Category Archives: Church Decline
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.
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.
Houston has a problem. So does Phoenix, Seattle, Denver, St. Louis and other cities.
But it ain’t just in the big towns. Small town and rural USAmerica are experiencing the crunch too. It’s a problem so big that Thom Rainer, a notable church researcher rightly observed:
“About 20 years ago, a church member was considered active in the church if he or she attended three times a week. Today, a church member is considered active in the church if he or she attends three times a month.”
In his apologetic, Rainer cites five reasons for this shift:
- The local church has been minimized.
- Americans idolize their activities.
- We take vacations from church.
- Members aren’t held to high expectations.
- Churches make infrequent attendees leaders.
While I appreciate Rainer’s astute analysis, I do think the real reasons are much deeper, even different. Yes, times have changed. There’s no question the local church has lost influence and pull. For most of two millennia the church was the center of a local culture. That’s why steeples and bells were needed. Churches doubled as schools, community centers, voting places and other social spaces. Many pop historians think the television did more to erode the influence of the local church than anything else. Television became the new conduit for Faith thanks to guys like Billy Graham, Robert Schuller, Jimmy Swaggart and other televangelists.
And don’t forget a Millennial generation that dined on Veggie Tales.
Do USAmericans idolize their activities over church? Take vacations from church? No doubt. But WHY do they find other social gatherings, events and pastimes more inviting? Why do people avoid going to church when they’re on vacation?
I have lived both sides of the ecclesiastical fence. I’ve been both a pastor and pew-warmer.
I grew up in a small church (attending easily 3 times a week) during the ’60s and ’70s. I loved the community, security and the opportunity my home church provided. Monthly fellowship dinners. Sunday and Wednesday night church. All night prayer vigils. All day service projects. Two-week revivals and VBS. In my church we had but one paid position: the preacher. Everyone else were volunteers, including janitorial and secretarial. Every child learned ministry as soon as they could help. I washed communion cups as a preschooler, served offering and communion as a child, led worship for Sunday church as a junior higher, preached and took communion to shut ins as an older teen.
In my church we didn’t have a youth minister. We made ministers of our youth.
But something happened during the 1980s and 1990s. Church went from being a place of mission to a Sunday morning “show.” Even worship pastors think it’s a concert, asking–sometimes forcing–people to “stand” to worship (as if that’s the most “spiritual” posture). Preachers have turned incredibly territorial. Back in my youth I remember elders preaching and lots of guest preachers (missionaries particularly). Today, church has become what one of my grad students labeled just a “Ted Talk and a concert.” In my Christian Church tribe, weekly communion has become a drive-by event. Anybody remember the pastoral prayer? In the church of my youth, I recall several minutes reserved to pray for the needs in the body. I remember elders praying for communion, deacons praying for offerings and even moments of silent prayer. Not anymore. Some churches barely have a prayer…literally.
For many it’s practically not worth the time to get dressed for church anymore. Unless church is on the way to some other Sunday activity, it’s just as easy to catch a few more winks and watch the live-stream service in pajamas.
I’ve been blessed to experience hundreds of different churches, from home-based to megachurch, from rural to urban, and nearly every denominational flavor you can imagine. I’ve enjoyed church in every state except New Mexico and Hawaii (with hopes to knock that latter one off in 2017) and on three continents from South Africa to Tanzania to Moldova to Mexico to Canada. I’ve talked to countless people about why they no longer regularly attend church and the reasons generally fall into a few main themes related to community issues, pastoral leadership or church vision.
1. WE CAN BAIT’EM BUT WE CAN’T BAG’EM! Most churches are great at “welcoming visitors” but have no clue for how to engage and assimilate guests into the mission and ministry of a local church. Visitors feel welcomed but many returning guests grow confused. People don’t need another coffee mug, but they would love a friend. When guests enjoy the “show” (worship and preaching) but feel no connection or community, they quickly convert to spectators. And if you’re not feeling up for the “show,” you stay away.
2. THE WORSHIP IDOL! Most people, even guys, will sing and worship if it’s real and moving, but let’s be honest: the whole “show” thing is troubling and many Christians–including very devoted ones–refuse to partake. I attended a church for a couple years that purposely hired “worship artists” to lead their Sunday gatherings. So it was no mistake that church turned into a concert with light shows, high-tech visuals and even fog machines. Some churches now pass out earplugs for sensitive ears. But look around and you’ll see very few are singing.
3. THINK “CHEERS!” We all want to go where “everyone knows my name.” That’s why bars are packed on Saturday nights and churches are emptier on Sunday morning. When was the last time you went to church expecting to meet a new friend or improve a relationship? Simply put, all churches need to create space and time in the worship experience for community. I’m not talking that “meat and greet” thing to waste a few minutes so the musicians can fix/tune/change instruments. I mean, REAL time (up to 10 minutes) where people can connect, reflect, share, pray and discover friendships.
4. BORE NO MORE! Preachers need to realize in a YouTube, Ted Talk and Twitter culture that less is more and that’s why more are staying away. The 30 minute sermon was a very productive tool in yesterday’s church but today’s postmodern prefers preachers to set the table and let them TALK about it. “I don’t need some guy on a stage to tell me how to live,” one Millennial opined, “I only need that guy to help me understand God’s Word and let me talk it out with a friend.” Preachers could easily do that under 15 minutes and I show you how in my book Sermons Reimagined.
5. A TRUE RESTORATION MOVEMENT! I’ll confess my choice of churches is limited (at least for regular attendance). I can put up with a lot of ecclesiastical stuff–including some poor theology, occasional bad preaching, church cliques and other shenanigans–but I have one requirement of the church where I choose to attend regularly: weekly Lord’s Supper. It’s more than a tradition for me. It’s where I connect with Christ in my life. I look forward to the Lord’s Supper more than singing praises, more than the sermon, more than the coffee and day-old donuts in the lobby. I love this ancient biblical tradition. Another one is baptism. What a beautiful picture of community, grace and new life! So I’m calling all churches to re-emphasize the biblical sacraments of baptism and weekly communion.
Ultimately, the Church will reorientate, reimagine and, hopefully, restore itself.
It has too.
In today’s 21C culture, one of the few truly radical “alternative lifestyles” left is a conservative, Bible-believing, Scripture-quoting, amen-shouting, hymn-singing Christian.
The Grinch desperately tried to steal Christmas in 1994, 2005 and 2011, but 2016 might be the year he finally gets the deed done.
After all, Christmas falls on a Sunday this year. And it’s proving controversial. Some have already called on pastors not to cancel Sunday services. The reasons are good, but it may be too late.
For centuries in Christendom, a Christmas Sunday was particularly blessed. The “Christ Mass” and Sunday (selected because it honored Jesus’ resurrection) were highly honored days within Christian culture. After all, it was widely believed Jesus was conceived and died on the same day. And since the ancient Jewish calendar placed Christ’s death as March 25, then nine months after this day (December 25) was the date for the Messiah’s birth. Consequently, when his birthday and his Resurrection (Sun)day landed together, it was something truly special.
Nobody missed mass on a Christmas Sunday.
But that was then and this is now.
In 2016, the tipping point for the decline in American churchianity will be very evident, I fear. Although I hope I’m wrong, my guess is Christmas Sunday morning services will prove to be among the lowest attended all year. Many churches have already shuttered services. Still other congregations are scaling back or reducing services to accommodate lower attendances.
The good news? What still draws USAmericans are Christmas Eve services…where I’m definitely predicting larger than normal crowds. Most of America’s 223 million Christians traditionally gather to remember the Christ child’s birth on Christmas Eve, but it remains to be seen if they’ll return hours later for a second service. Many church watchdogs feel it’s unlikely and suspect the sanctuary will be eerily emptier on Sunday morning, December 25, 2016.
Let’s face facts: Sunday morning is hardly sacred anymore. It’s just another day for Americans to play, shop, dine, sleep and work. Regular church attendance has been sliding for years (in some parts of the country its in single digits). The average churchgoer now attends around two to three times a month, even in the buckle of the Bible belt. This explains the traditional Easter bounce, when on Resurrection Sunday, Christians collectively gather and, consequently, boost attendances. This year, Christmas will likely produce the opposite effect and collectively be a day USAmericans choose to sabbath at home. Many churches have simply decided not to fight the obvious, but is this caving into culture or an attempt to serve the needs of our context?
Will people, including many regular attenders, stay away on Christmas Sunday? And why does Christmas Eve still attract like the star in the east? The reasons are intriguing.
First, because Christmas Eve services are often better designed and produced than normal Sunday services (and people know it). Furthermore, Christmas Eve services don’t separate families, focus upon traditions (carols, hanging of the greens) and are more experiential (candlelight communion, living nativities). Christmas Eve messages are simpler and shorter. Offerings are designated for community need. Ironically, the churches who draw the largest crowds for Christmas Eve are those who still go old school. Here in Boise it’s standing room only at the Cathedral of the Rockies every Christmas Eve when pipe organs, Christmas hymns, candlelightings, handbells, high-back pews and inspiring stained-glass windows make the yuletide bright.
A second reason for this year’s mass Christmas Day exodus is because the holiday has become the day to stay home with family and friends. Unlike Easter and Thanksgiving, nearly everything is closed on Christmas day, especially in the A.M. It’s the only calendar day that most restaurants, shops and stores shut down. Families also have special traditions, customs and rituals for Christmas and many of these treasured traditions happen during the morning hours. Just like churches used to fight the Super Bowl on Sunday night (and lost), now churches who plan Sunday services for Christmas day will also lose to Christmas morning gift exchanges. This year, more than ever, even regular attenders will stay home…especially since they’ve already participated in Christmas Eve services.
