Tag: demographics

6 Dramatic Trends Churches Are Ignoring

Despite the adoption of coffee bars, powerpoint presentations, and full-stage lighting, churches are seldom on the cutting edge when it comes to addressing demographic trends.  Here are six dramatic trends that are not being addressed adequately by local churches, church networks, or denominations.

If we continue to ignore these trends for another decade, churches will continue to see an erosion of members, attendance, and relevance in a rapidly changing American culture.

Gleaned from “Six Disruptive Demographic Trends: What Census 2010 Will Reveal” published by The Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina, these trends will impact churches as well as the U.S. economy.

1. The South has several new faces.

“…between 2000 and 2008, the South was the preferred destination for movers in nearly all of the major demographic groups, including blacks, Hispanics, the elderly, and the foreign born.”

While the Northeast and Midwest grew by 6.5 and 9.4 percent respectively, the South attracted over half (51.4%) of the 24.8 million increase in the United States population. The West garnered about one-third of the total U.S. growth, but was an net exporter of 2 out of the 4 groups mentioned.

Of course, the South isn’t called the Bible belt for nothing, but established churches in the South tend to be single race churches, white and black, with few examples of churches designed to address the issue of the South’s growing multiculturalism. Mark de Ymaz in Arkansas is doing it, and Soong-Chan Rah writes about it, but at the local church ministry level few are addressing this multicultural growth trend.

2.  The minority majority is coming.

In the 1980s when I first visited Fuller Seminary’s campus in Pasadena, I was told that there was no majority group in Pasadena – everyone was a minority. That trend is now a growing reality across America. The UNC report calls it the “browning of America,” which is a phrase I don’t like because it pits white against “browns,” and if not carefully stated becomes a pejorative description of those not-white.

But the fact remains that non-white population growth is outstripping white growth dramatically. Between 2000 and 2009, Asians increased by 31 percent; blacks by 10 percent; and, Hispanics by 36 percent, while non-Hispanic whites increased by only 2 percent. Immigration patterns and birth rates are the primary drivers of this coming minority majority. By 2050, the non-Hispanic white population will fall below 50 percent for the first time in our nation’s history. No group will be the majority population, and that holds both great challenge and great promise for churches in the next 40 years.

3.  Out-marriage is in.

Same gender marriage has grabbed the headlines, but cross-ethnic marriages are the quiet growing reality.

“Among newly married couples, the out-marriage rate was 14.6 percent in 2008, up from 6.7 percent in 1980,” according to the UNC report. In addition, those marrying outside their ethnic group tend to be more, not less, educated.

Churches in our community (rural, Southern Virginia) tend not to have interracial couples, although there are many in our community. As this out-marriage trend grows, churches will need to become more conscious and sensitive to these ethnically-blended families. Church literature and advertising will need to run images of cross-ethnic couples and families in order to indicate a church’s welcome to these blended marriages.

4. The baby boomers aren’t babies anymore.

“On January 1, 2011, the first baby boomer born in America turned 65 and set into motion what we refer to as the “silver tsunami.” Almost 80-million baby boomers will leave the U. S. workforce in the next 20 years.

Churches already skew older than the national population average, and this will only become more pronounced in the next two decades. Seeker-sensitive churches that sprang up to attract baby boomers in the 1980s will be impacted by the aging of this group.

While churches almost always want to attract young families, by default and intention there will be churches that focus primarily on senior adults. Senior adult ministry for and with older adults will not just be a sub-group of larger congregations. Entire churches will be senior-led, benefitting from the years of experience, education, skills, and resources this group possesses.

5. It’s no longer a man’s world.

According to the report, men “bore 80 percent of total U. S. job loss between 2007 and 2009” leading some to proclaim the “end of men” in the economic market. Out of ten college graduates over the past decade, 6 were women and 4 were men. Women own 40 percent of all U.S. businesses, and women hold 43 percent of all executive, administrative, and managerial positions in the U.S. economy.

“Women are close to surpassing men as the numerical majority in the paid U.S. workforce.” In addition, in “married couple households, women now account for 47 percent of household income”, and 63.3 percent of mothers were the primary or co-breadwinner, up from 27.7 percent in 1967.

The implication for churches is obvious in several areas. Ministries to men and women need to recognize these new workplace realities. Ozzie and Harriett are dead, and churches need to deal with gender issues like it was 2012, not 1952.

6. Grandparents are the new parents.

“In 2010, 4.9 million American children lived in grandparent-headed households.” This is an increase of 26 percent versus a 4 percent increase for children living in all other type households.

Increasingly, these grandparent-led households also include one or more adult children who are parents of the grandchildren. And, 40 percent of children were living in home headed by a grandmother only.

This increasing family-type challenges the traditional church idea of what it means to be a family, and provides opportunity for churches to meet the unique needs of grandparent-led households. That these households tend to be non-white and economically-stressed provides additional challenges for church ministry.

Each one of these trends challenges the traditional church’s idea of its community, its membership, its inclusivity, and its understanding of gender and race issues. Small churches will face unique challenges, but also unique opportunities in addressing these trends.

However, if denominations, churches, and church networks continue to ignore these society-shaping developments, we will miss the great opportunities for growth, outreach, and church revitalization in the 21st century.

Six Dramatic Trends Impacting Small Churches

Six Dramatic Trends Impacting Small Churches

In his new book, American Religion: Contemporary Trends, Professor Mark Chaves of Duke University identifies six new trends affecting U. S. congregations, including small churches.

In the chapter titled simply “Congregations,” Chaves examines sociological and demographic trends which are shaping church congregations. These six trends are:

Loosening denominational ties.  Of the 300,000-or-so congregations in the United States today, 1 out of 5 is an independent church, not affiliated with any religious denomination.  And, although this may seem apparent, a full 20% of all Protestants (which includes everybody not Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, etc) attend an independent church.  In addition, in the churches which are affiliated, funds sent by the churches to denominational headquarters have fallen from 5% of church receipts in 1998, to 4% of receipts by 2006.  While some churches may have stopped or redirected giving to their denomination in protest of unpopular actions, Chaves believes the drop in sharing reflects the “rising costs of running a local congregation.”  My own church reflects this trend as we have shifted the allocation of funds in recent years more to our own local missions efforts and less to our denomination’s.

Greater use of technology.  This trend, unlike some of the others, is obvious and observable, but Chaves provides specific percentages of churches employing digital technology.  For instance, 74% of churches now have websites, and 79% of congregations now communicate with their members via email.  But only 32% are using visual projection in worship.  I thought the use of projection in worship was higher than that, but obviously some changes come more slowly than others.  What we are quick to embrace in our personal lives, we might not embrace so readily in our corporate worship experiences.  Our own church confirms this trend.  While we maintain a church website, and use email and an online phone tree for contacting our members, we do not use projection in our traditional worship service.  In this one area, small churches might be skewing the percentages since there are more small congregations than large.

Increasing informality in worship.  Chaves notes that more churches incorporate “drums, jumping or shouting or dancing, raising hands in praise, applause, calling out amen, and visual projection equipment” in worship than before.  Even in our very traditional service, we have made a conscious effort to “loosen up,” and our members applaud as their expression of appreciation for music or other presentations.  As you might imagine, dressing more informally, especially among younger people, is also part of this trend toward informal worship, which is a part of the larger trend of dressing informally in our social and work lives as well.

Aging membership.  People in the pews are getting older, according to Chaves.  While five of the six trends mirror changes in the wider culture, this trend of an aging membership is ahead of the rest of our society.  In the 1970s, church membership was about 3 years older than society at large.  Today church attendees on average are 5 years older than the wider population.  “Only when it comes to the aging of their people are congregations on the leading edge of a demographic trend,” Chaves notes.

Increasing member education and affluence.  In addition to the increase in age, congregants also have increased in educational level, with more college-educated than before; and, in income level as well.  In my opinion, while these increases are welcomed at the local church level because they represent both enhanced levels of potential leadership and giving, the downside is that congregations as a whole may have moved away from the most marginalized of society – adults with lower incomes and educational levels.  These “working poor” formed the backbone of Methodists, Baptists, and Pentecostal denominations in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  If they are being left behind as church congregations grow in both education and affluence that would be a tragic abdication of the church’s mission in the 21st century.  In our own community, the “working poor” represent the largest unreached population among our local churches.

Increasing growth and popularity of large churches.  Two things are clear in Chaves’s research.  First, there are more small churches than large churches.  That’s the good news for small congregations.  The median size of congregations remains unchanged at less than 100.  Specific estimates range from 75-90 participating adults as the median size, which means that half of all churches are smaller, and half are larger.

But, the second fact brings discouraging news for smaller churches.  While the median congregation has less than 100 participants, the median church member attends a church of 400 participants.  In other words, well over half church participants are in churches that are much larger than the median.

Chaves reports this trend to larger churches by saying: “The biggest 1 percent of Protestant churches, for example, contain approximately 15 percent of all the people, money, and staff” in that denomination.  This trend toward larger churches is growing and is evident across all denominations.  This trend toward larger churches is occurring in evangelical and mainline denominations whether they are growing or declining; and, in liberal as well as conservative ones.

Chaves notes, “There are more very large churches, and the largest churches are bigger than before, but the key development is that people are increasingly concentrated in the very largest churches.”

However, Chaves also notes that on the whole, religious participation in America is declining.  He cautions that this trend toward “concentration (more people in bigger churches) has not increased because megachurches have figured out how to attract the ‘unchurched.’”

The implications of Chaves’s findings in this rise of larger churches is, first, the obvious one that the movement of participating church members is from smaller congregations to larger ones.  But, secondly, that movement may or may not be solely the result of the attraction of larger churches, but may also result from the shift of population from rural to urban areas.  We are, in other words, swapping members from smaller to larger, from rural to urban churches.

Chaves also notes that the rise of megachurches creates the illusion that church participation on the whole is on the rise. That is not the case, however.  Although an amazing 60% of American adults have attended a service at a congregation in the past year, only about 25% attend church on any given week, and that number is unchanged over several years.

Additionally, if you think that emerging churches, or “spiritual but not religious” are outpacing the traditional local congregation, think again.  Chaves reminds us that traditional, institutional churches remain by far the “most significant social form of American religion” in our culture.

Mark Chaves offers small churches a mixed bag of information to deal with in his book, American Religion.  Some of these trends are observable (aging members, more technology), some are welcomed (higher education and affluence levels), and some are problematic for small churches (neglect of working poor, and more members in more larger churches).  But the startling fact that should spark our imaginations in both small and large churches is Chaves’s conclusion:

 “The religious trends I have documented point to a straight-forward general conclusion:  no indicator of traditional religious belief or practice is going up.” – American Religion:  Contemporary Trends, Kindle loc. 1209.

 This observation should spur both large and small church leaders to a renewed sense of mission, critical self-examination, and innovative methods of outreach.  Whatever the realities of the small church versus megachurch conversation, American Christianity as a whole is falling further and further behind in reaching and impacting the people around us.  That is the most disturbing trend of all, in my estimation.

Disclaimer:  I purchased American Religion: Contemporary Trends from Amazon at my own expense, and received no inducement or other consideration to quote from, or use this book.  This article is the result of my own reading and reflection and was not suggested by the author, publisher, or publicist connected with the book. -CW

Changing Demographics to Impact Small Churches

 

MSNBC reports this morning that “For the first time, minorities make up a majority of babies in the U.S., part of a sweeping race change and a growing age divide between mostly white, older Americans and predominantly minority youths that could reshape government policies.”  

But not only will this demographic change to a “majority of minorities” impact government policies, it will also impact small churches.  The article points out what we already knew:  minority populations are growing at a faster pace than the aging white population.  The previously reported American Community Survey had pegged white children under 2 as 51% of that demographic, but larger than estimated rates of minority births have moved the needle.  White children under 2 are now just below 50% of that group.

What does this mean for small churches?  First, small churches, especially rural or small town churches, tend to be segregated by race.  Obviously with a declining white population the handwriting is on the wall.  Small, predominantly white churches will either broaden their outreach or eventually die as their members age and die.

But, white churches cannot just say “We need minorities to survive” because that demonstrates a self-serving attitude that is not biblical.  Attitudes change slowly among older church members, but even older members can be led to broaden their vision, and begin to take intentional steps to reach out.

Most small churches will need to develop what Wendell Griffen calls “cultural competency.”   This involves an understanding and appreciation for the ethnic diversity of God’s creation.  And, it involves understanding that to meaningfully reach out to others means more that “signing them up.”  It also involves sharing decision-making, leadership, and authority.

Professor Soong-Chan Rah, who wrote The Next Evangelicalism:  Freeing the Church From Western Cultural Captivity, has excellent insights to offer in his book, and on his blog.  If you haven’t read his book, it is one of the must-reads for this decade, and will give you (if you are white) an entirely different perspective on how other ethnic groups view evangelicalism as a whole.

Add to this new perspective, the additional insight that now married couples comprise less than 50% of US households for the first time; that same-sex couples are now 1-in-10 of unmarried couples living together; and, that several states, my own Virginia included, will flip to “minority-majority” status in the next 10 years, and we have the ingredients for major sociological shifts.

