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).
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 seminary, Christian university and Bible college is in trouble, so says my friend and church analyst Thom Schultz in his latest blog “Trouble at Christian Colleges.” Attendances are in decline. Revenue streams are drying up. Entire schools are folding. Over the past two years I’ve visited dozens of private Christian schools in my work. I’ve heard the stories. I’ve seen the struggles. I’ve watched layoffs, downsizing and forced retirements. I’ve even experienced it myself. It’s hard to be a Christian college professor today.
As a professor of ministry for nearly 25 years (15 years full-time), I think Thom largely hit the proverbial nail on the headmaster. I was blessed to be part of Christian higher education during its glory days. I love to teach and still miss the classroom greatly. It was a special blessing to disciple students in ministry leadership. I have hundreds of former students, most who serve successfully and lead powerfully in local churches, parachurch organizations, schools, businesses or other Christian institutions. I am still blessed to teach online at one of the best Christian universities in the world and adjunct courses at other schools whenever possible.
Nevertheless, I will confess I left the academy somewhat disillusioned by the institutional machine of modern Christian education. I served as a professor or staff in four schools, from a small Bible college to one of America’s largest Christian universities. Each had unique blessings, special challenges and proven successes. It was clear the larger the school the more she focused upon non-academic stuff, particularly sports programs and the never-ending campaign to erect the next building (supposedly to attract more students, which didn’t always happen). As a professor, I was discouraged to discover that faculty development, evaluation and improvement was minimal (with spotty training to help me improve as a teaching professor). Outside of semester student evaluations there was little constructive feedback and few budgeted resources to improve pedagogy. It wasn’t necessarily my dean’s fault either. These fine individuals were overworked, underpaid and doing the best they could.
My biggest disappointment is how schools, even those camped in the same denomination, are highly territorial. Outside of sports competitions (which naturally create an adversarial relationship), many Christian colleges operate inside their academic bubble high upon their institutional islands. There’s little cooperation or collaboration. Every school tries to reinvent the wheel, completely dismissing affordable and helpful resources easily obtained through sister colleges. Outside of annual meetings and conventions, where sister school faculty, staff and students, might occasionally rub shoulders, there is little camaraderie.
So I understand why students (and faculty/staff) move on. There are lots of learning options today, particularly digital formats. I personally believe the future of higher Christian education and ministry training is online. It’s faster, less expensive, more convenient and, in my experience, even more productive. Information is cheap in today’s cyber economy. You don’t need to pay big bucks to a school to learn something. Online education is the perfect fit for the emerging iTech generation. It’s even more fun (and lucrative) for the professor. You can’t hide in an online class and enrollments have to be sectioned small (under 25 students). Online courses require a higher degree of student commitment, involvement and attitude. Learning happens within the student’s (not the school’s) cultural context. In recent years, online learning has become popular, but few Christian schools have the expertise, funding and infrastructure to do it right, so most muddle along in mediocrity.
So WHY the “trouble at Christian colleges?”
First of all, most Christian colleges, seminaries or universities must jump through a variety of hoops to remain accredited by state, regional or national entities (essential to granting degrees). The U.S. government in recent years has pressed for clear evidence that a school is doing it’s advertised work and producing graduates. If an institution doesn’t pass the fed’s performance demands then student loans and other federal aid is at risk. Meanwhile legitimate concerns the U.S. government might soon become hostile to private Christian institutions are rising.
Second, Christian colleges, seminaries or universities focus on the theological not the practical. Many ministry graduates lament about how ill-prepared they were for real ministry, but it’s not because ministry professors didn’t want to include leadership classes. Rather, the lack of leadership training is again connected to accreditation standards. Many larger Christian colleges and universities pursue regional accreditation in order for their courses and degrees to better transfer to other state institutions. But regional accreditation cares little about ministry leadership training and demands four-year degrees to be loaded with general education courses (many of which, like math and physical education, have little value to a ministry student). And then Bible and theology departments demand their lion share of the ministry curriculum, chewing up dozens of hours. I remember a robust conversation with one Bible professor who defended his ministry epistles class as a required course. It was his only opportunity to teach “ministry,” he said. He was a good guy but his ministry experience was seriously limited. Consequently, my students lost three hours of practical education in order to take his required Bible class.
