Is the church in the West in crisis?

I love the body of Christ in all its different forms. The traditional church has served us well for centuries while society revolved around Christianity. But things are changing.
Is Christianity in crisis in this country? The following statistics concerning pastors are not meant to be a criticism of the traditional church, but they are worrying.
  • Fifteen hundred pastors in the US quit every month due to stress, extra-marital affairs or conflict in their churches.
  • Over fifty percent of pastors are so discouraged they would leave the ministry if they could but have no other way of making a living.
  • Fifty percent of pastors’ marriages will end in divorce.
  • Almost forty percent say  they  have been in an extra-marital affair since entering the ministry.
  • Seventy percent say they only study the Bible when preparing for sermons or lessons.
  • Seventy percent say they do not have close personal friends.

Whatever kind of church we are part of, let’s pray for our brothers and sisters in “full time ministry.”

The question remains. Is Christianity in the West in crisis?

Scary statistics

I’ve been compiling some statistics re the state of the church in this country for a book I’m helping to write.  I know you can make numbers prove anything, but is there a general trend? The question I’m trying to answer is this: Is the church in the West in crisis?

Here are some I found:

  • Of the self-identified Christians in the United States,  64% say they have confessed their sins to God and asked for his forgiveness, but only 3% say they have surrendered control of their life to God, submitted themselves to his will, and devoted themselves to loving and serving God and other people.
  • Less than one-half of one percent of adults aged 18 to 23 has a biblical worldview, compared to about 9% older adults. These figures can be doubled amongst “born-again” Christians. (A Biblical worldview is defined by believing in absolute moral truth, the accuracy of Biblical principles, the reality of Satan, God as creator and salvation through faith in Jesus.)
  • In the average year, half of all churches do not add one member per year through conversion growth.

While many churches are thriving, many more are struggling.

So what do you think?  Are we in crisis?

The Untold Story of the New Testament Church

I’ve been studying the different characters that appear in the Book of Acts recently, starting with Paul. I’ve often puzzled over apparently contradictory passages from Acts and Galatians that talk about what Paul did immediately after his conversion–whether or not he visited the apostles in Jerusalem. As I revisited this question, I remembered a book written by Frank Viola called  The Untold Story of the New Testament Church: An Extraordinary Guide to Understanding the New Testament. I’d skimmed the book before, but never taken the time to study it.

Frank is a good friend of ours. He and his wife have enjoyed several evenings with us in our hot tub, putting the world to rights. (It’s where we came up with the idea for the hilarious spoof video for his book, Pagan Christianity?, that our son, Tim produced.)

I’ve been reading The Untold Story for a week or so now, following the extensive endnotes, and greatly enjoying the insight and research Frank has produced. The books promo claims “you will understand the New Testament like never before.” As I have read the epistles within their historical context in the New Testament narrative, I would definitely say the book lives up to its claims. Anyone who desires a greater understanding of the history of the early church would profit from reading it.

 

A church by any other name…

Brian used to host a Bible study group of 17 “unchurched” people in his home. Brian’s a chef and people love his food. They’d sing, read the Bible and talk. The pastor of his traditional church put the kibosh on it, however, because it was outside of his programs and control. So Brian did stop it. Now Brian is meeting in a home church somewhere else and has invited about 8 of those people to the house church. Only two have come (one who accepted Christ, PTL). He says, however, if he would restart his home group, all of those 17 would come back.

Dan left this story as a comment on one of my previous posts.

Some people may be far more willing to join us if what we present to them doesn’t include the word “church.”  “Church” has negative connotations for many people. They remember being dragged there as children, bored and restless when they’d much rather be outdoors playing. Or the word may smack of religious legalism, hypocrisy and judgmentalism. To others it is simply irrelevant.

So why do we insist on calling it “church” especially when we’re talking to not-yet-believers? It only makes it more difficult for them. A church by any other name is still a church. It’s not the name that’s important, but what goes on there. Is Jesus at the center?

Tony and I love to start church amongst non-believers, but we rarely call it that. We’ll invite people to get together for “a group that discusses spirituality,” or to “an evening when we can pray about some of the issues in their life,” or to “the Friday night group,” or to a “time to look at the Bible and talk about Jesus.” We’d much rather it’s in their home than ours, and they are probably not ready to have “church” in their home. It’s only later, when they’ve been won over by the friendship and authentic fun of what goes on and their lives have begun to change, that we tell them this is what the Bible means by church. Once they’ve surrendered to Jesus, we may or may not change the name.

It wouldn’t matter if the word “church” was never used; it’s what goes on that matters. Are relationships being formed? Is Jesus glorified? Is the Holy Spirit in control?

I like the term “missional community,” although that probably works best with believers. Are you familiar with I Am Second? They start I Am Second (the title implies Jesus is first) groups rather than churches.

I hope Brian does restart his home group.

Can you think of any other names that wouldn’t be a turn off for people?

 

What’s in a name? Missional Community

The word, “missional” has become something of a buzz-word over recent years. Several friends such as Linda Bergquist and Alan Hirsch were involved in writing a Missional Manifesto which was published last year to help describe the term. Here’s the first sentence from the manifesto:

God is a sending God, a missionary God, who has called His people, the church, to be missionary agents of His love and glory.

Several of the mega-churches in our city have come to terms with the fact that , even if they multiplied themselves many times over, they wouldn’t be able to reach the city in the way they long to, and they are adopting simple/organic principles as a deliberate strategy. This isn’t just happening here in Austin, but all over the country.

