Tag: church attendance

When Should A Church Close?

The Tennessean, the daily newspaper in Nashville, Tennessee, featured an article today on small churches and when they should close.  In the article, Short on Cash, People, Small Churches Consider Closing, reporter Bob Smietana profiles three Nashville area churches that had to face their own mortality.  Bob was kind enough to quote me in the article, and I appreciate the approach he took in writing the piece.

The article also quoted Dr. Israel Galindo, author of The Hidden Lives of Congregations, which I think is the best book any pastor can read, especially pastors of small, established churches.  Galindo helps pastors and church leaders identify what “style” their church reflects, and where their church might be in the life cycle of churches profile.  I’ve written about this book before, but it’s worth mentioning again.

The article also points out that churches have taken as much as a 40% hit financially in the economic downturn that started in 2008.  When he interviewed me for the article, Bob asked me what factors indicate that a small church might need to close.  The three factors I identified were people, money, and mission.  The loss of any one of those is like kicking one leg of a three-legged stool out from under it — without a significant balancing act, a two-legged stool isn’t going to stand very long.

So, when is it time for a church, usually a small church, to close?   When the combination of people, money, and mission no longer works.  Churches don’t exist just to exist; churches exist for the purpose of mission. When the mission is no longer viable because there are not enough people or financial resources to support it, then a small church ought to seriously consider how it might re-invent itself, or even plan its own funeral.

What do you think?  Are there other factors that suggest when a church might close its doors?  Or are people, money, and mission the big three?

The Indispensable Church

People don’t need to go to church.

At least that’s how the majority of people in America act.  Less than 18% of the population attends church on any given Sunday.  In the U.S. we are chasing downhill Europe’s church attendance rate of 7%, and David Olson predicts by 2020 we’ll be halfway there.  And that is precisely our problem:  we’re stuck on Sunday morning church attendance as both the measure of a church’s health, and an indicator of a person’s spiritual life.

The question that church leaders need to ask now is not, “How can we get more people to come to church?” We’ve been asking that question since the numbers started turning down in the 1970s.  All our solutions together haven’t turned the tide of declining church attendance.  Throw in all the megachurches, all the church growth seminars, all the church marketing, the millions spent on programs, and the kitchen sink, and the result is the same:  people continue to stay away from church in droves.

The question we need to be asking is, “How can church become indispensable to a community?”  People don’t come to church because church isn’t essential to their lives.  Church is a take-it-or-leave-it experience, and most are leaving it.

Our challenge is to make our churches indispensable to our communities.  The well-worn, but telling question — “If your church closed tomorrow, would anybody notice?” — has been answered by millions of Americans with a resounding “No.”

But, I am not advocating a return to “attractional church” programs and activities, either.  Rather I am advocating the following:

  1. Sunday morning worship isn’t the most important thing we should be doing.
  2. Missional isn’t missional until people outside the church notice.
  3. The unchurched will tell us how we can be indispensable to them.

Those three ideas all reflect the need to change perspectives from our self-congratulatory, self-validating point of view to an outsider point of view.

Here’s an example:  In North Carolina, Crossfire United Methodist Church got started because one biker (the Harley riding kind) had been befriended by a member of the dying Moravian Falls United Methodist Church.  When Alan Rice, the UM district superintendent, showed up to close Moravian Falls, Duncan Overrein showed up on his Harley and wouldn’t leave until Alan promised him to keep the church open.

But, the old church congregation was too small to sustain the church, so the old Moravian Falls church died and the new Crossfire UM Church was born in the old church building.  Now 110-plus people, bikers and others, ride from 30-40 miles away each Sunday to come to church.

But Sunday isn’t all they do, or even the most important thing they do.  They help each other.  They repair houses, fix cars, buy groceries, care for the sick, pray for their brothers and sisters.  Crossfire is buying an old abandoned refrigerated warehouse as their new home.  Part of the refrigerated space they’ll rent out, but they intend to start a beef aging business there, too.

The church has become indispensable to the community of bikers and their friends and families.  It’s there because one pastor listened to one long-haired, do-rag wearing biker who wanted a church for people like him.  Crossfire doesn’t have any problem with attendance, except they’re outgrowing the old Moravian Falls building.  They don’t have any problem with wondering how to get people to come.  Instead they go into the community to families in need, to those who are sick, to brothers in jail, and they listen to them.

I want our church to become indispensable to our community.  I want us to touch more lives during the week than we have bodies in the pews on Sunday.  I want people to ask us to stay in business because we’ve made a difference in their lives.

