Category Archives: Church Decline
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.
Recently, church researcher Ed Stetzer cited four “surpising” future trends for the church. I have no disagreement with him, though it was a pretty safe list…and hardly surprising (despite the baited headline). Most of his four trends revolved around the “end of nominalist” Christianity. Essentially the cultural Christians will go the way of the dinosaur, checking “none” as their religious preference. Since we’re pretty much seeing this now, it’s hardly a future trend…nor all that “surprising.”
Most futurists who peer more than five years forward are prone to error and therefore are excused for their safe prophetic announcements about anything “future.” I hope you’ll do the same for me. Nevertheless, I feel somewhat confident that four (truly future) trends will mark the U.S. church in the next quarter century…and I suspect these will also truly surprise many:
1) The end of the lecture (a.k.a., sermon) on Sunday morning. I have a new book set for release in January detailing this huge change for the emerging, postmodern Church (now rising in American culture). Currently, the vast majority of churches (most still run by baby boomer modern ideologies and practices) remain woefully wedded to a rhetorical strategy to communicate and disciple: a 30-50 minute spiritual/biblical monologue or lecture. Protestants think this is the way it’s always been, but that’s not true. The Reformation in the 1500s elevated Scripture and the homily (now called a “sermon”) was expanded to become an academic tool to persuade, explain, reveal and proposition. The Catholic and Orthodox churches, far more ancient, still prefer the short 10-minute homily. So what’s going to replace this Sunday lecture? I believe it’ll be an interactive, visual experience where the preacher operates more as the guide from the side than a sage from the stage. It’ll be the only way to recapture postmodern attention and affection for Christianity (and has proven popular already). The generations born since 1960 have largely left the Church, including the Millennials (which enjoyed the greatest season of children’s and youth ministry the modern Church ever produced). Sermons, like college lectures, will go the way of the dinosaur. They simply do not communicate effectively in a YouTube, Twitter, Google world.
2) The end of the church building as a primary gathering spot. This is a tough church pill to swallow, given the 1500 year history of tax-exempt status for churches (originally started by Constantine in his state religion reforms of 325 AD). But as western and northern governments, including the U.S. government, becomes more antagonistic towards Christianity, these tax exemptions will be questioned, debated and eventually lifted. In America, crippled by debt, church property becomes a source of revenue long considered off limits. When tax-exempt status is removed, many church buildings will head straight for foreclosure. Currently, banks are holding countless church loans in default because no financial institution wants to call a church’s loan, but don’t expect that to happen much longer. Many current church buildings will become community gathering spots. The older the building the more attractive it’ll be for conversion into a private home, bar, restaurant, coffee shop or retail store. Larger buildings will serve local governments or convert to community centers, office space, learning halls and gyms. Persecution will drive USAmerican Christians back into their homes. Small will be the new big.
3) The end of denominationalism and ecclesiastical labels. Future Christianity will have various expressions (charismatic, conservative, liberal, etc.) but the modern labels (Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Assembly of God, Baptist, Nazarene) will disappear. Postmoderns view truth in two categories: Absolute and personal. Moderns were grooved by Renaissance mechanism and Enlightenment rationalism to put everything in a box and objectify truth, including Christianity. But emerging generations don’t think outside the box…they think without boxes. Consequently, postmoderns value the journey, the experience and the conversation. Authentic Christianity will truly rise and replace cultural churchianity in the coming years and replace the labels attached by modern church leaders in the past 500 years.
4) A new age for the northern and western Church that’s marked by biblical ignorance and intense persecution. Every 250 years or so, there’s a turning or a season (just like spring turns to summer and summer turns to fall). As a student of church history, it’s easy to see these seasons (and I’ll write about them in the future), but roughly every 1000 years there’s a period of darkness, ignorance and persecution for the Church. The first-century church was born into this “winter” season (AD 30-325) and experienced a second “cold” season during the Dark Ages (c. AD 1000-1250). We’re now set for a third ice age for northern and western Christianity. Consequently, the Church will be most vibrant in the East (China, Korea, Thailand) and South (America and Africa). Actually this last trend is already happening.
