Today is the last gasp of a retail Goliath.
Either Sears ponies up $120 million dollars and supplies a clear plan for restructure, or the store will be sent to bankruptcy and formally liquidated. It will be the end of a megastore that ruled American commerce for 132 years.
Sears was originally founded in 1886 as a watch company and within two years launched a catalog that attracted both attention and customers. Like Amazon.com would do a century later, Sears eventually began selling “everything from sewing machines to sports equipment” through its mail-order catalogs. America was largely rural and Sears revolutionized how retailers operated. They succeeded by engaging modern middle class desires, mainstream print media and mechanized business formulas.
Sears revolutionized how retailers operated. They succeeded by engaging modern middle class desires, mainstream print media and mechanized business formulas.
Sears didn’t open its first physical store until 1925. Let that fact sink in. For forty years the company operated purely from a mail-order model, but now began to reinvent. In 1927, they launched the Kenmore brand, followed by All-State insurance (1931) and the famous Christmas catalog (1933). Everything they did, worked…and the company was highly profitable. At the end of World War 2, Sears was topping $1 billion in sales.
By then suburbia was bubbling in post-war America. Sears led the way and built new stores all over America (1946). They pioneered credit cards and innovated fresh brands like DieHard batteries and Craftsman tools. Sears could do no wrong. In 1973 they built the world’s tallest building: Chicago’s Sears tower. At their zenith they boasted over 3000 stores, many anchored to a new shopping destination called a “mall.”
But in the 1980s the Sears brand fumbled. Despite their anchor store status, Walmart emerged as the new retail giant. People liked “super store” variety but with affordability and convenience. In 1991, Sears finally lost their “top-selling retailer” mantle to the Arkansas superstore. Three years later Sears sold its namesake tower. In 1993 they stop producing their catalog and moved the Christmas catalog online (1998). In the early 2000s Sears merged with Lands End (2002) and Kmart (2005) but profits continued to slide. Sears was in a free fall.
In the past four years, Sears has been selling everything just to keep the lights on. Nothing’s worked. In the fourth quarter of 2016 Sears lost $607 million. Christmas never came for Sears that year. Nor Kmart. Nor other juggernaut stores like Macy’s and JC Penney. The mall they anchor is also dying a slow death. Toys R Us is history. Claire’s jewelry boutiques is in bankruptcy. Even Walmart has faced difficulty.
The new retail Goliath is cyber store Amazon. It’s now the most valuable company (and brand) in the world, overtaking Microsoft computers. Originally specializing in books, this online retailer now delivers groceries (something Sears originally did) and a zillion other things. Amazon gift cards are popular Christmas presents. The online retailer continues to rake financial fortunes as it pioneers future home deliveries through automation (robots, drones, driverless vehicles).
It’s a jungle out there and it’s called Amazon.
What can the church learn from Sears’ story?
1. Reinvent or die.
For most of its celebrated history, Sears innovated and led but when it relaxed, focusing more on maintenance than mission, it lost traction. In a 21C culture that’s fluid, fast and flexible, churches need to continually respond, reinvent and reimagine “wineskins” (but not the Wine). The Message or “gospel of Jesus Christ” never changes but the models, strategies, styles and frameworks do.
Too many churches fear change, particularly in technology that creates fresh social interactions. We live in a visual culture–an experiential society that learns through screens, podcasts and videos–and yet remain wedded to passive, lecture-driven communication formats.
2. Watch the lure of success.
Pride comes before a fall and Sears is a classic tale of hubris. Too many churches build towers rather than bridges, monuments rather than movements and legacies rather than living vision.
I had a Millennial couple recently join my home group. Afterwards, the young man enthusiastically shared how he finally felt he had found a real “church.” I asked him if he attended a church (like the rest of our group does every Sunday) and he said no. The reason? He struggled with how much money the church spends on its facilities. It turned him and his wife off. They felt it was wrong. He’s the son of a missionary, by the way.
3. Know your culture.
The same year Sears sold its tower (1994) Jeff Bezos launched Amazon.com. Three years later Sears finally entered dot.com world, but it was too late. Sears was tied to a dead man’s name. Amazon was the biggest river (and soon store) in the world. Too many churches overlook, dismiss or oppose cultural changes when they need to interpret, understand and embrace the opportunities change creates.
Since 1960, the modern culture has been on life support. Christendom, founded 1700 years ago, is equally fading into history. In a post 9-11 and Great Recession world, the Industrial Revolution is over. We now live in a post-modern, post-industrial, post-Christian world…but the Church is still operating like it’s 2005 or 1995 or 1985 or 1975.
Want to study the “generations” and how technology has changed our world and what the Church must do to reinvent? Book Rick to come share with your church, conference or training event in 2019!
Ultimately every living thing dies.
It’s the way of the world. Just ask Kodak (another one of those giants who failed to reinvent).
Fortunately the Church is Eternal and Living.
The Wine is always fresh. Sears simply teaches us that wineskins do fissure, fracture and fail if we don’t pay attention.
Church, we truly need to pay attention.
The Millennials have left the building.
Countless kids who grew up in children’s and youth ministries, who memorized scripture at Vacation Bible School, who spent summers in church camps, who worshipped in age-segregated “children’s” and “teen” churches, who served as youth mentors, participated in mission trips around the world and enjoyed the finest youth ministry resources, events, concerts and experiences in the history of the Church…no longer attend church services.
In general, they’ve been tagged the “nones.”
When it comes to church affiliation, they mark themselves “none.” They don’t attend church. They don’t appreciate church. They don’t think it’s necessary to their spirituality or Christianity. Many profess atheism or agnosticism. They want “none” of it.
Even Gen X is quitting.
Known as the “dones” this cohort of American Christians are tired of the games, the “show,” and the politics of “churchianity.” They endured the worship wars between the Boomers and their G.I. elders in the 1980s. They suffered through the “mega-fication” of the Church, particularly in evangelical strains. They watched the quaint church of their youth evolve into malls, performance halls, schools and corporate offices. They’re now in their 40s and 50s and growing tired, cynical and cranky.
It’s why most American churches are graying fast.
The Baby Boomers are the only ones left.
I recently enjoyed two insightful conversations with formerly churched individuals.
- Bryan (not his real name) is a twenty-something Millennial who grew up as a pastor’s kid. He attended church every Sunday with high participation in the events, programs and studies his church offered. He volunteered to lead worship, counsel and mentor. He went to Bible college but eventually dropped out. He stopped attending church recently, mostly due to work conflicts on Sundays.
