Here’s some disheartening data:
“If you were born between 1925 and 1945 there’s a 60% chance, you’re in a church today. If you were born between 1946 and 1964 there’s a 40% chance, you’re in a church today. If you were born between 1965 and 1983 there’s a 20% chance, you’re in a church today. If you were born after 1984 there is less than a 10% chance, you’re in a church today” (Missiologist Alan Roxburgh, Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World, p 6).
As many as 20 years ago Lyle Schaller recognized that we were careening toward the end of the influence of cultural Christianity, or evangelicalism in North America. He called it discontinuity. He wrote, “The normal, natural and predictable response to discontinuity is denial. [This] stage of denial often endures for a generation and usually is accompanied by confusion, gloom, conflict, attempts to perpetuate yesterday, bewilderment, confrontations, pessimism and sometimes even chaos, but rarely by support for creativity” (Lyle Schaller, Discontinuity and Hope, 1999).
Reggie McNeal added, “The current church culture in North America is on life support. It is living off the work, money and energy of previous generations from a previous world order. The plug will be pulled either when the money runs out (80% of money given to congregations comes from people aged 55 and older) or when the remaining three-fourths of a generation who are institutional loyalists die off or both.” McNeal wrote this 18 years ago, and every syllable is proving to be right (Reggie NcNeal, The Present Future, 2003).
The good news is there is Good News! God made every one of us with an inherent capacity to contribute something to His mission to reach the world as we proclaim the story of Jesus (Ephesians 2:10).
Here are some thoughts about turning things around where you are if the trajectory in your church is not where it needs to be:
- Give yourself permission to try. I can’t think of anything worse than flaming out with my hands in my pockets. Apparently Jesus couldn’t either (Matthew 25:14-30). How can you let your church circle the drain without putting up a big gigantic fight for its life?
- Give yourself permission to try new approaches. The tipping point for turnaround in churches is the acknowledgement that if there is no interruption to the current realities, death is the certain outcome. We have to shake ourselves like the prodigal son and come to ourselves and come out of our denial. Experimentation and adaptability are critical.
- Give yourselves to prayer. “Every great movement of God can be traced to some kneeling figure” – D.L. Moody. Does your church cry out to God together? Maybe reading Blackaby’s Fresh Encounter or Cymbala’s, Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire can fan those flames!
I’m not recommending gimmicky tricks and gadgets. It’s really just breaking the molds, attitudes, and traditions that have grown up to inhibit real biblical Christianity. If there is any hope at all of reaching North America with the gospel, it will be necessary for Christians in church communities to behave like missionaries:
- Missionaries go to the lost. I hear wonderful stories of people reaching others in their communities, but not without effort.
- Missionaries are willing to suffer. I recently made a hymn registry for one of our churches to use in their church services. I posted a picture of it and someone related that in one persecuted country they used that kind of registry to post the name of martyred believers. How sobering and convicting!
- Missionaries emphasize relationships. People have to be able to know that we really care and that we are not just trying to grow the church. Church growth is important, but it’s a byproduct of personal connection.
- Missionaries start where people are (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). In contemporary Christianity, we often confuse moralizing with the gospel. The Spirit of God is the impetus of changed lives. Trying to change people’s morals without God changing their hearts is a recipe for frustration all around.
- Missionaries serve the community. Servanthood is the new influence currency. We have to get our hands dirty with people with gospel intentionality.
If we adopt the mindset of missionaries, the culture we are a part of will have the opportunity to experience the kind of life and hope God intended! And that is an invigorating thought.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Bobby Braswell is the associational missions strategist for the Middle Baptist Association in Georgia.)