As the new century begins to unfold, we often hear many so-called and often self-proclaimed “experts” on culture and religion predicting the extinction of Christianity. If one listens closely to these pundits, it would seem the faith is already in its death throes, gasping vainly for its final breath. Are these doomsday prophets correct? Is the ancient and once-vibrant church universal on the cusp of being relegated to the dust bin of sociological irrelevance?
The answer is clear: Yes and no.
If one is speaking of the Church in its traditional form and structure, securely anchored to its dated and increasingly ineffective methodology of encountering the world, then the answer is a resounding yes. The Church of yesterday is rapidly becoming just that – the Church of yesterday. Stubbornly clinging to a Jurassic vision of its mission, function, and structure, the traditional church is incapable of successfully navigating the shifting shoals of the post-modern world. To make matters worse, people outside the Church have an increasingly negative view of Christianity in general and Christians in particular.
There can be little doubt that we are living not only in the post-modern age, but the post-Christian age as well. Some of our more cocooned brothers and sisters may be in denial of this fact, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is true. And now hear this, things are not going to go back to the good old days. As the old saying goes, once it’s a pickle, it ain’t gonna be a cucumber ever again. Don’t just take my word for it, take heed of these statistics, culled from the research of several prominent church historians and sociologists, as well as renowned researcher George Barna.
Historians postulate it took from the beginning of the church to the year 1900 for followers of Jesus to make up 2.5 percent of the world population. In the seventy years beyond that, it more than doubled. By 1970, the number of committed believers in the world expanded to over 6 percent. From 1970 to 1992 the number doubled again. So right now, in the world it is something like 12 or 13 percent. These are followers of Jesus Christ, people who say, “I am born again.” Here’s what’s really interesting. Seventy percent of this growth happened in the last fifteen years. All of that sounds pretty good, Turner, so why are you waving all these red flags in our faces? Well, here’s why:
Seventy percent of that growth is happening outside the United States.
The trends on our shores are just the opposite. In America today, over 85 percent of the churches are stagnant or dying. And while the appearance is there is an abundance of churches, the truth is most are nearly empty buildings with an average attendance of fewer than seventy-five. Every week more churches close their doors. Even in Nashville, the buckle of the Bible Belt and home to numerous large para-church ministries, churches are being turned into storage buildings, office complexes, and strip joints. Some downtown churches are more famous for the architecture than for the person and purpose they were built to glorify.
“America is fast becoming the land of empty church buildings and hollow religion,” said David Foster, founding pastor of one of Nashville’s largest congregations. “Out of 450,000 Protestant churches, we lost fifty thousand churches in the ‘90’s. I heard a denominational leader say recently roughly 5,000 ministers are leaving the ministry every month. These are obscene and sobering numbers.”
Not such a pretty picture, is it? I live in the heart of the Bible Belt, where people still go to church in large numbers and Christianity remains a strong force in the cultural mix. We have no real shortage of churches and, except for several crisis-driven denominations, few churches are actually closing their doors. Still, the trend of declining numbers is more apparent in the larger cities in the Bible Belt, like Nashville, Memphis, and Atlanta. In other parts of the country, entire denominations seem to have on foot in the morgue and the other on a banana peel.
Denominational leaders and church leaders tend to react in one of four basic ways: outright denial; panic-fueled tail chasing, like a dog running in circles; blaming everyone but themselves; or trying to find new, creative ways to fix the mess. Only Number Four has the proverbial snowball’s chance.
A significant section of the Body of Christ has arisen, showing not only signs of life, but also a freshness of vision, a flexibility of methodology, and a contagious optimism. Often referred to as the “Emerging Church”, this proactive, mission-driven force in the Church is proving that the demise of the Christian faith is, to echo Mark Twain, greatly exaggerated.
In my mind’s eye, I often see Christ standing before the fetid tomb of Mary and Martha’s brother. With a calm, reassuring voice, Jesus spoke:
Lazarus, come forth!
Some of those assembled there initially expressed concern:
But Lord, he has been dead four days. He stinketh.
In spite of the odor, Jesus called his friend back to life and Lazarus responded. Still wrapped in his burial cloths, the once-dead man now walked with new life. As the vision progresses, it is no longer Lazarus who I see resurrected at the Lord’s call, but the contemporary Church. Particularly, I see the revitalization and renewal of the old Mainline denominations, so rich in tradition and resources. These denominations have experienced the greatest loss in terms of numbers and influence, yet it is these very segments of the Church that have the most to offer.
As the Body of Christ finds its way in our post-modern, post-Christian culture, I believe we will see major changes in the way the Church goes about its business. In addition to shifts in organizational structure and a reduced role of the ordained clergy, the churches that survive will be the ones that are innovative, transformative, and incarnational.