What we do not need are shrill voices of doom using these figures and trends to forecast the end of society as we know it.  Social patterns, including family patterns, in the US and world are changing.  These changes present challenges to churches in communicating the gospel, and in reaching out to include a diverse representation of our communities within our congregations.

Married Couples No Longer a Majority of U.S. Households

The "Father Knows Best Family" of the 1950s is no longer the majority of families in the U.S.

Married couples no longer are the majority of U.S. households according to the 2010 U.S. census, the New York Times reports.  For the first time ever, families without a traditional husband-and-wife now comprise 52% of households, with families headed by married couples comprising 48%.

But the misperception that all singles are young is also fading as single adults cover the range of ages from young adults to single seniors.  While the NY Times article reports that most Americans will marry at some point, this snapshot of U.S. family life is a revelation.  In 1950, 78% of all households were headed by a traditional married couple.  Today, that figure is 48%, and changes in life choices are a contributing factor.

The census data reveals that college-educated singles marry other college-educated singles, and they are delaying marriage until their 30s.  Young women with high school diplomas and with a child or children, are choosing increasingly not to marry their baby’s father.  Social scientists believe that the economy is a factor because young male high school graduates tend to be less employable during hard economic times.

These developments in family life have obvious implications for churches.  Single adult ministries that focus only on young singles, or professional singles, are missing big chunks of the single population.  Churches that seek to attract families, need to realize that the definition of family is broader that mom, dad, and the kids.  More often it is mom and the kids.

Same sex marriages, while not mentioned in the article, will be a rising demographic as more states approve same-sex unions of some type.  We in churches may or may not like these trends, but the reality on the ground is that these are the folks who make up our community, and non-traditional families need our ministry, too.

What do you think?  What implications do you see for church ministry in this changing world in which we live?

The Church of the Future: Urban, Minority and Progressive

millenial_generation_onpageThe church of the future resides in an urban setting, consists of multiple minorities, and espouses progressive social values, according to two recently-released reports.

While most church futurists have focused on church models (i.e., house churches vs. megachurches) in their predictions of the shape of church in the next 50-years, the demographic forces shaping future churches are at work now on a global scale. The report of the Population Reference Bureau, which published its comprehensive “World Population Data Sheet” findings in October, 2009; and the Center for American Progress’s “New Progressive America: The Millennial Generation” report contain valuable insights for church thinkers.

Here are some of the findings of the World Population Data Sheet:

1. The world’s population will reach 7-billion by 2011 or 2012. By 2050 10-billion people will occupy an increasingly crowded planet. We are adding approximately 1-billion people every 12-years.

2. By 2050, 90% of Americans will live in urban areas.

3. Most of the population growth in the US will come from immigrants already in the US, or those who will migrate to the US. The US population in 2050 will stand at 439-million, up 135-million from the 304-million today — an increase of almost 50%.

4. By 2050, India will lead the world population with almost 2-billion; China will have 1.4-billion people; and, the US will be the third most populous country in the world with 439-million.

5. No majority ethnicities will exist by 2050 in the United States.

6. In the 20th century, 90% of population growth came from less-developed countries. In the 21st century, virtually all global population growth will come from less-developed countries, with some more-developed country populations actually declining, or being bolstered by increased immigration.

Soong-Chan Rah’s new book, The Next Evangelicalism, points out that while church proponents decry the decline of the American church, it’s the white American church that is decline, while ethnic congregations are flourishing. Subtitled “Freeing the Church From Western Cultural Captivity” Rah advocates a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic church whose seeds are already beginning to bear fruit. In other words, the shift that will be realized 40-years from today has already begun in our society. But, because the dominant culture in American society is the white European culture, church scholars are culturally blind to the rise of minority, urban, and ethnic churches.

The report by the Center for American Progress gives additional credibility to the changing nature of the church. The Millennials, born 1978-2004, are an increasing force in American life and politics. The Millennial cohort will dwarf the size of the Baby Boomer generation, while actually bringing about changes in society that the Boomers abandoned after they matured. Sixty-four percent of Millennials agreed that “religious faith should focus more on promoting tolerance, social justice, and peace in society, and less on opposing abortion or gay rights.” Just 19 percent disagreed.

The culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s are quickly fading, and a new generation that is more progressive in social views is assuming center stage. Millennials were a major force in the election of Barack Obama in 2008, and by 2020 will comprise 40% of the entire American electorate.