In the end, I do agree with Stetzer’s final conclusion:
The lasting effects of these shifts will force churches to make a critical decision. They will either become a cultural church that allows the societal trends to dictate their ever-changing beliefs. Or they will become a counter-cultural church that faithfully adheres to Scripture and proclaims the gospel in a carefully considered way. The latter church will offer real hope in the midst of an adversarial culture and is the only real future for the American church.
The Bottom Line: The Church of tomorrow will need to be Christ-centered, culturally-relevant, intentionally missional and strategically fluid to find traction in our postmodern culture. And I’m betting it will be smaller, leaner and more irresistible (Acts 2:42-47).
The American church, bloated by the massive crowds and satiated with the success, is like a four year-old on a chocolate Easter bunny sugar high. Facebook posts by pastors boasting about high attendances, extra services, multiple baptisms and amazing worship experiences were the norm. And there’s no reason not to celebrate.
But what goes up has to come down so let’s be honest.
Next Sunday I’ll predict attendances will be back to average or worse. Why? It’s because postmodern generations (now under 50 years of age) are attending church IRREGULARLY and AT BEST every third Sunday. Easter is just one of those Sundays that they all show up together (which explains the attendance spike). One in five American Christians aren’t even committed to Easter services, according to one study.
The every week attender has become a elusive as an Easter bunny in Santa’s workshop. Many postmodern Christians attend multiple churches. Just because they aren’t at yours doesn’t mean they aren’t attending somewhere. Plus, with the advent of live streaming video, the younger generations have no problem staying home and going to church on their computer. And how do you track this attendance? The truth is you can’t.
This past weekend I participated in two different churches in my area. On Saturday night I attended a megachurch that runs around 2000 in weekend attendance. The sea of attenders was largely gray, bald and wrinkled though, despite a clever programming twist to offer an Easter Egg hunt about a half hour prior to the worship. While some families attended, they were clearly the minority. I was also surprised to hear the pastor encourage Saturday night worshippers to come back and “seed” Sunday services. I then wondered how much of their final Easter attendance were return worshippers or people counted more than once. Several years ago I caught a church posting bogus attendance marks simply by counting their 60 member choir at every service, adding nearly 200 to the final count. Beware the preacher count.
At the second church, where I attend faithfully and work as a volunteer in community “stickiness,” I served for two service hours on Easter afternoon and evening. For the first service I worked a front door and for the second I helped with food service delivery, questions and general community building. Both services were larger than norm but, surprisingly, not as stuffed as I imagined for a church recently recognized as the one of the fastest growing churches in America. I interacted with the pastor of family ministry and learned there were few NEW families that registered and no real bump over normal.
In other words, Easter was a typical Sunday for guests…except that attendance sky-rocketed due to EVERYONE attending the same day. Furthermore, many brought family members in town for the holiday to worship.
Here’s the real problem. Postmoderns are growing increasingly weary of being a number. They hear the statistics too. Church attendance is in decline with exception to Christmas and Easter. They know their attendance on holy days gives the pastor a smile and a false hope that things might now turn around. But every Easter they feel less inclined to make this a habit.
In general, churches (and pastors) don’t get it. The only holiday service that still attracts the unchurched is Christmas Eve and that’s losing steam in my observation. Easter is primarily a Christian holiday and most outsiders respectfully stay away to enjoy the springtime. In other words, if your pastor used Easter as a day to evangelize the masses he was largely preaching to the choir.
I will brag on my church for a moment. Maybe the reason it’s growing so fast is its 4:30 and 6 p.m. services that feature a full meal (for a buck) with dessert (free). The average age of these services is 35 and kids are everywhere. A family of five can eat for less than a meal at McDonalds. People come early and stay late. Conversations are happening. Community is developing. I’ve been to the morning services at my church and without the meal component, people come and go quickly. The meal is the glue. The afternoon and evening service time permits a more relaxed atmosphere (no one’s trying to beat it to the buffet or get on with the day).
With that said, the Church can (and must) do much better. I would love to see opportunities in the main worship for conversations and community. Somewhere along the line we took the community out of church. It’s now a performance and lecture in many megachurches. The once standard “meet and greet” moments are rare, even in smaller congregations. I don’t understand why every sermon can’t have a moment of reflective interaction. Why can’t we pause and talk about the message for 5 minutes? I wish preachers would let me, in conversation with family and friends, make some applications. Finally, for those who celebrate Communion weekly, as my tribe does, it’s time to end the drive by moment and create a deep experience. The two greatest sacraments of the historic Christian church are baptism and communion and both are routinely practiced like we wish they weren’t. When we spend more time on announcements than communion something’s horribly wrong.
