Five Disruptive Changes that the Local Church Must Embrace or Die
We live in an age when it seems as though we are continually bombarded with disruptions – disruptions that seemingly threaten every phase of our lives and our “normal” way of doing things! We are challenged at every turn with disruptions that demand or ask us to change how we connect with one another, how we share information and how we produce/consume services and products.
For example, consider just these “disruptions/changes!” The majority of couples getting married today are meeting and using an online format that barely existed a decade ago. The largest transportation company in world (Uber) doesn’t own a single car and the largest overnight stay companies (Airbnb and VRBO) don’t own a single property. Almost overnight technology and cultural trends have disrupted the way a generation of people currently do things — and there is little chance that things will ever go back to the way they were. People will always look for ways to meet someone with whom to begin a lifelong relationship. They will want and need to get from here to there — and to have a place to stay overnight when they get there! However, the way these necessities are delivered is forever disrupted.
In the same way, churches must recognize that although God is fulfilling His promise to build His church (Matthew 16:18) there have been recent disruptions in the culture that affect how the church fulfills this ongoing mandate to make disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). Because of the changes in technology and culture, there are at least five disruptive changes the local church must embrace or die.
Western Culture, particularly the United States, is simultaneously becoming post-Christian and pre-Christian.
There is a perception that the number of professing Christians today is in decline. News accounts and data validate this. Mainline Christianity in Europe and the United States has not only been in significant decline for nearly 50 years, but the rate of decline is accelerating quickly. Data indicates 90 percent of churches are stagnant or in decline.
This, however, only tells half of the story! If considered globally, Christianity is growing at an unprecedented pace — particularly in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The global church is growing, but it is growing in the Far East and the Global South.
Secondly, there are pockets of growth in the United States that indicate that we are also in the early stages of a revival in the United States! (For example, the evangelical population in Manhattan was 1 percent in 1990 and now at 5 percent and is projected to be 15 percent in the next few years.) Multi-ethnic churches are growing faster in the United States than homogenous churches. As immigration patterns are changing, God is literally bringing the nations to the United States and people from these nations are starting and reviving gospel-centered churches that are thriving!
There are also other patterns among these growing churches. In addition to being more multi-ethnic, these churches are more theologically gospel-centered (mainly reformed), charismatic and outwardly focused on mission. The numbers don’t lie. In short, Mainline Christianity, often defined as being Euro-centric, theologically liberal, and consumer-oriented is in decline. But Gospel-centered, Spirit-led, outward focused, multi-ethnic Christianity is growing in America and exploding globally!
The church must move from being a homogeneous group to a multi-ethnic community.
Nearly every segment of American culture is becoming more diverse, yet the American church is seriously lagging behind. It has been said that the community is twice as diverse as the average congregation and the local school system is 10 times as diverse as the local church. Diversity must be pursued; it will not just happen!
We need to look for opportunities to be more diverse – and be careful not to unintentionally exclude people. For example, there are multiple radio stations in our city that play “Christian” music. These stations are mostly divided into two categories: “Contemporary Christian” and “Gospel.” The “gospel” stations play mostly minority Christian artists that are underrepresented on the “Contemporary Christian” station. Someone recently asked me, “Jason, why are there no black Christian artists?” I replied, “There are tons?” They then asked me to name a black Christian artist on the contemporary Christian station – and I wasn’t able to name even one. What bothered me most, however, is they were able to name dozens of black pop artists (Beyoncé, Rhianna, Prince, Usher, etc.) Some conclusions: first it seems to me that the secular stations are much more diverse than the Christian radio stations. Second, if a church gets its music playlist from either of the Christian stations at the neglect of the other, then it unintentionally appeals to one demographic at the expense of the other. Churches are often very intentional about offering music that appeals to multiple generations but lack the same sense of urgency when selecting music that appeals to multiple ethnicities. Music communicates who is welcome, anticipated and invited I once heard a preacher say, “There are too many people in this congregation that look like me” (I cleaned up what he actually said.) The problem is not that there are too many people that look the same. The problem is that there are too few people who look different. In order to become a multi-ethnic movement, people don’t have to abandon their identity, people must simply embrace diversity. (Note: People may ask, “How diverse should a church be?” I would say that if the people that shop at the local store look a lot different (age, income, ethnicity) than most of your church, then you have a problem. In short, a church should strive to look like the community it wishes to serve.)