A third reason also presents a brewing problem: the average church service requires a boatload of volunteers and they’ll likely be missing. Churches rely upon multiple volunteers to greet, pass offering buckets, lead (and play) worship songs, run lights and sound, teach Sunday lessons to children and teens, distribute bulletins and countless other necessary tasks. Since most church families will prefer to stay home or wish to be out of town, including those most likely to volunteer, the stress to find replacements is already proving taxing. It’s not like the old days when you could hold a church service with a preacher and a piano player. Today’s event-driven worship services require numerous individuals to produce a service. Furthermore, many volunteers will have already served Christmas Eve (including multiple services in larger congregations), so it’ll be hard to persuade them back for another round in the morning. Finally, it’ll be downright impossible to find teachers and workers for the nursery and children’s ministry on Christmas Day. And since most families will likely be the first ones to miss church on Christmas Sunday, even if a teacher is replaced who’s to say there’ll even be students?
Consequently, many church leaders are rethinking a Christmas Day worship service. And some have already concluded it ain’t worth the time or energy. It’s like Sunday night church. Television killed Sunday night church services in the 1970s. By the late 1980s, most churches finally ditched the dead dinosaur. Similar ditchings have happened with church camp, revival services, Bible Bowl, pews, organs and pulpits. All good ideas and useful in their contextual and cultural era, but are now largely out of step (despite detractors who argue otherwise).
With that said, I’m not sure a full shuttering of services is necessary. Just don’t be surprised if only a scattered few show up on Christmas Sunday (the optimists predict 50% of normal). In fact, I think an unplugged, even acapella, scaled-back worship experience could be attractive, especially if its late in the morning (11 a.m.) or early afternoon (1 p.m.). An early morning service will most certainly crash this year. If possible, the services need to require few volunteers. Use only the necessary people. You don’t need a full band, maybe just a couple of guitars or a keyboard.
Another outside the box idea is a return to the midnight Christ-mass (candlelight communion). Historically, Christians gathered at midnight on Christmas Eve to celebrate the Eucharist. What if your church held a midnight service that also served as your Sunday worship service too? Many Christians, particularly those from mainline and Catholic traditions, value and seek midnight worship experiences on Christmas eve. Christmas day is then a time to rest, open gifts, eat and celebrate family. It’s still not too late to add such a service.
For those who are cancelling services altogether, it might be good to publish service times for other churches in town. After all, you might have a few faithful saints who still want to attend a Christmas Sunday morning church service.
Of course the wild card in this whole mix is the weather. If the U.S. is hit by a monster storm (or storms) on Christmas Sunday, that will make it even worse on attendance counts. But, in general, this Christmas Sunday will reveal the terrible, troubling, continuing tragedy of the decline of American churchianity. Like it or not, it’s getting easier and easier for western Christians to stay away from church.
The old hymn extols how we “heard the bells on Christmas Day.” It’s a warm and welcome yuletide sentiment. Unfortunately, few churches now have steeples or bells. The times have changed. Consequently, Christmas Eve services is when the Church should unleash her finest creativity, best resources and greatest talent. It’s the best window all year to attract the de-churched, former churched and unchurched.
And when Christmas falls on a Sunday, like this year, we might also need to relax, reinvent and reimagine. If its best to cancel, that’s understandable. If it’s better to meet, then so be it. Perhaps it’s profitable to remember Paul’s words to the Romans: One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord (Romans 14:5-6).
Ultimately, American Christians will vote with their feet this year…they’ll certainly flock to Christmas Eve services and don’t be surprised if they’re not back in the A.M.
Bells or no bells.
Outside my window I see change is in the air. Leaves are turning various shades of orange, yellow and red. The temperatures are dipping. The days are getting shorter. I know that winter is coming (again).
In geology there’s a well-worn mantra: “The key to the past is the present.” Essentially, you can create an historical storyline by observing the present world (rocks, strata and fossils). Unfortunately, rocks don’t come with tags so occasionally misinterpretations happen.
When it comes to tomorrow, futurists bend the rule slightly: “The key to the future is the past.” In other words, what will happen tends to reflect patterns already observable. Master futurists are skilled historians who read the rings of societal changes to project, postulate and predict. Weather forecasters rely upon historical patterns. Baseball analysts predict players’ production using past statistics. Sociologists weigh generational cycles to suggest how current and future cohorts might behave.
Just like we know winter is coming when autumn chills and leaves fall, a futurist stands upon the past to predict the future.
In the past quarter century there’s been a clear shift from linear to loopy thinking. This is particularly evident when you look at history, which naturally tends to repeat itself in very general ways. For example, a year of life contains four very distinct seasons: spring, summer, fall and winter. The specifics (weather, events) might differ but, in general, these seasons are immutable.
In church history we see similar patterns emerge. We see some seasons where the Church is emerging, like leaves in spring. Or seasons where the Church enjoys cultural blessing, influence and power (like summer). Or seasons where the Church hunkers down to survive the dark days of winter. Or still other seasons where there’s decline, but still colorful autumn moments.
Since AD 33, when the Church was born, it has experienced seasonal changes roughly every 250-300 years. An historical analysis also reveals a troubling truth for the Western and Northern Church. It’s not one that’s popular or talked much about, but if history is an indicator, then “winter” is on the way. The darkest, coldest and most desperate season for the Church will be the next 200-300 years in Europe, Russia and North America.
