I’ve had an interesting week. On Saturday I went to a local Lutheran church and heard theologian and best selling author Marcus Borg lecture. Borg is an engaging and interesting speaker who I don’t always agree with but find thought provoking. I then spent Monday through Wednesday at our state gathering of Baptists- the Baptist General Association of Virginia. So I’ve heard theology, mission reports, resource information, and times of worship. I’ve had so much thrown at me in the past week that I really haven’t processed it all. In the midst of the conversations my last blog about the situation of the church kept coming at me. So here is what I’m thinking.
The situation of the church today
As my previous blog commented I see a crisis in the west. This is a crisis mainly with churches that are NOT ethnic. This crisis began with mainline churches but is now spreading into evangelical and conservative denominations. Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists have now joined the decline. The only four groups showing increase are the Mormons, Jehovah Witnesses, Assembly of God, and Church of God (Cleveland).
Marcus Borg is by his own admission a liberal theologian and was a part of the controversial Jesus Seminar. While I realize that some of his conclusions are not what I conclude I found much to ponder and consider. Borg stressed that the church is moving from conventional to intentional. What Borg was saying was that the church before the 60s was conventional. It was expected that folks attend church and so churches grew and thrived. After the early 60s you are no longer looked down upon if you do not attend and so it is no longer a cultural plus to attend church. Therefore you have to ‘intend’ to be in church. So we are now intentional. That means our churches may be smaller but those who come are more intentional about their involvement.
This past week at our BGAV I had many conversations with fellow Baptists. I was amazed that I am continuing to hear about churches in division and church pastors being forced out of their positions. Church conflict and church firings of pastor is in my opinion becoming an epidemic. The BGAV itself was a positive meeting and much good was reported. I’m excited to see the work being done and yet I do lament over the struggle financially that the BGAV and most churches are experiencing. But those hallway conversations and observations stuck with me. So here are some thoughts/food for thought.
*Churches that are primarily “white” are dying, shrinking, and at best ‘holding their own’ in attendance, finances, etc. I’m not racist but we all are aware that most churches are now unofficially divided on racial divides and historically it was intentional.
*Those churches are turning inward and hurting themselves even more. I don’t think they are all shrinking due to those fights but I believe those fights are a result of their death and decline. Desperate people do dumb things. Drowning people sometimes drag those who are trying to save them down. One church I know of had a meeting to ‘talk about their pastor’ and a man said, “When we get the right pastor the pews will be full.” The blame game doesn’t help but it is what is happening. Those churches that would normally be unhealthy even in good times are increasing in bad behavior and others that would not be dysfunctional in good times are sliding into unhealthy behavior due to the panic mode. Churches that are shrinking, not meeting bills, seeing folks flee to mega churches etc, are beginning to blame their pastors, fight with one another, and lose focus.
Something has to be done.
We are going to have to realize that the situation of the church today does not excuse bad behavior. They will know we are Christians by their love. My own church has had many folks visit who come wounded from churches that are at war. I’ve talked with these folks and they are good people who do not want to be in the midst of such dysfunction. I’m glad we can minister to them and help them get connected again with a church. I’m sad for their former churches but I don’t blame them for leaving. I would too. I think many will flee those fussy places and come to healthier churches. And many will leave to never return to a church again.
So what will we see in the future? My crystal ball!
*I believe more than half of the churches (all denominations) that are in existence this Sunday will not be in existence when I retire (I’m 37).
*I believe that in that time many of those churches will devour themselves and hasten their death.
*Existing churches that practice healthy patterns of congregational life will gain many members from those dying congregations.
*Existing churches will need to be vigilant and work to protect themselves from catching the ‘mean virus.’
*Some churches are beyond help and need to die in grace and prepare to give funds to God’s work elsewhere.
*Existing churches that are not beyond help have choices to make and if made wisely will have a bright future.
*Seekers will be turned off by those fighting churches. We will have to work hard in our healthy churches to present a better image to them.
*New churches will grow and thrive. New church starts allow for innovation and new ways.
*Help will come from the South. Africa, South America and eventually the East will plant interracial churches more and more in this country. The revival in those places will come here and yet while many of existing churches today will be gone the healthy and thriving ones will welcome them and work with them. This will result in a great awakening of faith. Maybe in my old age or in my childrens old age we will finally see a flourishing faith in the West.
What will it look like? Not like the church of today. I don’t know for sure but I believe it will be interracial and diverse. It will be missional and glocal. Those churches will be planting new churches and will work locally and globally. They will also be places of joy and excitement and will be intentional. They will exist in a world that will give them no favors and will offer many choices besides being in church and they will choose their faith. I do not know all that will happen but it will be good because God still has a plan for his people.
So what about our churches today? That’s for a future article but I do believe that many churches will continue as part of that new day. But sadly many will not. What will your church do?