I realize my commentary may be misunderstood, even maligned, but I believe next Sunday will prove my points, regardless of church size, denomination or geography:
- Easter is a holy day for Christians and the attendance spike is due to the irregular showing up at one time.
- Most visitors are family members from outside the area.
- The unchurched do not attend Easter services.
- If we’re going to reach postmodern (under 50) generations, we’ll need to change to more communal and experiential formats.
This past weekend an interesting article revealed that by 2030 China will be the most Christian nation in the world. Meanwhile American Christianity continues to wane. Many Christian leaders will point a finger at the secularization of our culture but that’s a red herring. China is a communist country. What’s it doing different? My guess is Chinese Christian churches are growing because they are culturally relevant and recognize it’s 2014.
The American church is still stuck in the golden age of 1980-2000.
And Easter attendance might remind us of the good old days but like that chocolate Easter bunny its just a hollow high.
I hate to be called out. Nor do I prefer to call out somebody else. Call upon me, fine. Call me late for supper, okay. Call me out, no. I got called out when I was in trouble, like when I led a 2 a.m. practical joke at my church camp. I thought it would be funny to turn every piece of furniture upside down in the chapel. To my surprise, the dean found no humor in my nocturnal shenanigans and called me out for latrine duty. Calling out can sometimes stink.
Occasionally a teacher has called me out for purposes of embarrassment. You know the type. They ate gravel for breakfast, hate the world and now sense it’s their divine mission on planet earth to ensure you are fully aware of your stupidity and the human tragedy you’re allowed to consume oxygen. Calling out can sometimes shame.
A calling out often means a fight. When you got “called out” by an angry peer it meant it was time for a clock cleaning. The code was to take your fisticuffs outside. Grown men still call out other grown men to beat the snot out of them. Calling out can sometimes hurt.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus called out some Galilean misfits. Some fished. Some taxed. Some didn’t do much of anything that we know. But these twelve disciples turned the world upside down in broad daylight. They weren’t the sharpest tools in the shed but they built upon the foundation for a Kingdom that is eternal. They were called out to battle Roman political powers and Jewish religious tradition. In the process, they were shamed and hurt, even to the point of martyrdom. They were average Joes who stood up to high priests, magistrates and even emperors.
They were the “church” and acted like it.
Some churches aren’t doing such a hot job today. In nearly every denomination, tribe or fellowship, there is stagnation and decline. A January 2013 cover story for The Lutheran lamented how the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America is fading fast. Nearly one in three now average less than fifty people and overall attendance plummeted 26% since 2003. In one decade, the ELCA has closed or merged churches at an average rate of 100 per year or two every Sunday.
In my tribe (independent Christian Churches) we boast over 126 emerging and megachurches, with the top eight drawing 100,000 people every Sunday! Impressive, but of the emerging and megachurches reporting for 2011, growth averaged between .8 to 4.4% over 2010 figures. Okay, maybe not so impressive. In fact, several reported outright declines. A closer look reveals even numbers can betray our largest megachurch: Southeast Christian in Louisville, KY. In 2011, this congregation’s weekly attendance is 20,786 (up from 19,534 in 2010) and they baptized 1,618 (up from 1,250 in 2010). Respectable numbers and growing, right? Actually no. In reality, Southeast grew less than 1% between 2010-2011 (adding 1,252 people). When you crunch numbers, you uncover a different story. Yes, they added 1,252 to attendance but baptized 1,618 and that constitutes an actual DECLINE in growth of 366 people! Additionally, it’s safe to assume hundreds of others also joined this fine congregation as baptized members. Consequently, Southeast’s fractional growth, though an increase, is actually a decline overall, and not retaining even what she baptizes.
In comparison, the first century church grew exponentially faster, by hundreds and thousands. The church of Jesus exploded around Jerusalem, spilling into Judea and Samaria and finally reaching distant locales like Antioch, Thessalonica and even Rome. After Acts 4:4 and a vague reference to “about five thousand men,” we have no attendance figures. We just knew they grew daily (Acts 5:14). Today’s churches like to count people. The first church made people count.
What’s the difference between the first-century “church” and the 21st century Church? In one word: walls. The first-century “church” wasn’t trapped in a facility and physical address. The “church” was a gathering of people not a building where you worshipped and studied the Bible. Somehow, in twenty centuries, the word Jesus used to charge His disciples has changed.
In the New Testament, the Greek word translated “church” is ekklesia or ekklesia. It’s where we get the word “ecclesiastical.”
Jesus only used ekklesia twice and solely by the Jewish tax-collector Matthew. In 16:18, Jesus told his disciples that Peter’s confession, that identified Him as the Messiah, is the “rock” upon which his ekklesia is built. Later in 18:17, Jesus outlines “church” discipline and again uses ekklesia. No other gospel writer uses ekklesia, including the Greek historian Luke (who does use it the most [23 times] in the book of Acts). Paul will employ ekklesia 21 times in I Corinthians and John will pen the word 19 times in Revelation (18 in the first three chapters alone!). But not one time is the word ever used to describe a facility or address. The “church” was an assembly of believers: a Body not a building, an Organism not an organization, a People not a place.
The word ekklesia originated in the Greco-political culture. It’s not even a religious word. An ekklesia described a “gathering of citizens called out from their homes into a public place for an assembly.” Literally, an ekklesia or “church” means “called out ones.” In the Roman world, ekklesias were common, especially when the emperor came to call. His highness would ride into town on his white steed with all the majesty and pomp, followed by his army. When the people gathered around him (a.k.a., ekklesia), they would shout to his deity and profess, “Caesar is lord! Caesar is lord!”
In Matthew 16, Jesus steals this secular metaphor and recasts it for his disciples. The Messiah, Jesus taught, is the Christ (with a nod to Peter for his confession) and He is the Lord of lords and King of kings. Jesus taught this lesson at Caesarea Philippi (vs. 13), a Judean political center for Rome. Ekklesias were routine in Caesarea Philippi, and it’s possible the disciples even experienced one just prior to this moment. Perhaps some potentate from Rome had just ridden into Caesarea Philippi and an ekklesia broke out. “Caesar is lord! Caesar is lord!” the people cried. Then Jesus pulls his disciples away from the ekklesia and inquires, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” After a few Sunday School answers (John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah), Peter professes essentially “Jesus is Lord!” Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God (vs. 16).
Bingo. Jesus then explains Peter’s confession is the massive foundation stone (Greek: petra) upon which He will “build [his] ekklesia.” Despite Roman Catholic teaching, Peter (Greek: Petros for “little stone”) isn’t the rock: Jesus is the Rock! Jesus then references how the “gates of Hades” (erroneously mistranslated by King James translators as “hell”) will not overcome this Ekklesia. Hades was the place of the dead. In other words, not even death would keep Jesus’ Ekklesia from growing. It’s no wonder the phrase “Jesus is Lord” became an early Christian idiom and an intentional cultural dig to those who practiced emperor worship. Caesar isn’t lord. Jesus IS Lord. He’s the Lord of all lords!
John will expand this idiom in his Revelation of Jesus. A work deeply soaked with the conflict between Roman religious and political powers that seek to destroy the Ekklesia of Jesus (church of Christ). In Revelation 13, two beasts emerge to battle the Ekklesia. The first is political and the second is religious. John writes to seven ekklesias located in Asia Minor and paints a picture of ekklesia in Revelation 19:
11 I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. 12 His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. 13 He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. 14 The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. 15 Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. 16 On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:
king of kings and lord of lords.
17 And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, 18 so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, great and small.”
For churches or ekklesias in the first century John employed highly intentional language. Just like earthly kings rode into towns and commanded worship, so does Jesus. Those who obeyed the “calling out” to meet the king would be part of his Ekklesia or “church.”
