Does the American Church Have a Future?
Fifteen years ago everyone was using the word “post-modern.” I used it a lot. Made me feel like a hipster preacher before there were hipster preachers. I had more hair back then. It was an easier sell.
The definition of post-modern generally centered upon the premise that the modern world was slowly crumbling (due to the advent of the personal computer) and a jagged new world was slowly emerging from the ashes. The time it would take to get from “this world to that world” defined the term. I truly thought my ministry years would be conducted with one foot in the old world and the other slowly venturing into the new. I was dead wrong. The shift I thought would take decades, happened in about a minute and a half and the world I live in today has little in common with the world in which I was reared. The fact that I liked the old world substantially better than I like this new one is completely irrelevant. The fact that I was formally educated to succeed in a world I preferred on one hand and that no longer exists on the other is not irrelevant; it is straight up problematic.
The congregation God has called me to lead has experienced significant numerical growth for twenty-one consecutive years. We have grown from just over 200 to 2,400. Our mission is to connect people with Jesus Christ. But to connect people, we have to be connected with Jesus and with people. Five to seven thousand churches will close in the United States this year. Half of our churches in my United Methodist conference will not receive one person on Profession of Faith or baptize one human this year. Most are in death cycles and many of our white steeple, small town and country seat congregations are running a fraction of what they did thirty years ago. Many churches who once had an appointed Associate Pastor will not be long able to pay a full time pastor of any kind without going on a charge. Clearly in 2020 and beyond, it is going to be easier to die than to live.
At Christ Church we operate by some core values that have guided us well in our pursuit of our mission of “connecting people to Jesus Christ:”
1. Offer Christ as revealed in Scripture Though the means by which churches reach to the world must constantly be renegotiated during cultural shifts, we believe the centrality of Christ for salvation and the authority of Scripture must remain non-negotiable. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” We can accept this claim or reject it but we can’t modify it. Our task is to hold fast to our central Christological message while being creative with our mediums. We can’t just give away our best stuff!
2. Laser focus on the mission We exist to connect people with Jesus Christ. Most churches in 2020 and beyond will not have the available resources to allow them the luxury of being non-strategic around their mission. Your shrinking budget could be a blessing in disguise if you discontinue ineffective and off-mission programs and use your resources toward worship, creativity and supporting what is working. You know what horses are dead in your church; dismount. In addition, we live in a divided country and our denominations is exploding. We can be divided and explode with them or we can allow our mission to take us higher. A singular focus on our mission allows us to rise above many lesser conflicts. Christ Church is both the largest and most diverse church in our conference. We have people of all races, political persuasions, cultural backgrounds, social economic statuses, ethnicities and sensibilities worshiping each week. We can’t be all things to everyone, we get that but we can get laser focused on our mission and transcend many things that divide.
3. Affirm orthodoxy We believe Christ was born of a virgin, he performed actual miracles, he literally rose from the dead and will return for his church. We believe in the God revealed in Scripture and that God forgives sin, sets captives free, offers us purpose and passion for living and desires to be in relationship with the likes of you and me. We believe the Holy Spirit came to rocket fuel the ministry of the church. No asterisks. No apologies. No chip on our shoulders. As I like to say, “We are orthodox Christians but we aren’t in a bad mood about it.”
4. Offer experiential worship We spend a lot of money on worship. Our ten worship services we offer each week in four locations are our bread and butter. If there are not people in the seats, there will not be dollars in the plate and if there are not dollars in the plate you are out of business and if you are out of business you are out of ministry. Worship services must move people, inspire people, motivate people and challenge people. I work hard on my preaching, travel to enhance my understandings and work with my Worship team to created inspiriting and Spirit filled worship experiences. We use sound, light, screens and anything else we can find to make that happen. Parts of our services are unapologetically entertaining but all of them are experiential. If you don’t give people some of what they want, you will be in position to give them nothing that they need.
Learning to think differently and to do new things in new ways is a risk but the single greatest risk in this new world is acting like we are still in the old one. We all know that our world not only has changed and is changing but we are beginning to realize that our world is change. You see, change is no longer the obstacle around which the fish swims, it is the water itself. Many years ago, a wise mentor named Dr. Roderick McLean taught me to read futurists, analyze the world around me, anticipate trends and have a church prepared to be effective once the future arrives. It is the difference between a young soccer player chasing the ball around and a more experienced player learning to anticipate where the ball is going to be. I began to read authors from both business and theology and in time, I began to apply my own sensibilities to anticipate what is about to happen and to follow what is happening to a logical extreme. The skill set has served me well through three decades in ministry. My mantra has been simple, “Don’t play catch up. Anticipate. Get out in front.”
So let me share four trends I am seeing as we enter 2020:
1. Trend: People will actively seek community
Implications: Churches must grow larger by getting smaller and giving people places to connect
Getting Ready: More worship times, more small groups, more support groups, more accountability groups on more days in more places
End Game: Church shifts from a place to be once a week to a place to belong everyday
2. Trend: People will actively seek a sense of purpose
Implications: Churches must engage in community, regional and world transformation from a theological context
Getting Ready: Unite “doing good things” (which most churches do well) with evangelism (which most churches don’t do well)
End Game: Embody loving God (diet) and loving neighbor (exercise)
3. Trend: Increasing spirituality
Implications: People are certainly spiritually oriented these days but spiritual and Christian have never had more distance between them
Getting Ready: Become a community house of prayer
End Game: Calls to prayer give the church a place in the community and offer opportunity for evangelism
4. Trend: Fewer resources for churches
Implications: Think Bricolage. As churches have less resources, they must create dynamic ministry from existing materials
Getting Ready: Focus on what you have, not what you don’t. Focus on who is in your community, not who used to be. Focus on who is outside your church, not who in inside. Build on your strengths.
End Game: Innovation, more effectiveness for less money
The Big Finish
My greatest temptation concerning these trends is to put value judgments on them but this must resisted. We live in a jagged world that is going to continue to surprise and even shock our sensibilities. The question is not, “Are things going to change?” They have changed and they are not done changing yet. The question is, “Is the American church prepared to connect the people of this world to Jesus Christ?” These anticipated trends will guide our ministry strategy for the next handful of years at Christ Church and I pray they are of some use to your church as well.
Am I absolutely sure about all this? Don’t be absurd, of course not. But I do believe the riskiest thing you can do in this new world is keep acting like you are still in the old one.
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop, A Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church, is the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois