They say the church is dying.
It’s hard to believe, to tell you the truth, for a couple of reasons. Number one, the church I go to is healthy. My personal experience as a ministry leader has been extremely pleasant. We’re reaching lost people. Our elders are godly men–they are not power hungry, they lead with wisdom, and they are very supportive to my wife and I. The bottom line for me is our church is doing okay. Sure, there are ups and downs, good times and bad, but for the most part, it’s positive.
But they say the church is dying.
The other reason it’s hard to believe is because I don’t believe it’s possible. I do not believe the church will ever die. I don’t think a particular political party, amendment to the Constitution, or catastrophic world event will ever kill the church. I do not believe the church will ever cease to exist. If it can never die, then it can’t be dying. Jesus said so, and I believe him.
He’s usually right on about stuff like that.
So what do they mean, the church is dying? Well, I don’t think they mean The Church is dying. I think they mean that a church is dying, or that church is dying, or First Faithful of Fruitland is dying. But even if individual congregations are dying, The Church is not. It’s alive and well, and everyone knows it.
Yes, thousands of churches close their doors in America every year (experts estimate between 3500 to 4000 annually). That’s horrible. I wish it weren’t true. But the church planting, house church, and alterna-church movements are strong and vibrant in our country. Worldwide, The Church is thriving, enough so that America doesn’t boast the largest Christian population by a long shot. That’s okay with me. I think its okay with God, too.
I don’t like it when churches close their doors, but it’s not a demonstration of a dying Church. It’s a bad strategy working out to its logical conclusion. Let me explain.
The church in the United States is steeped in consumerism. That is because about a hundred years ago society started changing, or at least started changing faster. After the Industrial Revolution and the Civil War we were very urban and very polarized. People either lived in cities or they lived in the country. Then this weird thing started happening. People began moving to places that were called “suburbs” and began looking a lot alike and driving cars and buying televisions. Up until this point, people went to church because it was their denomination and close to their home. But when people started going suburban post-World War II, a certain idea started creeping out. We called it “Keeping Up with the Joneses.” What this meant was that we were all in a race to be the best. Everyone jumped on board.
Marketers of products got a hold of this and ran with it. To fulfill the “American Dream,” as it was called; one needed to own their own home and have a car (maybe two) and certainly have a television instead of a radio. Then color televisions were invented. Better cars were assembled. Bigger houses were framed and thrown up by the thousands nation wide. The pursuit of the big ticket item was forefront on the American mind. There were still the “haves” and the “have-nots,” to be sure, but people generally went nuts acquiring things.
It never really changed after that. Before you knew it, it wasn’t just the big ticket items that drove everyone crazy; it was the options on them. Cars got power windows. Houses got big yards and multiple bathrooms and shutters and decks. Shopping malls were invented and popped up next to all the subdivisions, and housewives started drooling all over the place. Amazingly, you could walk under one roof and have multiple options in clothing stores, furniture stores, specialty shops, and restaurants. The shrewdness of marketing executives became more and more refined, and American ate right out of their hands.
As we gorged, our collective waistlines enlarged. We couldn’t get enough.
Our fascination only increased more exponentially in recent times. You can go online and design your own automobile, equipped with all your preferable features. Sneakers can be customized on the internet. Everything is personalized. We dye our hair if we don’t like its color; we crash diet if we don’t like our weight. If that doesn’t work, we can even be made over again with reconstructive surgeries, implants, and even getting flab sucked out of our midsections. Everything we want we get, just how we’d like.
We don’t only get it the way we want it, we get it when we want it, too. Food took too long on the stove, so now we cook it in microwaves. Fast food restaurants have timers that we can see right on the registers–a message to us that they know we’re extremely busy and want (need!) our food pronto.
Televisions were nice innovations, but getting up to change the channel was annoying, so we got remote controls. Now, without getting up, we can turn on our television and navigate hundreds of channels that meet any one of our many entertainment needs. Shows are available on demand. Movie theaters stunned people at the turn of the century. Now we can just sit at home and order up a movie without leaving our recliner. Music downloads or streams via our computers and mobile devices, and does so at unprecedented rates of speed. It’s all quite fascinating when you think about it. Our mobile devices can serve as remote controls to almost everything we do–they are our wallets, our navigation system, our camera, our WiFi hotspots. We lack nothing.
We are consumers. What we like we buy. What we don’t like anymore we throw away. The world of marketing has obliged us, and we’re hungrier for product now more than ever.
