ChuckWarnock.com

Confessions of a Small Church Pastor

5 Lessons Churches Must Learn To Survive


Another newspaper closed last week and more are on the way.  Print journalism is dying faster than the dinosaurs did, and for the same reasons — the climate changed.  Not the atmospheric climate, but the social climate.  TV ditto, and throw in retail while you’re at it.  What hasn’t changed in this new always-on, always-connected, we-want-it-when-we-want-it age?

Churches.  And that is the problem.  You might think churches and denominations would look around and see the disaster in broadcast TV, print journalism, bricks-and-mortar retail, and figure out that this same tsunami is washing over churches, too.

David T. Olson predicts that by 2050 church attendance in the US will be only 10%.  I think he’s wrong. I think church attendance will drop much faster, much sooner.  Currently we are at about 17% of the US population who attends church on any given Sunday. (Forget the old 40% attendance figures — pollsters have determined they were asking the wrong question to get an honest answer.)

Here are the 5 lessons churches must learn from newspapers, TV, and retail if churches are going to survive as a viable social institution:

  1. Institutions no longer make the rules. Newspapers, TV, and even retail stores were the only places you could get news, entertainment, or goods in the old world.  But in the new world there are multiple options, multiple venues, multiple times.  People now are always connected, always on, and set their schedule based, not on the TV schedule or store hours, but on their preference.
  2. Institutions have no more credibility than individuals. Newsday, the NY tabloid daily, has decided to start charging for some of its articles because “people ought to pay.”  I predict they will fail miserably.  If I can’t get my news free from Newsday, I’ll get it from a 100 bloggers and citizen journalists.  Churches take note: We no longer are the only voice in the room, and the scandals of churches — sexual abuse, marital infidelity, leadership failures — only weaken our moral stance further.
  3. Our lives have taken on a different rhythm. Society’s life rhythm is different now.  Work is not confined to Monday thru Friday, leisure activities are not reserved for Saturdays, and going to church doesn’t need to happen on Sunday (if at all).  People will continue to connect, but churches need to change their rhythms, too.
  4. The “customer” owes you nothing. We sometimes think people should pay more (Newsday), come when we’re open (retail), and watch when we broadcast (TV).  Churches must realize that while we think people should come/attend/participate/etc they no longer have to.
  5. We’re using the wrong metrics. For newspapers it’s no longer about how many papers are on the lawn; for TV it’s no longer about how many people saw American Idol at 8 PM last night; for retail it’s no longer about how to get people in the store.  We continue to measure people coming to us, when we should be measuring church going to people in service, small groups, meetups, projects, and so on.  News is now being pushed out digitally via internet and mobile, TV is now on TiVo more than live, and retail is moving to the web.  Churches cannot continue to measure church attendance as the only, or prime, measure of viability.

Will churches change?  Many will not and they will die.  Some will linger on, shadows of their former glory, and others will adapt and thrive.  We’ll explore what the future holds for churches, particularly small churches, later this week.  Stay tuned.

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Categories: culture, leadership, lifestyle, Millennials, Missional Church, small groups, trends

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7 replies

  1. “We sometimes think people should pay more (Newsday), come when we’re open (retail), and watch when we broadcast (TV). Churches must realize that while we think people should come/attend/participate/etc they no longer have to.”

    This is a compelling statement, however I don’t see the alternative. Churches and small groups can’t all just go online. Although we can try to diversify meeting times, at some level people will have to choose to follow Christ by going along with the structure. It’s a cultural fallacy that we have a right to whatever we want when we want. Could you clarify?

  2. Marc, thanks for your comments. I think the alternatives are rethinking the whole concept of the church gathering. You’re right that everything church cannot be done online, but lots can and Lifechurch.tv is proof of that. But I also think there will be more opportunities for small groups of believers and the curious to gather for exploration, study, prayer, and service. The measure of “church attendance” usually measures only worship, and I think that will change. I think we will track small group interactions, service projects, home meetings, contacts with others via cell, and the web, etc.

    You are right that people will have to choose to follow Christ, but we (pastors, leaders) need a new definition of what that means. It means more than showing up at 11 am on Sunday morning. I’m going to elaborate on this later this week and would appreciate your comments then, too.

    Thanks, Chuck

  3. one of the things we are exploring is going into coffee shops. we are introducing “conversations about life” rather than sermons or preaching. We have to develop relationships and trust; we have to stop the us vs them. while most people don’t go to church, most at the least have a concept about God. Let’s start there…
    Great words, thank you!

  4. AMEN! The Church (with a capital C) needs a splash of cold water right now for sure (or a dunking? :-) ) We do need to acknowledge that the rules have changed because we are now officially in a post-Christian world.

    Part of the solution is to move the Church into what it thinks is “the Future” now…while in reality it that perceived “Future” is really the present, and soon the past.

    I believe that practically speaking for the average local church, small tweaks in how it thinks about reaching out can make big differences in the current model of parish-based ministries. (i.e. http://godvertiser.com/blog/5-lessons-for-the-church-from-mr-peanut/)

    On a macro level, your comments about staying atuned to the changes in rhythms certainly strikes a chord with me. For example, can we redefine the Sabbath in a way that moves away from a strict literal interpretation of one day a week, while retaining the authentic underlying intention and truth in this new 24/7-100%-connected world?

    Is the seismic shift that the next generation has adopted in their world views on living/relationships/work/leisure a golden opportunity to produce a new understanding of worship — without which you would never be able to unleash our thinking from the worship-1-day-a-week framework which most laypeople struggle with? A genuine and practical integration of faith and work? Faith and relationships? Faith and life?

    This is a moment of optimistic opportunity!

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