Why are Churches of Christ Shrinking? - Part 1: A Left-Brained Fellowship in a Right-Brained World

Why are Churches of Christ Shrinking? - Part 1: A Left-Brained Fellowship in a Right-Brained World

For followers of this blog, you know that most all of my posts deal with larger kingdom and cultural issues. The Missional Outreach Network has readers from all different denominational backgrounds, and I want to bring people together through Christ and his mission.

However, if my non-Church of Christ readers can indulge me, I want to post a series dealing with some issues in my fellowship (Churches of Christ). Specifically, I want to seek to address the issue as to why Churches of Christ are shrinking--seeking both your thoughts and to provide some analysis and insights. 

First, just an acknowledgment of the fact that we are shrinking is a huge step. For years, somehow we took solace in the fact that our numbers in the US were constant--despite the fact that, as a percentage of the US population, we were already in rapid decline. The US population was growing, and we were not. 

In more recent years, the Christian Chronicle (our non-official official newspaper for Churches of Christ) has woken us up to cold reality. Not only are we declining as a percentage of the US population; we are shrinking numerically as well. We are a fellowship in decline. Maybe not declining as quickly as the mainline denominations that we have pointed towards, but still, like them, declining.

As long as we were "holding our own," we could just keep doing what we had always been doing, "holding to our principals"--not changing anything--and waiting for the world to change and come around to our point of view. If you are staying about the same, well, that is not good, but it does not put you in a crisis mode that prompts organizations to change or die. But now, as we slowly, painfully, begin to acknowledge that we are dying, we now are perhaps more willing to look at the causes of our death, with the hope perhaps that a cure can be found.

There are numerous reasons for our fellowship's decline which I hope to discuss in this blog post series. But the reason that I want to put forward today is this: we are a left-brained fellowship in a right-brained world. 

Churches of Christ in their current, visible form were birthed in the 1800s during the height of the "modern" worldview. This was the age of Reason. We were skeptical of emotion, which could lead us astray. All that stuff at Cane Ridge, where people were looking for expressions of the Spirit as confirmation of their faith, which could include barking like dogs and the like, led nearly half of our fellowship to disbelieve that the Spirit of God worked at all outside of the written word and that there was no indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Shocking to deny, for without the Spirit, we have no eternal life.

But it was a print medium world, so this fit into the times. This print medium world allows one to take the word of God off on one's own to read and study outside of a community--which leads to individualism. It was a world that worshiped the scientific method, and we began to apply this method to Scripture, believing that if we just all used the same method (hermeneutic), we would all come to the same result every time. Reason and scientific study of the Bible and knowledge would lead us to all come to agreement and thus unity. (I was reminded recently by a preacher friend that our motto for decades was "Come, let us reason together.")

(Notice that unity was not based upon Christ and the Spirit or the seven "ones" of Eph. 4, but upon agreement on all of the issues. This is an impossible task, proven to be impossible for flawed humans by our history. But I digress.)

So our worship services and Bible classes were designed to give out information and prove points. We wanted to educate people--not shape them spiritually or transform them or disciple them. We did not have Spiritual Formation or Discipleship ministers. We had "Adult Education" ministers. We had preachers who dispensed information and proved their points. It was assumed that education equals transformation. 

Fast forward two hundred years to today. We are now in an Apple based, image and icon based world. A world of pictures and videos. A world of music and surround sound. A world of 75" plasma screens in homes and jumbo trons half the size of football fields. I live in Dallas and took the Cowboys stadium tour. There I found out that the owners of the Phoenix Suns came out to the stadium to play video games at $500/minute on the humongous video screen there. Apple is now the highest valued company in the world, beating out Microsoft. This is not just symbolism. It is reality. We are in an Apple based, image based, icon based, experienced based world. This is the world that those 35 and under in particular grew up in, though it extends up through Gen X (and even partially into the late Boomers).

And these younger generations come into our worship services looking for an experience. And what do they get? A lecture. Information. Someone trying to build a reasoned argument and make their points. And they just don't get it. It does not speak their language. We are speaking Mandarin Chinese to them. (Actually Mandarin Chinese is an image-based language. So with the growth of China, we will become even more image based and Eastern in our thinking. Think of a picture or image. By its nature, it evokes more emotion and feeling and passion. And when younger generations enter into this throwback, print based world, they feel that our worship services are empty, dead, and lifeless. It does not move them. They can't wait for the exit.)

Older generations showed up to hear a sermon. The rest was nice, but was almost viewed as filler for the main dish. And in growing churches that are reaching younger generations, they most all have great preachers. Preaching (that is culturally relevant) still transforms and moves people. 