I’ve led workshops at three of their conferences (like Verge and Exponential), and the main speakers at the conferences have included people like Neil Cole, David Watson, George Patterson, David Garrison–all of whom teach on simple/organic principles and church planting or disciple-making movements.

What these churches have come to recognize through the teachings of people like Alan Hirsch, is that an attractional model of church (“Come to our church service, come and hear our special speaker) isn’t nearly as effective as sending the members of their church into their communities and sub-cultures to reach out with the good news of Jesus. And although their church members might continue to come to the main church, the new “missional communities” formed in the harvest from the disciples that come to the Lord through their witness, are not expected to feed into the main church. These missional communities are autonomous, able to baptize and give communion, free to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead when they meet.

To all intents and purposes, they are simple/organic churches. “A rose by any other name is still a rose.”

I, personally, am very excited by this development. Mega-churches have huge resources of personnel. Imagine what could happen if these churches sent out their young people by their hundreds to form missional communities across the city.

Alongside this,  a slightly different model is also called a missional community. These “missional communities” originated in the UK. Mike Breen is the name most commonly associated with them. This model is larger–a small congregation with 25-50 people attending. They are not just a smaller version of Sunday morning, but have an upward focus (towards God) and inward focus towards their missional community and an outward focus into mission. They have spread into Europe and are now becoming better known here in the States.

What might happen in our cities if nobody minds who gets the credit?

What’s in a name? Different uses of the term, “organic”

The term, organic, means natural, nonchemical, living, and alive. When applied to church, it refers to something that grows naturally.

Photo credit: thebittenword (Creative Commons)

Two people have popularized the name, organic church within the simple/organic/house church world.

Neil Cole was the first one to do so with his superb book, Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens, which God has used to teach the principles of multiplication and harvest all over the world. He uses the term to refer to planting the seed of the Kingdom out in our communities where people need the Lord. Here’s a quote from the introduction:

What would it be like if churches emerged organically, like small spiritual families born out of the soil of lostness, because the seed of God’s Kingdom was planted there? These churches could reproduce, just like all living things do.

We have seen churches meeting in restaurants, offices, homes, university campuses, high school facilities and beaches. We’ve had churches meeting in bars, parks, coffeehouses and locker rooms…

Let the church be alive, organic, in the flesh. Let it be birthed in the places it is most needed. Let the church be fruitful and multiply…

In other words, Neil uses the term “organic” to refer to bearing fruit in the harvest. Everything “alive” that God created multiplies, and church should be the same way.

Another person who uses the term, “organic church” is Frank Viola. Frank has a passion for the Bride of Christ. He uses the term to refer to a church that has life within itself–the life of Jesus. Here’s a quote from the introduction of his book, Finding Organic Church:

By organic church, I mean a church that is born out of spiritual life instead of being constructed by human institutions and held together by religious programs. Organic church life is a grassroots experience that is marked by face-to-face community, every-member functioning, open-participatory meetings (as opposed to pastor-to-pew services), non-hierarchical leadership, and the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ as the functional Leader and Head of the gathering.

So Frank uses the term to apply to a community of believers whose life is centered around the living Christ.

It’s a question of emphasis. I’ve been in enough groups waiting on God with Neil to know that he believes in Jesus being the center and leader of the gatherings. And Frank has a desire to see the Gospel spread. They just use the term “organic” in different ways.

We need both emphases. We need organic church.

 

What’s in a name? Simple church

Why the term, “simple church”?

We love the story that gave the title to our book,The Rabbit and the Elephant, now republished in paperback as Small Is Big!: Unleashing the Big Impact of Intentionally Small Churches. It goes like this:

Imagine you take two elephants, for our purposes, a male and a female, and you lock them in a small room with plenty of food and water. You leave them there for three years. At the end of that time, when you open the door, what comes out? Three elephants. mom, dad and baby.

Now instead of two elephants, imagine you put two rabbits into the room. At the end of three years, when you open the door, you’d better run for your life, because millions of rabbits will explode out of the door.

The moral of the story is that something small and simple multiplies faster than something large and complex. (Yes, I know, I studied medicine. A rabbit is just as complex as an elephant at a cellular level. Think of a bacterium if you prefer. “The Bacterium and the Elephant” just isn’t as catchy.)

Our son, Tim, produced a great promo video for us that illustrates the concept.

The Rabbit and the Elephant from simplechurch.com on Vimeo.

I remember when the name, “simple church” first came up. A group of house church pioneers back in the early 2000’s used to get together semi-regularly and we often discussed the need for simplicity. A couple of them (including John White who now runs the Luke 10 community) started using the term “simple church” and somehow it caught on!

Simplicity is essential if we want to see multiplication. Simple things multiply; complex things break down.

What we model is crucial. If we demonstrate by example a talk or a sermon, we’ve stopped multiplication dead in its tracks. Most people fear public speaking more than death by fire or drowning, so very few new disciples would ever dare to start a church if they thought they had to give a talk. The same is true for “professional worship.” If an accomplished musician always leads the worship, people will think they cannot multiply without a musician. (Don’t get me wrong, I love beautiful worship music and (some) inspiring talks. But they don’t belong in a simple church context.)

The same is true with prayer. A sentence or two prayer with everyone praying several times is more effective in terms of getting people to pray than one person giving an eloquent five minute sermon prayer. A potluck meal is easier to reproduce than one person cooking a gourmet meal each week.

The terms, simple church, organic church and house church are used by most people interchangeably. Each term describes a different facet of what goes on. I looked at the term “house church” in the last post.

(Simple church, when used in the house/simple/organic church context isn’t to be confused with the book, Simple Church by Rainer and Geiger which is about designing a simple process of discipleship within any church structure.)