What kinds of things give the American church hope for the future? In spite of declining trends, participants at the recent Future of the Church summit identified some clear strengths and opportunities for the church in North America.
The stand-out strength, according to the participants, is the church’s central and unique mission. Perhaps that mission is best summarized in Jesus’ great commandments: love God, and love others.
Though the mission may seem obvious, it can often get lost or obscured. Summit participants saw a graphic example of that loss as they watched the new documentary When God Left the Building. The film shows some church leaders and members who cannot remember or agree upon their church’s true mission. One leader named the church’s annual pick-up of dead computers as the congregation’s hallmark.
Summit speaker Leonard Sweet urged participants to look carefully at Jesus’ missional directive: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Sweet said, “We really don’t like the mission statement of ‘go.'” Churches are more comfortable with “come to us.” He advocated that a church today needs to start with its own zip code. “We’re missionaries to our own neighborhood,” he said.
As the Summit participants continued their SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats), they identified a couple of strong opportunities awaiting the church. The first centered on the church’s ability to offer true community–a sense of belonging and togetherness.
Today’s people do indeed yearn for community. Many churches believe they already deliver community. But the population may not always agree. For example, today’s Millennials place a heightened value on community. But they’re fleeing the church in record numbers. They say their needs for community are being better met elsewhere.
The public knows that authentic community does not come easily with the familiar, tired attempts by many churches:
- Toothy greeters. Nobody feels real friendship from someone whose job it is to be friendly.
- Meet-and-greet time. Most people, members and visitors alike, loathe it. It’s forced and artificial.
- Classes and small groups. Yes, relationships sometimes form here. But compartmentalizing community to this other hour tends to emphasize how little community is encouraged during the Sunday morning main event.
At the summit, sociologist Josh Packard said, “Churches are really good at doing things that signal ‘welcome.’ But once people are in the door, they quit caring about them.” He said the church must be truly relational. To do so will lead to the church being “fundamentally different from what we know now.”
Another summit speaker, Edwin Lacy, described his rural church’s effective work at forming community. For the weekly worship service, members sit in a circle–in rocking chairs. “You don’t know anybody by the back of their head,” he said.
Community forms in an atmosphere of authentic acceptance and unconditional love. If churches can figure out how to offer true community, they’ll be magnetic.
In our book, Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore, we describe how many people avoid church because they view it as a one-way communication set-up. They want to participate, ask questions, and discuss. They want fearless conversation, which is the other major opportunity identified by summit participants.
Sociologist Packard said, “What people get at church is someone talking at them. But they want a conversation.”
Leonard Sweet urged pastors to wander into the Sunday morning congregation and engage the people in interactive preaching. He alleged it is the “height of arrogance” to believe that “God has given me a sermon to give to you, but you don’t have your own ‘sermon’ to throw on the table.” He said churches need to embrace the shift from performance to participation.
“Fearless” also connotes the willingness to tackle any subject, even those that seem dangerous, or for which we may not have easy answers. But it’s those thorny issues that people want–and need–to explore.
During the entire summit we modeled how the fearless conversation format can work to engage and involve every person. We frequently invited questions, and provided questions for participants to discuss in pairs, allowing everyone to dive deeply into often-difficult topics. Fearless conversation works–with any size crowd. And it presents a powerful opportunity for the church to personally connect with today’s people.
The church does have some tired structures (toothy greeters, meet and greet, small groups) but the problem is not the structures are bad or even out-of-date or irrelevant. Churches and pastors (including this one) have spent countless hours trying to find better, newer, hipper structures to do very simple things: give a simple heart-felt greeting and welcome, share some of who they are and ask a question of a new person, get to know a person better by being fully present and engaged with them for a few minutes (while trying not to apologize for how weak the coffee is).
While Jesus did say that you can’t put new wine into old wineskins there are only so many ways to store wine. The problem is not smiling greeters whose job it is be friendly but church folk who aren’t authentic. Neither is the problem meet and greet times (unless its the make the visitors stand up and announce themselves in the service…shudder) but once again people not being present and welcoming and being able to give a quick picture story of the mission of the church. (Yes collecting old computers is probably not the pinnacle of proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom or teaching them to obey all Jesus has us.)
What is tired in these structures is the energy, people and Spirit in them. These three can’t be thrown out in search of the thing that will really work. But neither are they sufficient welcoming people. Perhaps the big problem is that all these take place in the church building or among the churched. The welcome probably needs to be like Sweet’s suggestion for preaching….out there with the people, interactive and recognizing the ways the Spirit is already working in people’s lives
I agree, Garrett. It all comes down to authenticity – in knowing that the foot of the cross is level ground for all of us and that we all have those planks in our eye that we’re trying to work on.
When we really, really realize that putting on a phony “Christian” face with each other does more harm than good, then maybe things will change. It’s not a matter of format, but really a matter of the heart.