But what our fellowship fails to realize is that if you were to take that same great speaker--let's say, Andy Stanley, or if you prefer, Mark Driscoll, or whoever of that generation that floats your boat, and you were to plop them down into most of our churches, that church would not explode. The younger people would not, by and large, come. Why is this? Because they are not looking for a sermon--though they want to hear a moving one when they hear one. They are looking for an experience--an experience that matches their world. And we are by and large offering an experience of what life in the 1800s is like. Bible classes that educate, and sermons that give knowledge and prove points. In a world in which knowledge is ubiquitous (ever heard of the Internet or Wikipedia?) and everyone is sick of people arguing about who is right. 

Let's face it. By and large, we view the thousands of dollars that are spent on lights, video screens, and cameras in other fellowships as a waste of money. As seeking to "entertain."  We look down on those churches as being superficial. (Part of this is that during the split with the Christian church, they got all of the buildings and all of the money. So our people are inherently suspicious of these kind of expenditures as being "liberal" or superficial. But like so much of our heritage, most people don't realize why they think these things.)

And yet, churches that are doing this are growing--not only reaching lost people, but retaining their own kids. They actually come, want to come, enjoy the experience, and bring their friends. Young adults will camp out and plan their year around the Passion worship experience, but would not ever show up at a lectureship. Look around at the lectureships in our fellowship. There are a lot of older people, and almost no one under 30, despite there being incredible speakers there. 

I recently toured a church in our fellowship that just redid their auditorium. They had an incredible set up. Three huge screens, incredible lighting, stadium seating. I immediately thought two things: 1) this must have cost a lot of money--we could never afford this; and 2) I would love to preach in this atmosphere, because it would be incredible. It would be experiential. It would resonate with younger generations--and a lot of right-brained people in Boomer and above generations, who have never felt that we have spoken their language.

So, what does this mean we should do in Churches of Christ? Well, if we want the same results, I would advise us to do nothing. If we want to see our kids continue to leave in droves--and recently, Randy Harris said at Elderlink that he was afraid that we were going to lose all of our 18-35 year olds--then don't change a thing. When someone tries to dim the lights or show a video or have a praise team or give a testimonial and people complain and threaten to leave or stop giving, then give in. That is what has happened in congregation after congregation in our fellowship. And the Millenials don't complain. They don't make a fuss and stomp off mad. They are very polite. They just leave and say (to themselves), this is not for me. 

And the sad thing is, not only are we choosing to not reach lost people because of our refusal to not give an inch on these issues, but we are choosing to send our kids and grandkids away to at best another fellowship, at worst, the world. When push comes to shove, we would rather keep church the way that it has always been than to make changes that would help us reach or retain these generations. As one of my preacher friend says, "In almost every case in all of our churches, tradition trumps mission."

What if, instead of viewing these things as a waste of money and a threat to our church tradition, we viewed them as "speaking the language" of the people in our mission field? Is that not what missionaries do? We would fire a missionary who went overseas and never learned to speak the language of the people that he was trying to reach and who did not work through their cultural norms and cultural values. But somehow, we forget that we must do the same thing here in the US. 

So here are a few things that could be considered to create a more experienced based worship service.

1. Use video throughout. It is a Youtube world. Video has picture and music and tells a story. It is the language of today. Use background music in these videos. It is the least that we can do to be culturally resonant.

2. Use a three projection screen setup. The standard setup for an experience based event is a three screen setup. The main, center screen projects the speaker/worship leader--and people will usually look at this screen more than the actual person. The other two screens project pictures, moving images and the like. And if you really want to create an experience, then add additional screens on the sides. 

3. Dim the lights in the audience and brighten the stage. This can create the experience atmosphere that many are used to and looking for.

4. Use testimonials. Interview people and have them tell their stories. It is an Oprah world. Millions recently watched Lance Armstrong sit on the couch and talk to Oprah. People will line up to hear other people's stories.

5. Make preaching biblical, culturally relevant, and applicable. Remember, people are not going to be wowed by our exegesis. They can find this online or on their own study Bible. What they will be wowed by is a person who models a godly life, who speaks their language, and who can tell them how to live this biblical truth out in their daily lives at work, in their homes, with their family.

6. Use "pre-worship" music and "post-worship music." Music is ubiquitous in young people' lives. Playing this before and after helps them have a more memorable experience.

7. Engage the body, mind, and heart in worship. This is imminently biblical. Remember The Greatest Commands song? We do not just worship God with our mind. We worship him with our body and with our heart and emotion. Be joyful. Clap. Shout for joy. (We sing about shouting, but don't ever do it.) Have a praise team or worship leader that models this, for passionate worship is contagious. And give people permission to really engage their whole being in worship for God.