I am repeatedly drawn to the Celtic Christian abbeys.  Those early monks built their monastic compound at the crossroads, or next to a village.  The abbey became the center of the community.  It became necessary for the community’s survival because they fed people, cared for the sick, gave shelter to the homeless, provided refuge for the weary and wanted, and lived out the Gospel in tangible and essential ministries.

What do you think? Is your church indispensable in your community?  Would anyone notice if your congregation folded?  What are you doing to become indispensable to the people around you?

Sermon: Criticism – Why Don’t They Like Us Anymore?

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow.  It’s the sixth in  the series, “Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces.”  I hope your day is wonderful!

Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces
#6 — Criticism: Why Don’t They Like Us Anymore?

Matthew 10:5-16
5These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. 6Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. 7As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ 8Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy,[b]drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. 9Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; 10take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep.

11“Whatever town or village you enter, search for some worthy person there and stay at his house until you leave. 12As you enter the home, give it your greeting. 13If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. 14If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. 15I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town. 16I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.

The End of The World As We Know It

I grew up during the golden age of Southern Baptist life.  I was five when the Southern Baptist Convention launched the ambitious outreach and evangelism program called “A Million More in ’54.”  Although we didn’t add 1-million new members that year, Southern Baptists added almost three-quarters of a million, the highest number of new members our denomination had added to that point.

But Southern Baptists weren’t the only ones benefitting from the post-war baby boom.  Just about every major denomination started new churches in the new suburban communities springing up across our nation.  As America fell in love with the automobile, families could drive to the church of their choice, not just their local neighborhood church within walking distance.

Robert Schuller saw the mobility the automobile created and opened his drive-in church in at the Orange Drive-in Theater in Garden Grove, California in 1955.  America was a nation on the move, and on Sundays the nation piled in the family station wagon for the trip to church.  Church nurseries overflowed with baby boomer kids, and churches quickly added lots of programs for children.

I’m a good example.  Before I was born, Cradle Roll workers from First Baptist Church in Griffin, Georgia had enrolled me in the Cradle Roll.  Upon my arrival, I started going to church in the Nursery Department, then moved up to the Beginner Department during my preschool years.

I went to Sunbeams, a mission organization for kids that met on Wednesday afternoons at our church.  I sang in the children’s choir, went to the Junior Department in Sunday School as I got older, and then when I became a teenager, graduated into the Young People’s department, the youth choir, and all the other activities there were for teens at that time.

But something changed beginning in the 1960s.  Perhaps it was the Civil Rights struggle, or the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, or the Viet Nam war in the decades of the 1960s and 70s.  Perhaps the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy contributed to the loss of innocence in America.  The resignation of President Richard Nixon for the crimes of Watergate seemed to seal20-years of disappointments and loss of confidence in America’s institutions.

Church wasn’t immune to that loss of confidence.  In 1961, theologian Gabriel Vahanian published his book, The Death of God.  In it, Vahanian argued that “modern secular culture had lost all sense of the sacred, lacking any sacramental meaning, no transcendental purpose or sense of providence. He concluded that for the modern mind “God is dead”. — Wikipedia, “Death of God theological movement”

The April 8, 1966 cover of Time magazine picked up on the “God is Dead” theme, and suddenly all of America realized that everything we had taken for granted about church and faith in the 1950s no longer worked in the 1960s. And no institution was spared critical review, including marriage and the family.  The women’s movement that had emerged in the early part of the 20th century which secured women the right to vote, reinvented itself in the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s.

Then along came the hippies, and the youth culture of Haight Asbury, Woodstock, the anti-Viet Nam war protests, civil disobedience in the streets, and a nation divided over the trustworthiness of its core institutions — government, education, business, home, and church.

The Results We Live With

After the turmoil of the 1960s and early 1970s, America turned in new directions.  In government we turned from the big government programs of FDR, to the conservatism of Ronald Reagan.  In education, we turned from liberal arts to computer science because that’s where the jobs were.  In business, we turned from staid blue chip companies to the risk-taking financiers of Wall Street. In home life we became a nation of two-paycheck families. And at church, we slowly discontinued the programs of the 1950s, and began a soul-searching quest for a more authentic relationship with God.

The most popular Christian book of the 1970s was a little paperback titled, How To Be A Christian Without Being Religious.  While well-intentioned, the author, Fritz Ridenour, inadvertently gave readers permission to seek fulfillment of their spiritual lives outside the institution of the church. And thus began the noticeable decline in church membership and attendance.