Of course, world events such as the economy, war, natural disasters, and a host of other events could intervene and reshape the future that is evident now.  However, the trend toward multi-culturalism, urbanism, and changing social ideas upon us.  It remains to be seen exactly how these trends will influence and shape the church of the future.

Sermon: The Future of Our Faith

I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow, August 16, 2009.  The Future of Our Faith concludes this 8-part series titled, Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces.  The preceding seven sermons are:

Here’s the concluding message.  I hope you have a wonderful Lord’s Day tomorrow.

Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces: The Future of Our Faith

Revelation 3:7-8
7“To the angel of the church in Philadelphia write:
These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. 8I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.

Reviewing the Seven Cultural Challenges

The passage we have just read was penned during a time of extreme challenge to the church of Jesus Christ.  The emperor Domitian persecuted the church more fiercely and relentlessly that previous Roman emperors.  Yet John’s words to the seven churches of Revelation chapters 2 and 3, contain words of encouragement.  Some contain words of rebuke, but as Jesus speaks to the church in Philadelphia, he offers words of hope for their future —

“See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” That is very much the position that the church of the 21st century faces — an open door, but with great challenges.

Over the past weeks, we have examined Seven Cultural Challenges Every Church Faces.

  • When we discussed secularism, we asked the question, Why Don’t People Go To Church Anymore?
  • On the Sunday we looked at pluralism, we asked,  Why Doesn’t Everyone Believe What We Do?
  • Thinking about nominalism, we did some self-reflection around the question, Why Don’t We Walk Like We Talk?
  • Looking at our consumeristic lifestyle and materialism, we wondered, Why Do We Have So Much Stuff?
  • Taking a cue from pop culture and post-modernism, we wrestled with Why Is Truth No Longer True?
  • We wondered Why Don’t They Like Us Anymore? when we thought about criticism of the church and Christianity.
  • And finally, we talked about atheism, and asked the question, Why Don’t They Believe in God?

All seven of these cultural challenges are converging in unique ways, especially in regard to the community of faith we call the church.  David T. Olson in his book, The American Church in Crisis, states —

“In America our world is also changing.  The ongoing downturn in church attendance this millenium is partially related to external cultural changes.  Christian ministry faces more challenges today than it did 20 years ago….Largely unaware of these changes, many churches continue to operate in modes and mentalities that no longer resonate with our culture.”  Olson, p. 161.

With the exception of nominalism, which means that Christians don’t walk like we talk, the remaining six cultural challenges are all external to the church.  In other words, these are forces and challenges that lie outside our control.

— We cannot stop the rising tide of secularism as a greater percentage of our population concludes that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is not necessary for a full and happy life.

— We are witness to our changing communities and the vast multicultural tsunami that is sweeping over America and the globe.  With easy access to international transportation, millions of new cultures have migrated to our shores, just as our forefathers brought the cultures of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Europe to American soil in the 18th and 19th centuries. With that multicultural flood also have come the faith traditions of Africans, Asians, Hispanics, and Middle Easterners — Buddhism, shamanism, Islam, and other non-Christian traditions.

— We are, and have been, participants in the mentality of a growth economy, relying on consumerism to fuel the economic engines of our nation, cities and states.  As a result, we find ourselves — Christians and non-Christians alike — suffering through the inevitable consequences of of the meltdown of materialism.  Churches and denominations have reduced budgets, laid off workers, downsized programs, and sold property in order to survive the economic downturn.

— While post-modernism defies a common description, the loss of confidence in the stories that to this point had sustained our nation and churches is being felt in lower church attendance, and the questioning of any claims to absolute truth.  The internet, for all its good, has also leveled the playing field between truth and falsehood, or truth and personal opinion, by creating space for all ideas, regardless of their credibility.

— And finally, we are seeing the church and Christianity attacked boldly and without hestitation by movements like the new atheism, or simply by individuals for whom church is not a necessary part of their lives.

The doom-and-gloom recital of decline and demise could go on for the rest of this sermon, but I think you get the picture.  We are facing some unique challenges.  The question is — what about the future of our faith?  Will the church survive?  Will Christianity disappear?  Will our grandchildren and great grandchildren find the same faith we did, or will church buildings become museums and art galleries as many have in Europe?

The Church Has Always Faced Challenges

Before we despair too much about the current set of challenges we face, we need to remind ourselves that the Church of Jesus Christ has always faced challenges.

At her birth on the Day of Pentecost, 3,000 may have been saved, but immediately the apostles were challenged, persecuted, and imprisoned.  As the church grew, new challenges emerged with each succeeding year.