Of course, “winter” isn’t anything new for the Church. It was born in winter, but eventually experienced a spring, summer and fall. Here’s a simply stated history of the Church:
AD 33 – 325 (WINTER): The early and post-apostolic church faced horrific persecution, heresies and struggles. In many places it operated underground.
AD 325 – 451 (SPRING): The church centralizes and nationalizes under Constantine. Two Councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451) are the bookends to this ecclesiastical “spring” serving to prevent heresy and produce creedal Christianity.
AD 451 – 800 (SUMMER): The church spreads influence (and power) beneath emerging papal Catholic Christianity, most notably Gregory the Great.
AD 800 – 1054 (FALL): Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor, as Church enjoys cultural favor. Unfortunately, the good times don’t last. In 1054 A.D. the Eastern and Western church divide in what’s termed “The Great Schism.”
AD 1054 – 1225 (WINTER): After the Eastern and Western Church split, there’s a period commonly referred to as the Dark Ages that produces cultural and biblical ignorance.
AD 1225 – 1517 (SPRING): The crusades and rise of the university spark a cultural spring. Thomas Aquinas, Erasmus and the Renaissance (rebirth) create a new day for the Church.
AD 1517 – 1730 (SUMMER): Using Gutenberg technology, the Protestant Reformation reshapes Christianity and produces modern denominationalism.
AD 1730 – 1995 (FALL): The Great Awakening and Rise of Evangelical and non-denominational Christianity. In a post WW2 culture, the church shines through foreign missions, parachurch ministries, megachurches and “industrialized” and cultural Christianity.
In 1995 the first deep frost of post-modern culture descends. Few see it, but everyone felt it (and many ignored it). On April 4, 1994 Netscape was founded. Within a year, the Internet or World Wide Web (www) became a buzz trend. A new digital alphabet also emerged. JPEG. GIF. MPEG. MP3. MOV. PDF. Within a decade a cyber culture changed the world deeply wounding institutions grounded to analog, print and industrial technology.
If the past is our guide, the next 200-300 years will signal desperate and difficult times for the Northern and Western Church. Could we experience another Dark Ages? Or face persecution like the early and post-apostolic church? The evidence suggests that winter is on the way for European, Russian, Canadian and American churches. On a global front, the Church has moved south and east. Some of the largest churches in the world are now in Africa and Asia. Meanwhile the American Church has followed in the steps of Europe and Canada. Less people identify themselves as Christians (a.k.a. the “nones”). Fewer people attend church (a.k.a. the “dones”). Christianity’s ability to influence national morality is diminishing. In fact, the most radical “alternative” lifestyle in America today is a conservative evangelical Christian.
Every season brings change.
But change isn’t easy. Change hurts, halts and humbles. Change redirects, reorients and replaces.
That’s why we can’t get too comfortable. Change is going to happen. Culture is always evolving, shifting and moving. Churches must relevantly interact with their culture or become obsolete. In fact, every church building has a date of origination that communicates hidden messages to their communities. A building advertises values and vision. It reveals priorities, prejudices and promises. A facility is the face, the first thing a visitor “sees” of physical importance. Have you noticed how the steeple has gone the way of the stegosaurus? At one time steeples were the first physical things someone saw from afar, announcing a church was ahead. Church bells marked the time, announced services and even warned the community of danger. Today, steeples and bells are irrelevant. Change happens.
The question isn’t why things change, but will you change? Currently the Church faces the greatest cultural shift since the Renaissance and our darkest days might certainly lie ahead, at least here in America. We got pretty comfortable in our tax-free, non-profit status. And we embraced Gutenberg and clock technology (two inventions that reimagined modern culture). We like our time and space. In fact, we’ve largely defined “church” as “time” and “space.” We even say we “went to church” (translation: we attended a certain space in a particular time).
But like any new season, change is blowing. In the past quarter century a whole new cyber, digital postmodern world has emerged that’s spelled C-H-A-N-G-E to all institutions, organizations and communities.
What’s this mean? What will the Church look like in 25 or 50 or 100 years?
- Worship will likely move from a “service” to an “experience.” Postmoderns thrive on sensory situations and embrace spiritual spaces that make them “feel” closer to God. As rising 3D technology, holographic visuals and virtual reality capture our cultural eye, people will naturally gravitate toward experiential discipleship, ministry and worship. If your church services are “sit and soak” then you’re on a death march to irrelevance.
- Preaching will likely become more interactive and brief. Because postmoderns process information visually that means the monologue is history…at least long audio-driven sermons. Think YouTube and Twitter. Think Ted Talks or Sight Bites. Think Dr. Oz or Bill Nye the Science Guy. Messages must also create friendships. Pastors must embrace a major paradigm shift and move from “me” to “we” through designed messages that get people talking with each other.
- Churches will likely become spiritual health centers. Some futurists predict by 2020 most people won’t attend a church. In fact, many former church buildings are now coffee shops, homes and bars. The frame exists, but the purpose has been reimagined. Tomorrow’s church will likely be a 24/7/365 spiritual health center. We need to re-purpose our facilities away from performances and events to opportunities that stretch spiritual muscles and grow disciples.
Our culture has changed and the church also needs to reimagine itself (not just reform and restore) to embrace and enjoy this new 21st century landscape. Not everyone will like the changes. We’ll no doubt fail as we find our legs in this new world.
Winter might be coming for the American church, but don’t forget that some of the best cultural events happen during this cold season. Thanksgiving. Christmas. New Year’s Eve. The Super Bowl. Valentine’s Day. Yes, it can be a brutal season. But it can also be a blessed season…for those who ski, sled, skate, snowshoe, snowboard, snowmobile, and ice fish. The early and post-apostolic Church thrived under persecution. Even in the Dark Ages, God was working some great things.
Winter is on the way…no doubt they will prove the worst and BEST days for the Church.
Today the Barna Group released it’s annual report on the State of the Church. And while many will rightly focus on the positives (like most Americans still identify themselves as Christians), there is continuing evidence for general stagnation and decline.
A glaring example is how the report shows only 1 in 3 USAmericans (31%) are now “practicing Christians.” That might sound still pretty good until you read the fine print: Barna defines a “practicing Christian” as someone who attends church only once a month and also says faith is “very important.” I’m not sure many church leaders, pastors or professors of ministry would agree that someone who makes it to church once every four weeks is “practicing” his or her Christianity very fervently. And it’s difficult to understand how that same person could also conclude faith is “very important.” It’s contradictory, even oxymoronic. The real truth? In many communities, particularly in the Northeast and Northwest, less the 10% now attend church every week.
But I think there’s a deeper insight to this troubling statistic: the continuing disconnect of the modern church with wider culture, including self-professing Christians.
After all, this study reveals, most people still think church is a “good thing.” Most Americans even shrug and say, “Yeah, I’m a Christian.” But this post-Christian, post-modern perspective reflects a growing type of Christianity that’s more individualized, eclectic and subjective. Many of these “Christians” self-identify also as the “nones” (no faith affiliation) and “dones” (formerly churched). They still go to church on occasion, perhaps even once a month, but they’re no longer engaged in churchianity.
Many USAmericans now choose to attend sporadically because it’s no longer the best thing personally. As one Millennial recently confided (and this is someone who grew up in church): “Sunday morning church is a waste of my time. I’ve got better things to do.” When probed as to why the Sunday morning church experience is lacking, this Millennial offered several reasons: passivity (“I have to sit there and be quiet; I prefer to be active”), lack of connection and community (“I really don’t know anyone nor feel anyone cares about me”), the lack of ritual (“I like to take Communion and my church only does that once a month, so that’s when I go”) and the sermon (“I want to talk about Faith not be lectured and told what to believe or how I should live my faith”).
Now before we cast stones at this Millennial “Christian,” let’s not miss the bigger point: This individual is very open to Christianity but not churchianity…and there’s a difference.
Churchianity is “come and soak.” Christianity is “go and become.” Churchianity is “going to church” while Christianity is “being the church.” Churchianity is all about numbers: attendance, offerings, facility and staff size. Christianity is about making disciples anywhere and everywhere. Matthew 28:18 is the Great Go-Mission not the Great Come-Inside.
Churchianity is stage-focused and lecture-driven. Christianity is people focused and experience-driven. Read the book of Acts. In this historical account there are clear clues, descriptions and explanations for how to “be” and “do” church. I know this is difficult to comprehend but Christianity doesn’t need a building, an order of service, a liturgy or a preacher or a worship team. The most authentic expression of ekklesia (gathering or “church”) is a small home group. There’s only one instance in Acts where thousands were saved on one day (Acts 2) and they all went home afterwards all over the ancient world. The modern church has reduced discipleship to 25 minute lecture inside the context of an event. Any commanded rituals like baptism or the Lord’s Supper are rushed, reduced or resisted.
Churchianity is representative and top-down. Christianity is democratic and bottom-up. The last will be first. The least will be honored. The small will be big. Water will be wine. You don’t need to be baptized by an ordained pastor or priest. Church was never meant to be merely a concert and Tedtalk (as one of my students opined). I Corinthians 14:26 reveals an interesting insight into what church meetings looked like: 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. In the early church everyone prayed (not a few), everyone contributed (not a few), everyone shared Divine insights (not a few). The Lord’s Supper was a communal meal. Churches were ruled by a plurality of elders not a single person. Today’s church looks nothing like the original small, interactive, experiential New Testament church.
The problem is today’s Christian (former, inactive, occasional) is rejecting churchianity. They are rejecting the form. They are rejecting the wineskin. They are rejecting discipleship by lecture. They are rejecting another “service” where they sit there for an hour and watch others perform.
