Crisis is really not too dramatic a term to use to frame the current state of the Christian church in America. More and more the “church” is losing ground. Consider this information released back in February in the U.S Religious Landscape Survey for 2007.
- In 2007 there was only one church growing faster than the population rate- the Independent Christian Church. (Only one other- the Catholic Church- was able to remain static with the population. All other churches lost membership.)
- More and more Christians in America are claiming no allegiance to any church and another growing percentage of folks call themselves “secular nonaffliated.”
- There is no longer any church “brand” loyalty. Here is a quote: “Fluidity is the rule today, not the exception. There’s greater diversity and greater movement — a quantum leap in the rate of change.”
Now, let’s narrow the focus to Churches of Christ. Here are some stats from Flavil Yeakley who is the leading church growth statistician among us from his Good and Bad News: A Realistic Assessment of Churches of Christ in the United States 2008
- Churches of Christ rank 12th nationally in number of members (1,264,000+), but we rank 4th in number of congregations (21,791). Comparatively, the Southern Baptist Convention churches have some 16 million members and some 41,000 congregations.
- The average Church of Christ has about 60 members and about 75 total members and adherents.
- Churches of Christ declined from 1980-2007 in the following states: Missouri (-18%), Texas (-3.8%), Oklahoma (-7.1%), Illinois (-5.9%), Kansas (-9.3%), Michigan (-7.5%), Arkansas (-2.0%), Massachusetts (-18.2%), Oregon (-4.3%), Ohio (-1.2%), North Dakota (-41.7%), Alaska (-16.7%), Vermont (-23.1%), Nebraska (-3.9%), New Hampshire (-6.3%).
And finally let’s just learn from observation.
- Most Churches of Christ are now smaller than they once were.
- Most Churches of Christ now are “older” than they once were.
- Most Churches of Christ now are not as evangelistic as they once were.
Putting all of this hard and soft data together is why the word “crisis” does apply to the current situation of most churches today in terms of health and growth for the future. A big problem is that most churches and church leaders fail to recognize this. Churches who are able- even with smaller numbers- to continue maintaining staff and ministries just do not seem to be alarmed- even as their church grows smaller and older. But when you objectively combine all of the data and see the trends, the future for institutional churches does not look bright.
Consider one more data set. This information comes from the book UnChristian which chronicles what 16-29 year-olds who are outside of any church tradition currently think about the Christian church. Based on research done by authors David Kinnamen and Gabe Lyons six negative themes frame how this generation thinks of us.
- Hypocritical- pretend to be something unreal
- Too focused on getting converts- they feel like targets rather than people
- Anti-homosexual- bigoted against and “fixated” on curing
- Sheltered- boring, old-fashioned and out of touch with reality
- Too political- overly motivated by political agendas
- Judgmental- doubt we really love people as we say we do
Because of all of this there is a tremendous challenge in front of churches. Either we can ignore or discount all of this information, continue on our current course and hope something will change or we will petition our Father to give us wisdom to negotiate the changing landscape with faith and vision to better and more effectively present the Good New message.
“LEADED AND UNLEADED” CHRISTIANS
One of the leading theologians in America today, Brian McLaren coined the phrase “leaded and unleaded Christians” referring to the often vast differences between older and younger (or newly converted) Christians. These terms illustrate the tension between these two groups which in so many ways is at the heart of most church problems- problems which contribute to the current church decline and failure to address the real cultural issues we face.
The tension results when the “leaded” Christians in the church (who are more settled, traditional and moneyed) resist attempts by the “unleaded” to change, adapt to the new realities of cultural attitudes toward church and adopt new methods of communication, ministry and outreach. Since the “leaded” usually occupy leadership positions and also control the treasury they usually have the ability to limit the influence of the “unleaded”. This results in either an uprising (split) by the “unleaded”, their departure to another church or them just quitting church altogether. (This illustration simply represents what has happened over and over again in many churches of all stripes. It is not an attmept to lay blame on either the “leaded” or “unleaded” but just a general observation. This is a too complex issue to try to solve on this post.) When this happens it not only cripples the church and continues a failed pattern, but it undermines the credibility of that church to its community and reinforces the negative opinions many already have.
The point is- something has to change. We simply cannot expect to continue along this type of path and get different results (isn’t this the definition of insanity?). The fact is our culture has changed around us (the data in UnChristian bears this out) and we have to recognize that and come to grips with the fact that the same ole way of doing church work is leading us to an ever shrinking body.
To be sure there are other factors involved in our non-growth. Growing secularization and consumerism within Christian homes; Lack of urgency concerning evangelism; Lack of commitment to Scripture; Lack of commitment to a church home- all contribute.
The bottom line is that the institutional church is increasingly viewed as irrelevant- as more concerned with serving its own needs and maintaining the institution, its traditions and property, than about serving the needy and hurting in the community. This is why we are in a crisis.
The good news is that first, we know we are in this crisis and second, with crises comes opportunity. The question that remains to be answered is- are we going to effectively engage the opportunities and therefore revitalize and renew our churches?
Next week I will post part two- with suggestions on how to address the crisis.