So where did we go wrong? Mostly, we allowed comfort and convenience, sprinkled with good intentions and slightly twisted Scriptures, to change the term. For in time, the Greek adjective kyriakos (meaning, “belonging to the Lord”) was incorporated by early Christians to also innocently describe their faith communities. Since they met in homes these became known as a kyriakos oikos or “house of the Lord.” Over the centuries, particularly after the Edict of Milan (A.D. 311) under Emperor Constantine, the word further morphed from a description of the people assembled to the place of assembly. The house of the Lord (kyriakos) became the common idiom for Christian gathering rather than a public assembly (ekklesia). As Christendom moved into Germany and Britain, the word kyriokos evolved further into kerke or churche and eventually just church. Nowadays, a church is a place of worship and people who attend are church “members.”
Today, most people talk about “going to church” on Sunday. Church is a building, a worship service or place defined by space and time. It’s religious jargon and it’s completely wrong. The Church—the assembly or gathering—isn’t a private “in house” event (walled by time and space). The Church is the Body of Christ gathered publicly to proclaim, “Jesus is Lord!” It’s beyond the walls; it’s in the streets, at the malls and among the culture.
The reason why the Church faces either its greatest days (or worst) depends solely on whether we restore the Original DNA of ekklesia. The idea of kyriokos (especially as a place) is a perversion the modern church has swallowed hook, line and stinker. If God wanted his people to build facilities, they could have done it. In fact, Rome probably would have preferred it. Rome was quite tolerant of religions and most of them built shrines that dotted the Empire (they had no issue with Jewish synagogues). But the early Ekklesia was fluid and fast. Like water it seeped into places that organized religion and facilities couldn’t go. Particularly, the first- and second-century Ekklesia operated stealth, underground (in places of persecution) and secretly. Early Christians were accused of cannibalism, among other wild rumors. Their fellowship was closed, it would seem, but in reality it was an open culture. Christians were everywhere, but you had to know one and follow one to become part of the Ekklesia. And thousands did.
That’s why I’m calling out the kyriokos (time and space church) to rediscover its Original DNA: ekklesia. We weren’t meant to sit and soak in buildings but move among the culture. Just know that it’s going to hurt…a lot!
Here’s a radical idea: sell your building and property (just like first-century Christians did) and give it to the poor in your community. Instead meet in homes and, when possible, in public squares. Perhaps Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler should be ours, for I suspect Jesus cringes when we build yet another facility “in His Name.” Churchianity builds buildings. Christianity changes lives. His Ekklesia was meant to be “out” not “in.” Like the rich young ruler, we’re proud that we “know the commandments” and practice them, but still Jesus says we “lack one thing”: absolute submission (Luke 18:19-22).
You want to restore biblical Christianity? Good. But let’s also restore biblical ecclesiology, too. Let’s restore Ekklesia (as called out ones who gather publicly) and honor Jesus’ G0 Mission (Matthew 28:18-20). Imagine what Christians could do if we no longer had facility mortgages. Imagine the funds available if we no longer spent them on “come to our building” programs. Imagine even a return to biblical staffing—volunteer only—and the end of “professional” ministry. I know, now I’m meddling, but full-time paid staff is a business idea, not a biblical one. Imagine no longer being able to count how big your church is, because people gather in homes rather than “houses of worship.” Imagine the community service you could do in neighborhood and city. Imagine the Ekklesia gathering publicly at ball games, concerts, malls, fairs, parks, festivals, service clubs and other social settings, not to lead worship and preach at people, but to serve as Salt and Light, inviting them into home fellowships and deeper community. Imagine the influence of an Ekklesia that seasons culture rather than assaults it with religiosity.
To quote John Lennon, I may be a dreamer but I doubt I’m the only one.
In a postmodern American culture, an Ekklesia community would be highly attractive. It already is. Ekklesias occur every day in coffee shops. Johns and Janes gather for a cup of joe with Joe and Jolene. And where two or more are gathered, in Christ’s name, there is Ekklesia. That my friends is the CHURCH Jesus imagined and the early Ekklesia practiced daily.
I don’t want to intentionally hurt or shame, but I’m calling out those stuck in churchianity to intentionally gather for True, biblical Christianity.
Restore the Original DNA. Reboot Ekklesia.
Just know it won’t happen as long as you’re bound to a building. The True Ekklesia is far bigger and better. Until you’re free of the facility, you’ll never experience or enjoy authentic Ekklesia.
I’m not calling out the church for a fight…but a Future!