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).
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.
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.
That’s why we need to look back to understand a few things. Today’s 21C version of the Church is vastly different from the revealed version in the book of Acts and the epistles (not to mention the first three hundred years of its history)…but WHY and HOW?
Where did the Church go wrong? What was the turning point, historically, for a vibrant, attractive decentralized Faith community (as revealed in the New Testament) to turn into an ecclesiastical, political and eventual corporate system? Well, the answer emerges fairly early in the Christian story. Somehow it doesn’t take long for man to mess up what God intended.
One finger points to Ignatius of Antioch, a late first-century/early second-century church leader who wrote extensively on congregational matters. Ignatius favored the idea of a single bishop (elder) to rule a church (some argue because he himself was a disgruntled elder). Essentially, he wanted to centralize a local church around one person and a group of churches around a single ruling bishop. A few followed his lead, particularly in Rome. For example, Evaristus (c. 105) reportedly divided Rome into parishes with a supervising priest while a hundred years later, Fabian (c. 240) further divided the city into districts (ruled by a single deacon). Still most Christian churches remained decentralized for the first three hundred years.
But then Roman emperor Constantine legalizes Christianity in Rome (Edict of Milan, AD 313). By the early fourth century, a centralized congregational frame was now widely accepted and, consequently, easily assimilated into a Roman political system. As a result, the fourth century “Catholic” church blossomed as “Christendom” (or Christ’s Kingdom). Pagan temples were converted into churches. Bishops, archbishops, cardinals and popes emerged. Tax exempt status was granted to churches. And the wall of separation between clergy and laity was erected. Nearly all these reforms stand to this day.
So the verdict is in…you can point the finger (largely) at Ignatius and Constantine. But I would respectfully protest that doesn’t make them (or their adherents) right to reframe and centralize Christianity around a single bishop, archbishop, pope or even city (Rome) any more than it was right for Israel to request a “king”. Ironically, “Catholic” (from Greek καθολικισμός, katholikismos) literally means “universal.” And yet today is known, rather oxymoronic, as the Roman Catholic Church.
For 1700 years, including 500 years of Protestant Reformation, we have missed the point and created a centralized religion.
In fact, I continue to contend the Original DNA was (and still is) a decentralized frame of congregational government. Power spread throughout. Everyone pulling their weight. Multiple leaders guiding the vision and values, doing the preaching and teaching, in a local congregation. No single individual in charge and no single apostle, priest or pastor more important. No denominational hierarchy or headquarters. Most Christians have never experienced such a church.
It’s definitely what we find revealed in the Scriptures.
As Peter wrote, we are ALL priests in God’s Kingdom. We all have a voice and vision. We all can evangelize, preach, teach, sing and serve. Or as Paul added, there are now no more barriers between race, gender or profession. We are ONE Body. The Church isn’t a place we go to. Church isn’t defined by an address, a time or a program and it’s certainly not a “personality-driven” enterprise (which is common in so many megachurches today) or “priest-/preacher-centered.” The Church is PEOPLE. Messy, imperfect and broken people who embrace Jesus and Holy Spirit empowerment. Maybe that’s why early churches were small–a couple dozen people at best–worshipping in a home rather than like we do today, in a Christian event, service or program.
Imagine if we could RADICALLY RESTORE the Church to its Original DNA! What if we reclaimed a decentralized Body, led by multiple pastors, gathering in homes but living their faith publicly, empowering every person to “go and teach” the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Why would this model be more powerful in a postmodern America? Here are a few reasons:
- Most non-churched/former churched Americans have a negative view of a church building and her leaders and a general distrust of institutional Christianity.
- Americans don’t mind gathering in private homes (for parties, reunions, etc.). It’s a comfortable place for conversation.
- House churches operate faster, leaner and better contextualized to individual neighborhoods. Change will be key to survival.
- The emerging persecution of Christians will drive faith communities underground. In persecuted countries, a decentralized frame succeeds.
In the coming weeks, I’ll continue to unpack these ideas. Just know that God IS working.
He’s always working.
Sometimes I fear we’ve got it all backwards. I mean, what if we’ve been missing the point for centuries? What if we’ve wandered far from God’s true Desire and Design for His Church? It’s certainly hard to believe. Most Christians, including many church leaders, have little idea about their history. We just blindly keep doing what we’ve been doing out of tradition.
One of my favorite leadership books is The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. It describes the difference between centralized (spider) and de-centralized (starfish) organizations. In nature a spider and a starfish look similar, but they possess great difference in how they’re organized. A spider’s power is centralized. Lop off a spider’s leg and it’s disabled. Cut off a spider’s head and its dead. Starfish are different. It’s power is spread throughout the body. Every ounce is alive with reproductive potential. Cut off a starfish leg and it’ll grow it back. In fact, some starfish will remove their own legs to reproduce!
Brafman and Beckstrom use starfish as a metaphor to highlight how de-centralized organizations survive and thrive. In reality, de-centralized organizations, tribes, communities and businesses have always been among us. However, the rise of the Worldwide Web has flattened and decentralized nearly everything–and this cyber culture is unlike anything that’s ever existed in human history. For up until the 1990s, centralized organizations, including national governments, have ruled. Egypt was centralized around a Pharaoh. Babylon around a king. Rome around an emperor. The Catholic Church around a pope. The Indian tribes around a chief. For thousands of years, the world has operated from its middles. The power was focused. Consequently, all institutions found centralized frames beneficial, whether in commerce, media, education or religion. We were a world of bosses, CEOs, principals, presidents, directors and head honchos.
But the emergence of a web world changed everything.
Today anyone can be a content creator. YouTube makes everyone a filmmaker. Twitter makes everyone a commentator. eBay makes everyone a seller. Consequently, the middles are collapsing. Middle class. Middle management. Mainline churches. Mainstream media. What’s exploding are “starfish” organizations, gatherings and communities. From Sturgis to Burning Man, from ISIS to the Tea Party, from Drudge to Huffington, from Facebook to Pinterest, from Craigslist to Amazon, from A.A. to Celebrate Recovery. Furthermore, every web-connected person on the planet can now access information. Online learning continues to grow. Web meetings and e-conferences are routine. TedTalks is the new classroom.
The GOOD NEWS for the Church, particularly the American Church? A decentralized frame has always been God’s desire for His People. In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel disintegrated within generations of centralization (around a king). Prior to “king” Saul, Israel was a decentralized spiritual community. Leaders abounded, but no one leader controlled. Even under Moses, the community was led more by its priests and judges than its prophet. It wasn’t until Israel asked for a king, centralized religion in Jerusalem (thanks to King David) and put God in a temple box (thanks to Solomon) that everything went south.
So it’s not surprising when God relaunched His New Covenant Church in the first century, it was decentralized. Every congregation met in homes, was led by a body of elders and served by deacons and deaconesses. In the book of Acts as well as the epistles, we catch glimpses of decentralization. For example, Paul wrote to the Corinthians and Romans how the Church is like a body (with Jesus as the head).
The first step to radically restore the Church is to confess we’ve got our frame wrong. It’s like God gave us the blueprint and we built the house our own way regardless. It’s not that buildings, lead pastors, priests, popes, or programs are bad and that God can’t use them. He does. It’s just not how He planned it.
God designed the Church to operate as a STARFISH and we converted it into a SPIDER.
It’s time to RESTORE authentic Christianity and reclaim our STARFISH design. A Church of the people, by the people and for the people. And the real good news is I believe the American Church will lead the way.
After all, at the heart of decentralization is autonomy, freedom and democracy.
And that is the American way.
NEXT TIME: WHAT A DECENTRALIZED CHURCH LOOKS LIKE
I have a love/hate relationship with my computer. I love it when it’s doing what I need (or want) it to do, but hate passionately when it doesn’t operate to my standards, preferences or speed. Ever wonder if God feels the same way about how we “do” church? Hold that thought and perhaps consider Amos 5:20-22.
When my computer freezes or the little wheel just spins and spins, I know its time to reboot. Restart the system. Clear out the RAM. Nearly always that solves my problems. But sometimes, on very rare occasions, I’ve had to do something radical: restore my computer to its original factory specifications.
Few people employ such a drastic measure because we never fully reach the need or exasperation. After all, it’s easier to delete/add programs, change settings and fix bugs. We’ll run anti-virus software, hard drive sweepers and add RAM to help a sluggish computer operate better. A computer restoration requires saving all programs or files that weren’t on the computer originally and, frankly, that’s a fearful thought. Over the years, a user can accumulate thousands, even tens of thousands of files that require backing up. The thought of a total restoration brings trepidation, tension and tiredness. We don’t have time or the energy for a complete, good as new, restoration. So we keep muddling along doing the same things, working the same programs, running the same fixes until one day there’s the BLUE SCREEN. And the game is over. Our gig is up. The computer has crashed with a fatal error message.