What you say strikes me because my work had a mandatory meeting with ethical do’s and don’ts and how to treat each other at work. In other words my work place WANTS every one to put on a fake happy face, smile and greet each other in the morning. Apparently because so few go to church and learn any kind of morals and ethics and learned how to put on a fake happy face, the workplace now has to teach it. Ha Ha.
By the way, my workplace has more than 10 commandments. There was just about 40 plus one ‘zero tolerance’ one. I like Christianity better. Less rules and God is very tolerant.
Absolutely awesome! I especially like the idea that the mission field starts in your own zip code. What wonderful things could happen if churches and “we the church” started with just this one idea.
The purpose being “love God and love one another” starts with knowing and loving God. The church sometimes gets this directive turned around.
“Interactive preaching” is a very post-modern concept. Let’s all get together and share, and in this way we will all grow together in the Lord. Except that much of what people have to share is the own ignorance and their own ideas about God. God has appointed in there church Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers. These gifts are significantly “verbal,” word gifts. God spoke into existence. Jesus comes as the “Word” of God. The church needs legitimate spiritual authority, those trained and experienced in the Word and faith to equip and lead others, and whose ministry has been tested and found to be true. It is not arrogance to be called and “spirit-filled” to teach and lead. What we may have too many of are those who, out of a heightened sense of self importance and with little background, training, or mentoring – like Timothy from Paul – assume pastoral/preaching roles without adequate oversight or confirmation. Bring on more “spirit-filled” preachers. THEN, let’s you and I sit down together and discuss the ramifications of what God has said in a separate time and place.
On Facebook, Betsy, reacted to Charlie’s comment: “What that fellow thinks and said is exactly the problem. The elitism of clergy.”
Then Dan responded to Betsy: “I think his concerns have a lot of merit. They certainly warrant a thoughtful discussion. I find the blanket statement and generalization about clergy elitism accusatory and unhelpful. I do think this would make for a great guest article and thoughtful discussion on Holy Soup. Spend a little bit of time in theological training and you quickly realize that the church, both layman and clergy alike, struggle frequently with sound hermeneutics.”
Then Betsy replied: “Dan I appreciate your statements. I am a preacher, and have been for 16 years. I am not ordained. I have met personally with elitism from clergy persons, both male and female, and am a clergy sexual abuse survivor. perhaps that is why I sound “accusatory and unhelpful” to quote you. Dan, read what you wrote out loud, and see how you sound. And I have been in theological training for the 16 years I have been preaching. Thank you for proving my point.”
Dan’s reply: “I did read it out loud and you are right. It does sound condescending and I’m very regretful for that and need your forgiveness. That was not my intent. My comments about theological training weren’t directed at you, but was meant to be a general point about the problem with allowing interaction during a large group church event. I have participated in open interaction during a preaching event and in my experience it is a slippery slope. So many people struggle to interact without proof-texting and misapplying scripture. I realize that opens the door for correction and more teaching, but the large group worship context doesn’t seem like the best environment for that to happen.”
Here’s my experience: I was a faithful member, participated in and led many of the programs, including small groups, and raised my children in the church. Then, my son became severely mentally ill. I was housebound because I couldn’t leave him alone for more than a few minutes. I tried to continue going to church, leaving my husband at home with my son, because I assumed that help and support would be there. But ultimately it became a source of great pain, because no one reached out to care for me. I walked out the door feeling more alone than before. I stopped going altogether, and guess what? No one noticed or cared.
This is a full, “successful” church in our town. Full of busy programs, but with nothing of substance inside. So when life falls apart, there is nothing there that helps. I suspect this is a truth that is at the core of many of the problems the “dying church” is experiencing.
I guess my only question would be did you ask for help? Did you let anyone/the pastoral staff know about your situation?
I see so many occasions where people assume that others know about their circumstances and/or needs when they haven’t really conveyed them clearly.
If you did let them know and they did nothing, then shame on them. But if you didn’t, well, it just begs the question.
Our situation was not hidden. I did ask for help. My husband shared our situation in front of the entire congregation. One person brought us a dinner once, but other than that, not one person called or came by. I have never been so alone in my entire life. More than that, I was devastated by the lack of care, because I was so sure that the Body would provide care. My perception is that everyone is so “busy” with the programs, no one has time for the really important work of the church.
That makes me so, so sad for you and your situation. I hope you have found another body of believers who have embraced you and made you feel welcome and loved and included. This should NEVER, EVER happen in the body of Christ. When things like this occur, we cease to be His body. Period. It’s a reminder to us all to be aware of just what it means to truly be IN CHRIST.
Thank you, I appreciate your words. I have actually spent many years in a dry wilderness, but to my benefit. I have been stripped of everything I thought was true, and am now gradually being filled with truth. Church hasn’t had any part of that process, by design. I have been to several churches, but don’t feel it is time for me to be a part. It’s important to know truth, first. I can’t allow anyone else’s words or view corrupt what is being built in me from within.
