On a search for a better world, finding it in the most unlikely places
“Ebb and Flow: the Church and Culture”
“There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path”
-The character Morpheus from The Matrix (Warner Brothers)
Not far from where I grew up, there is a little white building. This little white building happens to have a steeple. In front of the building there is a sign with “______ church” painted on it. I am familiar with this building because I spent significant amounts of time in it during my childhood and early teenage years. This building was the center of a thriving community, where over one hundred people met every week to express their faith corporately. Every age group was represented, from infants to octogenarians. Now, ten years later, three elderly women and a pastor attend, showing up every Sunday morning. What changed?
To successfully discuss this topic, one must be aware of the terminology involved. I want to define several words or terms which I will be using frequently in this paper. The first term is “traditional church”. When I use this term, I am describing a congregational model typical of American denominations in the last 150 years. The prevailing attributes in this model are hierarchical, single (typically male) leadership focus, professional clergy, location centered, and in outreach focused on bringing potential members in. The other terms in need of definition are “simple” and “organic”. Simple and organic models of church are typically led by non-professional members, are community centered (decentralized location), and have outreach that focuses on rapid multiplication and social engagement. “Multi-Site” is a term sometimes used for simple or organic churches but is less prevalent and therefore less defined.
1] The problem…
It is no secret among American pastors that attracting church members (or potential members) is becoming increasingly difficult. Indeed, most of what is hailed as “church growth” can be attributed to a simple shift in attendance of churchgoers to a different congregation. According to a study by the Barna research group, the leading research firm in the field of church statistics, between 2000 and 2025, the percentage of Americans who express their faith through a local church will drop from 70% in 2000 to between 30 and 35% in 2025* (Barna 49). In another study by the Fermi project, less than 10 percent of young adults mention faith as their top priority (Kinnaman and Lyons 23)! For those of us in ministry, this is very troubling. My opening illustration is not an isolated case, as many of the rural congregations in my community are in the latter stages of dwindling in membership to the point where they can no longer give any financial assistance to a minister and struggle to even pay their utility bills.
An argument could be made that secularization (the process by which religious ideas and institutions lose value to society) are to blame, but I believe that is not the biggest problem faced in regards to church growth. A Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life study found that 78.4% of Americans consider themselves “Christian” in their religious affiliation (10). Americans still are, in majority, open to religious and spiritual beliefs and dialogue. The most significant problem facing churches and mainstream denominations is the negative perceptions of Christianity by the younger generation. As congregations age nationwide, fewer and fewer young people are connecting with the traditional church. In my own experience, none of the traditional churches I have been involved with had a significant representation of the 18-30 year old age group. Again, the Fermi project found that only 10% of “outsiders” (those not connected to the church) in the 16-29 year old age group thought that the description “relevant to your life” applied to Christianity “a lot”, and only 9% believe that the term “something that makes sense” applied “a lot” (Kinnaman and Lyons 28). Clearly, as the visible manifestation of Christianity, the church has an image problem. I encounter this perception almost every day among my co-workers, classmates, and friends. For the majority of those not connected to a church, it’s not unqualified dislike, but rather an all too telling reflection of the message we as church leaders are sending in the way we do this thing called church. The Fermi project also discovered that “among non-Christians ages 16-29, 82% have attended church at some point in their lifetime. (Kinnaman and Lyons 31)
Churches today employ many modern marketing strategies that have been borrowed from business models and adapted to church use. Though it appears that these models have some success in bringing people into a church building, current trends indicate that the rate at which people are connecting with the church congregations and becoming part of the membership is dropping. In other words, people still are willing to give the church a visit, but are finding no compelling reason to stay. We can no longer afford to ignore this issue and pretend it will go away. Indeed it looks like we’re the ones that are going away! So what is the issue here? Why do people under thirty not find anything attractive in the church? The answer is found in two words: “authentic community” (or lack thereof).
The reason my generation (I’m 22) is not connecting with the church is that we value community more than institutions, and relationships more than traditions. Church practices that have denominational roots that stretch back centuries make little sense to a group that spends little time studying history, and lots of time building relationships. My generation doesn’t understand why churches that talk about friendship and claim to offer relationship seem to be all about some guy in a suit talking to us for an hour about politics. They don’t understand why groups that claim to be about the message of Jesus (of which most have a basic idea) spend more time promoting political agendas. My generation has no idea what Jesus and his alleged message has to do with steeples, pews, or pulpits. They are looking for something deeper than rules and politics. Here’s a few of the negative perceptions traditional churches give:
1) Exclusivity. A unique building, unfamiliar dress code, and unfamiliar “Christian” terminology foster a very intimidating environment.
2) The Pastor. A hierarchical, personality-driven leadership structure all too often allows for abuses of power by pastors and is especially distasteful to those under 30 who hold a post-modern mindset and have no unqualified respect for “authority”.
3) The “bubble effect”. Christians tend to spend the vast majority of their time in monolithic communities populated by people of the same social demographic, political persuasion, financial status, and race. This creates an environment of shallow relationships which discourages all questioning and places too high of a value on conforming to an image. Diversity is becoming an everyday reality, especially in the urban centers that shape our culture.
4) Sustainability. The financial overhead for a traditional church is substantial, even burdensome. Establishing even a modest church in a functional building will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, let alone the monthly expenses of upkeep and repair. This is not a problem, unless you consider the fact that this money is being poured into a situation that is no longer relevant.
So many times I’ve heard pastors and church leaders say “Yes, we have problems, but every institution faces the same problems.” I agree with their sentiment, at least in part. Any time you have human involvement in anything, there will be error; humans make mistakes. However, can we any longer use that claim to excuse the fact that our church structure is creating an ever-widening gap with society? If we claim to be about the message of Jesus, a message of love and peace based on truth (objective or relational), is it not imperative that we be able to communicate that message in a culture in desperate need of those values? If there is a better way should we take it?