- Jerry (not his real name) is a fifty-something Gen X pastor who rarely missed a day of church until five years ago. He’s got a degree in theology, served as a small group leader, youth minister, lay counselor and elder. He and his wife moved to town a few years ago. They found a church, but not “community.” Now they stay home and “live stream” services and fellowship in a small group Bible study.
Both men are committed to Christianity. They believe deeply in Jesus, but have grown cynical of what they experience at church.
I asked them both “Why don’t you personally attend church anymore?”
“It’s not engaging.”
Despite all the bells and whistles, lights and fog machines, video and sound cues, both Bryan and Jerry found their church experiences dry and “ho hum.” Bryan says most Christian music bores him, even though he played in a worship band. Jerry was more complimentary. He likes the contemporary worship and preaching, but has tired of fighting traffic to just “sit there” for an hour.
Both Bryan and Jerry say church isn’t worth their time. In fact, it’s often a waste of time.
Now before we judge that harsh view of church, let’s be brutally honest. We raised our Millennial kids in an “entertainment” church model. We suckled them on “Veggie Tales” and weaned them on Crowder and Tomlin worship sets. We incentivized their spiritual practices with “Bible Bucks,” candy, toys and money. We reduced discipleship to entertaining curriculum, youth pastor “talks,” large events, youth lock-ins and retreats, and annual teen conferences.
So it’s no wonder they’re walking away. The church will never compete with Hollywood (nor should it try). We taught Millennial Christians to conform (to the rules) and perform (to our expectations) but not to be transformed by Jesus Christ. And, frankly, if we’re honest most of our churches today are just doing “youth ministry for adults” and that’s the problem. That model failed to attract young disciples yesterday and it’s failing to retain adult disciples today.
“I don’t need it.”
Which produces the second general reason Millennials and Gen Xers are done with church attendance: it’s not necessary to their Christianity.
I asked Millennial Bryan where he goes to be nurtured and discipled in his faith and his answer was sobering: a small community of Christian friends, podcasts and the Internet. Gen X Jerry expressed a similar sentiment: “I can get the same experience in my pajamas at home on Sunday morning as I do in physically attending a church service.”
Again, this brutal critique has some truth to it. The modern Church, driven by Enlightenment values in reasoning and Industrial Age principles in business and operations, essentially created a conveyer belt religion that focuses on producing numbers (attendance, offerings) and things (programs, staff, facilities) rather than discipling persons. We see it in the vocabulary of the “modern” Christian: “I went to church last week” or “I’m attending church tomorrow.” Modern Christianity was about place and time, but in a post-Christian and post-modern world that’s 24/7/365 both space and time are irrelevant. We can learn without a physical school and the dying modern church is discovering that postmodern Christians don’t need a “place or time” to spiritually grow.
“They don’t miss me.”
Ironically, both Bryan and Jerry echoed this same refrain: after several weeks of absence their churches showed no concern.
Millennial Bryan views this as hypocrisy. He says his church was always preaching “community” and “friendships” but as soon as he stepped down from his leadership role (to ease some burnout) and missed a few weeks, he realized no one really cared about him. Gen X Jerry said the same thing. He still goes to church occasionally (“out of guilt,” he confides) but no one acts like he’s been gone. “It’s just easier to stay home and mail in the check,” he adds, “besides I find my ‘community’ in my small group and that’s good enough for me.”
The dirty secret reality of many churches today is the average church-goer moves on within a few years and many leave within months. People join a new church hoping to find friends but end up disenchanted.
Ironically, when I asked both Bryan and Jerry what it would take for them to return to active church attendance, they both quickly answered: a friend. I want to hang with people who have similar values, said Millennial Bryan. Essentially, they’re not going to church for the worship (though inspiring) or the preaching (though instructive). What they want is connection, cooperation, companionship, collaboration and community. They hunger for a spiritual experience with friends and most churches don’t offer (at least easily) these opportunities.
“When was the last time you went to church and made a new friend?” Gen X Jerry asked.
Friendships and authentic community is what’s missing.
It’s definitely what the first century church enjoyed:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:42-47).
It’s the type of church Bryan and Jerry long to experience.
Come to think of it, it’s the type of church I want to attend too.
America is deeply divided.
This past election cycle has only deepened and widened the chasm between the Left and Right, conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat. The Church, unfortunately, is caught in the crosshairs with both sides claiming they alone possess THE truth, God’s favor and the right path for the church’s future.
In reality, we’re following a similar trajectory as the Civil War churches (1860-1865). Back then, both northern and southern churches claimed they alone were doing God’s Will (casting aspersion towards brothers and sisters on the other side). Both northern and southern preachers taught God was on their side. Both northern and southern believers advocated their positions were biblical, true and righteous. Our eyes have seen the glory…and God’s marching with us.
Today, the new battlefields of the Culture War aren’t called Gettysburg or Antietam, Shiloh or Bull Run. They’re called Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. Every day, Americans draw their weapons of mass instruction to trumpet their “truths” and advance their agendas. We bomb each other with memes. We rattle the Sword of God’s Word and then righteously puncture, slice and wound those who post against us. We slaughter brothers and sisters in Christ with words of angry argument and strident slander. We gloriously push our brand, often unknowingly reposting fake news and doctored evidence.
The question is WHY? Why is America so divided? And why is the Church a reflection of wider culture’s tendency toward hate and hubris? Is it merely political, religious, philosophical or personal ideologies that separate us? Is it our chosen lifestyles, beliefs and values that drive the wedge? Is it, as some claim, a Satanic conspiracy to infiltrate the Church or an “end time” prophetic plan to usher in Jesus’ Second Coming?
Maybe. But I actually think it’s something much deeper.
I think the real reason America is divided (including the Church) is a natural tension every human carries between our need for LOVE and our desire for JUSTICE. With every choice, preference and attitude we either decide to LOVE or we choose to JUDGE. The deeper the LOVE or JUDGEMENT, the greater the resulting tension. From this tension a side is preferred, an argument is accepted and a narrative is created. When our narratives solidify into “our truth” then divisions emerge.
Every political post on Facebook reflects this tension of LOVE (“can’t we all just get along?”) or JUSTICE (“wrong is always wrong”). And if you’re on the “wrong” side of the issue, then pox be upon you. You’re ignorant, unstable, loony, uninformed or bigoted. The Left labels the Right as racist, homophobic, misogynist, hateful and evil. The Right labels the Left as socialist, anarchist, hedonist, hateful and evil.
It’s just our narratives speaking, reflecting our desire for LOVE or passion for JUSTICE.
Think about it.
LOVE is the answer and all we need is love, right? It’s true. But authentic LOVE also carries consequence, responsibility or accountability. Are we free to love anyone (or thing) we choose? Certainly. But that doesn’t negate responsibility and consequences (especially if our choice is outside of God’s desired Will). Love the wrong person (or thing) and you can suffer, even die. You see, there really is no such thing as “free love.” Even the Grace of Christ cost Jesus His very life.
JUSTICE is also desired. The truth is we’re all prejudiced to some degree. We all carry bias from which we JUDGE the world around us. We all believe our own press and suckle from sources that support, enable and promote our prejudices. There really is no such thing as “objectivity.” We all see through rose-colored glasses with biased shades.
Let me cite a couple controversial examples:
- Many liberal and progressive Christians today feel that being gay is okay. We should be able to love anyone (of any sex) we choose. Besides, culture has evolved and ancient biblical passages no longer apply. Conservative Christians believe homosexuality is a detestable sin that God forbids. Culture may have evolved but God is the same yesterday, today and forever, and hasn’t changed His mind. In both cases there is LOVE and JUSTICE happening. The gay Christian believes he was born homosexual and a LOVING God wants him or her to be happy (gay). Therefore, it’s divinely JUST to lift the stigma on homosexuality and cease the bigotry. On the other hand, traditional Christians choose to LOVE the sinner but hate the sin, and a JUST God will not be mocked. Consequently, homosexuality is not right and the most LOVING (and biblical) response is to help the homosexual out of the bondage.
2. During the Brett Kavanaugh hearings a sense of JUSTICE emerged. The Left argued that Kavanaugh was not qualified for the Supreme Court due to his past “partying” indiscretions, including sexual predation upon women. The Right saw these midnight charges as fabricated and false, an injustice and travesty to the long legal career of Judge Kavanaugh. Both sides wanted justice. Both sides felt an injustice was happening. But, ultimately, only one side was justified.
It’s always about LOVE or JUSTICE.
One side says LOVE while the other side says JUDGE. One side feels distressed, oppressed and suppressed (by the judgments) while the other side feels emboldened, ecstatic and enthused (by their affections). It’s why Christians, for example, can be deeply divided left or right, conservative or liberal, pro-life or pro-choice, anti-gay or gay pride, capitalist or socialist, Tea Party or anarchist, Trump or Never Trump. It’s why Christians can look at the same Bible (or situations) and walk away with completely different conclusions: our LOVES or our JUDGEMENTS drive our prejudiced interpretations and conclusions.
It’s something to consider because America has been in a culture war since the 1960s. We’ve now come to the place where everyone has taken a side. Everyone has their narrative. There’s little middle ground with neutral opinions. Furthermore, this culture war could be far more costly, ugly and bloody than the Civil War. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve seen the worse.
All I know is JESUS CHRIST and authentic Christianity resolves this tension between LOVE and JUDGEMENT through attitudes and acts of GRACE. And this Grace is messy, nonsensical, strange, glorious and beautiful. Jesus felt this tension in his humanity but executed flawless love and justice. With tax collectors, zealots, whores and adulterous women, Jesus showed LOVE, but with religious conservatives (Pharisees) and liberals (Sadducees), he expressed indignation and JUDGEMENT (see Matthew 23). Jesus gives us a model to follow, even if we follow it imperfectly at times.
Civil (or cultural) wars rarely end well.
America has been here before and it took decades to recover.
America the Divided again? Yes.
And may God shed His Grace on thee!
The world is changing, Church.
Blockbuster Video is down to it’s last store in Bend, OR. Toys R Us closed it’s doors in June 2018. Meanwhile, Sears and KMart continue their selloff. Everywhere you look there’s change and if we can’t adapt in this new culture we’ll fare no different than Kodak, Betamax or Tower Records.
Maybe that’s why this New York Times article caught my eye: “Sorry Power Lunchers, This Restaurant is a Co-Working Space Now (July 9, 2018).”
I was particularly attracted to this quote by the Millennial co-founder of Spacious, Chris Smothers:
“Actively consuming isn’t what we want to do with the space in our neighborhoods anymore…Retail spaces are designed for you to come in, make a transaction and get out, and that’s why you feel weird in a coffee shop all day, because all of these spaces are designed for you to leave.”
As I read that last sentence all I could think about was what “church” has become in the past thirty years, especially those of the evangelical non-denominational type.
After all, thanks to the “megafication” of the Church in the 1980s and 1990s, churches of all sizes and stripes reimagined their Sunday mornings into an event (featuring a full-band worship and culturally-relevant sermon). These events were specially-hosted inside an auditorium that’s “designed for you to leave.” Pews were out, theater chairs were in. The larger churches, with multiple services, are particularly prone to this mentality. It’s why we build performance halls, hire specialized staff, study people flow and focus on traffic patterns. We need to get people in and out…fast.
I call it “drive thru” churchianity. We’ve designed “church” as a space to come…and leave.
This shift, led by a Baby Boom generation returning to their spiritual foundations in the 1980s, turns out to be nothing more than adoption of consumer culture. We built our churches on biblical purposes that were guided by business principles. It’s why we focus on body counts, offering totals and ecclesiastical CEOs. We mass disciple like we mass market. Our facilities look like warehouses, our services like concerts, and our programs like fast food menus. This attractional model certainly was successful with boomers and many Gen Xers, but has fallen flat with Millennials.
Millennials aren’t looking for a passive show. They seek an active experience. They want to interact, collaborate and share. They were early adopters of social media, from Friendster and MySpace to Facebook and Snapchat. And now these same Millennials are reinventing the workplace, especially through companies founded by Millennials (Spacious’ co-founder Chris Smothers is 30 years old, by the way).
But I still can’t get that quote out of my head: “designed for you to leave.”
Is that what we did to the Millennials? Is that the type of Christianity we gave them? It seems so. We designed a faith experience that was easy “to leave.”
Maybe it was the gimmicks we used (and still use) to motivate Millennial faith development. Instead of leading them to memorize God’s Word, attend Sunday School or bring their Bibles because it would be helpful and beneficial to their faith as adults, we bribed them with candy and prizes to invoke their participation. As a result we gave them a faith that was easy to leave. After all, if the prize is no longer “helpful and beneficial,” then let’s move on.
Maybe it’s how we programmed Millennial youth ministries. In the 1990s, we shifted from a discipleship (Sunday School, small group, retreats, personal discipling) to an entertainment model (Wednesday night worship and preaching, festivals and large youth conferences) to better reach this postmodern generation. Consequently, we reduced Millennial’s biblical learning to clever PowerPointed messages packed with hip clips from movies, grooved by youth culture lingo, and delivered by cool dudes (and dudettes) with grunge fashions, body piercings and tattoos. As a result, we gave Millennials a fashionable faith that wore terribly thin when reality bites.
But it’s not just the Millennials who have headed to the door. Gen X is just about “done” too. For decades they’ve waited in the wings for their opportunity to lead, suffering through various battles and changes that Boomer elders engineered to create the ideal church. But now, as aging Boomers overlook Xers for younger voices (especially to hire), Gen X has grown apathetic, disillusioned and tired.
A lot of Gen Xers and Millennials now stay away on Sundays and prefer to find faith community in small Bible fellowships, spiritual mentoring and Christian service. Faith, they have found, is better lived out on Tuesday nights, Thursday afternoons and Saturday mornings. If they follow a particular pastor or church, it’s done so through live stream, vidblog or podcast.
Remember, if we created spiritual spaces that are “easy to leave” then we shouldn’t be surprised when people no longer come.
What’s happening in the urban restaurant industry is something churches should heed and consider. Essentially, Millennials aren’t taking lunches like their elders and the lousy noon time crowds have dried up the profits for local eateries. Enter Spacious. It’s a company that reimagines a restaurant into a working “office away from the office” space for individuals and small groups. Now these struggling restaurants are booming with Millennials sweating away on smartphones and laptops.
Church, did you hear that? Once struggling restaurants are attracting (and growing) with young people because they moved from a delivery and sales model to a communal, interactive experience.
You see, Faith was never intended to be a ninety-minute once a week presentation (which is one of the reasons postmodern generations find the Sunday-only event so spiritually anemic). Rather, authentic Faith is best experienced within a dynamic collaborative “working” environment. Which begs a question: What if Sunday morning looked more like a gym or practice field (with coaches and mentors) than a concert and lecture hall? What if our worship experiences resembled what Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 14:26:
What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.
Paul’s description reveals the collaborative, interactive and experiential nature of the first century church. It’s a far cry from what we see delivered on most Sunday mornings. After all, Church was meant to be more than one person from a stage with a microphone.
But there’s another kicker: What if a church reimagined itself into a collaborative space the rest of the week too? It’s a shame that we have buildings that sit empty Monday through Saturday, except to house the staff and an occasional meeting or extra service.
It’s critical that we get more “spacious” in our gatherings to reach postmodern audiences.
The Church of Christ is alive, moving and interactive.
And that’s attractive to any generation.
I love sticky stuff.
The world loves sticky stuff. From Velcro to Gorilla glue to duct tape we like to stick things together. And yet, one of the least sticky things on the planet is Sunday morning church. For whatever reason, we prefer Teflon tactics and smooth strategies that slide people in the front door but also skate them right out the back door.
The problem is we don’t understand the “Rule of Threes.”
These standards are the social “stickers” that guide and guard how we attract, retain and empower individuals. It’s how we draw and join them into authentic community. All of these “stickers” are deeply rooted to human needs for grace, relationship, ownership, worth, laughter and security. Meet the right needs at the right times and you will naturally be “sticky.” Do them long enough and you’ll grow your small group, Sunday School class, children’s/youth ministry and church like crazy.
3 MINUTES (FIRST-TIMER): When a first-time visitor darkens the door of your church (or class or small group), you only have three minutes to scratch the two most primitive human needs: security and pleasure. People want to feel emotionally and physically safe. And they long to participate in enjoyable experiences.
I attended a church recently for the second time. I knew few of the unique traditions of this church. Other than personal family, I knew nobody else. I was handed a bulletin with an order of service and sat down. I needed to visit a restroom but didn’t know where it was. Nobody gave me any instructions. They just expected me to know.
And then the church service began and, frankly, it was one of the most boring experiences in my life. They sang songs from hymnbooks like funeral dirges. They gave long announcements about stuff of no interest (even to the faithful). There were few smiles, no laughter and little joy. Seriously, it was that bad and boring. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
It only takes minutes for a visitor to decide if he or she will return. It’s why guest relations or “front door evangelism” should be a church’s highest priority. If you can’t get them back, everything else is for naught. When a church fails to meet the security and pleasure needs of visitors it produces discomfort and that’s enough for anyone to look elsewhere. The “one and dones” are sending a message: you’re boring and I don’t feel safe (emotionally, physically or spiritually).
3 VISITS (FOLLOWER): When people enjoy their visit and sense security, they’ll return, but it”ll take these returning guests three positive and productive experiences to decide to “camp.” And that means a new need starts to surface: the longing to belong. We all hunger to connect, collaborate, cooperate and commune. We want to go, as the old sitcom “Cheers” used to promote, to a place “where everyone knows your name.”
Followers are doing just that: following. They’re interested, but they’re not fully committed. They’ve got one foot in and one foot out. What they’re looking for is a friend. Humans are wired for relationship and we naturally seek community. Unfortunately, churches are more interested in producing a “service” or a “show” on Sunday morning. We’re lousy at connecting people. And it’s why we lose so many guests. They like what they see but don’t like what they feel.
When a church fails to create social connections and spark friendships, it generates disconnection and early exits.
3 MONTHS (FRIEND): If a church can get a person to attend faithfully for three months, a “member” is created. People feel a part. They understand and agree to the basic rules, traditions and doctrines. They probably have made a friend (or two or three.) Of course, the problem today is many church growth analysts define a “regular” member as someone who attends Sunday services once or twice a month, but this isn’t true.
The reality is regular, faithful attendance shows a deepening commitment to community. Such individuals sense security, enjoy their experiences and have found friendships. Now the needs shift to grace and dignity.
To be honest, this is the stage that many churches, including celebrated megachurches, fail. Many, perhaps most, churches are pretty good, even excellent, at attracting newbies and fostering irregular guests, but when it comes to producing a committed regular member, they fall short. It’s because these congregations fail to meet a person’s deepest spiritual need for freedom and forgiveness (grace). We preach these topics well but don’t live them well. Instead a lot of churches can foster judgmentalism and legalism in a process that only creates clones and robots. We also fail to meet our deep need for dignity. Every regular member wants to know: Is this church a place where I can be me (grace) and be valued (dignity)?