But, I also have a very clear view of the corruption that is a part of most of the western church, and why it is so empty.
Obviously you have been deeply wounded, and I know you’re not alone insofar as those who have been wounded by the church and by their fellow Christians.
To hear your comments is a wake-up call to us all that we are to BE the hands and feet of Jesus and that He calls us to bear the burdens of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Sadly, we let so much get in the way of our calling as believers.
But I do want to encourage you, seekstruth, that there are Christians out there who would love nothing more than to love YOU as our Lord has loved US.
I hope you will allow Jesus to lead you to that very special place in the body of Christ who will embrace you fully and love you as their cherished sister in the Lord. Believe me, He WILL do this, for we can only be known as true Christians as we are known by our love for one another.
It’s out there because our Lord and Savior is alive and well!
Your words are pure and kind. Thank you.
I don’t tell my story to whine or complain. I might have done so, when I was in the depths of the pain. But I have come far enough through to understand that my devastation has an important purpose. My religiosity matched that of the church, and I needed to have it stripped away. It’s only when it is totally gone, and I am far enough removed, that I can have clear vision. I believe that now I have important words for the church to hear.
Great post, Thom! Over this past year of visiting almost 50 churches for the SteepleStretch blog, I’ve noted the “meet and greet,” “pass the peace,” and “shake hands with someone near you” moments in church. My favorite, by far (probably more due to the name) was the “Two Minute Warming” that happened right as the service was to begin at the Northside Church of Christ in San Antonio, TX.
Last week, I attended one of the most casual, friendly and genuine churches that didn’t even have a meet and greet time. As I pointed out last week’s blog, the San Antonio First Church of the Nazarene is a church that needs one just so newcomers have a chance to meet even more of these wonderful people who were so full of life, love and honesty. In other services, I’ve found just lukewarm handshakes and “Hi, glad you’re here” statements.
Maybe, this is an area that pastors should shepherd their folk by teaching them how to reach out to people new to the church. Introducing themselves, asking their names, learning what brought them to their church. I can name only a handful of church visits where the people and pastor did this well. It goes a long way.
All of the comments above, I think, miss the big picture. So many Pastors are bound up in the building. Churches spend untold money and time trying to “market” their business. “How can we get them into our church building?” Why? If you are a parent, would you spend one hour a week with your children and expect to see positive development?
Acts 1:8; But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Did you notice where they were to start with making disciples? In Jerusalem…where they already were. But it’s important to understand making disciples isn’t a church program. Think of it like raising children. It’s a long term commitment.
Don’t be afraid to get out there. GO to them with the Love and message of Christ. Granted, it won’t be as easy for you, but it will be so much better for them.
We were involved in a neighborhood group whose purpose was to connect folks around us who attended a mega church. I was constantly reminded of the TV show Cheers.
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
The long term relationships, home groups, and Christian maturity that developed was wonderful. When your congregation gets together how do they feel. Remember, Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.
As a participatory church practitioner and advocate I love Leonard Sweet’s comment and the idea of “fearless conversation”!
Yes. Really, yes. I just can’t see how to accomplish conversation in a pews forward crowd of 150 and retain the sacredness of the ritual. Continue to listen for those from liturgical traditions who have figured this out . While muddling forward. Our focus is more on the OUT than the IN right now.
Let me put a little different thought into the mix here. I am seeing churches trying to fix things by way of creating a more social experience. There is this thinking that by pushing community and groups and having interactive church services to get people together and coming back is the solution to the people leaving problem. Did anyone ever think that what the church is doing is “social overload” in an already socially overloaded culture? When I was a child and teen, all we had was a land line phone and snail USPS mail. I actually had the time by force of culture to get lonely during the week and actually miss people so that I actually WANTED to go to church to visit friends there. NOW, Between work, facebook, sites like this, email and all, I am soooo socially overloaded, I have no desire at all to add church into the social mess. I started a bible study, a couple months ago and quit after 4 times. Piddling around in a quiet house with no TV going in the background, pulling weeds, doing yard work, baking bread and stuff, alone, is soothing. It gets me away from all this social overload. If people are already socially overloaded from the world, I don’t see the church decline going away… certainly not by adding even more socially overloading activities. I personally still don’t have a solution idea I could offer for the people leaving problem.
I videotaped an interview with two of our church’s charter members (two women). Our church was founded 60 years ago, so they are in their 80’s. They told stories of work, sacrifice, volunteers and excitement. Generosity, creativity, and tenacity. They held hands during the entire 45 minute interview, showing their dedication to supporting each other. When asked their advice on how to still be here in another 60 years, one of them gave the best advice of all: “Act like you are just beginning”. And she is soooo right. You can love the history without being stuck in it.