Third, smaller Bible and Christian colleges (and their ministry students) face a different problem: professors that have little to no experience teaching a particular subject. It can happen at larger schools too. I taught several classes over the years for which I had little to no experience, little to no educational background and little to no expertise, but somehow the class still got pushed on my plate. One semester I taught “women’s ministry” to a room full of ladies (I was totally out of my element). In another I taught physical education (because I was the young athletic professor, I guess!). Even if a professor has knowledge in a subject, including personal experience, it doesn’t mean they should teach it. Teaching is much more than transferring content.
Fourth, since the 1990s, many Christian colleges have watched their local church support dollar disappear. Fewer churches back a seminary or Bible college anymore with their mission dollar. Many larger churches openly say they won’t hire a Christian college graduate (unless they’re willing to intern for peanuts first), preferring to groom their pastors from within. When I attended Bible college in the early ’80s well over 50% of my tuition was paid by local church donations. Today, in many Christian colleges, church support has dipped below 10%. Most private Christian schools are now tuition-driven and that’s a problem for ministry students who rack up huge educational bills only to serve in a field with sub-standard salaries.
So there’s a lot of issues facing Christian universities, seminaries and Bible colleges today.
With that said, I want to categorically state that formal pastoral education remains valid, critical and necessary. Historically, the three most educated people in town were the doctor, lawyer and preacher. The Ivy League schools were originally created to train the clergy. So I don’t agree with some who argue a formal Christian college education isn’t important. Too many churches today, particularly of the megachurch type, are pastored by individuals with little to no theology or Christian ministry training (and their messages, teaching and leadership shows it). The Church is a spiritual enterprise not a business or school. The greatest issue facing the church in the 21st century is biblical ignorance and the Academy can solve this issue.
Naturally, critics of higher Christian education like to point out how Jesus’ disciples were “ignorant” and “unschooled.” However, such criticism only reveals a lack of biblical and historical understanding. In reality, the average Jewish boy wasn’t as ignorant or unschooled as you might think. A synagogue education (boys only) required memorizing the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). Jewish homes were spiritual centers and “houses of the Book” served Jewish children with education in secular studies. Furthermore, when it came time to take Christianity into a pagan and educated Greco-Roman culture, God chose the highly-educated Paul (not to mention Apollos and Dr. Luke) over fishing-buddies-turned-preachers Peter, James and John. Early Christianity (AD 33-400) was served well by the academics who kept heresy in check, defended the Faith and carved fresh paradigms for leadership and ministry. Catechumenal schools, cathedral schools, monasteries and eventually the university guided the Church through twenty centuries.
Yes, Christian universities, Bible colleges, seminaries and other religious institutions are in trouble, but its largely due to its inability to think outside the modern-Enlightenment box. Our ministry schools, like the the churches they serve, must reimagine themselves. The future of the Church demands a highly-educated critical thinker, culturally-astute collaborative leader and dynamic communicator. Historically, the Academy has led both the Church and culture through massive societal change and it’s no different now.
Now is not the time for the Church to jettison the Academy.
But it is time for both institutions to partner to find fresh working solutions, innovative new paradigms and creative programming in order to reach postmodern generations.
In the future I intend to share a few of my bubbling ideas on what tomorrow’s Christian college, university and seminary might look like, but my time is up.
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.
NOTE: Every church is guided by traditions that guard the doctrinal nuances of a denomination, religious body or congregation. Most of these traditions are post-apostolic and culturally sensitive in origin and practice. Many are innocent and acceptable. But occasionally some traditions emerge that contain no biblical or historical support. In fact, when deeply considered, these traditions, rituals and spiritual acts can actually detract, delay, detour or distort authentic Christianity. It doesn’t take a Bible major to understand these traditions aren’t Scriptural, but many Christians still trust their efficacy and practice them with little thought. In this series of articles I’ll investigate several such traditions that have emerged in the past 150 years of Protestant evangelical Christianity.
Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation left behind two great, albeit oppositional consequences: literacy and divisiveness.
We could read and fight…especially amongst ourselves.
A tour of any USAmerican town will produce countless church options. Roman Catholic. Greek Orthodox. Episcopal. Lutheran. Presbyterian. Mennonite. Quaker. Methodist. Baptist. Assembly of God. Nazarene. Evangelical Free. Church of God. Church of Christ. Christian Church (Disciples). Seventh-Day Adventists. Christian Missionary and Alliance.
Like the old parody on Scripture states, “Repent and be Baptist, for all have sinned and fallen short of the Assembly of God.” Of course that begs a new question: Which brand of Baptist? There’s only 94 flavors (and counting). American. General. Regular. Southern. Conservative. Fundamental. Free Will. Independent. And those are just the main ones. As for Pentecostals, the Holy Spirit knows no denominational boundaries. From Assembly of God to Church of God of Prophecy to Calvary Chapel to Hillsong, it’s like Burger King: you truly can have your charismatic gifts your way.
The problem is Jesus’ last recorded prayer on the planet was for his kids to get along. He prayed for unity: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me (John 17:20-21).”
So where did we get all these church monikers? Before we consider Scripture, let’s look at church history.
In 325 A.D. the Council of Nicea convened to create a standard Christian creed. The Nicene creed was slightly expanded and formally adopted five decades later at a second council in Constantinople (381 A.D.). The modified version contained a new phrase: a belief in the “holy catholic church.” The word “catholic” means universal (Greek: kataholis or “according to the whole”). Of course, later this “universal” church Romanized, creating the first ecclesiastical oxymoron: Roman Catholic.
Some Protestant church names reflect their founding fathers. Lutherans (Martin Luther). Amish (Jackob Ammann). Mennonites (Menno Simons). However, most monikers are rooted to a theological idea or practice. Presbyterians are “elder-led,” as the Greek word for elder is presbuteros. Methodists followed the spiritual “methods” promoted by George Whitefield, Charles and John Wesley. Baptists rejected infant baptism and subscribed to “believer’s baptism” only.
Some church names happen by strange incident. The Church of England was founded after Henry VIII couldn’t get his marriage annulled by Rome. It still operated like a Catholic Church but with Protestant spunk. The Anglican name carried considerable consequences during the Revolutionary War, so the “Church of England” in the United States was changed to the “Episcopal Church.” The “Free Methodist Church” originated in 1860 so you’d think “free” might refer to a northern preference for anti-slavery when, in fact, it was mostly a theological slap to Methodist churches who charged for pews. Quakers (Friends) got their nickname when founder George Fox was called before a 1650 tribunal for blasphemy and created a “trembling.”
Many church names are culturally or geographically sensitive. First Baptist or First Christian? These names were given to the first Baptist or first Christian church to arrive in town. In the 1800s, churches used the same tactics as banks to name their congregations. First National Bank. In Cincinnati, there’s Fifth Third Bank, a 1908 merger of the only surviving “fifth” and “third” banks. In most smaller towns, there never was a “second” church and so the number “first” was stuck to many churches. In the 1900s churches started naming themselves after their street, suburb or town. Ten Mile Christian Church. Deer Flat Methodist Church. Cornwall Church. Meridian Friends.
In the television age, church names became more visual. The Vineyard. Oasis. The Pursuit. Real Life. Others use biblical visual monikers like Christ The King Church. Solomon’s Porch. Mar’s Hill.
The irony? These “brands” reflect American consumerism, denominational heritage, geographical pride and legal necessity more than biblical ordinance. In the Scriptures you won’t find any particular church with any specific name. That’s because there were no denominational headquarters. No letters of incorporation. No promotional branding.