I know its hard to hear, but I truly believe the 21st century American Church is near a BLUE SCREEN moment. I don’t say that to cast anxiety or aspersion, but rather alarm. I don’t desire to be hyper-critical, negative or sensationalistic, but from Supreme Court rulings on gay marriage to open mockery in the media, the American Church is growing culturally irrelevant (just like the European church 50 years ago did). The attendance statistics are sounding louder every year. The “nones and dones.” The graying of the Church. Stagnation. Division. Closures. In general, fewer Americans attend church every year (a trend that’s been happening since the mid-1990s).
The operating system is bogged down by programming that’s creating sluggish results.
And this decline isn’t accidental. Like a computer, over time, man created this ecclesiastical mess and has perverted the original operating system, most of it emerging after 325 AD when Constantine’s reforms created a state religion. In 1700 years we’ve rebooted the church with various prophets, priests, popes and preachers. We’ve rebooted with house churches, cathedrals and megachurches. We’ve rebooted as Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Nazarene and every denomination (and non-denomination) under the Son. Along the way, we’ve focused and fractured, reformed and reorganized, envisioned and emerged ourselves to death. Today’s 21C church operates largely through facility, professional staff and event-based ministry. It’s a far cry from what God intended and now is proving increasingly irrelevant to the postmodern experience.
I believe it’s time for a COMPLETE RESTORATION. Not another reboot. Not another software fix. Not another sweep and clean. Not another anti-virus download. We need to get back to the Original DNA or factory specifications. We need to restore the only model that matters: the One Jesus gave His disciples and the One his disciples practiced clearly, simply and powerfully in the book of Acts. Nothing more and nothing less.
We don’t need to reimagine, reform or revive the “Church.” All that will happen naturally in a complete restoration. But it also won’t be painless. This one is going to hurt but it’ll hurt less NOW than if we avoid the pain. The BLUE SCREEN is coming and, trust me, it won’t happen at a convenient moment. One way or another, God will mold His Church into His Image. But He’s waiting for something big. Something even bigger than Luther’s 95 theses. Something bigger than a new worship song or video clip. Something bigger than a paint job, sermon series or clever new programming idea.
Two thousand years after Pentecost, I contend God would love nothing more than to see His Church—every type, stripe, color and creed—return to its ORIGINAL D.N.A.; a D.N.A. that makes the Church super sticky. So sticky that pagans convert on the spot. So sticky that thousands join in one day. So sticky you’ll probably get persecuted by the religious types who can’t stop you nor join you, but don’t have an answer to your success.
I’m calling for a RADICAL RESTORATION of the Church and, believe it or not, it’s not rocket science. Christianity isn’t complicated, confusing or contradictory, but rather simple. Believe in Jesus. Change your lifestyle, priorities and habits (repent). Tell others about Jesus (confession). Be immersed into Christ (baptism). Practice hospitality and authentic community. Pray like there’s no tomorrow. Mentor those who believe and equip the called. Experience Jesus through worship and the Lord’s Supper. Change the world, first in your neighborhood, then your city, then your state and finally every corner of the globe.
I believe this radical restoration will be a TRUE game-changer. It’s already happening in many places, all over the planet. The Church is alive and well on planet earth…but it doesn’t look anything like what most people experience on Sunday morning. We can only reboot so long. Eventually we’ll need to RESTORE it completely to its Original DNA (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 2:37-47; Ephesians 4:1-6). In the coming weeks I want to explore these DNA Scriptures and outline, specifically, what this means and what a truly RESTORED CHURCH could like in today’s culture.
Finally, the beautiful thing about a restoration is everything is now NEW. And when “all things are new” (Revelation 21:5) we bring a whole lot of Heaven to earth.
And that’s what our world desperately craves.
Recently, church researcher Ed Stetzer cited four “surpising” future trends for the church. I have no disagreement with him, though it was a pretty safe list…and hardly surprising (despite the baited headline). Most of his four trends revolved around the “end of nominalist” Christianity. Essentially the cultural Christians will go the way of the dinosaur, checking “none” as their religious preference. Since we’re pretty much seeing this now, it’s hardly a future trend…nor all that “surprising.”
