What does the future hold for the church in North America? What are the church’s major weaknesses and threats going forward?
Last week church leaders, reporters and analysts gathered to discuss the church’s prospects at Group’s annual Future of the Church summit. Participants grappled with a wide variety of factors affecting the health of the church. These included changing attendance patterns, the growing population of de-churched Christians, cultural shifts, other religions, morphing congregational models, and generational transitions.
At the end of the summit, after hours of conversation and scrutiny, the group identified two major threats looming before the church. They are:
- Fear of change
- Same-sex debate
These two things, more than many other factors, are predicted to inhibit the church’s progress. The first one, fear of change, is certainly nothing new. But the rate of change in the culture around us is contributing to heightened angst among church leaders. Faced with threatening trends, imperfect options, and fears of members’ discomfort, leaders increasingly are choosing to refrain from making any meaningful and necessary changes.
A summit participant said, “A lot of churches are willing to die comfortably, rather than live dangerously.” Another said, “We’re all too afraid.” For many, they’re praying they can weather the declining status quo until they retire. Then what’s left of the church will be someone else’s problem.
Fear also fuels the other big threat–the same-sex debate. What position should a congregation or denomination take on inclusion or membership for gays and lesbians? Who may serve in leadership positions? How will requests be handled for same-sex marriages? After frank and wide-ranging conversations on these issues, I asked the participants if they’re having these discussions in their congregations. Only a few indicated they’d ventured into this topic with their people.
“We hate squabbles,” one said. Most recognize the risk involved with entering the fray. Some churches and other Christian organizations have experienced upheaval and losses after taking stands on same-sex issues. But the controversies are not going away. One participant said, “The conversation is being had without us.” But not for long.
Hiding from the same-sex conversation does not protect the church from the threat of discord. Author Leonard Sweet told the summit participants that the root meaning of truth is “to come out of hiding.” This conversation poses a threat. How a congregation handles this challenge may well shape its future–for better or worse.
Summit participants framed these issues as part of a SWOT analysis for the church. The SWOT acronym, familiar in organizational strategic planning, stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Fear of change was chosen as the leading threat–as well as the leading weakness for the church.
In coming articles, I’ll share other findings from the Future of the Church summit, including participants’ choices for the most promising church strengths and opportunities.
What’s your SWOT analysis for the church?
It would be helpful for future summits to include a fourth group: true believers who have become disenfranchised with the church. They may be able to explain to the group not just what is happening, but how to fix it. The current church model (for lack of any better term) is far removed from the first century church. The current model simply doesn’t function for people under forty. Church in its current form will be dead in two centuries.
For those simply weathering the status quo until they retire or those concerned about squabbles, quit being cowards. Either grow a spine or just leave, but don’t waffle between the two. A double minded person is unstable in all his ways.
Brett, the summit devoted a session to the growing phenomenon of strong believers who have given up on the church. We explored the key reasons for the rise of the de-churched. I will report on this in future Holy Soup articles.
Great! I look forward to reading it.
I was talking with a pastor the other day, who has seen his congregation dwindle by 2/3. When I asked him about church planting in nearby communities, he stated that he “needed to keep enough people here to have a salary””.
As a former pastor, I will tell you, the greatest threat to the church is that the leadership considers themselves “professionals”. they want to be considered a priest with a vow of poverty by the IRS, but a CEO to the congregation.
The Scriptures teach that the Pastor is to live OF the Gospel, not OFF the Gospel.
Your statement “the current model simply doesn’t function for people under forty” is intriguing to me, as a Pastor’s wife over 40…I understand what you are saying, but what I am left wondering is what is the answer for that? I am assuming you are under 40. What is it that you would like to see happening or what you think will work? And I am not asking about what will put “butts in the seats” (to quote a local church’s philosophy, lol) but what can make a REAL connection with God and community of believers for this age group?
I’m 45, so the assumption doesn’t quite fit. I have been teaching college since 2003. I also did some teaching before that in graduate studies. So, I have been connected to the younger generations and view things from a teacher’s perspective.
I honestly don’t think the paradigm works for anyone, but older people simply aren’t aware of how ineffective the current paradigm is. They’ve grown used to it and don’t have a point of comparison. Younger people, due to their connection with technology, have experienced new, different and exciting ways to learn and to establish community.
The primary teaching method for the prevailing church model is a lecture. People may give it spiritual sounding names, like “sermon”, but basically it’s a lecture. Most of the life of many congregations are centered around the lecture. It’s the height of the weekly worship service, which is the central event and focus of most congregations. In terms of teaching, monologue approaches are by far the most impotent forms of teaching. Monologues require little to no critical thinking, creativity or application from the audience.