If the Church is to reach the growing post-Christian culture in ways that are relevant and effective, several things must be seen with clarity and focus. First, the primary question that must be answered is not, “How can we evangelize these people?” Instead, the relevant question must be, “How can I help you?” It is through this sort of proactive Christian service that the Church’s evangelistic witness can be best fostered. Secondly, the Church must reconsider how it can best present the truths of the faith in new wineskins that are more appropriate than the 19th Century model that is commonly used even today. We must re-introduce people to God, to Christ, to the Scriptures, and to the Church and this must be done in ways that are both practical and palatable, given the parameters of the environment in which the Church is now operating.
One salient and ubiquitous feature of 21st Century America centers on the increased interest in all things spiritual. Increasingly, people are seeking spiritual experience, not just dogma, doctrine, and didactics. Many Americans find themselves encountering the reality that something important is missing from their lives and they are quite active in their search for an answer. It is here that the Church has consistently fallen short of the mark.
Protestant Christianity in particular has long been suspicious, even paranoid, regarding spiritual disciplines and spiritual experience. As a result, the Church as we know it has been narrowly focused on belief and doctrine, ignoring the experiential, subjective side of an individual’s walk of faith. Discipleship programs have traditionally been focused on regimented Bible study and the central aspect of the overwhelming majority of Protestant worship services is the pastor’s sermon. Is it any wonder that many churches see dwindling numbers? The spiritual seeker of today finds the typical church service and discipleship program as unsatisfying and irrelevant. As a result, they turn elsewhere. Spiritual paths such as Buddhism, Yoga, Wicca, and many self-help programs are flourishing, primarily because they are more likely to address the needs of today’s spiritual seeker.
Connected with this lack of deep discipleship on the part of the Church is a general lack of transformative experience among the faithful. According to the majority of sociological and spiritual research done by Gallup, as well as George Barna, the typical believer is not significantly different than the non-believer in terms of worldview. Our pews are filled with sincere people who are, in the words of Thoreau, living lives of quiet desperation. This unfortunate reality accounts for the fact that a tour of any Christian book store will reveal a plethora of books with dust jackets that claim the book will, “change your life.”
Why do so many Christian experience such a desperate quality of life and seek something life-changing? Precisely because the Church has not provided a consistent means for spiritual growth and fulfillment. Let’s get real about this. A few praise songs, a couple of corporate prayers, a didactic Sunday School lesson, and a sermon just doesn’t cut it. If the Church is to thrive in the context of the current culture, it must be transformative. Few people speak as clearly and consistently on this issue as Dallas Willard:
“The overshadowing event of the past two centuries of Christian life has been the struggle between orthodoxy and modernism. In this struggle the primary issue has, as a matter of fact, not been discipleship to Christ and a transformation of soul that expresses itself in pervasive, routine obedience to his ‘all that I have commanded you.’ Instead, both sides of the controversy have focused almost entirely upon what is to be explicitly asserted or rejected as essential Christian doctrine. In the process of battles over views of Christ the Savior, Christ the teacher was lost on all sides…..Discipleship as an essential issue disappeared from the churches, and with it there also disappeared realistic plans and programs for the transformation of the inmost self into Christ-likeness. One could now be a Christian forever without actually changing in heart and life. Right profession, positive or negative, was all that was required. This has now produced generations of professing Christians who, as a whole, do not differ in character, but only in ritual, from their non-professing neighbors….”
Finally, the Body of Christ must develop innovative methods of giving flesh to its primary mission: incarnating Christ. The new Church must be mission-driven and willing to get its hands dirty. I believe the 21st Century churches that thrive will increasingly be those that arise out of the culture where a need exists. These types of congregations will be largely unconventional in terms of make up and methodology. Numerous examples already exist and can serve as models upon which new, innovative churches can be built. Congregations like “Mosaic” in Los Angeles, “Solomon’s Porch” in Minneapolis, and “The Rock” in Huntsville, Alabama are but three among many examples to build upon. These churches are thriving because they encounter the surrounding culture and grow within the context of that culture.
If the Body of Christ can incorporate progressive innovation, transformation, and incarnation into its calling and its mission, the consistent answer to the naysayers who are blowing Taps on Christianity will be a resounding, “No!”
The Church faces major challenges as it learns to live within a cultural context in which it finds itself increasingly marginalized. We can either put our heads in the sand and pretend the storm isn’t on the horizon, or, we can come up with creative new wineskins to fulfill our commission being salt and light in our world. Realistically, we can assume some churches will do well, while others will become flavorless seasoning and blown out light bulbs. Some will become, in the words of Paul, a pleasant aroma to the nostrils; while others, unfortunately, will stinketh.
How individual churches choose to respond to the realities of the situation will determine whether they will die, survive, or thrive.
© L.D. Turner 2009/All Rights Reserved