The current church culture in North America is on life support. It is living off the work, money, and energy of previous generations from a previous world order. The plug will be pulled either when the money runs out (80 percent of money given to congregations comes from people aged fifty-five and older) or when the remaining three-fourths of a generation who are institutional loyalists die off or both.
Please don’t hear what I am not saying. The death of the church culture as we know it will not be the death of the church. The church Jesus founded is good; it is right. The church established by Jesus will survive until he returns. The imminent demise under discussion is the collapse of the unique culture in North America that has come to be called “church.” This church culture has become confused with biblical Christianity, both inside the church and out. In reality, the church culture in North America is a vestige of the original movement, an institutional expression of religion that is in part a civil religion and in part a club where religious people can hang out with other people whose politics, worldview, and lifestyle match theirs. As he hung on the cross Jesus probably never thought the impact of his sacrifice would be reduced to an invitation for people to join and to support an institution.
We are witnessing the emergence of a new world. The church of Jesus is moving into the postmodern world. Its expression is going to be more different than most people realize or may want to imagine. The scale of the shift will rank along with the epochal transitions of ancient church to medieval, from medieval to modern. This phenomenon has been noted by many who tag the emerging culture as post-Christian, pre-Christian, or postmodern. The point is, the world is profoundly different than it was at the middle of the last century, and everybody knows it. Even the church culture. But knowing it and acting on it are two very different things. So far the North American church largely has responded with heavy infusions of denial, believing the culture will come to its senses and come back around to the church. This denial shows up in many ways. Many churches have withdrawn from the community. An alternate form of denial has been the attempt to fix the culture by flexing political and economic muscle.
Still another form of denial shows up in the church’s obsession with internal theological-methodological debates designed to determine who the true believers are while the world is headed to hell in a handbasket.
If you don’t need much convincing that the church ain’t cuttin’ it in terms of missional effectiveness, then you might want to skip this section. This next stuff is for those of you who need convincing or who need ammunition for making the case to others. The collapse of the church culture can be demonstrated in several ways. One is through demographics. The percentage of Americans who claim to go to church each week has hung in the 40 to 43 percent range for thirty years. But I ask you, do you really believe those numbers? I recently asked a group of pastors in a conference setting whether any of them live in a community where 40 percent of the population shows up at church on Sunday. Only one raised his hand. A study conducted in the late 1990s suggested Americans might be lying about their churchgoing habits to pollsters. It pegged church attendance at only 26 percent of Americans. (The study was conducted by sociologist Stanley Presser of the University of Maryland and research assistant Linda Stinson of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, who assessed church attendance by actual diary entries as opposed to responses to pollsters.) Quite a difference! Think about it. Does your town even have room in all the churches for 40 percent of the population? A friend of mine in a Southern Bible Belt town called every church in his town after Easter in 2001 and reported that only about 25 percent of the town attended church—on Easter!
Let’s say you do believe the church attendance that people report. There is still cause for alarm. The further down you go in the generational food chain, the lower the percentage each succeeding generation reports going to church. The drop is from the 52 percent of builders (those born before 1946) and seniors to only 36 percent of gen Xers. What does this spell for the church in the future? Armed with this information, of course, churches are launching an all-out effort to reach gen Xers. I wish! Most churches have actually just written them off, waiting for them to grow up and learn to like what the church has to offer.
Or let’s take a look at the unchurched population. A 2001 survey reported in the Christian Science Monitor reveals that the number of Americans who have “no religious preference” has doubled from 1990 to 2001, reaching 14 percent of the population. (These are not skeptics—only 1 percent identified themselves as atheists. This group doesn’t see the church as vital to their spiritual life.) George Barna reports (State of the Church 2002, p. 17) that the unchurched population has grown from 24 to 34 percent in just one decade! (Barna defines people as unchurched “if they have not attended a Christian church service during the past six months, other than for special events such as weddings or funerals.”)
Among some subgroups the increase is even more substantial. Since 1991, the number of unchurched women has risen from 18 to 30 percent; the number of unchurched Hispanics has jumped from 19 percent to 33 percent; the number of unchurched in the Northeast is up from 26 to 38 percent; and the unchurched population on the West Coast has risen from 29 to 40 percent. (If you’ve been in California on Sunday you may be suspicious that the reported numbers of unchurched are so low!)
For evangelicals, the situation looks even bleaker. Thom Rainer of the Billy Graham School of Evangelism at Southern Baptist Seminary reports some disturbing responses to the two frequently asked Evangelism Explosion questions (“Do you know for certain that if you died today you would go to heaven?” and “If you were to die today, what would you say to God if he asked you why he should let you into his heaven?”). The interview included about 1,300 persons of each of four generational groups that Rainer identified and investigated (5,200 in all). Analyzing the responses for evidence that the respondents were born-again (the evangelical definition of one’s being a Christian) yielded the following results: builders (born before 1946)–65 percent; boomers (born between 1946 and 1964)—35 percent; busters (born between 1965 and 1976)—15 percent; bridgers (born between 1976 and 1994)—4 percent. Those interviewed in the bridger category were at least seventeen years old.
What about retention rates? Dawson McAlister, national youth ministry specialist, says that 90 percent of kids active in high school youth groups do not go to church by the time they are sophomores in college. One-third of these will never return. This rate of disconnection indicates a dilemma far more serious than mere youthful rebellion.
A growing number of people are leaving the institutional church for a new reason. They are not leaving because they have lost faith. They are leaving the church to preserve their faith. They contend that the church no longer contributes to their spiritual development. In fact, they say, quite the opposite is true. The number of “post-congregational” Christians is growing. David Barrett, author of the World Christian Encyclopedia, estimates that there are about 112 million “churchless Christians” worldwide, about 5 percent of all adherents, but he projects that number will double in the next twenty years!
The bottom line is that the bottom line is not looking too good, no matter how you cut it. Underneath the semblance of an American culture influenced by Christianity, the tectonic plates have shifted.
It’s more than numbers. The American culture no longer props up the church the way it did, no longer automatically accepts the church as a player at the table in public life, and can be downright hostile to the church’s presence. The collapse I am detailing also involves the realization that values of classic Christianity no longer dominate the way Americans believe or behave.
Sure, when there’s a community disaster or a national calamity such as 9/11, people scurry to church. This is not because they have a sudden interest in church but because they have a huge need for God, and they still seek sacred spaces to pray. Some argue that these church attendance spikes reflect more peoples’ need for community in times of shared grief than anything else. At any rate, within a few weeks of these disasters things are back to normal in terms of church attendance. The prognosticators who view these spikes as a renewal or beginning of a spiritual awakening remain frustrated. Most significant, a vast number of churches squander the window of opportunity by failing to connect with new people in these moments in meaningful ways that will bring them back.