2] A Solution…
I believe there is a better way: it is called the “organic” or “simple” church. This church model is based on small groups of people, loosely connected, with multiple meeting spaces (houses, coffee shops, etc…). Theses churches typically have short statements of faith and value personal relationships over programs. Other key elements of this model are “lay leadership” (not having professional pastoral staff on a congregational level) and a missional focus (that is, emphasis upon service to humanity and social concern as the responsibility of every member). This model has many advantages over the traditional model, the primary being adaptability. Organic churches are thriving in coffee shops, college dorms, apartment complexes, even bars! The ability of this model to integrate into any cultural setting it encounters also facilitates the engagement and influence of the urban society in ways not possible before.
Other organic advantages include
1) Relevance. Post-moderns typically discover truth in the context of relationship, so a model that reinforces relationship building has a much greater chance of engaging post-moderns.
2) Sustainability. An organic church plant has no overhead to start and little to operate. The financial resources of the members, funneled primarily to building and organizational interests in a traditional church, can be used to make an immediate impact on neighborhood and community problems.
3) Historical authenticity. In the early days of the Christian movement, the church met in houses and multi-purpose communal spaces, even occasionally using the catacombs that housed the dead. The organic model is the closest modern manifestation of the church-movement that altered the course of world history.
4) Diversity. Instead of representing the opinions and interests of a select few denominational leaders or “Christian celebrities”, the organic church reflects the passion and diversity of its members in a way that is impossible in the traditional church. This is an effective answer to the negative stereotype presented by the extreme political views of a small minority of church attendees. Organic churches are more likely to include individuals from divergent social, economic, and racial backgrounds. While this may spell the end of a “Christian” political machine, it can only be a positive for the cultural message we in the collective church are sending.
The biggest objection to the organic church is usually this: “How will we ensure that the teaching presented is reflective of a correct theological view?” My answer to this is that, first of all, an over emphasis on theological scholarship is one of the main causes of our declining cultural influence. Christian language and terminology is outdated and in most cases unintelligible to a modern individual. We forget that the Bible was written in the Coinae (common) Greek, and the largest times of expansion in the Christian faith (the 1st century and the reformation) have been catalyzed by an “everyman theology”. If Christianity is only understandable to professional scholars, then it will thrive only in institutions of higher learning. If it is to attain some measure of its culture-shaping aspirations, then it must become the property of the soccer mom and the business man, and be accessible to even the most basically educated member of society.
The other objection that I have typically encountered is of this form – “I think the organic model sounds great, but it’s not been proven; can you demonstrate its success?” Enter Neil Cole. Mr. Cole was the pastor of traditional church before moving to Long Beach, CA to begin planting organic churches. Writing in his book titled “Organic Church: Growing Faith where Life Happens”, Mr. Cole describes the surprising results of his church planting network . “In our first year we began ten new churches. In our second year…18 churches. The next year, we added 52 starts…At the time of this writing (2005), there have been close to 800 churches started in thirty-two states and twenty-three nations around the world, in only six years” (italics mine) (26). Clearly this is church-planting success on a level few denominationally funded efforts could boast!
I have personally been involved in multiple organic churches, and have observed that, though they are quite successful in connection with those under thirty, they are also surprisingly effective at reaching all ages. “The Living Room”, a non-denominational organic church I attend, has a significant percentage of its membership that is over 40 years old. Indeed, it has more representation of all life stages than any congregation I have been a part of! The question of viability is answered with a resounding positive. Not only that, the organic church provides fosters success by removing the barriers, real and imagined, that prevent authentic community from growing. Indeed, the organic model facilitates a new generation of Christian leadership spreading the “good news” in a way traditional church never can by changing the focus from performance to relationship.
As I was making lattes for my job at Starbucks, I discovered that the man across the counter was a pastor. He began describing to me his church (very much like a parent describes one of their children). I soon discovered it was a traditional rural church from a mainline denomination. I also began sharing with him about the organic community I am a part of. He quickly asked the inevitable question. “How many attend your services?” I smiled and told him anywhere from 30-60, depending on how many people were out of town (largely because the members of our community are college students or young businessmen). He responded with “Yeah, my church has that problem too, since most of our members are retired and head south for the winter.” It seems to me that it demonstrates in a nutshell what traditional churches are facing. But these problems need not signal the death of the Church’s collective influence.
If we adapt, we can use this moment in history to impact our culture and the world for good. Mainline denominations could, with some small effort, alter their church-planting systems to focus on organic models. Seminaries could add courses to equip pastors to impact their communities holistically through multiple-location ministry and service-based outreach. This altered training could focus on training leaders for these organic congregations and could even provide courses in bi-vocational ministry. Denominations could work to develop mission statements and discipleship tools that cut out outdated theological language and utilize modern communication tools like the internet and social networking to facilitate the education and growth of young believers. We can stop spending so much money to equip excessively luxurious buildings and instead declare war on poverty, homelessness, and oppression on a communal and global scale. We can get serious about living what we claim to believe, or we can fade away into the pages of history. The choice is ours to make.
The conclusion that the overwhelming majority of statistical research is pointing toward is that the traditional church model must change or become completely irrelevant. The conversation our culture is having with us demonstrates that they are not closed to spirituality, but we must meet them where we are. The organic model is a viable, even desirable alternative, and our church planting efforts in the future should be shifted to focus on this model. It may not happen overnight, but the accelerating rate of cultural change demands that we begin to act now, and as the old adage says, “Well begun is half done” (attributed to Aristotle). The only question is this; do we have enough courage to make the change?