Young people hate lectures. They want real dialogue. They want to dig into issues. They don’t want canned answers from a pulpit. What they really want is what the first century church did–open, participatory meetings where everyone could share, ask questions and be a participating member. The don’t want to be a face in the crowd, but the church has turned them into that. In terms of teaching, they want Jesus. Consider the gospels. He wasn’t a sermonizer. Most of his teaching was done in dialogue or hands-on styles of learning. This is the true Biblical model of teaching. I won’t say sermons are dead. I’ll go one step farther. Sermons are killing the church! We have embraced a model that comes from Greek rhetoric as opposed to a model that is Biblical, which is grounded in Hebraic, discipleship style learning.
I know some will argue that one can have the sermon and have small groups throughout the week. It can’t be done. We cannot serve two masters. As long as the weekly worship service is there and focused around the sermon, the more important discipleship-style of teaching will take a back seat. It conditions people to believe there are theological experts and laymen. It conditions people to be apathetic Christians, because it requires so little from them. It’s not a challenge to just passively listen. People need challenges and they need to be creative to learn and grow. Sermons don’t provide that.
Sermons also help to propagate the clergy-laity distinction. It, along with the whole layout of most church buildings and classrooms, trains people to believe that some are “called” to ministry, as if this is a special calling that only a few possess. The truth is we are all called to preach (in the Biblical sense of sharing the truth as opposed to giving lectures), visit the sick, teach all nations, heal the broken hearted and do all the other things Scripture commands. There is no over-under hierarchy in God’s economy with the exception of everyone being under the headship of Christ. The clergy-laity distinction is an odious stain on the body of Messiah. Jesus taught against such things. He taught we weren’t supposed to be like the Greeks, who had hierarchies and chains of command. He also revolted against the religious structures that had permeated the Hebrew community. One of the things he was revolting against was the whole hierarchy, chain-of-command approach that lifts up some and turns others into underlings. This completely disregards the priesthood of all believers.
When I say this, I don’t believe everyone in ministry is a bad person. In fact, I have seen several people in pastoral (or similar positions) who were people of God. At times they are extremely gifted, committed and display extreme Christian character. What I have seen time and again is how extremely damaging the pastoral offices becomes to those people and their families. The office gives them the status of super-Christian in the eyes of many people. They are expected to do all the roles of the church and it leads to burn out, health problems, mental issues and at times spiritual injuries.
I have also seen the position be abused–at times severely. So, I have seen both the best and worst from all the various offices and pastoral positions we’ve created. In terms of the clergy, the clergy-laity distinction has one of two effects: 1) It places an inequitable burden on the clergy, while having the laity function below their gifts, ability and equal share. Or, 2) It gives a position authority that allows abuse. This distinction also neuters the laity, who simply believe that God gives to and calls some and they aren’t part of that some.
The focus on church buildings is also detrimental. So much time, money and effort goes towards the building. It’s a tremendous waste of resources. A business would never pay for facilities that may only be used a couple hours of week. It detracts from the true mission of spending those resources on reaching out to our neighbors and being a source of healing for society. The church in many cases has become a big, money making country club that has little impact on society. I wish this weren’t true, but I’m being honest with what I’ve seen as a whole, which I know is making a stereotypical statement that isn’t true of all Christians.
I would highly recommend you read the books “Pagan Christianity” by George Barna and Frank Viola and “Reimagining Church” by Frank Viola. They discuss many of these issues in more detail.
I don’t go to bars because I don’t particularly like people in a drunken state. Call me a drunk-o-phobe. I don’t fit there. I had tried out a church that spoke in tongues but that sort of thing made me uncomfortable and was weird. Call me a tongue-o-phobe. I have zero interest in watching any kind of sports. Call me a sports-o-phobe. The thought of myself even kissing another man makes my skin craw. Call me a homo-phobe. There are certain people types I don’t hang around and I could never connect with because of who I am as a person. I’ve no desire for certain people types because I’ve no desire for the things they do. Sorry but I’ve pretty much am loosing any interest in video games now. Aren’t churches there to bring in the drunks, the druggies, the sexual predators, the wife beaters and gays to preach the Gospel in the hope God saves them and changes them from the inside in that they no longer have desire for those things? It seems churches want nice obedient clean-cut people without certain problems to come in because they are afraid someone’s ‘baby’ or ‘child’ might get hurt, the pastor get falsely accused of some sexual thing, or someone else get abused and they get sued and are made a public spectacle or something.
Excellent article but really not surprising to me having come out of an evangelical church that fit the bill on what you describe, particularly the comment, “The conversation is being had without us.” Several years ago I told people in my Sunday School class that they needed to think through their response to homosexuality because it would be showing up on the church’s doorstep. All I got was deer in the headlights looks. Fast forward a few years and lo and behold a gay couple did come to the church and talked to one of the pastors about joining. They were told they would be prayed for–not the answer they were looking for. Needless to say, they and I, are both at a different church now that is much more inclusive. The funny part is, we didn’t know each other at the previous church and I only found out about their story in the new church’s membership class.
In another incident at the same church, a married woman who could not agree with the church’s stance on homosexuality and was honest enough to admit that, was turned down for membership for that reason. She was devastated.
Really, fear of change could encompass the same sex debate since that is a major change. So, I would say the #1 and ONLY threat to the Church is fear of change. While churches will have various stances on the same sex issue, I think it’s incumbent upon them to really think through their response to it and have the discussion throughout the congregation so that the message that is delivered is consistent. And probably for some congregations, they need to deal with how change is handled before they even tackle any issue, because most if not all of them probably relate back to fear of change. New worship style and times? Response: fear of change. Change the way a particular ministry of the church operates? Response: fear of change. Change the way new members are received into the church? Response: fear of change. Change order of worship? Response: fear of change. You get the idea. If we don’t address how we respond to change and differences in smaller more mundane matters, we will certainly fail on the larger ones and set ourselves up to die on the vine.
Btw I can lead a SWOT discussion if you want to look from that business angle. I do that all the time in my job.
Jean Marrapodi, PhD, CPLP Teacher by training, learner by design c: 401.440.6165
Thom, I always pass your articles along to fellow staffers at my church. They are always good food for thought.
I am wondering – I was one of the conference paticipants that watched the screenign of your documentary, “When God Lef the Building”, and offered our staff for a screening. When might we hear news of that? Our staff here was quite interested in seeing it.
Thanks, Karyn. The film “When God Left the Building” is available now for churches to rent for screenings in their churches or communities. See details here: http://whengodleftthebuilding.com/bring-it-to-your-church/
Here’s one example I saw today of a church scheduling the film and opening it up to their entire community: http://www.nj.com/messenger-gazette/index.ssf/2014/10/united_reformed_church_in_somerville_to_screen_documentary.html
Several years ago I gave birth to a daughter. She grew up in the church meet a nice Christian boy went to college and tried to kill herself. She survived and they married. In the past 4 years my daughter has now become my son. He tried to kill himself over his gender not lining up with who he was on the inside. His marriage went from being seen as a heterosexual marriage to a gay marriage. Did the people involved change no they are still the same two people who have dated and been together for almost 10 years now. However many people now view their marriage as different. Like many they now are struggling to find a church home.
Great Questions, Thom. Change IS a #1 fear in ALL aspects of our lives.
Not just the way we are organized as a church (body of people) but in the fundamental way we look at the Bible and lives of God’s people.
For instance, it makes no sense to rattle off that the Jews killed Jesus because it was the Will of God, in light of His 2,000 years of preparation to receive Him. I know, that’s what we have been told was “true”, but don’t be afraid to discover new ideas that change the way we think about our loving Heavenly Father and Jesus. For instance what is the REAL reason Jesus was not accepted and followed by he who should have been his first disciple, John the Baptist? God’s heart was broken to see how his Son was treated. His heroic ministry of 3 years might have had an even greater effect if we was accepted and lived another 60. Can you imagine? Any Father would prefer his son to LIVE, even Jesus’.
This is a new age, and in order to fully accept the OTHER hundreds of denominations of Christianity don’t you think God would reveal a plan to unite us all? And send a way to eliminate the cruelty and sin of our present world? I am a huge believer in your work towards church relevance. I just think it needs to go beyond US to a revolutionary understanding of the essence of The Father and Son. Only then will the change take place that can instill inside us our value as children of our Heavenly Father, and relate to each other as a True Family of God.
Threats: 1) Ignoring and/or refusing to obey the promtings of the Holy Spirit. 2) Ignoring and/or refusing to obey the clear statements of the New Testament. 3) Holding on to a lecture format in a participatory culture. 4) Becoming like the culture instead of seeking to lovingly transform it to God’s truth. More on participatory church @ this link: http://stevesimms.wordpress.com/2014/09/14/spirit-led-church-where-ordinary-people-are-the-playmakers/
There is one constant in the midst of all of the controversy-God. God changes not but that does not mean that the church cannot adapt. It must or it will die. Leadership is essential to the church but dictatorship is not. Good comments but please remember this, the church is not ours to manipulate, it is God’s to stipulate. As far as “joining church” goes my Bible tells me that God adds people to His church the moment they are saved. We definitely need to make a distinction between congregations that call themselves churches and the true church of God which allow the Holy Spirit to do His business at all times.
Thom, sure wish I could have been there this year. Laura Nash, Harvard researcher, did a study back in 2001 and wrote about the results in her book Church on Sunday, Work on Monday. She calls the introduction of spirituality into the business world the greatest competitor of the Church for the souls of people. She found that “clergy treated happiness in one’s faith with “subtractive activities—spending less time at work and more with family, needing less money, buying fewer consumer items. At no time were the potential contributions of business seen as a path to faithfulness or the happiness of faithfulness.” The threat, it seems to me, is that the church has alienated itself from where people spend most of their time.
Indeed Thom you are right but please I request that you try to research more and give more other threats and discuss them widely. for example poverty, disease spread, political atmosphere etc anyway thank you for this and may God bless you so much