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.