At first the Roman empire believed that Christianity was merely a branch of Judaism.  As much as possible, the Roman empire allowed its conquered states to keep their traditional religions, as long as they posed no threat to the Pax Romana, and the goals of the empire.

But as Christianity grew in numbers, and Jews like Saul of Tarsus began persecuting Christians, the empire itself began to see the Christian church as a threat.  And even though the story of Saul who became Paul, turned out to be one of the great stories of the church, the empire increased its scrutiny of those who were called “christiani” or the little Christs.

By Nero’s reign, Christians were being made the scapegoats for everything wrong in the empire, much as Jews were vilified in Nazi Germany.  Persecution rose to such a crescendo by the reign of Domitian (81 AD to 96 AD), that John the Revelator was given the vision that became the Book of Revelation.  John’s message was one of encouragement in the midst of persecution to Christians facing martyrdom in the first century.

Persecution continued however, until the reign of Constantine who in 313 AD issued the Edict of Milan, which returned the property of Christians back to them.  In essence, Constantine’s decree legitimized Christianity and brought the Church into a partnership with the state.

In her book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle writes that the church goes through a major transformation every half-millennia.  She quotes Anglican bishop, Mark Dyer, who quips that every 500 years or so, “the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.”  We’re in one of those times, according to Tickle.  And at least three other of these theological rummage sales preceded this one.

In the first 500 years of the church, the monastic movement took hold.  The Desert Fathers and Mothers, predecessors to the later monastic movement, fled the corruption of the church in the cities in order to live ascetic lives devoted to God.  The challenges the church faced then were both external and internal.  External persecution came from a hostile regime, until Constantine; but then internal pressure came from the church’s shifting partnership with the state after Constantine.  Those who fled to the desert also fled the corruption of the church herself.  Clergy under Constantine had become extensions of the empire’s bureaucracy.  Clerical appointments became political favors often handed out to completely unqualified and unsavory churchmen.

Gregory the Great took the monastic tradition to a new level, and sheltered the great traditons of the faith — theology, liturgy, daily prayers, personal devotion — during a time when the Roman empire was collapsing and the Dark Ages were upon Europe.  Monasteries became the keepers of the flame, the repositories of faith and practice in a world that seemed to be losing its way.

The second great event came about 500 years later.  The Great Schism — the separation of the Eastern Church from the Western Church — divided a previously united, if fractious, Church into its two predominant cultures.  The Eastern or Orthodox church went its way with its icons and liturgy, while the Western church became consolidated in Rome.

The third great transformation was the Great Reformation of 1517.  We know the event that sparked the split.  A Catholic priest named Martin Luther posed his 95 theses — topics meant for discussion — on the front door of the Wittenberg Cathedral.  Challenging both the theology and the corruption of the church, Luther sparked a firestorm of religious fervor that brought new thinking and new theology to the western world.

Tickle believes we in the 21st century are experiencing another one of those “great” moments in the church, which she calls the Great Emergence.  Personally, I don’t think Tickle fully captures what is happening in the global church, but she at least gets credit for naming this fourth ecclesiastical rummage sale.

My point in all of this is that the church has always faced challenges — some external, some internal.  But, as the church has come through those challenges, she has been changed dramatically.

New groups, new liturgies, new theologies, new mission, and new believers came out of each of these great transformations.  Unfortunately, not all the tactics were peaceful, not all the arguments civil, and many died defending their version of the faith rather than the faith itself.

What Does The Church of The Future Look Like?

But, even though the church has faced and survived challenges in the past, what does that mean for us today?  With annual declines in church attendance, one wonders.  Examples are not hard to come by.  The Episcopal Church had set a goal of increasing attendance by 20% by 2020; instead, their attendance has declined by 7%. Southern Baptists have little room to brag either.  Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, has pointed out that the SBC has been in decline for the past 50 years, and the indicators for the future do not bode well for us either.

Lyle Schaller, renown church consultant, published his book, The Ice Cube is Melting, as a wakeup call to his own United Methodist denomination.  The Presbyterian Church USA launched a major effort to include more minorities in its congregations, only to discover that after an immense effort, their denomination still remained 97% white.

Churches of all flavors are facing tremendous challenges, and the methods of the past are no longer working.  In light of that, what does the church of the future look like?

First, to understand the church of the future, you have to look at the world of the world of the future.  According to the Population Reference Bureau’s 2009 report, the world population will hit 7-billion by 2011.  The climb from 6-billion to 7-billion took only 12 years, and according to the same report, by 2050 the world’s population will stand at 10-billion.  That’s almost a 50% increase in people on this planet from where we are today.