Church attendance, down from a reported high of 40% of the population in the 1950s, now struggles to reach 17%.  According to David T. Olson’s book, The American Church In Crisis, church attendance will continue to decline until U. S. church attendance approximates that of Europe — about 7% of the population.

What happened?  How did church fall out of favor with the American public?  Why did a generation of kids who grew up singing “Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam” fail to pass on those happy childhood memories to their children and their grandchildren?  How did we, in less than 50 years, change from being a nation where almost everybody went to church, to becoming a nation where less than 1-in-5 darkens the church house door today?

In other words, why don’t they like us anymore?

What “They” Are Saying About The Church

Church is no longer the place to be, or the organization to belong to.  Young people especially see little need for church.  Jeffrey Arnett, professor at Clark University, studies “emerging adults” — adults 18-29.  While “a strong majority of emerging adults believes that God or some higher power watches over them and guides their lives,”….”participating in a religious institution is unimportant to most of them.”  Emerging Adulthood, p. 167

Several books in the past 4 years have addressed the problem of what people don’t like about the church.

George Barna’s book, Revolution, is subtitled “Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond The Walls of the Sanctuary.”  The book documents the amazing rise of house churches, and other informal networks of Christians who have abandoned the institutional church for a freer, more personal faith community.

Dan Kimball’s book, They Like Jesus But Not The Church, is a case-study of several young adults Kimball interviewed.  Basically, they consider themselves to be spiritual, but not religious — just like our famous book from the 1970s.  But here’s what they don’t like about the church.  These are the actual chapter titles in Kimball’s book  —

  • The church is an organized religion with a political agenda.
  • The church is judgmental and negative.
  • The church is dominated by males and oppresses females.
  • The church is homophobic (meaning, the church fears and/or hates homosexuals)
  • The church arrogantly claims all other religions are wrong.
  • The church is full of fundamentalists who take the whole Bible literally.

Quite an indictment, but we have to plead guilty to much of what these young adults say about us and those like us.

In the same year that Kimball’s book came out in 2007, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons published their book, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…And Why It Matters. Listen to the chapter titles in unChristian.  Have you heard this before?

  • Hypocritical
  • Get Saved!
  • Antihomosexual
  • Sheltered
  • Too Political
  • Judgmental

Sounds pretty much like Kimball’s book, doesn’t it.  Yet unChristian was compiled from surveys of hundreds of young adults, not just interviews with a handful.  As they say at NASA, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”

What We’ve Done Wrong and How We Can Fix It

If the church is to reach this new generation, we must listen to their perceptions of what we have done, and fix what is wrong.  Rather than seeking the halls of power, we need to serve the “least of these.”

Rather than being judgmental and negative, we need to get back to telling the “good news.”  The reason it’s called the good news is because it’s…well, good news.  Not judgmental news, not critical news, not “I’m going to tell you what you’re doing wrong news.”  It’s called the good news — the euangelion — because it is a good message from God to God’s creation.

Rather than being a “good ole boy” fraternity, the church must embrace the words of the Apostle Paul, that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  And, rather than have individual churches where everyone looks alike, we need to seek diversity in our community not only of gender, but of class, and ethnicity.

In other words, we need to live into the promise of Revelation — “And they sang a new song: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

In this process, the church, and I’m including our church here, will have to deal with difficult issues.  Young people today see nothing wrong with those who are homosexual, those who engage in intimate relationships before marriage, or those who live alternative lifestyles.  While the church must remain “a contrast community” in an unbelieving world, our attitudes towards others who are different in lifestyle, ethnicity, cultural background, economics, education, and class must first of all reflect God’s love, not our own bias.

When Jesus sent the disciples on their first solo journey, he did so with careful instruction.  One of his comments to them was, “Be as wise as serpents, but as harmless as doves.”  That’s our task today, to be wise in how we deal with those who do not know Christ, and harmless in our encounters with them.

Like The Man Who Planted Trees

I ran across a wonderful animated film this week based on the short story by Jean Giono titled, The Man Who Planted Trees. Giono tells the story of a young man in 1913, who while on an extended hike through desolate countryside, becomes desparate to find water.  Passing an abandoned village, he finds the well there dry.  He continues to walk until he sees figure in the distance.  Hoping for help and water, the young man approaches this figure, a shepherd with his flock high in the hills of this scruffy, hilly terrain.

The shepherd offers him water, invites him to his home for supper.  There the young man learns that the shepherd, Elzeard Bouffier, has lost both his only son and his wife.  He has taken to this remote, barren wilderness for solitude and peace.

After dinner, the young man notices Elzeard take a bag of acorns, empty them out on the table, and begin to examine each one carefully.  He discards some, but then groups the rest into groups of 10, until he has 100 acorns.  These he places back in the bag, and then places the bag in a pot of water to soak overnight.

The next day, our young man follows Elzeard as he leads his herd back up into the hills.  But, leaving the flock to the guidance of his dog, Elzeard takes his iron walking stick, and begins to poke holes in the ground in regular intervals.  Into each hole, he places one acorn.  Elzeard explains to the young man, who has now joined him in his work, that since he lost his wife and son, he has devoted himself to restoring the land.  The problem, he says, is a lack of trees.

Elzeard says he has planted 100,000 acorns in the past 3 years.  Of those, most did not make it.  Of the approximately 20,000 that did, disease, drought, and animals took half.  So, 10,000 trees have begun to spring up through the soil as tender oak saplings.

The young man leaves the region, spends 5 years in the infantry in World War I, but then returns to see how Elzeard has survived the war.   Amazed at the green mist that appears to float over the hillsides, the young man realizes as he approaches that these are the trees Elzear planted, now larger than he is.

The young man commented, “I never saw him waver or doubt, though God alone can tell when God’s own hand is in a thing.”

For the sake of time, I’ll skip forward to 1933, when a government forestry man happens upon this valley of forest, now about 7-miles long and 3-miles wide.  Astounded at the “spontaneous growth” of the forest where previously there had been nothing, the forestry man cautions Elzeard not to build any open fires because they might endanger “the natural forest.”

In 1935, a delegation of government officials arrives to see the first-known example of a forest spontaneously replanting itself.  Now, not only are the trees towering 20-30 feet in the air, smaller plants have filled in the forest floor, wild life has returned, the winds have scattered seeds into new meadows that are blooming with wild flowers.  Even the politicians are amazed.  Speeches are made, and the speech-makers talk of all that needs to be done.

Fortunately, nothing is done except the government decree that declares the forest a protected reserve, and bans charcoal-making from its wood.

More time passes, and our young man, now in his 50s, finds Elzeard for the last time in 1945.  Another war has come and gone, but Elzeard, now 87, sees the fruit of his labors of the past 30-plus years.  A bus now makes regular trips to the valley, bringing visitors and new residents to the once-abandoned village of Vergons.

The village fountain is flowing again, and young families with small children have torn down the old houses and built new sturdy houses with brightly-colored gardens.  Groups of villagers walk the forest paths, greeting each other as their children run circles around their parents.  Farmhouses dot the countryside where farmers raise livestock, grown lush fields of vegetables, and live quiet and peaceful lives.

All because one man decided to plant some trees.  The story goes that Elzeard Bouffier died in 1947, content that he had done what his heart led him to do.

We who are followers of Christ need to be like people who plant trees, not people who seek power.  Because it is in our work with God, not our work for God, that we will win the hearts of those who may not even know that there used to be a desert where now the tall trees grow.

Sermon: Secularism – Why Don’t People Go To Church Anymore?

Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces:
Secularism — Why Don’t People Go To Church Anymore?

Today I am beginning a new sermon series titled, Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces.  During the next two months, we will examine the seven cultural challenges that I believe we must face in order to present the Gospel in new and fresh ways to our world.  These challenges are not new, but they are all converging at a time in our history in which our institutions and societal structures are under increasing pressure.

Institutions and systems that we thought were rock solid, such as our financial and economic sytems and organizations, are proving to be inadequate to the roiling changes of the 21st century.  Who would have thought that two of the “big three” car companies — Chrysler and General Motors — would collapse so quickly and so completely?  Who would have imagined that three dozen banks would fail in the past year; that major retailers such as Circuit City headquartered in Richmond, and other big box retailers would go out of business?  And who would have imagined that the very institutions that guarantee our mortgages and finance the American dream for countless families in the US, would have to be taken over by the federal government?

But, financial institutions and systems are not the only ones under great stress today.  Educational systems, governmental agencies, and last but not least, religious institutions and organizations are also quaking under the seismic shocks of a 21st century that is changing faster than any of us could have imagined.

