KOH2RVA: Day 41

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.

“Do Something!”

I’ve been asked to speak at an event called “Prophetic Preaching for Anxious People” in Tampa, Florida, next week.  I’m not sure how I got the job; I don’t know that much about prophetic preaching.  On the other hand, I do know some anxious people.   

I talked with one a few months ago.

It was shortly after our big vote on membership, when we decided that committed Christians from other denominations could join our church without having to be re-baptized.  Although the motion passed decisively it didn’t pass unanimously, and for several weeks afterward there was tension in the air.  The big, happy family at First Baptist had been shaken.  It affected our giving and our attendance. 

On one of those Sundays a member of the church knocked on the door of my study, holding a worship bulletin in his hand.  He showed me the attendance figures from the week before—a number so low I was sure there had been a mistake. 

“Look at this!” he said, waving the bulletin in front of me.  “What are you going to do about this?”  He wasn’t angry; he was anxious.  He loved his church and didn’t want to see it go into decline.  “What am I going to do?” I asked, smiling.  “I’m going to get a recount!”  He didn’t know what to say to that.  He stood there for a minute in silence, fumbling with the bulletin, and then he looked up at me with pleading eyes and said, “Do something!”

Do something.

As in, “Do something about attendance.  Do something to get our numbers up.  Do something that will get people to come to church.”

I think that’s the anxiety a lot of churches have been feeling in the last few decades.  The churchgoing boom of the fifties and early sixties was followed by a mass exodus in the late sixties and seventies.  The church’s response was to panic, and to do anything it could to get people back into the pews.  One of the strategies was to turn Sunday morning worship into a kind of youth rally in an attempt to win back those Baby Boomers who had been active in church youth groups, but dropped out of church when they went off to college. Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago practically invented something called “Contemporary Worship,” where you didn’t have to dress up, the preaching was relevant and edgy, and the music was more like what you listened to in your car.  And Willow Creek was successful.  Soon more than 15,000 people per weekend were coming to that church and soon after that almost every church in America wanted to be like Willow Creek.  

But I can still remember the day I went to a meeting in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and one of my colleagues—the successful pastor of a large Baptist church—came into the room complaining that he had spent three years trying to develop a contemporary worship service and he’d just heard on the radio that what people wanted these days was “liturgical worship.”   In that moment I thought, “Yes, and that’s how it will always be if you try to chase the latest fad.”

If we ask, “What do people want?” then we begin to design our programs and worship services around that, and we measure our success by how many people come and how much they give.  But if we ask (and keep on asking), “What does God want?” then we begin to structure everything around that, and measure our success in a different way.

People are fickle.  What they wanted last year is not what they wanted this year.  But here’s the good news: God is not fickle.  God wants what he has always wanted.  He wants us to make disciples of every nation.  He wants us to love him and love our neighbors.  In short, God wants the world he made to know him and love him, to do his will and love one another. 

He wants heaven on earth.

So, maybe what we need to ask is not, “How do we increase church attendance,” but “How do we bring heaven to earth?”  Regardless of what it does to our numbers—whether they go up or down—I think the church of Jesus Christ was called into existence precisely to answer that question.

What do you think?

Fifty Years from Now, Part 2

signexitledrdI noticed a sudden spike in the traffic on my blog site yesterday, and it wasn’t because of the funny Advent story about Donald, or the sobering reminder of the AIDS pandemic, it was because people were reading the post called “Fifty Years from Now, Will We Still Be Doing This?” (or maybe they just wanted to push the button on the nifty polling device).

I’ve been surprised by the results of that poll.  When I last checked, 41 percent of respondents thought we would still be doing church the same way fifty years from now; 39 percent thought the church would be bigger and stronger than ever; while only 20 percent thought the church would have evolved into something else by then, perhaps a collection of house churches.  The results suggest that the people reading my blog are either a) stubbornly optimistic or, b) woefully uninformed (smile).  There is a third option, of course, and that is that my readers are believers who know that “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).

That’s true.  But let’s take a look at the facts:

According to a survey sponsored by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago religious attendance in America fell from 41 percent in 1971 to 31 percent in 2002.  In 2005, instead of asking people “Do you attend church regularly?” sociologists C. Kirk Hadaway and Penny Long Marler asked them, “Did you attend church last Sunday?” and got numbers closer to 22 percent of the total population.  You don’t even have to know the facts to know that churchgoing in America has changed significantly in the last fifty years.  How will it change in the next fifty? 

While the movement Jesus started will never die, the institutional church seems to be in trouble.  I remember hearing Biship William H. Willimon report, years ago, that the United Methodist Church was losing 2,000 members each day.  Even strong, evangelical denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention, once thought to be immune to such decline, have shown a recent downturn in membership.  Those churches that are thriving, mostly megachurches, tend to achieve their success through agressive church growth strategies that often minimize the demands of the gospel.  

First Baptist, Richmond, has been able to maintain its vitality largely through its television ministry, which reaches an estimated 20,000 people each week.  While other downtown churches are struggling, our sanctuary remains comfortably full on Sunday, and the visitors and new members who come to us often say they first saw us “on TV.”  Still, the people who actually come into our building each week represent less than a third of our total membership.   And of those estimated 20,000 people who watch our services now we need to ask how many will be watching ten years from now?  Or thirty?  Or fifty?

I’m still reading Julia Duin’s book (Quitting Church), and I’m still asking people what they think the future holds.  I’m finding that many of them, instead of being depressed by the statistics, are excited about how the church might change.  One of those people is my friend and colleague Amy Butler, pastor of Washington, DC’s, Calvary Baptist Church.  If you’d like to read her thoughts, click here.  If you’d like to join the conversation, click on the word “comments” below and let me know what you’re thinking.  And if you’d rather just click the button on one of those nifty polling devices, try this one: