Jesus still remains a popular figure in North America, even among those who do not associate with Christians. For Jesus’ approval rating, we can be grateful. Yet, we cannot pass off as inconsequential the fact that so many have a fondness for Jesus that does not equate to a fondness for His church.
What’s more, even a number of believers who aren’t giving up on Jesus are giving up on the church. Many see the church as more distracting than helpful in their quest for real, Christ-centered spirituality.
The alarming trajectory of the North American church is not only about the people no longer in the pews. This is also about the people who are no longer in the pulpits. There are many gifted, called young ministers who don’t want to be stuck running the machinery of large, inherited churches. Long-established church cultures, histories of conflicts, and complex governance structures hold little attraction for many young pioneer-types.
With so many deciding to absent themselves from church participation and church leadership, the future of the Christian faith in North America has been questioned. For multiple reasons this is a critical time for the Christian faith in North America. But aren’t there many of megachurches nowadays? Yes, but mega-exceptions to this downward trend in church involvement are just that—exceptions—and perhaps temporary. The church is inching ever closer to the periphery of American culture.
It is hard to imagine the Christian faith flourishing with such a weakened church. It is true that many people are privately, individually, loving Jesus “in their own way.” This privatized, individualized, customized approach to the Christian faith, however, is both unsustainable and unbiblical.
It is unsustainable in that no movement can survive without some sort of structure, some sort of corporate underpinning. It is unbiblical in that, for one, we were intended to follow Jesus as a community, not as lone rangers. Furthermore, this personalized faith has often resulted in a sentimentalized Jesus. Without the mutual accountability of a genuine Christian community, we are prone to embrace only those parts of the Bible that are palatable to our tastes.
In short, we now find ourselves in post-Christendom; the Christian faith has lost much of its influence on North American culture. Jim Kitchins put it like this: “It’s as though we began our ministries playing a game of football in a football stadium, but when we came out of the locker room after halftime, the field has been rearranged for baseball.” (Postmodern Parish, 27)
A Time of Opportunity
It is naive to pretend the church is as strong as it used to be. However, it is irresponsible to issue morose prophesies of an absolute and irreversible demise of the church and the faith in the West. It would be head-in-the-sand-ish to think it is business as usual. It would be chicken-little-ish, however, to assume the news is all bad. The stage has been set for innovative expressions of church. The door has been opened for the Holy Spirit to blow through in a new way.
There is a bright side even to all the bad news. If we understand ourselves to be in a missionary culture, and act accordingly, this is actually a time of great opportunity. There is a story, as an example, attributed to Bill Parcells, the famous NFL football coach. He seems to have told a story about two salesmen who were sent to Australia to sell shoes to the Aborigines. After arriving, one called back to his boss and said, “There are no opportunities here; the natives don’t wear shoes.” But the other called back and said to his boss, “There are a lot of opportunities here. These people don’t have any shoes!” We can read the alarming statistics as a sign that North Americans “don’t wear shoes” or that North Americans “don’t have shoes.” Leonard Sweet declared, “Christianity is now such a non-factor in the wider culture that people are becoming open to it as if for the first time . . .” (The Church of the Perfect Storm)
Thinking and Acting Like Missionaries
Lesslie Newbigin named North America “the most vital missionary frontier of our time.” The terminology is key here. We live on a missionary frontier, and perceptive Christ-followers on a missionary frontier think differently than people in a primarily Christian society. It’s time we think like missionaries to a post-Christian culture, not chaplains to Christendom. While any potential strategy for addressing the crisis of North American faith is welcomed, most of the strategies offered are simply tweaks of this, modifications of that, and fine-tuning of the other. We have come to a time when deeper questions must be asked, more profound issues must be addressed, and new forms of church must be launched.
The time is ripe for just such re-dreaming. When all is well, innovation is a hard sell. But with signs of decline all around, there are going to be more people open to innovation than in a long time. We have entered (albeit unwittingly) a new context—a context that demands our best thinking and, what’s more important, a radical dependence upon the Spirit of God.
Enjoy this entry? You’ll find Travis Collins’ book, From the Steeple to the Streets: Innovating Mission and Ministry Through Fresh Expressions of Church helpful. It is October’s Book of the Month, which means you buy one copy, you’ll get a second one free! Get it from our store now. In From the Steeple to the Street, Travis Collins addresses the cultural realities behind the Fresh Expressions movement, as well as the movement’s theological underpinnings. From practical experience, Collins offers insights to local church leaders on how this might unfold in and through your church.