Ultimately I believe a church (a gathering of believers) should be judged only against the Original DNA, as revealed in Acts 2:42. Essentially, believers gathered to learn the apostle’s doctrine, to pray, to fellowship and to partake of the Lord’s Supper/Eucharist. This model was clearly Jesus’ intent. It’s how he discipled. It’s what he did when they met together.
We can evaluate every church (and services offered on Sunday) by four simple standards:
- DOCTRINE: Does a church meeting include teaching of the apostles’ doctrine? One Body. One Spirit. One Hope. One Lord. One Faith. One Baptism. One God and Father (Ephesians 4:4-6).
- PRAYER: Who prays at a church? The preacher or the people? Is there opportunity for everyone to pray? Is prayer a promoted value or just supplemental to open and close?
- FELLOWSHIP: Do people genuinely know each other? Does the church create connections, conversation and community in its worship experiences and activities, events and gatherings?
- COMMUNION: Does our church practice the Lord’s Supper every time it gathers? By the end of the first century, the early Church set aside every Sunday morning to gather and participate in this commanded ritual.
If the church where you pastor or attend answered NO to any of these questions, it’s time to refocus the PURPOSE of your gatherings. It’s time we stopped the exodus.
After all, as this Barna report reveals, what we’re doing is no longer working.
And it hasn’t for years.
The Church has been alive and well for 2000 years.
In some matters, nothing has changed. In other ways, everything has changed. The Church has been reformed, restored and reimagined. She has survived underground and emerged in fresh cultural contexts. She has experienced persecution and sanctuary, seasons of ignorance and periods of enlightenment. The Church has produced some of the greatest leaders, theologians, philosophers, scientists, artists, musicians and writers.
It’s been quite an ecclesiastical ride. And it’s far from over.
Originally the name “Christian” was a derogatory and derisive name for those who dared to follow Jesus the Christ (or Messiah). A cross was a method of capital punishment (not jewelry or a logo or a religious icon). Christianity wasn’t safe or secure or sandwiched in a box for Sunday mornings only. People died when they lied about their giving (Ananias & Sapphira), endured all-night teaching (Eutychus) and generally lived in conflict, fear and anxiety once converting to this Jewish cult known simply as “The Way (Acts 9:2; 19:9; 19:23; 22:4).”
Christianity in many places was illegal or, at the least, censored and considered offensive to cultural norms of tolerance and religious diversity. They were accused of cannibalism, treason and insurrection. After all, Christians had the audacity to proclaim there was only “one Way, one Truth and one Life” in which to live…guaranteeing eternal life. They claimed their Master died, resurrected and ascended to where God lives. It’s no wonder they were considered fools, idiots, delirious and crazy.
Individuals convicted for practicing Christianity were stoned, boiled in oil, pulled apart by the limbs, tossed to lions, burned alive on stakes, impaled and thrown off buildings. Still, these martyrs gladly died for this Faith and this Galilean guru. And still do to this day.
Against such conflict and odds, this “cult” known as The Way still flourished and grew daily (Acts 2:47; 5:12-14). For 2000 years its been condemned, criticized, censored and castigated, and yet still draws, changes, empowers and frees. American “churchianity” will (and is) fading, but authentic Christianity never will.
Trust me, the CHURCH is alive and well on planet earth. It just might not look like the church of your youth, your ideas, your cultural context, your expectations or your religious traditions. Jesus is still the same (yesterday, today and forever), but He’s not much for old wineskins, religious boats and safe places. Jesus travels light, dangerous and free.
And so do his followers. We must never become so content, comfortable or conformed to this world that we lose sight of our Master. Many ancient churches, particularly in North Africa, used an ostrich egg as a metaphor for their Faith. Ostriches have poor memories but amazing, 360 degree, eyesight. They can literally put one eye on an object while looking with the other somewhere else. With their nests, they retain one eye always on its location (or they’ll forget it’s whereabouts) while the other looks for danger. The early churches saw this as a perfect metaphor for their cultural Christianity: keep one eye peeled for trouble and the other on locked on your nest. Don’t forget where you came from, but always be aware that nothing is sacred or safe or secure. Jesus is alive and living things are dynamic. We will also have to move, change or reinvent to keep up with Him.
I love the Church. I love the American Church.
But I believe she’s losing sight of the nest.
She’s forgetting her Original DNA (Acts 2:42). She’s fallen in love with American strategy and models. She’s become a business, a show and a school. As one of my students well-noted about his megachurch: “It’s just a concert and a TedTalk every Sunday.” The American church is losing the efficacy of her Sacraments and the glorious Communion of Her Saints. She’s enamored with the gods of buildings, attendances, service times, lecture-sermons, offering counts, personality pastors and multi-site marketing. It’s Church in a box and for many the air inside has grown stale, stifling and suffocating. Consequently, all across America, the Church is going from movement to monument to mausoleum.
Essentially, too many American churches have forgotten altogether our Original Purpose: to seek the weary, bind the broken, heal the sick and comfort the dying…saving them from their helplessness and hopelessness. That’s why the Church exists. We are “Jesus” to our family, friends, coworkers and neighbors.
Yes, that Church is still alive and well on planet earth! Even in America. But you have to look for it. You have to look beyond the facades, the facilities and the faces of consumer churchianity.
I love the Church! I love the American church.
God is up to something in our country. Something big. Something bold. Something better.
Maybe in 50 years our children’s children will look back at the American Church of the late 20th and early 21st century with a smile and curiosity.
And possibly a tear.
After all, change hurts.
And new births are messy.
But it’s coming. Like it or not, tomorrow’s Church in America (and elsewhere) won’t look like today’s model.
As for me, I’m going to continue love Jesus and His Kingdom. I’m so grateful to part of God’s work on earth. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
It’s only a few days after Easter and social media still buzzes with good reports of Easter Sunday gatherings. Pastors from around the U.S. are gleefully citing higher attendance, baptisms and the good feeling that Resurrection Sunday always brings.
Personally, I celebrate with these pastors and their churches.
We all need some “wins” in the ministry and Easter is one of those few Sundays when we feel like we’re making a difference. There is a noticeable “bump” in the attendance. There is an increased interest in getting baptized on this special day. There are fresh faces in the house. And there are plenty of warm fuzzy stories of lives changed by Resurrection Sunday special moments.
But if you peel back the veneer, if you step back and take a hard look, if you simply and honestly consider the reality of the moment, something troubling emerges.
Easter Sunday is a very special, once-a-year day.
But next Sunday is rapidly approaching and that attendance “bump” will be strangely gone again like shaved ice on a Phoenix summer day.
What’s truly happening in the USAmerican church? Why is Easter the only day left when churches can openly brag on higher attendances? I mean, even Christmas is no longer getting that “bump.” In 2016, Christmas falls on Sunday. Mark my words now: LESS people will be in church than normal this Christmas than usual. Why? Because Christmas is viewed as a family day. It’s not a day to “go to church.” And, for the most part, they won’t. What will swell this Christmas will be Christmas Eve attendance.
The problem with the Easter “bump” is the false assumption that this bolstered attendance is rooted to “outsiders” suddenly flocking back to church. The higher attendance, according to conventional wisdom, is the Easter pews and chairs are filled with seekers, unchurched, non-churched or otherwise non-affiliated. It’s not true. And its not hard to confirm that fact. Just ask your children’s ministry department to see how many “new” families registered their children on Easter. Just ask greeters who regularly man the front doors. Just look at how many checked “more information” on the communication cards (most of whom are church shopping and you’re the latest flavor).
The Easter “bump” is in reality a special “attendance phenomenon” when the ENTIRE congregation finally gathers together in one place. It’s nearly all FAMILY (local church members) showing up at once, accompanied by visiting out of town Easter guests (many of whom are already church-attenders themselves).
After all, depending on your location in the U.S., weakly (pun intended) attendance in the average church runs a wide swath between 5-35%. That means 65-95% of a local church Body will miss on any given Sunday, some more than others. Many people only attend 1-2 times a month. And the older the average age of a church, the higher the percentage for a “regular” (weekly) attender. The Gen X (b. 1961-1981) and the Millennial (b. 1982-2004) generations are staying away from church and largely attending irregularly.
Consequently, Easter Sunday is when everyone who has an affinity towards Christianity, including those who attend occasionally, make church attendance a part of their holiday celebration. For those who grew up Christian or have Christianity in their family line, Easter Sunday means going to church, so off to church they still go. It’s not that they’re not going to church (they still do occasionally), but that they don’t miss on Easter.
And what will these “irregular regulars” find?
Ah, here is the problem. They tend to find the same thing that drove or bored them into spotty attendance in the first place. A lack of community. A nice religious show. Irrelevant traditions. Long lectures (sermons). I spoke to a young (Millennial) woman on Easter Sunday night about her church experience. Although a Christian college graduate and a pastor’s kid, she struggles to find church relevant to her life these days. What turned her off the most was the pastor’s sermon: an 11-point, 45-minute lecture on “resurrection.” In her mind and experience with “church,” nothing had changed. Sadly, she confessed, she won’t be back. If these “irregular regulars” do find the Easter experience enjoyable it might warrant a return visit in a week or two. But, at best, it only produces someone who attends a bit more than they did. And if there’s any true “win” from Easter Sunday that might be it.
Therefore, if there’s something that should make pastors and church leaders stay awake at night it’s the slow recognition that their “attractional” and “missional” programming no longer retains the REGULARS, let alone attracts the SEEKER.
Something is wrong in the American church. And, face it, Easter Sunday isn’t attracting “seekers” anymore. Even worse, the “irregular regulars” are now struggling to hang in there. It’s one more proof that churchianity is dying in the USA. Authentic Christianity remains, but you won’t find much of it in the chair on Sunday mornings. Authentic Christianity operates 24/7/365. It’s not confined to a service time, a program or a budget.
That’s why the Easter “bump” can be an ecclesiastical illusion. Yes, it makes us feel good, and it should (and it’s okay to celebrate the win).
But if next Sunday everything is back to normal it’s a troubling sign.
And that’s not good.
I have a love/hate relationship with my computer. I love it when it’s doing what I need (or want) it to do, but hate passionately when it doesn’t operate to my standards, preferences or speed. Ever wonder if God feels the same way about how we “do” church? Hold that thought and perhaps consider Amos 5:20-22.
When my computer freezes or the little wheel just spins and spins, I know its time to reboot. Restart the system. Clear out the RAM. Nearly always that solves my problems. But sometimes, on very rare occasions, I’ve had to do something radical: restore my computer to its original factory specifications.
Few people employ such a drastic measure because we never fully reach the need or exasperation. After all, it’s easier to delete/add programs, change settings and fix bugs. We’ll run anti-virus software, hard drive sweepers and add RAM to help a sluggish computer operate better. A computer restoration requires saving all programs or files that weren’t on the computer originally and, frankly, that’s a fearful thought. Over the years, a user can accumulate thousands, even tens of thousands of files that require backing up. The thought of a total restoration brings trepidation, tension and tiredness. We don’t have time or the energy for a complete, good as new, restoration. So we keep muddling along doing the same things, working the same programs, running the same fixes until one day there’s the BLUE SCREEN. And the game is over. Our gig is up. The computer has crashed with a fatal error message.
I know its hard to hear, but I truly believe the 21st century American Church is near a BLUE SCREEN moment. I don’t say that to cast anxiety or aspersion, but rather alarm. I don’t desire to be hyper-critical, negative or sensationalistic, but from Supreme Court rulings on gay marriage to open mockery in the media, the American Church is growing culturally irrelevant (just like the European church 50 years ago did). The attendance statistics are sounding louder every year. The “nones and dones.” The graying of the Church. Stagnation. Division. Closures. In general, fewer Americans attend church every year (a trend that’s been happening since the mid-1990s).
The operating system is bogged down by programming that’s creating sluggish results.
And this decline isn’t accidental. Like a computer, over time, man created this ecclesiastical mess and has perverted the original operating system, most of it emerging after 325 AD when Constantine’s reforms created a state religion. In 1700 years we’ve rebooted the church with various prophets, priests, popes and preachers. We’ve rebooted with house churches, cathedrals and megachurches. We’ve rebooted as Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Nazarene and every denomination (and non-denomination) under the Son. Along the way, we’ve focused and fractured, reformed and reorganized, envisioned and emerged ourselves to death. Today’s 21C church operates largely through facility, professional staff and event-based ministry. It’s a far cry from what God intended and now is proving increasingly irrelevant to the postmodern experience.
I believe it’s time for a COMPLETE RESTORATION. Not another reboot. Not another software fix. Not another sweep and clean. Not another anti-virus download. We need to get back to the Original DNA or factory specifications. We need to restore the only model that matters: the One Jesus gave His disciples and the One his disciples practiced clearly, simply and powerfully in the book of Acts. Nothing more and nothing less.
We don’t need to reimagine, reform or revive the “Church.” All that will happen naturally in a complete restoration. But it also won’t be painless. This one is going to hurt but it’ll hurt less NOW than if we avoid the pain. The BLUE SCREEN is coming and, trust me, it won’t happen at a convenient moment. One way or another, God will mold His Church into His Image. But He’s waiting for something big. Something even bigger than Luther’s 95 theses. Something bigger than a new worship song or video clip. Something bigger than a paint job, sermon series or clever new programming idea.
Two thousand years after Pentecost, I contend God would love nothing more than to see His Church—every type, stripe, color and creed—return to its ORIGINAL D.N.A.; a D.N.A. that makes the Church super sticky. So sticky that pagans convert on the spot. So sticky that thousands join in one day. So sticky you’ll probably get persecuted by the religious types who can’t stop you nor join you, but don’t have an answer to your success.
I’m calling for a RADICAL RESTORATION of the Church and, believe it or not, it’s not rocket science. Christianity isn’t complicated, confusing or contradictory, but rather simple. Believe in Jesus. Change your lifestyle, priorities and habits (repent). Tell others about Jesus (confession). Be immersed into Christ (baptism). Practice hospitality and authentic community. Pray like there’s no tomorrow. Mentor those who believe and equip the called. Experience Jesus through worship and the Lord’s Supper. Change the world, first in your neighborhood, then your city, then your state and finally every corner of the globe.
I believe this radical restoration will be a TRUE game-changer. It’s already happening in many places, all over the planet. The Church is alive and well on planet earth…but it doesn’t look anything like what most people experience on Sunday morning. We can only reboot so long. Eventually we’ll need to RESTORE it completely to its Original DNA (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 2:37-47; Ephesians 4:1-6). In the coming weeks I want to explore these DNA Scriptures and outline, specifically, what this means and what a truly RESTORED CHURCH could like in today’s culture.
Finally, the beautiful thing about a restoration is everything is now NEW. And when “all things are new” (Revelation 21:5) we bring a whole lot of Heaven to earth.
And that’s what our world desperately craves.