It’s why churches must exercise caution in rushing people into leadership roles too quickly. These “regular members” (of only a few months) might be energetic and enthusiastic but they haven’t been tested. And if they aren’t prepared well for service, they’ll burn out fast. When churches fail to scratch our deep spiritual need for grace and our desire for dignity and self-worth, they produce disappointment. And that means bad attitudes, complaining, criticism and unexpected departures.
3X3 or NINE MONTHS (FAMILY): In reality, if you can groom and grow a member to be a regular part of the church for nine months, you now have an individual ready for leadership roles. This is a person who not only understands the routines, traditions, core beliefs, traditions and values of your church, but can communicate these ideas and ideals to other people. After nearly a year of regular attendance, a person feels a part of the family.
A “family” member senses security, enjoys attending and feels connected in the community. They feel safe enough to make mistakes, fall short, create messes and miss the mark without getting judged, criticized, condemned or excommunicated. They also sense they’re liked, wanted, valued and appreciated. So now the need shifts once again to empowerment.
This new “family” member wants to know: Is this a place where I can grow, contribute and make a difference? And, once again, a lot of churches (especially larger ones) surprisingly turn these potentially productive persons around and point them to the door at this juncture. It’s all a matter of politics, personal agendas and cliques. Every church has it’s political forces and if a “new family member” doesn’t see a pathway into leadership and contribution, they’ll begin to disengage and retreat.
3 YEARS (FAN): The most productive churches know it takes three years of positive contribution and leadership to create a raving fan. Jesus clearly modeled this discipleship time frame. He worked with his troops for three and a half years before they were ready to reproduce the values and vision He inculcated into their lives.
For a lot of churches, this is too long a frame. We want to microwave faith and discipleship. We want things done fast and immediately, but spiritual growth (like physical development) isn’t something you can engineer. Spiritual maturity happens on it’s own time and in it’s own contexts. Churches need to exercise patience as they grow people in their spiritual communities, otherwise a person can lose heart, discourage, tire or burn out.
A “fan” is a highly committed, productive leader. They exude enthusiasm and energy. They spark attention and affection. They invite others to embrace the vision and fan the flame that replicates this “sticky” process. They are a church’s most valuable (and sticky) people, essential to it’s continuing growth and success. After all, when a church no longer has “fans” (and many don’t today), it begins the death process.
The Rule of 3’s.
It’s how a church becomes and stays sticky.
In the early 70s, Stealer’s Wheel had an AM radio hit titled “Stuck in the Middle With You.” There were clowns to the left and jokers to the right but the singer was still “stuck in the middle.”
Yes I’m stuck in the middle with you,
And I’m wondering what it is I should do,
It’s so hard to keep this smile from my face,
Losing control, yeah, I’m all over the place,
Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right,
Here I am, stuck in the middle with you
It could be Gen X’s generational theme song.
As I documented in my last post, Gen X (b. 1961-1981) is the “Jan Brady” of American generations. It grew up sandwiched between two great American generations: the older Boomers (b. 1943-1960) and the younger Millennials (b. 1982-2004). Stuck in the middle is never easy and Gen X has naturally grown up a bit chippy and grumpy.
As leaders, particularly elders of local churches, it’s critical to understand the generational dynamic of a congregation. As you survey your church do you see a predominant generation? If you’re like many churches today you’re probably seeing more gray, white, blue and no hairs. In my studies of churches in the past 35 years I’ve noticed when the average age of a church exceeds 50 that it’s a potential sign of decline. Healthy churches mirror the contextual age of their community and unless you’re in a retirement community you need to stay below that “age” watermark.
Which brings us to another sobering generational truth: while the fast-graying Boomers are finally retiring and the 20- and 30-something Millennials play their entitlement cards (with some success), Gen X is now getting passed over.
It’s very evident in the job market. The Great Recession (2007-2012) hit Gen X the hardest. The emerging digital and cyber economy shuttered middle management and ended industrial-era employment. Many 40-something Gen Xers lost full-time jobs and never got them back while Boom elders worked past the traditional retirement age of 55. To survive, Gen X downsized, moved, and chose bankruptcy. Unlike the Depression generation, who eventually recovered, in a post-modern, post-industrial world Gen X can read the writing on the wall.
In the church this truth is equally evident.
The Boom generation first tasted leadership (as elders) back in the mid-1980s thanks to a leadership vacuum left by the retiring G.I. Generation. Many of these leaders were still in their late 20s and early 30s when they assumed eldership roles. These young Boom leaders launched an ecclesiastical revolution, sparking the infamous “praise versus hymns” worship wars. Boomers, particularly in megachurches, reinvented Sunday morning into an “event” where PowerPoint, bands and pulpit-less communicators took center stage.
Like good middle children Gen X complied and applauded these ecclesiastical cosmetic changes, then waited in the wings for their turn. By the 1990s, as Boomer senior ministers still held tightly to their pulpits, frustrated Gen X youth ministers launched a new “emerging church” brand that featured hipper music, better visuals and TedTalk sermons. The reason was simple: Gen Xers (unlike the Boomers) was AWOL from church and they wanted to get their peers back.
During the ‘2000s, a new reality emerged: the Millennials shocked everyone and left church altogether (becoming known as the “nones” for “no spiritual affiliation”). A decade later, Gen X grew restless and is now leading a new absentee cohort known as the “dones” (as in “done with church”). In many congregations Boomers are now the predominant regular attenders-aging fast and passing away.
The best solution is to reenergize Gen X, but that’s not happening.
Instead the American church is passing over Xers for the younger Millennial creating both angst and anger. Furthermore, countless older Gen X pastors, still capable and desirous, are tragically overlooked to lead as elders or hire as preachers or staff.
The Boom-led congregations want youth and Gen Xers no longer fit the mold. Meanwhile Gen X-led churches are also hiring the Millennial, even over their own peers (more affordable and moldable).
Gen X is caught in a proverbial catch 22.
So what can church leaders do?
First, aim for balance in your leadership and church staff. If one generation is dominant, there’s room for change. Second, survey the generational attitudes of your congregation. What’s the older Boomer wanting? What’s Gen X thinking? What’s the younger Millennial seeking?
