Reimaging Church: Why We Can’t Settle for Just Another Remodel

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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.

About rickchromey

Dr. Rick Chromey is a theologian, philosopher, historian and cultural expert. He has empowered leaders to lead, teachers to teach and parents to parent since 1985.

Posted on August 11, 2020, in American church, Christian education, Christian Growth and Discipleship, Christianity, church attendance, Church buildings, Church Decline, Church History, Culture and Christianity and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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