In the book of Acts, Christians are called “Christians” originally in Antioch, but this is several years after Pentecost (Acts 11:26). Plus, it’s probable this label was a derogatory nickname (like “Mormons“) because it’s so rarely used. In fact, the only other times in the New Testament “Christian” is used is within a derisive comment by King Agrippa to Paul (Acts 26:28) and when Peter admonishes his readers to “bear the name” with gratitude (I Peter 4:16). This suggests that even if “Christian” was originally derogatory, the name was later, perhaps begrudgingly, embraced as a badge of honor.
The most common first-century name was clearly “disciple” or “learner“ (Acts 6:1-2,7; 9:1,10,19,26,36-38; 11:29; 13:52; 14:20-22,28; 16:1; 18:23,27; 19:1,9,30; 20:1,30; 21:4,16). The use of “disciple” is interesting as it defines not just WHO but WHAT a follower of Christ does: learn. A learner is someone who’s continually growing in insight, attitude and lifestyle. A disciple is a student, pupil and learner “following” his or her teacher. Maybe that’s why another more ambiguous early moniker is “follower” (Acts 5:36-37; 9:25; 17:34; 22:4; 24:14).
A second common label throughout the book of Acts is “believer” (Acts 1:15; 2:44; 4:32; 5:12; 8:15; 9:31,41; 10:23,45; 11:1-2; 15:1-3, 5, 22, 23, 32-36,40; 16:2; 17:6,10,14; 21:25). This general moniker occurs widely throughout the New Testament, including 1 Corinthians 6:5; 1 Thessalonians 1:7; 1 Timothy 4:12; James 1:9; 3 John 1:10). In a couple instances the word “family” is an added description (Galatians 6:10; 1 Peter 2:17; 5:9).
Collectively, in Acts, the primary term used to describe or brand these followers, believers or disciples is “the Way.” Paul is described as persecuting those who belonged to “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9; 22:4; 24:22) and clearly defined them as a sect of Judaism (Acts 24:14). Perhaps this label is rooted to the descriptive path of being a true disciple of Jesus who taught He was “the Way” (John 14:4-6). Later disciples Priscilla and Aquila taught Apollos “the way” of Jesus (Acts 18:26; 19:20).
Another collective and general term is “church” (ekklesia or “assembly”). Surprisingly, the word “ekklesia” appears only twice in the gospels (both times in Matthew’s gospel) and are direct quotes by Jesus. “Church” is also a popular expression in Acts (23 times) and 1 Corinthians (21 times) and Revelation (19 times). The word “ekklesia” literally means “called out ones” and was a political term for Roman assemblies. When an emperor or high-ranking Roman official traveled through a town, the people would “ekklesia” (assemble) to pay homage by shouting “Caesar is Lord.” In first century Palestine, a political hot spot was Caesarea Philippi. Perhaps one of these ekklesias had just happened when Jesus turned to his disciples and asked “Who do people say that I am?” Upon Peter’s confession that He was the Messiah or “Lord,” Jesus announced it was upon this rock-solid profession that He would build his ekklesia or assembly (Matthew 16:13-18).
To summarize, the terms “follower,” “believer” or “disciple” are the tags revealed in Scripture to describe adherents to the teachings of Jesus Christ. “Christian” is also acceptable. However, there is no other “party” or “denominational” or “sectarian” name. In the Kingdom of Christ, there are no Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, charismatics, Pentecostals, Methodists, Adventists, Quakers/Friends, Amish or Mennonites. You’re either a “believer, follower, disciple” or you’re not. Too many Christians tragically follow in the “way” of their denomination, geographical location or a marketing plan rather than simply following in “the Way” of Jesus.
