It’s no secret that the Church in the US is going through a lot of changes. The news was already bad enough before COVID, and COVID is presenting a whole new set of challenges. Here’s a sobering chart depicting our reality lately:
In the eight years from 2009-2017, the percentage of church attendance dropped almost in half. Yikes. Some of this is people leaving the church, but the trend is even more significant than that: this is also a generational downward trend in church involvement. Look at how each generational line in this chart falls entirely below the generation older than it:
We not only have people leaving the church, but we are also reaching each subsequent generation less and less. Needless to say, this is a concerning pattern. What is going on here?
The Importance of the Right Diagnosis
Anyone who has dealt with a major medical issue knows the importance of the right diagnosis. Knowing the situation we’re dealing with is absolutely essential if we want to address what’s going on. Until we know the problem we’re facing, our only real option is to essentially guess and throw potential solutions out there. For some things, that is a fine approach (generally when you’ll have many potential tries and the cost of failure is low), but when there are situations that aren’t like this at all – like our present one where we only get one chance in our lifetime to reach the world with the Church and the cost of failure is high – we do well to think long and hard about the diagnosis.
Parenthetically, I find this same approach important when it comes to prayer ministry. In my opinion, very few people take the needed time to deeply understand any given problem they may be praying for. For a serious prayer need, it’s not uncommon for me to just work on interviewing and diagnosing the situation for over an hour. What I’ve often found is that if you’ll take the time to deeply understand what’s going on you can pray through it and see incredible things happen. Not everything works that way, but more does than you might think.
Anyways, the current trends within the church force the diagnostic question: what is going on here? And is there anything we can do about it?
Let me be the first to say that this is certainly an incredibly complex situation, and there is no way I can claim to have an exhaustive answer. Even if I did, I have no idea how we could even know if the said answer was right. Anyone who approaches the situation that way is someone we probably ought not to listen to: life is more complex than that. That doesn’t mean, however, that there is no meaningful conversation to be had here. Any general characteristics we can identify will be a helpful starting point for engagement. To that end, I’d like to offer some thoughts that are going to be framing what we’re working on with our Phoenix church pioneering adventure.
Before we get to the problem, let me point out a few things that I don’t believe are the problem:
Jesus has not failed
I don’t think it’s helpful to interpret this present moment in western culture as the failure of Jesus in our day. Jesus is still king of kings, seated at the right hand of the Father in Heaven, the one to whom all authorities and peoples will bow their knees to. Jesus is no less powerful or effective than he has ever been. His victory is still complete, and his Lordship still assured.
The Gospel has not failed
Similarly, the Gospel is no less powerful than it has ever been. We have not reached a moment where the momentum of our culture is more powerful than the gospel or where the gospel has lost its edge to impact and transform people. The gospel doesn’t belong to any specific context and it cannot be conquered by any context.
So what is happening here? If Jesus and the Gospel are as powerful as they’ve ever been, what are we missing?
How does Change Happen?
A digression into an important aside here: how does change happen? When we consider how societies grow and change, it’s tempting to think that change is incremental and consistent over time. It turns out this is not universally true. In his famous The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argues that scientific fields don’t grow through steady incremental progress so much as they grow in fits and starts. Not much changes over long periods of time, then there are dramatic watersheds where there is tremendous change.
That’s a field of knowledge. How does a society as a whole change over time? I would argue there are similar dynamics at a societal level. Consider, for example, the explosion of growth and change in the renaissance (revolution) following the middle ages (stasis). Even the names we use – industrial revolution, digital revolution – are nods to recognizing this pattern.
And that forces us to wrestle with our present moment because that digital revolution thing is happening right now. Said another way, we are in one of those revolution periods right now. This is why the swirl of change feels relentless and why it keeps breaking into more and more arenas. I hate to tell you this, but it’s far from over, and I mostly see more change coming. That’s because, at the societal level, these revolutions rework the shape of the world we live in. Like it or not, this is the situation the church is in.
Scroll back up and look at the first chart. Note where it starts slipping off the cliff: after 2009, there is a marked trend downwards. Now look at these charts:
Note what’s happening on both of these at exactly the time church attendance is falling off a cliff: they are rocketing upwards. (Interestingly, you could almost turn the iPhone chart upside-down and see the same shape as the church attendance graph.) Is this because iPhones or Facebook are the problem? No! There is nothing wrong with them at all. Rather these are two elements that embody the new shape this revolution is pressing our society towards. One in which the interface with technology is more ubiquitous and more social. Like it or not, these are the patterns our society is rearranging within, and the church’s job isn’t to critique these patterns or try and resist them. Our job is to explore the new space and figure out what it means to be the church in them. To the extent that we don’t do that, we will be ineffective and feel archaic. To the extent we can, we will be relevant and effective.
There is a chasm the church is facing right now. It’s not one we need to be afraid of, but it is one we need to be sober about. This isn’t a chasm that a small tweak is going to cross. We aren’t going to adapt to the new shape of society by adjusting our sermon style, our service length, or any other adjustments at that level. We are going to need to dig much deeper than that. It will require exploration, experimentation, and courage. We will have to hold things loosely that have seemed as cherished fixtures for longer than our lifetimes. But it can be done. And it needs to be done for the sake of the world.
Can we be more specific? What will we need to adapt to be able to cross this chasm? I have four concrete ideas that I’ll introduce next article, but I think I’ve given enough to chew on for today. Until next time!
This is an updated edition of a post originally published on Putty Putman