Secondly, 90% of world population growth in the 20th century took place in less-developed countries.  In the 21st century, virtually all of the world’s population growth will take place in less-developed countries.  Africa and Asia will lead the way.  India will emerge by 2050 as the most populous country in the world with almost 2-billion inhabitants.  China will be second with 1.4-billion.

The US will rank third with 439-million by 2050, up from our present population of 307-million, another almost 50% growth.  But, in the US, most of the population growth will come from newcomers to our country, primarily those of Hispanic descent.

You might be thinking, “Well, I’ll be dead by 2050, so it won’t affect me.”

Well, you might be right, but most of the shift in demographics will occur within the next 20-years.  By 2020, whites will no longer be the majority race in the US, and in fact, there may be no majority race.

But, even if you think 2020 is a long way off, we’re already seeing significant signs of demographic shifts in our country, and in our region as well.

An example is the church I pastored in Stone Mountain, Georgia from 1980-1984.  I was called to Pine Lake Baptist Church when I graduated from seminary.  At that time the community was a suburb in the greater Atlanta area.  Middle to uppper-middle class subdivisions dotted the landscape, and our members reflected the white, middle class world of suburban Atlanta in the 1980s.

The year I came to Chatham, 2004, Pine Lake invited me to come back to preach their annual homecoming service.  We walked into a much different church than the one we left.

The platform had been reworked, and the organ replaced with a place for their new 4-piece band.  A couple of guitars, a drum set, and a keyboard stood to one side of the platform.  The choir director was from Jamaica, and the song selection was upbeat and happy.  The choir was made up mostly of west Africans, Jamaicans, and some long-term white members of the church.  Black and white deacons served together.  A Laotian church meets there each Sunday, conducting their worship in their native language.  The community around the church has changed from white suburban, to urban and ethnic.  Many are students at Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Emory University, or one of the other colleges and universities in the Atlanta area.  The church had lots of kids, young people and families.  It truly was an amazing experience, reflecting the trends that are changing the ways we live our lives, including the way we worship.

So, first the church of the future is multi-cultural and multi-ethnic.  Sunday morning will no longer be the most segregated hour of the week in our communities.

But, wait, that’s not all, as the TV commercial says.

The rising generation, called Millennials, will change our own country in ways we are just now beginning to see.  Millennials are young people born after 1980 or so.  As a generation, they are larger than my generation, the Baby Boomers.  We thought we would dominate society until we passed off the scene, but the Millennials are already upstaging and displacing Boomers in number and influence.

The good news is that Millennials are optimistic, and eager to make this world a better place.  They volunteer to help in soup kitchens, to build Habitat houses, to become Big Brothers or Big Sisters.  They work well in groups, are open to all ethnicities, and are generally accepting of others.

Millennials have been compared to the World War II generation, which Tom Brokaw labeled The Greatest Generation.  They are builders and world-changers, just like the World War II GIs.   They never have known life without a TV, a computer, a car, or a cellphone.  They are technology natives, ready to harness the power of the internet to do good and connect with friends.

And, they are staying away from the traditional church in droves.  Their criticisms of the traditional church sting, but must be heard.  They are also not interested in the issues that have driven evangelicals in the past 30 years.  Millennials see the culture wars of the 1980s as a remnant of a dying movement.

In addition to the world population, and the Millennial generation, the shift from rural to urban will increase.  Today about half of Americans live in small towns or rural settings, and about half live in large urban centers.  By 2050, 90% of Americans will be living in densely populated urban areas, reflecting the sprawl of cities that are already evident in places like Mexico City, Shanghai, and Mumbai, India.

In short, the world as we know it is changing rapidly.

An Open Door That No One Can Close

The church will have to change.  And it will change because there are increasing voices calling for the church on earth to reflect the diversity of the church in heaven — with people from every tribe, tongue and nation.  Although change will come more slowly to us here in Chatham, we are not immune to the challenges of our culture.  We must change.

And the question we must ask ourselves is not ‘Who is here?’, but rather, ‘Who is not here?’ And the answer to that question will reflect the changes in our culture for we are not reaching those of other ethnicities, the young, and those not like us.

We need to open our eyes to those around us like one of the rural Methodist churches whose pastor I met this past week.  They have a ministry to bikers — not motorcycle riders, but bikers. One of the men who works in that ministry, a biker himself, was asked to tell about what they were doing.  He stood before the assembly of 100 United Methodist pastors, plus Debbie and me, and with his scraggly beard, long hair, bandana on his head, wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and he told about the biker ministry and said, “When you’re working with God, nothing’s impossible.”

