foster deeper faith. In some churches, including megachurches, there is an element of teflon or worse, repellent. The problem is Christian leaders confuse unity with community. After all, you can tie two cats’ tails together and have unity, but you most assuredly won’t have community. Programming relationships (via small groups, organized events and gatherings) is often just tail-tying.
The great tragedy of the modern congregation is how we barely resemble the first-century church. We’ve survived two millennia of church councils and Dark Ages. We have enjoyed reformation and awakenings. But what have we become? Is what you and I experience on Sunday morning truly what God desires? Or are we just playing church? And why does wider culture profess affection for Jesus but disdain, even disgust, for “church” and “Christians?” A lot of Christian leaders will wince and wink at that fact, but two thousand years ago the Church wasn’t hated by the populace. Oh yes, they were despised by the political powers and religious elite because Christianity proved popular. The hoi polloi, according to Acts 2:47, favored those who became Christians. They genuinely liked and “highly regarded” them (Acts 5:13). Until persecution scattered the early church, thousands joined them. People wanted to be around Christians because these believers were different. They were better. They were winsome.
The first-century church was attractive, engaging, culturally-relevant, popular and beautiful. And they achieved this cultural feat during one of the most pagan, pornographic, violent and vile eras in human history. The ancient Greco-Roman empire makes our American social ills look like a mild allergy.
So in coming installments I want to reveal the compelling DNA of the early church. In the process, a truth will be painfully clear: the first-century church is nothing like most churches today. In fact, I struggle to name one that operates fully as the Church described in Acts. We have ventured far from our Original Design–a blueprint that I believe God preferred for His people. A master plan that like Josiah’s Book of the Law has been closeted and cloaked by human tradition, agenda and power.
Furthermore, I want to paint a fresh vision. What if the Church could once again operate like the Church God birthed on Pentecost? What if the Church was dynamic and daring and delightful? What if the Church burned so bright in the neighborhood and community we caused Son burn?
What if the Church restored the original DNA? I come from a fellowship of churches that proudly call themselves the “Restoration Movement.” Our spiritual forefathers guided a restoration of ancient theology. We weren’t the only Christians, they said, but we were Christians only. Overall, their vision of restoration worked and succeeded. Many of the largest churches in America are part of this non-denominational American frontier movement. But despite a restoration of theology, my tribe within Christianity failed to restore the DNA of the first church. We got a lot of things right, but we didn’t get them all right.
I believe it’s essential–in a post-modern and post-Christian culture–that we restore the DNA of the first-century church. We need to re-boot the Church. We need to erase the ecclesiastical hard drive (from 20 centuries of human tradition) and restore the defaults. We need to look back so we might see forward.
The early Church holds the blueprint, if we only dare to look.