Change is coming so fast, and in such unpredictable ways, that social scientists now tell us the only thing that we can be certain will not change is change.  That sounds rather like a non-sensical statement, but upon reflection we have to admit that in our lifetimes there have never been the number, scope, or magnitude of changes that we have witnessed since the end of World War II.

Churches also face the daunting challenges confronting our culture.  These challenges include secularism, which we will talk about today.  But other challenges accompany secularism, and they are pluralism, nominalism, materialism, post-modernism, criticism, and atheism.  These are by no means the only challenges we face, but the seven challenges I have identified here are coalescing in a new and unique pattern that we have not seen before, at least in our lifetime.

To help us limit and clarify our discussion, I have also added a question that both explains and probes the meaning of each of these challenges.  Here’s what we’re going to talk about for the next few weeks:

1.  Secularism: Why Don’t People Go To Church Anymore?
2.  Pluralism: Why Doesn’t Everyone Believe What We Do?
3.  Nominalism: Why Don’t We Walk Like We Talk?
4.  Materialism: Why Do We Have So Much Stuff?
5.  Post-Modernism: Why Is Truth No Longer True?
6.  Criticism: Why Don’t They Like Us Anymore?
7. Atheism: Why Don’t They Believe in God?
And finally we’ll wrap up with a concluding message titled, The Future of Our Faith.

We do not have time in 20 minutes each week to deal exhaustively with each of these topics.  But, the questions I have posed after each of these -isms will help us focus on one particular aspect of that specific cultural challenge.  I hope this series will be both enlightening and thought-provoking as we think about what each of these challenges means to us here at Chatham Baptist Church.  These are the cultural challenges that are rapidly shaping who we are, how we feel, what we believe, and how we live our lives.  Let’s look at the first one today — Secularism: Why Don’t People Go To Church Anymore?

The Canary in the Coal Mine

As the Industrial Age dawned in England in the 18th century, the demand for coal to fuel huge manufacturing plants increased.  As miners burrowed deeper and deeper into the ground in search of seams of coal, safety procedures failed to catch up with the rising demand for coal and the increasingly dangerous practices of underground mining.

One of the few safety procedures available to miners was the use of canaries in the underground tunnels.  Canaries were very sensitive to the build up of toxic gases like methane and carbon monoxide.  One writer commented that a canary’s life in the mines was “short, but meaningful.”  Short because mines were not vented, and toxic gases built up regularly in the mines; meaningful because canaries were the first and only warning system for the miners.

Miners working a vein of coal would carry a caged canary with them, and check the canary periodically.  The canary was either upright on its perch, or dead on the bottom of the cage.  If the canary died, miners would leave the mine as quickly as possible until the gas abated — which required the services of another canary to determine if that had happened!

Canaries were the early warning sign of coal mining 100 years ago.

Today, our canary in the coal mine for churches is church attendance.  During the post-WWII baby boom generation, churches all over America flourished.  Churches in small communities like Chatham were filled each Sunday morning.  New churches were also being built, along with new schools, in new suburban neighborhoods that were springing up like daisies throughout America.

Automobile sales were booming, and American automakers commanded 100% of the American market.  “See the USA in a Chevrolet” was the theme-song of our society, unless of course, you drove a Ford or Chrysler or an American Motors Nash Rambler or a Studebaker.  But, whatever brand you drove, American society was quickly adapting to the automobile.  We wanted to drive everywhere, even to church, so churches had to plan for parking as well as sanctuary seats.

This boom brought the golden age of most US denominations, Southern Baptists included.  In the mid-1950s, Southern Baptists launched an ambitious campaign called “A Million More in ’54.”  The idea was to reach 1,000,000 people for Christ through Southern Baptist churches.  While the campaign fell short of its goal of 1,000,000, it did bring several hundred thousand new people into Southern Baptist churches.

Church nurseries were full, children’s programs were conducted several times a week.  My own life mirrors these changes both in society and in Baptist churches.  I was listed on the Cradle Roll before I was born.  When I was born, I was in the Nursery, then moved on to the Beginner, then, Primary, and ultimately Junior departments.  I attended children’s choir on Wednesdays, Sunbeams and then Royal Ambassadors on Wednesday nights, and Training Union on Sunday nights in addition to Sunday School on Sunday mornings.

By the time I got to junior high school, every Baptist church had a youth group and youth ministry was the big thing.  We went on retreats, to church camp, did mission projects, attended Ridgecrest together, and generally our lives revolved around church and school.

