Here is the second in a series of blog posts on why Churches of Christ are shrinking. The first post,"A Left-Brained Fellowship in a Right-Brained World," has gone viral. While not everyone agrees with everything in the post, from the new members that joined the network, it would appear that a high percentage of these new members are people who agree, who are dealing with this issue, or who are ex-Church of Christ members. I don't have all the answers, but I am always glad to stimulate thought and discussion.
(It is perhaps ironic that the previous post, which focused primarily on our assemblies, went viral, as I write about outreach and mission. But of course, if the church is truly missional to its core, then we are always thinking about every aspect of the church and how we can collectively and individually reach people for Christ.)
In this post, I want to put forward a second reason why Churches of Christ are shrinking, which is, we have failed to understand or adjust to the fact that we are living in an increasingly unchurched, post-Christian world. While we have issues that are particular to us and other modern era churches, the fact is that no Christian fellowship in the United States is growing. "Community churches" are the only "group" that is growing, and this is not a fellowship, but a collection of different churches (though they have some elements that they tend to have in common, including cultural relevance and experiential factors).
What proof? Read Thomas Olson's work The American Church in Crisis. Olson's research shows that weekly church attendance in the US is 19-21 percent and shrinking. And this number is only held up by the older generations. A recent study showed that the percentage of "nones"--those that claim absolutely no religious affiliation in the US is now 20 percent--and among 18-30 year olds, this is an astounding 30 percent. So almost 1 out of 3 young adults are rejecting not just Christianity, but ALL religion. Part of this is due to the bad press of religion in general, events like 9/11 (which was motivated by religious extremists), parents who dropped out of church and did not raise their kids with a religious foundation, and the pushing out of religion and spirituality from the public square.
Furthermore, what religious strength remains in the US comes in part from non-Christian religions. Wicca is the fastest growing religion in the US. Second is Islam (immigration factors in this), despite all the bad press from 9/11. Third is Mormonism.
So, not only has the culture changed on our fellowship (first blog post), but even if the same things worked today that worked in the 1800s (and they don't), there is vastly reduced pool of people who are interested in Christianity. And yet, while the evidence and stats for this is widely available, somehow, our people do not seem to know or understand this.
Want evidence? As recently as 12 years ago I went to a conservative lectureship and I heard time and time again that the greatest threat to the church was denominationalism. Really? I used to go on Let's Start Talking trips for years to Europe. I love Europe. Wouldn't mind living over there for a few years. But it is a terribly post-Christian culture. Over there, if you find someone who believes in God and Jesus, you cling to them like white on rice. You appreciate them and thank God for them. Even the Catholics. (Ironically, the recent public disputes between our government and the Catholic church and the growing endorsement of immoral lifestyles and practices has made people gain a new appreciation for the Catholic church and their strong stands against abortion and homosexuality.)
I imagine this was much like it was in the early church. If you were being persecuted by the Romans and in danger of being eaten by lions, if you found someone who believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God who lived, died, was buried, and resurrected, you thanked God for that person.
More evidence? Look at our "evangelism" training classes and Bible study material. Most of it is STILL geared entirely towards a highly churched, Bible-knowing audience who knows all that stuff about Jesus and that just needs to be taught better about baptism--and of course, the right church with the right name, structure, etc. As if these are the questions that people are still asking. Trust me, most are not.
The reason that I wrote the Story of Redemption, which is an 8 part evangelistic Bible study, is that I could not find anything written for an unchurched, postmodern culture. The primary teacher of evangelism at my Christian college taught people primarily how to explain Church of Christ doctrine about church issues. The studies that were out there jumped all over the place, assumed a basic knowledge of the Bible, assumed a basic knowledge of Christ, and were totally off in form. Instead of being primarily narrative, they were fill in the blank proof texts. Instead of being visually attractive, they were printed on the worst paper with no pictures, only texts. Instead of starting at the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis, which explains who God is and why the world is the way that it is, they started in Romans--usually Romans 6! (Well, almost). Instead of going through Jesus' life and ministry, death, burial, and resurrection, and actually telling the story--which is powerful and moving--this story was reduced down to three points and a response demanded.
Imagine instead of telling the story of Cinderella to your kids, you instead gave three points: 1) Cinderella was a poor maiden (according to the Scriptures); 2) she was turned into a princess by a fairy godmother and met a prince at a ball (according to the Scriptures); 3) he found her and married her after she left a shoe at the ball (according to the Scriptures). Would it be true? Yes. Would it move people to laughter, tears, and joy? Probably not. Now, the Christ story is the best story ever told. Can people be moved by just a summary? Yes, they can. But for people who are far away from God, they need to hear the story. And this story is incredible. And powerful. And though I have gone through this story with people hundreds of times, I am always impacted by it. Have we gotten tired of the story? Romans 6:1-4 is an incredible passage. I include it in the last lesson of the Story of Redemption. But remember, Paul was summarizing this story for people who knew it intimately. He did not share Christ with non-Christians by giving them three verses and calling for them to respond.
The Story of Redemption has had a tremendous response rate, because it is God's story, told as he tells it, designed for today's unchurched, postmodern culture (watch the conversion story video below). If you don't have this type of study, you might be interested in it. But this is not about the Story of Redemption. It is about our failure to realize that we live in an unchurched, post-Christian culture--even in one of our self-viewed greatest areas of emphasis, the sharing of the gospel. We never even updated the Jewel Miller filmstrip, which was great for its time. We just transferred those 1960s filmstrip pictures onto video, showing the same pictures in still form. In 50 years we could not come up with something current? (I am in the midst of filming the Story of Redemption, even planning on filming some on location in Israel, to try to offer a humble replacement for this).
I talk with a lot of churches about outreach. And many of them want to reach out, but do not have a clue of how to do this. And just the most basic explanation of where our culture is spiritually seems to be very eye-opening.
So, what can we do to respond to our increasingly unchurched, post-Christian culture? Here are some practical suggestions.
1. Continually educate and remind people about the (non) religious state of our nation.
2. Adopt a missional theology and understanding. The writers of Missional Church were missiologists who asked the question, how do we apply mission principles to North America--which is the 5th largest mission field in the world. Missional theology says that mission is not one of several things that the church does. The church is by nature missional. So all that the church does must be done through this lens and understanding. It is just like a mission team that is sent overseas on mission. Yes, they do many things. But everything that they do is done to help them reach the lost in their area.
3. Begin to think like missionaries. That is, ask, what are the areas of brokenness in this culture? And, what would be good news for this culture? How can I share this good news? There are huge areas of brokenness for the gospel to break into in our culture. Abuse. Lack of community. Loneliness. Emptiness from materialism. Addiction. Poverty. There are biblical deeds and words that address all of these issues, and ministries can be begun to address these needs.
4. Budget like missionaries. The vast majority of churches in the US budget budget almost nothing for outreach. And with so many churches struggling financially due to the shrinking Christian population, this problem is exacerbated even more. And there was virtually nothing in local outreach at High Pointe when I came (both money and ministry wise). But they had a heart for growing in this. So we said that we would have our Harvest Sunday, which had gone almost entirely to foreign, go 50 percent to local and 50 percent to foreign outreach. The result? The congregation almost doubled their Harvest Sunday giving, and we have had between $75,000-$90,000 available for local outreach. Which has allowed us to do some really wonderful works in the community.
5. Train people to be missionaries. "Work as Worship" studies and training are huge right now. Raise people's awareness of God in their daily lives, and help them look for opportunities to serve, bless, and invite their non-Christian/unchurches family, co-workers, neighbors, and friends. Teach small groups not only how to nurture, but how to reach out. Currently we are training people to just be Bible students. Jesus said "teach people to obey" (Mt. 28:20). Training involves not just knowledge, though that is important, but hands on teaching. How do you start conversations with non-Christians? (Serve and bless them, and they will ask) What are culturally appropriate things to invite people to? Who can people start praying for to share the gospel with/bless?
6. Find a way to share the gospel and lead people to faith in Jesus Christ. This includes personal sharing, but it also includes things like seeker small groups and studies like the Story of Redemption. Most churches have no study that they use, and thus don't even convert the visitors that they have. I may have saved you some time in the Story of Redemption, or you may be able to adapt it and use your own. But please, find a way to share the gospel in a way that impacts an unchurched, non-Christian culture.
How many people are showing up to worship services in Europe? We are not Europe yet, and we have a spiritual vibrancy that may last, but we are headed down that path. If your church is not growing, that is not surprising. The vast majority are not, and those that are are often culturally relevant. Even fewer churches are growing evangelistically. And those that are, may still be losing younger generations on the cultural relevance issue. But if we take the above steps, this will go a long ways towards reversing or at least slowing the trend in our fellowship.
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...