Are There Too Many Churches in America? Maybe Not Yet

There are street corners in North America with churches on every quadrant. Methodists, Episcopalians, and Baptists square off like Walgreens, Rite-Aid, and CVS. Lots of communities have “church rows”—streets lined with churches of various stripes. The omnipresence of church buildings has caused some to claim “Enough is enough.” Some would suggest we have enough churches to call a hiatus on church planting. Yet God seems not to be on board with the idea of a hiatus.

He continues to call out new church planters, even to “traditional” church planting. And new churches, even replicas of the inherited model, still witness more conversions than well-established churches. Beyond that, whether or not we need more buildings with steeples and columns and lots of committees, we do need more new kinds of church. We need churches enmeshed in the lives of people who need Jesus. (see Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim, The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century, 120.

When attractional is really extractional

Most of our existing churches are attempting to attract people to life within their walls. One of the weaknesses of this attractional model of church is that it extracts new believers, potential missionaries, from their long-time environment.

Imagine with me a congregation that has gotten outside its walls, handed out water on hot days, held car washes and other “servant evangelism” events, and met and befriended people. One of the men from the church meets Tommy, a gregarious leader in the community, and invites Tommy to worship and Bible study. Tommy accepts the invitation and, surprisingly, feels at home. With time, Tommy becomes a follower of Jesus and is baptized into the church family.

The church’s ministers have read somewhere that if Tommy doesn’t get plugged in quickly he will drift away, so they look for a spot to fill with Tommy. There is an opening on the Recreation Committee, so they ask him to serve. Tommy feels an obligation to his new church, so he agrees.

The chairman of the Rec Committee loves meetings, and they meet once a month. Besides that, there are the regular volleyball tournaments, the Upward basketball league, and the monthly church-wide fellowships the committee has to plan and oversee. Tommy is now really busy at the church. Besides his Rec Committee work, he goes to Wednesday night Bible study, attends choir rehearsal, and never misses the Tuesday morning men’s prayer breakfast at the local coffee shop.

“Where’s Tommy?” ask his former friends in the neighborhood. “He joined the church,” answers one of Tommy’s old pals. “We don’t see Tommy ’round here no more.” Tommy, a man who could have introduced many of his friends to his new life in Jesus, is too busy at church to hang out with his buddies any longer.

Of course that’s a somewhat hyperbolic story, but, in some ways, do we not do that to people? And do we really want to fill our churches’ programmatic committees with people who could be changing their neighborhoods? Certainly there is an important place for those who run the infrastructure of complex churches, but saddling new believers with programmatic responsibilities so that they are isolated from the people whom they have long known, and who are potentially far from God, seems like a bad strategy. Doing church in Tommy’s world among Tommy’s friends with Tommy as a key leader . . . now that’s a different story. That would be a fresh expression of church!

Trending toward Incarnation

A church’s context does matter, and in some places traditional models are more effective than in others. Rare is the context, however, where doing what we’ve always done will yield new outcomes. Churches shaped by Christendom will be increasingly irrelevant in post-Christendom. Impactful congregations will assume a missionary posture. Incarnation, not attraction and not domination, is now the hope of the North American church.

This is hard to grasp for people who live in areas of the country where knowledge of church culture is still high. What they must recognize is that, no matter where we are in North America, the number of people outside the church who understand life inside the church is declining rapidly. The attractional model of church (“Let’s do everything with excellence and we will attract people”) still has legs, but those legs are growing shorter by the day. We are constantly trending toward the necessity of an incarnational approach to evangelism and new church starts. After all, “lost people do not spend their hours trying to figure out how to get to church, or what kind of church they would like.” (Hirsch and Catchim, 121)

Relevance or incarnation?

There is lots of talk nowadays about being relevant. We want to speak the language of, know the trends of, and quote the heroes of, pop culture. We want to be in on the latest memes and up on the latest vernacular. And that is not a bad thing; relevance is not unimportant.

Yet the deeper issue in the starting of new forms of church is not relevance; the issue is incarnation. When people from inherited churches, with long histories in the Christian community, seem not to be connecting with people outside their walls “the problem is not that they are irrelevant, but that they are not incarnational.” (Gordon MacDonald, Who Stole My Church?, 224)

Incarnation is not just a matter of tweaking our delivery method. It’s about planting new forms of church in bowling alleys, fitness centers, restaurants, recording studios, VFW halls, homes, and workplaces. It’s about planting new forms of church among students, artists, scientists, the homeless, people who are deaf, rock climbers, rockabillies, and bodybuilders. It’s about entrepreneurial models that house multiple businesses in a building that also houses worship and is a platform for ministry. It’s about serving people, listening to them, and figuring out by the leadership of God’s Spirit what form church would take if it were planted in a particular context.

Incarnation is about more than hosting a businessperson’s prayer lunch or starting a “Faith at Work” class in the church building, for example. It’s about more than a church in a fishing village hosting dinners for the fishermen in the church fellowship hall and bringing in Christian professional fishermen to speak. A truly incarnational approach would try and figure out how to be church of, with, and for those businesspeople and fishermen in their worlds.

Will incarnation mean the reinvention of the American church?

Lots of us talk about single digit church participation in Europe and warn that the US is headed inevitably and quickly in that direction. “Not so fast,” wrote futurist Paul Taylor.

Those who worry that America is headed toward a European future of institutionalized secularism and empty cathedrals would do well to reflect on the resilience that religion in the US draws from this genius for tolerance and reinvention . . . our organized religions have always understood they need to adapt to survive. The fact that “nones” are on the rise indicates that religious institutions have some work to do. In modern times, American religion has become “more personalized and individualistic, less doctrinal and devotional, more practical and purposeful,” in the words of sociologist Alan Wolfe. (Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, The Tangible Kingdom, 1)

Taylor suggested that if the American church will recognize the growing need for “personalization” and “individualization,” without drifting into relativism and consumerism, we might just witness something surprising. If Taylor’s predicted reinvention results in more incarnation, the future of the church could be strong.

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.

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