Southern Baptists were at their peak by the late 1960s, as were most other denominations.  The canary was happy and well.

The Canary Dies

But then something happened in the 1960s, another era of political and social turmoil.  The kids who grew up in the “Placid 50s,” as the Eisenhower years were called, saw a president named John Kennedy elected in 1960.  Kennedy’s youth — he was 43 when elected — his charm and good looks captivated a nation and its young people.  By the scores, young people volunteered for the Peace Corps, eager to make the world a better place.  They were responding to President Kennedy’s  challenge to “ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.”

That shining moment of American optimism was shattered by the assassin’s bullet.  Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas.  Oswald was himself gunned down on the Sunday after the president’s assassination by Jack Ruby.  An idealistic generation saw their President killed, and then saw the nation descend into the social turmoil of the civil rights struggle, the war in Viet Nam, and the shifting of moral values.

When I was in elementary school, no businesses were open on Sunday except restaurants.  Local and state laws, called Blue Laws, actually prevented businesses from opening, and when a few began to open on Sundays, those same blue laws restricted the items that could be sold, and the hours in which they could be sold.

By the time I graduated from high school, the local mall was open on Sunday, along with grocery stores, gas stations, movie theaters, entertainment parks, and clothing stores.  In other words, everything changed.  Sundays were no longer reserved for church, and even Wednesday nights were taken over by school and social activities.  The canary had died, but most of us in churches didn’t notice him lying at the bottom of the cage.

The changing Sunday retail scene would seem mild compared to the summer of love in 1968.  The hippie culture, with its protest in music, clothes, lifestyle and personal morality, hit America right in the stomach.  The phrase “long-haired hippies” was uttered millions of times, if it was spoken once.  All of a sudden, everything that we thought America stood for — God, country, morality, hard work, decency, and religion — was being challenged publicly and often.

The proclamation that “God is dead” rattled American religious institutions to the core.  No longer did you have to go to church to be a respectable, upstanding citizen.  Intellectual doubt dominated the conversation, and increasingly Americans stopped going to church.

Church Attendance Today and Into The Future

We don’t have time for an exhaustive review of what all this means, or a look at each decade and the cultural changes they brought.  But close on the heels of the Viet Nam war came Watergate.  America was losing confidence in her institutions, which included the church.  The sex abuse scandal which surfaced first in the Roman Catholic church, but we now know was present in almost every denomination, further eroded confidence in “organized religion.”

In his groundbreaking book, The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularization 1800-2000, Callum Brown writes “At the start of the third millenium, we in Britain are in the midst of secularisation.”

He goes on to say, “…what is taking place is not merely the continuing decline of organised Christianity, but the death of the culture which formerly conferred Christian identity upon the British people as a whole.”

In other words, England which had formerly seen itself as a Christian nation, now no longer considered itself as such.  Corresponding to that self-perception, church attendance in England runs about 7%, and is still declining.

Here in the United States, we are on a similar path.  Church attendance that had once been generously estimated at 40% of the population each week, now hovers at about 17% and that is declining as well.

David T. Olson, in his book, The American Church in Crisis, cites current church attendance for all churches in the US at about 17%.  But this figure is on a steady decline that will result in church attendance of a little more than 14% by 2020.  Church attendance is falling at a rate of about 1% every 5 years, but seems to be accelerating as population growth outpaces the growth in number of churches.  At the present rate, it is safe to say that by the year 2050, church attendance in the US will be no better than that in England — less than 7% of the population.

What Exactly is Secularism?

So, what is secularism?  Simply put, secularism is replacing God as the center of all things with man.  Let me give you a Biblical example.

In Genesis 11:1-9, we read this story:

1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

5 But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. 6 The LORD said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

8 So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel —because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

This story takes place after the great flood.  After Noah and the ark.  These are the descendants of Noah, who all speak one language.  Apparently, their numbers increased rapidly, and they moved east — some scholars believe to what would become Babylon.  With one language, human progress was uninterrupted.  They began to build a city, and in that city they proposed building a tower — a zigurat probably — that would reach to the heavens. That in itself is a theological statement.  Because if you can reach heaven, you can then control your own eternal destiny.  You become lord of the universe, you become the center of creation.  Man replaces God.  Of course, God was having none of this at the time.  He had just destroyed the earth with water, and had promised never to do that, again.  So, God instead confounded communication — creating multiple languages.  Again, this is as much a theological statement as anything because the people who had been so eloquently talking to each other about creating this zigurat, now could not speak to each other with any understanding.  They were “babbling on” as it were, which is exactly where we get that saying.  God would not be displaced, even with man’s best effort.