It’s also a concern when we redefine “church” into a place or time (the subject of a future blog). “Church” is not a facility, a service hour or any other place we go to. A “church” happens whenever two or more believers gather (assemble) at any time in any location. Furthermore, the True Church cannot be denominated by creed and all who follow “the Way” (teaching of Jesus Christ) are included. In fact, the only creedal statement that distinguishes a follower of Christ from all others is found within a Pauline desire for unity (Ephesians 4:4-6):
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
I believe this early doctrinal statement is most likely the curriculum plan the Way employed “to equip people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all 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).”
Christians generally believe one day all labels, monikers and names will dissolve into ONE Name and one day all denominations, sects and brands will become ONE Body.
But I ask why wait?
If those who follow Jesus the Christ would simply follow Him without personal agenda, denominational/pastor loyalty, selfish desire or divisive spirit…then perhaps Jesus’ prayer might be fulfilled even yet…even still..today.
At least that’s my prayer.
Every house sits on a foundation. However, most people will confess the true appeal of a home is how its built. After all, even if a house sits upon a perfect and strong foundation, if it boasts poorly built walls, bad wiring and terrible paint will produce an uncomfortable, even unlivable, situation.
Jesus is the Foundation of the Church and that’s a good thing. But we, His People and particularly His leaders, may not have produced the best construction over the past two millennia. We often build in spite of a very clear biblical blueprint for “doing church.” We miss the mark. Create our own traditions. Wire our own rituals. Paint our own doctrines.
Previously, I stated the clear Original Desire and Design for God’s spiritual community was a DECENTRALIZED frame. The problem is, since the early fourth century, we’ve been building upon a centralized format or one that’s rooted to a central leader or leadership, to a place or a time (especially in the past 500 years). Now its time to compare the “house” we’ve built against the biblical blueprint. How is the way we “do” church different from the way the early church “did” church?
Ironically, one of the best biblical books to reveal the desire and design (Original DNA) of how to do church is Paul’s letter to a dysfunctional church in Corinth. In this epistle, Paul clearly shows how we have everything a bit backward, at least compared to the prevailing practice of the first-century Church. What we find is a decentralized practice of Christianity.
For example, worship (including preaching and teaching) was originally decentralized: 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 (I Cor 14:26). In contrast, the 21C church service is led by a few leaders who control the songs, the liturgy and sermon. Ironically, this is highly unattractive to postmodern seekers and sends a potentially hidden message to the church family that only a few are important or valuable.
Evangelism was originally decentralized: Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I Cor 1:13). In contrast, the 21C church feature baptisms done by clergy. Why can’t the average Joe or Jane baptize their friend? We live in an experiential and participatory culture…and nothing is more experiential than a “new birth.”
Church gatherings were originally decentralized, meeting solely in houses (Acts 2:46; 8:3; Romans 16:5; I Corinthians 16:19; Colossians 4:15). The Body gathered outside, in public places, courts, river banks, meeting areas and later cemeteries (2nd century). There were no church buildings or centralized meeting places. God had already left the building (temple) in Jerusalem. Everything happened in homes. The “church” (Greek: ekklesia or “called out ones”) was the people. In contrast, the 21C congregation gathers in a building with a large auditorium (that sits empty most of the week). Tragically, most people–inside and outside the church–now define “church” as a place or time (“I went to church yesterday”).
Leadership was originally decentralized: I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,…that there be no divisions among you,…that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. …What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” (I Cor 1:10-12). The divisions followed leadership and the Original DNA was for multiple leaders to lead, not a single man. In contrast, the 21C church promotes a preacher or priest as the “face” of the congregation, and in some cases, a “celebrity pastor” to boot.
It’s hard to confess, but we simply do not resemble or look anything like the early church. This will become glaringly obvious as we address several sticky wicket issues in the 21C American church.
Now before I proceed, a moment of confession: I passionately love THE CHURCH. I want to see her move forward powerfully and productively in the 21st century, and believe Her best days are ahead IF we humbly and respectfully return to our Original DNA.
I just don’t believe She’ll look anything like what we see today in 50 years.
NEXT TIME: THE TWO INDIVIDUALS THAT PRODUCED 1700 YEARS OF CHRISTENDOM