Nothing is impossible for those who are faithful to Christ.  In the face of overwhelming challenge, there was one church, the church in the original Philadelphia.  Jesus told them, “I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.”

We can also be that church, the church of brotherly love, the church of the open door.  For it is Christ himself who has opened that door.  A door to the masses on earth today and the increasing populations in the years to come.  It is a door of opportunity that Christ alone can open, and no one else can close.

And, Jesus recognizes our limitations.  We may appear to have little strength.  We may appear to be unequal to the task.  But strength is not as important as faithfulness.  Jesus told the Philadelphian church — “You have kept my word, and not denied my name.”  To keep the word of Christ is to be faithful to Christ asserting in the face of changing cultures that Jesus is still the savior of the world.

What is the future of our faith?  Our future is not restricted by the changes in the world around us.  Our future is bound up with the purposes of God.  Our future is God’s future.  The door is open, the world is waiting, the Gospel still is good news.  We must walk through the open door, change our methods but not our message, and present the unchanging good news to an ever-changing world.

Jesus concluded his message to the church in Philadelphia with these words —

11I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. 12Him who overcomes I will make a pillar in the temple of my God. Never again will he leave it. I will write on him the name of my God and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which is coming down out of heaven from my God; and I will also write on him my new name. 13He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Our prayer is that we have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to this church.

One reason small churches aren’t growing: saturation

Thumbing through an analysis of our community today, it hit me.  There are too many churches in our area.  Within a 5-mile radius of our church, there are 25 other churches.  And, this doesn’t even count churches without telephones, which include at least 8 more that I know of.  That’s 33 churches for a population of about 4,000 households, or about 8,000 people.  

Take out the 10% of the population that is totally unaffiliated, and you have 7200 people.  Divide 7200 people by 33 churches, and you have an average of 218 members per church.  Of course some have more and some less, but 68% of all the churches in our area have between 125 and 350 members.  Our church fits right in that number.  

Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone attends faithfully, or even comes at all.  We have several dozen members who never show up, but so does everyone else.  But, it does help us get a realistic handle on the potential of our outreach.  When I pastored in suburban areas, if we didn’t add 100 new members each year and baptize at least 25 per year, I was disappointed.  Here I’ll be lucky to see 100 new members in 10 years, and we are baptizing about 3-7 people per year.  

Those are the reasons we’re focusing on community transformation.  We hope to help others become more faithful disciples of Jesus by bridging racial divides, providing tangible help to families in need, and creating gathering places for our community.  We hope to be good news to our community, as well as to the individuals within it who might come to our church.  What is your experience?  Is your community “churched” and if so, what does that mean for your ministry?  

The report also noted that our area is highly “churched” (duh), and skews older than the national average.  Did I mention that our county population actually declined since the last census?  You’re beginning to get the picture.  

The great news is our area is higly churched.  The downside is that numerical growth of any of our congregations is limited.  Our primary strategy is building relationships, and adding new members gradually over the long term.

Zogby: Small, real churches are the future

Today I bought pollster John Zogby’s new book, The Way We’ll Be, subtitled, The Zogby Report on The Transformation of the American Dream. Called a “super pollster” because he uses innovative methodologies in his polling work, Zogby sees a very different future for the US than you might imagine.  Here’s what he says about the future of the church:

“The church of the future will be a bungalow on Maple Street, not a megastructure in a sea of parking spaces.  It’s intimacy of experience people long for, not production values.” — The Way We’ll Be, p. 215.

In a previous chapter, “One True Thing,”  Zogby says that people are “searching for authenticity in a make-believe world.” That’s what will drive the tremendous growth of house churches in the coming years, especially among the demographic he calls ‘First Globals” which others label Millenials.   Zogby quotes one house church enthusiast, “What is so exciting about doing small-group house church is just the chance to be real.”  Authenticity, not high production values, is what First Globals are seeking.

If you want an excellent book to give you a professional pollster’s take on where we’re headed as a nation, especially in understanding First Globals (Millenials), buy Zogby’s book.  If you’ve read unChristian or They Like Jesus But Not the Church, you need to read this book, too.  Add to your reading Strauss and Howe’s books on Millenials such as Generations, The Fourth Turning, and Millenials and the Pop Culture, and you’ll be well on your way to understanding developing trends in our society.