The word “secular” itself has its origins in the Latin word “saeculum” which means generation or age.  Secular, then is of this age or generation.  As opposed to that which is “sacred” meaning devoted or holy.

How Did We Get Here?

The seeds of secularism were actually planted long before the 1950s.  According to Paul Hiebert in this book, Transforming Worldviews, secularism that would affect Christianity began innocently enough during the Enlightenment of the 18th century, and the emergence of science as the epitome of reason.

Let me give you an example that illustrates the shift that took place in the world during the Enlightenment period.  If you had looked at a map of the world in the 15th century — the 1400s — you would have seen three ovals arranged like the petals on a flower.  One represented Europe, another Asia, and another Africa.  At the center of the map was Jerusalem — the center of the world.

Of course, we know today that the continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia are not shaped like ovals, nor are they arranged like petals on a flower with Jerusalem at the center.  But the map of the 15th century was as more of a theological statement than a precise depiction of continents.  Jerusalem was at the center of the world because Jerusalem was home to the three great religions — Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

It would also be 100 years before Copernicus would publish his theory that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system.  Copernicus was persecuted by the Catholic Church, not because he was a bad scientist, but because his science challenged the theology of the day.

In the 17th century, more scientific development, and the writings of thinkers like Rene Descarte’ who said, “I think, therefore I am” prepared the way for the Enlightenment, which dawned in the 18th century.  The 1700s also brought the French Revolution, and the American revolution, both fought for liberty and individual freedom.

But the real significance of the Enlightenment was that it separated the sacred from the secular.  By the end of the 18th century, maps no longer reflected the theological position of their creators, but looked very much like maps we have today.  Of course, that’s a good thing if you’re planning a trip and need a map to guide you to your destination.  A map with Jerusalem as the center of the world might be interesting from a theological point of view, but it was of little practical use.  A real map, showing the real position of the continents was much better for navigating the real world.

And that is precisely how the Enlightenment came to view religion and all things sacred.  If science could help us discover the “facts,” then religion was only about “faith” and could not be proven.  So, Enlightenment thinkers separated the secular — that which human beings could discover and know — from the sacred — that which could not be proven, and therefore was less reliable.

At first, this was not a problem because even the Enlightenment scientists embraced the idea that behind all the stuff we can know — the science — was a God who started it all.  But it wasn’t long before someone said, “Oh really?  Well, if we can’t prove God exists, then we certainly can’t prove God has anything to do with the real world.”

Scientists began to deal in only the “real” world, leaving the world of faith, miracles, and divine intervention to the church.

What really happened in the Enlightenment was a shift in how we as human beings viewed the universe.  Prior to the Enlightenment, God was thought to be at the center of Creation.  God created everything, and God gave life to everything, and God controlled and sustained everything.  God was at the center of the picture.

But, the Enlightenment replaced God with man.  Man is the one who discovers scientific principles that govern the universe.  Man is the one who has power over nature. Man is the one whose intellect will solve the great mysteries of life.  And, man is the one who will create the world that he wants, rather than settle for the world as it is.  Man replaced God at the center of existence.  That is secularism.

Not only did man replace God at the center of existence, but religion itself was relegated to the personal and private arena.  While we could talk about science publicly and without embarassment, religion was too uncertain to discuss in the public square.  After all, each person could believe as he or she wished now.  Freedom of religion became a hallmark of the many freedoms sought in the pursuit of liberty in the 18th century.

And even though our US Constitution includes in its Bill of Rights the freedom of religion, that freedom was also a freedom from religious belief, if one so chose.  Of course, that is not a bad thing, but it did mark a dramatic shift from the days of the state church and the connection of citizenship and church membership.  If you were born in England, you were also baptized into the Anglican church.  If, after the Reformation, you were born in a province under the control of princes sympathetic to Martin Luther, you were baptized into the Lutheran Church.  The Enlightenment eventually changed all of that, at least in America, so that persons were free to believe or not believe as they chose.

Back To Our Original Question — Why Don’t People Go To Church?

Which brings us back to our original question — Why don’t people go to church, at least in the numbers they used to?

Simply put, our society no longer sees church attendance as necessary to live a good life, or be a good citizen.  Add to that fact, the increasing pluralism of our nation — which we’ll deal with next week — and you have recipe for “choose your own spirituality.”