The way we share the gospel is no longer only “come and see” but also “go and be”.
I am probably going to offend people here, but these are my observations. The best we have to offer our community is a Christ-centered, Bible teaching environment that teaches and helps people live in counter-cultural way. In our community, we have dozens of soccer leagues, coffeeshops, musical programs and service-related organizations that quite honestly do things better than we ever could. Extra-curricular activities in our community not only do things so much better than the average church can, they demand the first and best of the participants time. In fact, the average committed Christian only attends church 1.6 times per month. Therefore, not only do we not have the ability to offer these programs, but the people that we are trying to reach don’t have the time to attend them. Programs, at least in our context, are no longer effective.
Recently, I was at an activity of one of our students. I looked around at all the parents that were present and thought, “What type of programs could make a difference in lives of these families?” and “How can we offer these programs if the Christian parents don’t even have time to attend them – because they are at student activities like this?” Then it hit me, our church parents are deeply engaged in community activities. The question is not “How do we create competing programs?” But rather, “How do we help our students and parents see their current setting as their ministry – their personal mission field?” We don’t need another soccer league. We need our parents who already coach the community soccer team or parents who attend their children’s games to make a difference with the gospel where they are. We must share the gospel in the places we already visit and with the people who are already in our lives – co-workers, coaches, clerks, teachers, fellow parents, service organizations, etc.
People are also looking for a place or an opportunity to make a difference. In Dayton, OH we were hit by 36 tornadoes this summer and thousands of families were devastated and hurting. I have been overwhelmed by the number of people that do not attend our church that have asked if they can participate in our relief efforts. These people aren’t interested in the church, but they are interested in a people that make a difference in the community. Often, the initial invitation is no longer to Sunday services or a fellowship program, but to be part of an activity or something that is making a difference.
The majority of connections now begin “online” but can move “offline.”
We connect online to in order to move offline. The matchmaking sites like eHarmony, Match, Tinder and others have learned and understand that, though interest is initiated on-line, people long for an “in person, off-line relationship.” The goal of online ministry and use of social media is not to replace “in person” community, but rather a tool to initiate interest in that “in-person” experience.
Yes, social media can be time-wasting, critical and distracting. Yet, social media now enables a church to engage with one another at any moment of the day at nearly any location in the world. It can connect as easy as it can divide. It can enable college students, missionaries, shut in seniors, parents with sick children and weekend business travelers to remain connected and part of the community.
Churches can do more to equip the next generation by doing less.
In the 1980’s-1990 churches began offering what I call “age-segregated” ministries. Instead of having children and youth attend the worship gathering, we created “kids church” and “youth church” (although usually with a much edgier name) that ran concurrently with the main gathering. However, now that these children are adults, we recognize that 77 percent of them have left the church and don’t show any signs of returning. This generation has left the church in greater numbers any other previous generation. Ironically, we have done more to cater to this generation than ever before. The data is clear. This model may have been more convenient for families at the time, yet it has not led to long-term faith commitments. Here is why – when we sent kids/youth to their own services we unintentionally communicated: 1) Church is not relevant; 2) you don’t belong here; 3) you are supposed to go where your friends go.
To address this, we have elected to have youth/children be part of our one main worship service. This creates an environment for observational learning and belonging. In short, kids learn to worship, pray, sing and give because they observe a community that models and does these things.
When culture changes faster than the church, then the church is on the road to irrelevance. These five disruptive changes need to be taken seriously, lest we find ourselves not only irrelevant, but on the verge of extinction.