As a stand-alone issue, this culture of consumerism is a fascinating case study. When complicated with the subject of faith, things get sticky. People don’t go to church anymore because of what a particular church believes or because it’s in their neighborhood. Those factors may play a part, but only insomuch as it is one of the conveniences the church offers. Other “features” include the size of the building, the easy listening of the sermon, the worship production elements, and the children’s programming.
Options are important. Families are looking for the biggest and best programs offered. Church hopping is at an all-time high, not necessarily because of scandal or heresy, but because Church A “is a better fit” than Church B. What this usually means is not that the people or theology are better, but the stuff is better. Prettier foyers, larger cafeterias, grandiose worship spaces, and colorful, playful youth areas. Men’s groups, ladies groups, support groups, senior’s groups, pre-school mom’s groups, they all play a part in advancing the organization by growing the customer base, and the customer base gladly plays along.
Why? Because they do it everywhere else, too.
Some do not believe this is a bad thing. Some consider the cultural temperature and simply seek to engage the people with whom we work, live, and learn. Admittedly, it is not inherently bad to offer helpful programs for people. But catering to the consumer may well kill the church, at least in America, we can be sure, because there is one harsh reality we haven’t yet considered.
What if people stop wanting Jesus as we’ve sold him? Churches aren’t closing because Jesus is a bad product; they’re closing because they’re boring, old, or out-dated. In other words, their methods stink and the consumer leaves for a “better” place to get Jesus. Churches that are engaging the consumer with advertising and pizzazz do okay, as a rule. But what will happen when the consumer finds something better than what those churches are selling? What if the American Legion or the corner bar or the Mom’s Book Club does a better job connecting people? What if the Boy Scouts or the 4-H Club or the Brownies do a better job of engaging people in service? What if the A.A. chapter or the scrap booking club are superior to the church when it comes to helping people deal with loneliness and addiction? What if what we’re “selling” is great, but we’re bad salespeople? What if the consumer-minded church becomes the black and white television set of yesteryear and the rabid purchaser of product in America moves on?
Who is it we are trying to please? Could it be that we are obliging the very people that will cause our extinction? Could it be that the methodology we embrace will take us to a place where we are innovated-out and tired of selling?
We’re not on life support yet, as some speculate, but our pulse is weakening. The church is sick, and the disease isn’t the Democrats or Muslims or MTV. We are killing ourselves. Someday we’re going to wake up and realize we have cut ourselves off from the world by trying to sell ourselves to it.
This Sunday, there’ll be products flying off the shelves at churches nationwide. Sermon tapes, t-shirts, cappuccinos, and worship services will be well-presented, excellent, and dynamic. The average American will plop a twenty dollar bill down in the offering plate, gobble up their fair share of the product, and head home. Simultaneously, a church across the street from that one will close its doors in defeat. It won’t be alone that day; many others will do the same. They haven’t played the game well. They haven’t reached the consumer like their mega-neighbor. As a result of poor product and poor marketing, people stopped shopping there.
But isn’t our only product Jesus? And should the God of the Universe be hawked like meat on a stick at a minor league baseball game? While there’s nothing wrong with shirts and cappuccinos, we need to be shockingly clear that we’re hanging our hat on the Gospel and nothing else. I suspect that our nation’s most productive churches (read: I did not say largest nor flashiest) are those that get this right. I think they reach more lost people than they do church-hoppers, I think they pour forth stories of life change into their communities on a continual basis, and I suspect they are the ones on the forefront of making a global impact, no matter where they are located. That’s what the Gospel does. It doesn’t just attract people. It certainly doesn’t have entertaining people as it’s focus.
Rather, it changes people. Forever. Not in the disposable, temporary, until-something-better-comes-along kind of way. It transforms them. Permanently.
I love The Church. I love the church where I serve. We’re not perfect, but our heart is in the right place. And there are a lot of other churches out there that have their heart in the right place, too. They don’t depend on facilities, they depend on Jesus. They don’t make a sales pitch, they share a deeply personal story that connects with people. They don’t worry about attractional–they obsess over being worshipful. And while lots of churches are closing up shop, there is hope still yet.
Jesus said the gates of hell would never prevail against the Church. She is an unstoppable force when she is focused on Him. And there are lots of folks who are flocking to churches still–not because they’re looking for a shinier, sexier version–but because they’re seeking truth, justice, and freedom.
They’re looking for Jesus.
And if they’re not looking for Him, let’s not settle for selling some cheap substitute just to keep them in a seat.