Most futurists who peer more than five years forward are prone to error and therefore are excused for their safe prophetic announcements about anything “future.” I hope you’ll do the same for me. Nevertheless, I feel somewhat confident that four (truly future) trends will mark the U.S. church in the next quarter century…and I suspect these will also truly surprise many:
1) The end of the lecture (a.k.a., sermon) on Sunday morning. I have a new book set for release in January detailing this huge change for the emerging, postmodern Church (now rising in American culture). Currently, the vast majority of churches (most still run by baby boomer modern ideologies and practices) remain woefully wedded to a rhetorical strategy to communicate and disciple: a 30-50 minute spiritual/biblical monologue or lecture. Protestants think this is the way it’s always been, but that’s not true. The Reformation in the 1500s elevated Scripture and the homily (now called a “sermon”) was expanded to become an academic tool to persuade, explain, reveal and proposition. The Catholic and Orthodox churches, far more ancient, still prefer the short 10-minute homily. So what’s going to replace this Sunday lecture? I believe it’ll be an interactive, visual experience where the preacher operates more as the guide from the side than a sage from the stage. It’ll be the only way to recapture postmodern attention and affection for Christianity (and has proven popular already). The generations born since 1960 have largely left the Church, including the Millennials (which enjoyed the greatest season of children’s and youth ministry the modern Church ever produced). Sermons, like college lectures, will go the way of the dinosaur. They simply do not communicate effectively in a YouTube, Twitter, Google world.
2) The end of the church building as a primary gathering spot. This is a tough church pill to swallow, given the 1500 year history of tax-exempt status for churches (originally started by Constantine in his state religion reforms of 325 AD). But as western and northern governments, including the U.S. government, becomes more antagonistic towards Christianity, these tax exemptions will be questioned, debated and eventually lifted. In America, crippled by debt, church property becomes a source of revenue long considered off limits. When tax-exempt status is removed, many church buildings will head straight for foreclosure. Currently, banks are holding countless church loans in default because no financial institution wants to call a church’s loan, but don’t expect that to happen much longer. Many current church buildings will become community gathering spots. The older the building the more attractive it’ll be for conversion into a private home, bar, restaurant, coffee shop or retail store. Larger buildings will serve local governments or convert to community centers, office space, learning halls and gyms. Persecution will drive USAmerican Christians back into their homes. Small will be the new big.
3) The end of denominationalism and ecclesiastical labels. Future Christianity will have various expressions (charismatic, conservative, liberal, etc.) but the modern labels (Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Assembly of God, Baptist, Nazarene) will disappear. Postmoderns view truth in two categories: Absolute and personal. Moderns were grooved by Renaissance mechanism and Enlightenment rationalism to put everything in a box and objectify truth, including Christianity. But emerging generations don’t think outside the box…they think without boxes. Consequently, postmoderns value the journey, the experience and the conversation. Authentic Christianity will truly rise and replace cultural churchianity in the coming years and replace the labels attached by modern church leaders in the past 500 years.
4) A new age for the northern and western Church that’s marked by biblical ignorance and intense persecution. Every 250 years or so, there’s a turning or a season (just like spring turns to summer and summer turns to fall). As a student of church history, it’s easy to see these seasons (and I’ll write about them in the future), but roughly every 1000 years there’s a period of darkness, ignorance and persecution for the Church. The first-century church was born into this “winter” season (AD 30-325) and experienced a second “cold” season during the Dark Ages (c. AD 1000-1250). We’re now set for a third ice age for northern and western Christianity. Consequently, the Church will be most vibrant in the East (China, Korea, Thailand) and South (America and Africa). Actually this last trend is already happening.
In the end, I do agree with Stetzer’s final conclusion:
The lasting effects of these shifts will force churches to make a critical decision. They will either become a cultural church that allows the societal trends to dictate their ever-changing beliefs. Or they will become a counter-cultural church that faithfully adheres to Scripture and proclaims the gospel in a carefully considered way. The latter church will offer real hope in the midst of an adversarial culture and is the only real future for the American church.
The Bottom Line: The Church of tomorrow will need to be Christ-centered, culturally-relevant, intentionally missional and strategically fluid to find traction in our postmodern culture. And I’m betting it will be smaller, leaner and more irresistible (Acts 2:42-47).