8. Emphasize community. Facebook and Youtube have created a world of sharing, a world that longs for community. It is a basic part of our humanity. Remember, in the creation account, everything that God created was good. There was only one thing that was not good. It was not good to be alone. Community can be emphasized in our assemblies not just by having coffee, though great coffee is expected in a Starbucks world. Community is emphasize by sharing stories of God's work amongst his people throughout the week. By displaying Twitter feeds with a church's hashtag, or by asking questions and letting people share through their Iphones. Community can be put in one's tagline, on the website, in one's language in worship. More on community later.

The churches that get this will do far better at reaching the lost and retaining their own children and grandchildren. The "lectureships" that get this will do far better. (Why come hundreds of miles today to just hear a speaker when you can listen to them online?) Create an experience and they will come. And they will invite their friends. Of course, this is not the only thing that has to happen. I am a "missional outreach" guy. I believe in going out and serving and reaching people to my core. But I am more and more convinced that unless we wake up to this experience culture and speak the language of our mission audience, then we will continue to shrink. And I love our fellowship and I love Christ, and I don't want to see this happen. I want our churches to grow. I want my three girls to not have to leave our fellowship to have an experience that touches their hearts, minds, bodies, and souls. I want them to have experiences so powerful, that they come back time and time again.

NOTE - This DOES NOT mean that we have to throw away truth or that these are the only things that we need to do. Hardly. But it may mean that if we speak the language of our culture, they may actually listen to our message. I am not at all for watered down messages or fluff. Telling powerful stories of how God is at work--a conversion story, a story of service, a story of living holy lives, a story of spiritual formation in the home, a story of a marriage coming back together--is not fluffy entertainment. These are powerful stories told well and powerfully. And that should impact everyone. And maybe it will help people to listen and "take in" important truths about Christ, baptism, and the Christian walk.

I am sure that at some point flannel graph was considered a new fangled technology. And Power Point. And microphones. And air conditioning and padded pews. (Go back and read early Restoration history--there are tons of railings against padded pews and the like.) Every generation is comfortable with whatever technology/communication medium they grew up with, and uncomfortable with ones that they did not. It is the responsibility of those most mature in Christ to be the most generous in their personal preferences to those who are most in danger of being lost or missed. That is what being incarnational means.

Here is part 2 in this blog post series: Why are Churches of Christ Shrinking? Part 2: Failure to Recognize ...

Here is part 3 in this blog post series: Why are Churches of Christ Shrinking? - Part 3: A Misplaced Identit...

Here is part 1 in a parallel blog post series: Why Do Churches of Christ Have Hope and a Future? - Part 1: A Reawa...

If you are interested in me giving a Missional Outreach Seminar or Spiritual Gifts Seminar in your church, please let me know. I can adjust the schedule or topics to cover the topics that are needed in your church. I am filling out my 2013 calendar right now. Also, you might be interested in the evangelistic Bible study that I have written, the Story of Redemption. www.StoryofRedemption.com. To discover your top five Spiritual gifts, check out my Spiritual gifts website, www.YourSpiritualGifts.com

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Comment by Darryl Willis on April 25, 2013 at 11:03pm
Oh and by the by, when I was actively involved in youth ministry, I tended to avoid video as much (I did use it, though along with a host of other experiential type of activities) for the simple reason that kids were so innundated with media, that it became less effective with them. Not using video was more innovative. Retreats where we banned media became wonderful times of rest and reflection for the kids.

I've noticed similarities with power-point. I've never heard anyone after a presentation I've delivered say, "You know, that was great, but what I really think it needed was one more slide on your power point!" 8^)
Comment by James Nored on April 25, 2013 at 11:03pm

Thanks, Darryl. Yes, there are different types of house churches, certainly. Those that have a missional community approach can be effective in reaching out. This approach would include adopting and serving a particular people group, as well as creating social and public spaces that the unchurched would be interested in attending. 

Great to hear your thoughts! It would be good to hear what you think about the other posts as well. What is your current ministry role? So glad that you found us on here.

Comment by Darryl Willis on April 25, 2013 at 10:58pm
Thank you, James. However, I don't think it is entirely fair to suggest the house church movement has been ineffective in reaching new people. I think practitioners like Neil Cole would take strong exception with your assessment.

I am not referring to house churches that are merely attractional churches that happen to be meeting in houses. I am speaking of missional churches (before the word became a catch-phrase that has been losing its meaning) who do not see the assembly as the primary entry point for non-Christians. It is my opinion (and I do give the caveat that I don't have objective research to back this up, but then again I do not think there is objective research to suggest any lack of effectiveness for the house church movement, either) that attractional event-driven churches have not been effective in touching non-Christians as much as they have been attracting current believers who are either disenfranchised or dissatisfied with their present experience. This is not to suggest that somehow the disenfranchised are unimportant. It is merely that the right brain vs left brain dichotomy is probably too simplistic.

