The Ghost of Church Future: Part One (Continued Decline)

My wife, parents, and I recently watched a stage production of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  As I watched it I couldn’t help but imagine what the ghosts of church past (Part One, Part Two, and Part Three), present (Part One, Part Two, and Part Three), and future might say to those of us who follow Jesus.  This week we’ll look at what the future holds.


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A Continued Decline

For quite some time now the church, as we know it, has been in decline.  Numerous studies and surveys support this statement (David Olson’s book The American Church in Crisis and John Dickerson’s book The Great Evangelical Recession provide a ton of evidence).

What do we do?  I think there are three primary options: 1) keep doing what we’ve always done; 2) try to baptize American individualism, consumerism, and materialism; or 3) go down the missional-incarnational path.

This post will focus on the first option — more of the same.

If we keep doing what we’ve always done, what will be the results?

Famously, it has been said that the definition of insanity is doing the same things over and over again but always expecting different results (attributed to Albert Einstein).  And while this may be “the most overused cliche of all time,” it does help us think about why following the same strategies in the church won’t work going forward.

So, what have we been doing that we could keep doing (even though it most likely wouldn’t work)?

  1. Follow the Attractional Model — “If you build it, he will come.”  This is probably the most-often quoted line from the movie Field of Dreams and it serves to illustrate the attractional model like no other string of words can!  The thought is that if we have slick weekend services, engaging sermons, awesome music, fun programs for kids, thought-provoking adult classes, and great small groups, then people will just show up at the campuses of our churches to partake of all these things.  The research, however, is showing that this model isn’t working.  People simply are not coming to churches anymore, at least not like they once did.  Our buildings, programs, and services just aren’t all that attractive to the wider American culture these days.  So, if we continue with this model, then we will have shrinking congregations, which will lead to church buildings being abandoned (and possibly being transformed into homes, libraries, or nightclubs).
  2.  Limit Discipleship to the Classroom — Almost always when talking to Christians about discipleship they seem to think that it is a program, a ministry, or an event that the church should host and facilitate.  In my experience this has been true of folks everywhere throughout America, from Los Angeles to Atlanta.  There are some shining examples of leaders and churches who don’t view discipleship this way, but my educated guess would be that most American Christians think of it as a cognitive-based learning experience.  The simple truth is that this method of discipleship doesn’t work.  It has helped lead to 66% of Americans being what George Barna calls “casual Christians.”  That’s an astonishing number!  And if we continue doing discipleship this way, that number isn’t going to change in the positive direction.
  3. Protect the Christian Bubble — I was thinking the other day about how many friends I have who do not know Jesus yet.  The number is really pretty low.  Why?  Because I’m pretty consistently encouraged to completely inundate myself into the Christian subculture.  When I do so all my friends are Christians, my closest family members are all Christians, and all my neighbors are Christians.  Then I start reading Christians books, listening to Christian music, going to Christian websites, and even freshening my breath with Christian mints!  This cloistering-off of American Christians into our own little bubble has created a ton of unintentional problems.  If you’ve ever tried to share your faith with someone you know what I’m talking about.  Folks say that Christians are hypocrites, that we’re judgmental, and that we’re by and large detached from reality.  Our Christian bubble helped create space for these descriptions to come to fruition.  So if we protect our bubble going forward, then we’ll continue to erode our potential impact with folks who do not yet know Jesus.

To put it simply, the future of the church is pretty bleak if we keep going like we’ve been going!

Do you agree?  Let me know in the comments below.