In this new world in which we live, churches face the following challenges:

  • Churches can no longer count on newcomers to a community seeking out a church to join because that is what is expected.
  • Churches can no longer expect special treatment, protected days on the community calendar, or special status in the community.
  • Churches are increasing viewed as bastions of prejudice, narrow-mindedness, and racism in an increasingly pluralistic society.

The secular has replaced the sacred at the center of our lives.  It has been noted that Christians are right back where they started — as a minority in a culture hostile to what we believe and the way in which we live.

What’s the Answer to the Challenge of Secularism?

What is the answer to secularism?  First, let’s consider what the answer is not.

  • The answer to secularism is not to wail and complain that we live in a secular world.  We actually have always lived in a secular world — a world where men put themselves at the center and displaced God from his rightful place.  This isn’t right, but it isn’t new either.
  • More church programs are not the answer either.  Neither are more church pastors, missionaries, bigger budgets, and all the other stuff we have tried for at least the past 250 years with little to no success.

The answer to the challenge of secularism is a living community that acts, believes, and practices the presence of God at its center.  Rather than serving ourselves in church, we must serve others.  Rather than endless debates among ourselves about arcane theological points, the church must turn its attention to the vast world of people outside our doors who do not believe God can or will do anything for them, and who have never seen a community of faith live out its commitment to love God and love others.

More importantly, churches will need to rethink their entire mission and reason for being.  We cannot continue to serve ourselves, build buildings exclusively for our own use, and keep most of our resources to ourselves.

God’s answer to secularism was to send Jesus.  If man sought to displace God from the center of society, the center of God’s creation, then God would step into that creation as a man to demonstrate how mankind was intended to live; to give his life in love for mankind; to defeat mankind’s greatest enemies — sin, death, and the grave; and, to rise victorious proving that God both can and will save us physically and spiritually.

Secularism is nothing new.  It has been with us since Adam and Eve decided to replace God with their own judgment.  But, Jesus’ life puts the lie to this “I am the center of the universe” thinking.  Only as we live Jesus’ life before others will they see any reason to join our churches, sing our songs, or follow our Savior.  The challenge of secularism is met by the body of Christ, resolved to live with Christ as its head, with the Spirit giving it life, laying down its own life for the sake of the world.

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.

Easter Outreach Idea Still Works

Here’s a simple Easter outreach idea that works.  In February, 2007, I wrote the first post on this idea we used in Atlanta (“This Easter Outreach Idea Works”).  One church tried it last year, and it still works.  Read Pastor John Carmichael’s report (Easter Outreach Idea Works…Again!)  of how they doubled their attendance from 105 to 210 on Easter Sunday, and sustained increased attendance after that.  

The key to this outreach idea is personal communication and follow-up.  If any of you try it this year, please let me know how it works and I’ll feature your story right here.  Thanks.

What voting patterns can teach us about church

As November 4 approaches, US voters by the millions are casting ballots ahead of the traditional election day.  Estimates place early/absentee voting at 30% or more of the total vote this year.  Voters are increasingly choosing to vote on their own schedules rather than on the one day traditionally reserved for a national election.  There’s a lesson here for churches, too.

I am convinced that the continuing decline in church attendance in the US is not because the majority of the US population does not believe in God.  Polls consistently indicate that America is one of the most religious countries in the world.  My conviction is that declining church attendance has to do with two things — relevance and convenience.  Much of what we do in church gatherings is viewed as not relevant to people’s lives, and therefore they see no need to spend a Sunday morning sitting through a less-than inspiring hour. Voting patterns have nothing to teach us about relevance, that’s another issue for another post.  But, voting patterns can tell us something about convenience.

Voters, and these are all Americans from every walk of life, are telling political observers that they want to vote at the time and place of their choosing.  Translation: churches can provide more opportunities, in both time and place, for people to “do church.”  My guess is that doing church is going to look much different in the next 25-years than it does now.   Church gatherings will be more interactive and participatory, and less passive observation.  And, in using the term “church gathering” I am purposely avoiding the use of “worship” or “service” because I think church gatherings will be entirely different in the future from church worship services now.  

My vision sees churches as ministry hubs with persons engaged in helping ministries on a weekly basis.  Worship will shift to big days, much like the great feasts and festivals of Jewish life.  Smaller, decentralized gatherings in homes and communities will fill-in for “worship” experiences between the greater festival-type gatherings.  Voters are telling us something this year.  What do you think we’ll learn?