Indeed I have not read the other articles and I look forward to reading them. Again, please don't take this as criticism of the blog. I just think there is more to the issue among churches of Christ than what is presented in this particular post. (And perhaps I will completely revise my opinion after reading the other articles!) 8^)

Blessings and thanks for opening up the discussion!
Comment by James Nored on April 25, 2013 at 10:25pm

Hi Darryl. Thanks for the thoughts! If you read the other posts in the series, you can see that I do not think that what I address in this first post is the only thing that is needed to reach people. But it is a big disconnect in my particular fellowship (Churches of Christ).

The house church movement appeals to some Christians, but has not shown itself to be very effective in reaching new people. Why? Because there is no "public space" for the unchurched to check out the church, and in North America, that is really important. It takes a lot of guts for an unchurched person to go into an intimate home setting and study the Bible and sing songs. 

Relationships are certainly important and vital and hugely important. But so are the issues in this post, I believe.

Comment by Darryl Willis on April 25, 2013 at 10:14pm
Interesting article and very important observations. However, allow me to disagree to some extent. First a modified agreement: in my research on storytelling and narrative (in the late 90s) I learned some communication theorists (e.g., Walter Fisher) theorized that prior to the printing press the world tended to be right brained--that is the world was audio and sensory. When the printing press came along the Western world became more left brained and linear. With the advent of television and computers Western society became both (this has accelerated dramatically since then). Rather than "hearing in mono" society now "hears in stereo". They are becoming both left and right brained.

Now for some qualified disagreement: The world is not looking for experiential assemblies utilizing video so much as they are looking for meaningful relationships. Large mega churches have tended to owe most of their growth to the minority of Americans who gravitate toward traditional buidling-centered-programatic-event-driven church experiences (admittedly I don't have hard figures to back this up with--this is more anecdotal on my part). With the explosion of house churches among young adults we are not seeing more "experiential" worship as described in this blog--but informal relationship-driven and service oriented communities that put more emphasis upon going into the local neighborhoods rather than trying to attract the community to come to some experiential event. My understanding of missional communities (and my acquaintance with a few) is that while the assembly is important, it is not the focal point of life together. Lack of growth (and I would suggest many mega churches may not be growing but rather swelling) may not necessarily be due to a church's focus upon left-brain vs. right-brained strategies--but possibly because they are focused upon a more consumerist mind-set that seeks to attract people to a programmatic-event-driven organization rather than to meaningful relationships with God and with a God-centered community.

What do you think? Am I missing the point of the article?
Comment by James T Wood on February 13, 2013 at 9:50am

I've found it useful to look at things through the Sacred Pathways or seven spiritual pathways. John Ortberg adapted the book Sacred Pathways in his book God is Closer than you Think. The result is a list of ways that the historic church has approached relationship with God: intellectually, through worship, through service, through contemplation, through activism, through relationship, by experiencing creation. 

I've found it helpful to look at all of these pathways when helping people (especially young people) to discover a holistic faith. 

Comment by James Nored on February 12, 2013 at 9:31pm

James, I understand what you are saying. The right-brain/left-brain designations are just a popular way to talk about these different aspects of the human experience. It is, or has become, a metaphor that can help people visualize something--much like Jesus used metaphors in his teaching.

I could talk about the difference between the heart and the mind, designations that Scripture uses. Technically, it is not the physical heart that we are talking about of course.

But, taking your point, perhaps it would be good to speak of these differences in multiple ways--not just right/left brain, but heart and mind. What other designations could we use?

Comment by James T Wood on February 12, 2013 at 6:10pm

I'm still really troubled by the persistent view that things are either left or right brained. That's not true from a psychological perspective, a neurological perspective, nor a religious perspective. 

We're not moving from one hemisphere to another. Nor should we emphasize one way of connecting with God over another. We should seek to be whole people who promote whole worship of a whole God. 

James, you bring up good and needed critiques of church and the Churches of Christ. It weakens your point to keep keep referring to this idea of hemispherical division within brains, people and culture. 

Thanks for bring this conversation to the fore. It's a good thing. 

Comment by James Nored on February 12, 2013 at 11:01am

Bart, you bring up a good point--one size does not fit all. The problem is that most all of our churches are geared towards one group--the very left brained--in an increasingly right-brained world.

Comment by Bartlett Cleland on February 11, 2013 at 3:34pm

This strikes me as true to the extent it goes, and hence the suggestions as helpful to the the extent of the analysis.  I think that it misses a fundamental point that many current assemblies do as well -- one size does not fit all.  While the suggestions are fine some of them I find wholly unappealing and wuld not attend such a church and yet I am one of the experiential crowd.  Here is the thing - the church, assemblies, need to stop dictating that one size must fit all.  It may be that home churchs (small groups of Christians) are the way to go.  Churches need to construct a couple different worship experiences so that youth, young, middle age, and senior can all find God' message where they and how they ned to find it...

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