It’s also time to think differently about Gen X altogether, especially those 50-somethings who’ve been out of work for awhile. They may be your best hire. They’re experienced, willing, capable and enthusiastically affordable.
Yes, Gen X is getting long in the tooth but that doesn’t mean they’re done or can’t lead a church to its best days.
The “stuck in the middle” Jan Brady generation just wants the chance.
Gen X is the “Jan Brady” of American generations.
And for leaders, particularly elders, in the local church this is a significant insight to understand. How we view a generational cohort impacts the way we lead, the decisions we make and the legacy we leave.
Jan was the middle Brady Bunch sister, stuck between the popular, beautiful Marcia and the innocuous, precocious Cindy. Jan was constantly trying to fit in, speak out and move up in the family dynamics. She created new personas, chose compliance and voiced dissidence. Nothing worked.
In fact, as a middle sister she was frustrated, hurt and angry.
Gen X (born 1961-1981) knows that feeling well. We’ve grown up as a cultural “Jan Brady” between two great American generations.
As kids of the 70s and 80s, Gen X watched the Boom Generation (born 1943-1960) relish their popular status in American culture. These post-WW2 “Spock” babies were celebrated Disney kids—donning coonskin caps and Mickey Mouse ears—who later fueled a rock ’n roll era that produced beatniks, Black Panthers, Jesus freaks and flower children. Later, the Boomers enjoyed a 1980s Reagan economic renaissance fostering yet another moniker: yuppies (young urban professionals). They also found Jesus and seeded a megachurch movement that reimagined American Christianity.
Everything the Boomers did was big…and the shadow was long.
The problem is Gen Xers grew up beneath a different American psyche. Gen X was labeled and libeled as slackers, goonies, exorcist kids and bad news bears. Abortion, the Pill, the latchkey, daycare and divorce tattooed this 70s and 80s generation as did cultural events like Watergate, Iran hostages and the Challenger explosion. Consequently, Gen X has always nursed a cultural chip on their shoulders. Gen X was widely defined as cynical, lazy and snarky and so they’ve always felt like an outsider. To a breakfast club generation reality bites.
And then those innocuous Millennials came along in the 1980s.
Like precocious Cindy, this “baby on board” generation (born 1982-2004) was everything Gen X wasn’t. They were wanted, protected and venerated. With a cultural blessing from Hollywood to the White House, the Millennials could do no wrong. They were suckled on Disney, celebrated as “Spy Kids” and enjoyed “Home Improvement” family ties. The church showered Millennials with the best in children’s and youth ministry programs, events, curricula and facilities.
And now older Millennials are beginning to assume church leadership roles.
So, what do these generational contexts mean to you as the leader of a church? Actually, quite a bit. Take a look around your leadership “inner circle,” particularly your eldership.
How many are over the age of 56? These are your “Marcia” Boomers.
Do you have any elders younger than 35? These are “Cindy” Millennials.
The rest in the middle, in their late 30s to early 50s, are the “Jan Brady” Gen Xers.
From my long observation of churches in America today, if your church is under 300 members and at least 15 years old, chances are the majority of your elders are Boomers. Rural churches tend to lean towards boomer elders too.
Larger churches that were birthed pre-2000 tend to lean Boomer while emerging churches of the past decade tend to have Gen X and even Millennial elders.
All of these generational contexts are critical to how a church is led.
A primarily Boomer eldership will be more neo-traditional whereas a Gen X eldership will be more progressive. Boomer leaders and elders view change as a necessary evil while Gen X leaders and elders view change as inevitable. Millennial leaders and elders, if they have a seat at the table, remain in the minority but they view change as constant. They are quite comfortable with fluidity and nothing is sacred.
Boomer leadership possesses an optimism that engages and attracts younger Millennial leaders. To the contrary, Gen X elders carry a cynicism that drives churches to think outside older formats, including the “mega” models popularized by the Boomers.
As the Boomers age (and it’s happening quicker now), they are starting to step down as leaders and elders. The problem is, in many American congregations, the Boomers are the only ones left. Many U.S. churches do not have a strong Gen X or Millennial population in their church and it’s created a leadership vacuum unlike anything we’ve seen in three decades.
As Bob Dylan sang, the times they are a-changin.’
And in part two we’ll dig deeper into what this all means.
Today is a significant day in Christian history.
On October 31, 1517—500 years ago—a German monk sounded a clarion call to reform the abuses of the medieval Church he loved. Martin Luther purposely chose All Hallow’s Eve, the night before All Saint’s Day (a revered day in his Roman Catholic tradition) to hammer 95 thesis statements into the wood of a Wittenberg church door. Luther’s act inspired the Protestant Reformation and ignited countless other movements—from the Great Awakening to the Jesus Movement—in the next five centuries.
I am personally a product of a nineteenth century “restoration movement” (Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone) who sought to restore the Church to ancient principles and practices. I have a deep respect and admiration for my ecclesiastical forefathers who worked tirelessly to restore biblical Christianity. Unfortunately, even this great fellowship of churches eventually adopted secular models over sacred expression, whether in church leadership or worship service or preaching style.
In other words, the “Restoration Movement” didn’t restore the Church, at least not fully. Rather, and to be brutally honest, it became a “nondenominational” denomination in its own right. And today this once dynamic movement has stiffened into a monument in many places. Too many of my dear brothers and sisters prefer to divide over non-essentials, battle over unnecessary causes and alienate over pet interpretations.
So today, in honor of Martin Luther, I pick up my own hammer and offer more than a reformation, renewal or even a reimagination. What we desperately hunger for is a true and complete biblical restoration of the Church.
And I think this (RADICAL) RESTORATION is easily captured in 9.5 statements:
THESIS ONE: The Church of Jesus Christ is Essentially One. We are not the only Christians but we must seek to be Christians only. When the Church operates in the unity that Jesus prayed (John 17:20-23), we are an unstoppable, unbelievable and undeniable Force for good and God.
THESIS TWO: The Church is the Kingdom of God on Earth. The Church is not a “plan B” or some ecclesiastical or eschatological after thought, as many preach and teach today. The Church is God’s Best Idea (along with a Messiah). It is the Kingdom predicted by Daniel (Daniel 2:44-45), revealed by Jesus (Mark 9:1, Luke 17:20-21) and promoted by the apostolic Church (Acts 8:12; 19:8; Colossians 4:11; 1 Thessalonians 2:12; Revelation 12:10-11). It is a Kingdom of Salt that seasons, a Light that reveals, a Joy that pleases, a Grace that releases, a Power that energizes and a Hope that inspires.
THESIS THREE: The Church is Bigger than it’s Monikers. There is no “one true” denomination and no particular human expression of “church” that is better than another. At best we all see things dimly, in glimpses and partially (1 Corinthians 13: 12). In Heaven there will be no Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Amish, Seventh-Day Adventists, Quakers, Charismatics, Reformed, Evangelical, Fundamental, Progressive, Conservative, Liberal or “non-denominational.” In Heaven, as it was in the beginning of the Church, there will only be one label for all: Christian (Acts 11:26).
THESIS FOUR: The Church was created for Radical Community. The Church is about circles, not squares; community not cliques; interaction not isolation. In Christ we all have a place at the table of Communion in the Eucharist that binds all Christians together. The Church is described as a Body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31) and Bride (Revelation 19:7; 21:2). We are a creative, connective and collaborative Family (Galatians 6:10). Consequently, we lead with forgiveness (2 Corinthians 2:10), love with purpose (1 Corinthians 16:14) and learn in community (Acts 2:42-47). Our gatherings must be immersed in interaction. No one should visit a Christian gathering without being tattooed by a relationship.
THESIS FIVE: The Church is guided by Matters of Faith not Opinion, Interpretation or Tradition. The Apostle Paul has given us the only creed the Church of Jesus Christ needs (Ephesians 4:4-5): we are one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father. Everything else is interpretation and opinion, including end-time positions, views on God’s sovereignty, spiritual gifts, musical style, day of worship, organizational values, leadership roles and any other divisive human tradition. It’s fully time the Church ceased dividing over matters of opinion and focus fully on matters of faith. We need to simply agree with a statement attributed to Augustine: “In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things, love.”
THESIS SIX: The Church is a Body not a Building. For the past seventeen centuries the Church has confined itself within basilicas and cathedrals, halls and chapels, sanctuaries and auditoriums. The vocabulary of the modern church now erroneously reflects “time and space.” Many Christians will say they “go to church,” but this contradicts, even betrays, the inherent power and purpose of authentic ekklesia. In reality, Christians are THE Church. As the Body of Christ, we are a Divine Organism not a human organization. We are faces not a facility. When the church devolves into a business, school or any other cultural institution, as it has clearly done in recent years, it creates handicap and dysfunction. It’s why the early church operated from homes not a “temple” or a “house of worship” (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15). God doesn’t live in our building (Acts 7:48-49), but within our hearts (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Consequently, the building should never be labeled a “house of God” or “temple” and neither is it a facility Christians attend.
THESIS SEVEN: The Church is composed of baptized believers only. In our baptism we are “born again” into Christ’s Kingdom (John 3:5). Baptism is our “Red Sea” experience (1 Corinthians 10:1-2), our Divine garment (Galatians 3:27), our spiritual cleansing (Acts 22:16; Titus 3:5) and salvation (1 Peter 3:21). And while visitors, guests, seekers and other interested persons are always welcome to journey in our Divine story, all those who follow Christ must identify fully with His death, burial and resurrection through baptism (Romans 6:3-4). It is a Christian’s mark–a circumcism of the heart (Colossians 2:11-15). This is especially critical and necessary before anyone is allowed to participate in the Lord’s Supper, as Communion or Eucharist is not something for outsiders, the ignorant or unrepentant (1 Corinthians 10:16-17; 11:27-29).
THESIS EIGHT: The Church gathers for discipleship, fellowship and worship. The ancient and Original DNA for why the Church gathers is found in Acts 2:42: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Essentially, we gather to learn the ancient teachings of Jesus and the apostles, to experience connection and community, to participate in the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist and to pray. It’s clear from other New Testament passages that these gatherings included congregational singing (Ephesians 5:19), testimonies (1 Corinthians 14:26), corporate prayer (Acts 4:24-31; 12:12) and even meals in these home fellowships (1 Corinthians 11:20-21). It also infers each “gathering” was small, from a few to perhaps a couple dozen believers. Consequently, these micro-congregations were discipleship-driven, fellowship-based and worship-focused.
THESIS NINE: The Church is led by “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers.” Apostles are those commissioned and sent on a mission (i.e., missionaries). Prophets are those who lead the church forward through prophetic message and/or leadership. Evangelists are those who share the “good news” (gospel) of Jesus. Pastors are those designated to oversee and shepherd a group of believers (a.k.a. elders, overseers). Teachers are those called to instruct and equip. Spread throughout the Body of Christ are lay leaders or ministers (males and females) who administrate, serve, repair, maintain and direct specific acts of ministry, a.k.a. deacons or deaconesses (Acts 6:1-6; Romans 16:1; 1 Timothy 3:8-13).
THESIS NINE POINT FIVE: The Church was originally commissioned as a decentralized Body of believers. The centralization of the Church, nearly four hundred years after it’s Pentecostal launching, was never God’s desire (who initially had twelve tribes led by multiple judges, priests and prophets) or Jesus’ model (who discipled twelve men rather than one). The Original Expression of church leadership was clearly decentralized through multiple apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors or elders, teachers and ministers. Everyone in a church enjoyed opportunity, influence, power and control (1 Corinthians 14:26). There were no reverends, vicars, rectors, parsons, priests, bishops, cardinals, popes, lead pastors, senior ministers, executive ministers, associate pastors or any other leadership label that centralized power to a few individuals. Rather there were only general responsibilities to equip [Christ’s] people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all [emphasis mine] reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (Ephesians 4:12-13).
In conclusion, I am not naïve in the knowledge that some or all of these statements will provoke controversy, argument or even division, for no great reformation, revolution or restoration was created without conflict, criticism and complaint. Nevertheless, I can no longer be silent on a clear and simple reading of Scripture, the long testimony of the historical Church and a leading by God to invite all those who love the Church into a conversation on where we’re at and where the Church is headed. In fact, I would ask that you read the Scriptures linked to each point, please.
If I have erred or unintentionally misrepresented myself, the Church or my Christ, I humbly seek correction. I will never claim infallibility nor boast in my positions. I simply and humbly lay them before each man and woman to consider.
Nevertheless, I will desire, until my dying breath, to initiate a UNITY of the Church of Jesus Christ on planet earth and promote a committed and purposeful invitation to simply be Christians. We do not need denominational labels, human creeds, mission statements, auditoriums, chapels, cathedrals, pews, stained glass, stages, lighting, sound, fog machines, PowerPoint, Apple products, videos, performances, hip sermons, coffee bars, offices, bulletins, websites, special programming or any other human invention. They are tools, but they are not necessary tools. Nor can we allow the traditions of man to supersede clear biblical teaching. If the Scriptures say to do it, just do it.
Ultimately, we need only three things, as Paul so eloquently revealed to his Corinthian readers: FAITH. HOPE. LOVE. Faith is our confidence in what was and now is. Hope is our fuel for what will be. And Love is the bond to everything else. It’s why Paul identified LOVE as the GREATEST of the three. For without Love, our Faith is reduced to dogma, tradition and isolation. And without Love, Hope can become abstract, fuzzy and blinding. Ultimately, Love is the “greatest” because it’s the glue that binds Faith and Hope together.
So whether you agree or not with my 9.5 Theses is irrelevant to me.
I will still LOVE all people fully. I will remain FAITHful continually. And I will HOPE incessantly.
Here I stand, I truly can do no other.
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.
What do you remember about your childhood church?
I remember much. And I’m beginning to miss it more and more. I grew up in the church of the 1960s and 1970s. My church was a small congregation in small-town Montana. The church has never grown larger than a couple hundred, but her influence has been wide. She produced dozens of pastors, missionaries, elders, deacons, Sunday School teachers and other leaders.
What do I recall about my childhood home church?
I remember the smell and feel of a hardwood pew (where I literally cut my teeth). I remember the clink of glass communion cups and the taste of homemade unleavened bread and sometimes stale grape juice. I recall the sounds of a dueling organ and piano, the Doxology hymn after the offering and the prayers of nervous elders around the Communion table.
I remember stained glass windows that told stories of the Faith. I remember hymns that communicated deep doctrinal truths with passion and purpose. The Church’s One Foundation. In The Garden. Softly and Tenderly. The Old Rugged Cross. Power in the Blood. Revive Us Again. When We All Get To Heaven. We had no band. No lighting cues. No fog machines. No hi-tech visuals. No sound system. Just a guy or gal waving her arm to lead us in a hymn’s tempo, whether 4/4, 3/4 or 6/8. I remember a time when worshippers sat reverently and sang loudly (in parts). Back then our worship leader used to chide that we couldn’t sing “Standing on the Promises” as long as we sat on the premises. Today we stand to worship (and sometimes are chided if we don’t) while many (especially men) don’t sing at all.
I remember congregational readings and prayer times, when we openly shared our troubles, triumphs and trials. In my childhood church everyone had a role. Some ushered. Some gave devotional thoughts. Some served the Communion. Some passed the offering plate. Some prayed. Some read Scripture. Some played the instruments. Some led the songs. Some gave announcements. Some shared a special song, poem or art. Even the kids were involved. I once did a “chalk art” drawing on stage while my preacher waxed eloquent about heaven. I was eight years old.
I remember monthly fellowship dinners where the whole church gathered to feast, but to also share stories, build community and enjoy life. I remember old ladies with perfect attendance pins (some years in the making), sermons on sin, Hell and judgment, two-week Vacation Bible Schools and revivals, all-night prayer vigils and the annual Christmas play (to a packed house). I remember hanging with my preacher in his office, his home and even on the job (he was a part-time radio broadcaster). We played a lot of ping pong and shuffleboard.
I remember, as a preteen how the boys and girls were separated for a few years (Junior Boys and Junior Girls) to learn from same-sex teachers. I remember “sword drills,” Bible baseball and other games to encourage Scripture memory. I learned how to use a concordance, pray for others, study the Word and share my Faith. And unlike today I learned without bribery, Bible Bucks or other gimmicks to incentivize my motivations. To paraphrase a popular hymn: “My faith was built on nothing less than my preacher’s notes and Standard Press.”
Above all, I recall feeling safe in my church. No matter what life brought me, I knew the saints had my back. My preacher knew my name. My teachers knew my cares. Church was a place to gather, connect and commune. We were family. The parking lot was still full long after church let out. Few beat it to the door because there were plenty of people looking to talk to you. Visitors were welcomed and often invited to join for Sunday dinner. We didn’t give visitors a gift. We gave them our lives.
I’ve seen “church” change a lot in my lifetime, but I miss “church” as it was. Today’s church seems so plastic, processed and produced compared to my church back in the day. Today too many Christians want quick, convenient and entertaining, but at what cost? Discipleship has been reduced in some churches to a Sunday TedTalk. In other congregations, especially of the non-denominational evangelical stripe, the only person who prays in the service is the pastor. The Lord’s Supper or eucharist has become a drive-by, occasional event. Worship a concert. Fellowship an accident. Evangelism something someone else does.
Some might view my reminiscing as criticism, but that’s not true nor my intent. It’s mostly just observation. If you’re younger, I understand. All you’ve ever known is the church of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. But the “church” of those decades was in transition and transformation. It’s wasn’t the “old school” church that those of us 50 and older grew up experiencing.
Personally, I’m not against change. In fact, I think there’s been many good and healthy changes in the Church since my youth. I appreciate worship that’s more culturally-sensitive and emotive. I appreciate that sermons are more applicable. And I’m grateful for the plethora of resources, helps or ministries for just about every need or problem.
Nevertheless, we have lost some great traditions. We’ve cut loose some wonderful ways we once connected. We’ve forgotten some beautiful strategies for sharing, growing and maturing Faith. I know we can’t go back. And we shouldn’t. Today’s church operates within a completely different cultural context and it’s not possible or reasonable.
If there’s one thing we do need is a return to SMALL. Bigger hasn’t been better for the Church. The bigger we’ve gotten the more we’ve lost the personal touch. Unless we can reimagine “mega” into smaller communities (where everybody knows your name), even the large churches will eventually stagnate and decline. It’s critical the Church recaptures authentic community that provides every person a place, role and purpose.
This was the practice of the early church: small, home-based communities of probably no more than a couple dozen. For centuries the Church operated small and contextualized to a particular neighborhood or town. Discipleship was in upper (living) rooms. Worship was interactive and everyone contributed. Evangelism happened by riverbanks, side roads and in prison cells. The disciples were sacrificial in their giving and no one had a need.
It sounds a lot like the church of my childhood.
Can you imagine a church like that today? I can.
For the DNA of the Church hasn’t changed. It’s the same yesterday, today and tomorrow:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread (Lord’s Supper/Eucharist) 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 (Acts 2:42-46).