I had coffee with Chris Backert yesterday morning.
Thursday is my day off, but Chris and I hadn’t been able to work out any other time and the idea of having coffee at Starbucks with a missional church strategist didn’t sound like something I would hate. In fact, it sounded like something I would want to do.
Plus, Chris is a really nice guy.
We started talking about the decline of the church in America these days and the recent statistics suggesting that twenty percent of Americans claim no religious affiliation at all, a number that has grown by five percent in just the last five years. That means that in the last five years roughly fifteen million people have stopped saying they are Baptist, or Catholic, or whatever. Now they just say they “unaffiliated.”
The evidence is everywhere.
Church attendance in America is falling off at an alarming rate. While some 40 percent of Americans say they go to church, the truth is that on any given Sunday the number of people in the pews is less than half of that. In fact the latest statistics suggest that only 17 percent of the population is in church on Sunday.
It wasn’t like that fifty years ago, and the people who can remember how things were fifty years ago—when about half of all Americans went to church—are anxious. That anxiety often expresses itself in hurtful ways. I talked with a pastor last week who had been forced out of his church, not because he wasn’t preaching the gospel but because he wasn’t filling the pews, or, more truthfully, because he hadn’t figured out a way to make it 1962 again.
I told Chris I thought that kind of institutional anxiety is just beneath the surface in most of the churches in America these days, and that many of them keep hiring and firing pastors in the hope that they can find the one who will “pack them in,” just like they did back in the good old days. I told him the church in America seems to be going through the stages of grief Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described so many years ago: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. And that’s when he began to tell me about the church in England.
The church in England has already worked its way through those stages. These days less than 17 percent of the population in Great Britain can say “I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it” and only about three or four percent of the population goes to church. In other words, Christians in the U.K. have had to accept the fact that the church as it once existed in that country is dead, and rather than try to merely resuscitate it, they are trying to resurrect it in new and different forms.
And that’s what Chris wanted to talk to me about: not just another way to boost church attendance, but ways of thinking about God’s mission that may not look like church at all, what Chris and his friends in England are calling “Fresh Expressions.”
I don’t have time to tell you everything we talked about yesterday, but here’s a link to Fresh Expressions in the U.K., and another to Fresh Expressions in the U.S. If you have some time take a look, and then tell me what you think by leaving a comment below. This is a conversation we need to continue as we think about how to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.