August 14, 2012 by cbbeard
Author’s note: This post is an edited reprint of my submission to a class discussion forum regarding effectiveness of the church universal.
The state of the church universal and its effectiveness is a mixed bag of excitement and disappointment, successes and failures, growth and decline. Some reports show that Christianity as a whole is thriving, and in some areas of the world that is true. Statistics by the Pew Research Center show that Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa grew from approximately 8.5 million in 1910 (9.1% of the population) to approximately 516.5 million in 2010 (62.7% of the population). Christianity in the “Global South” overall has grown from 9.2% of the population to 23.5% of the population from 1910-2010 (Pew Research Center, 2011).
On the other hand, Christianity in the “Global North” has not fared so well. While 86.7% of the population were Christians in 1910, only 69% of the population were Christian in 2010 (Pew Research Center, 2011).
The United States reflects this decline. Krejcir reported that census figures show a 9.5% decline in membership of Protestant churches between 1990 and 2000! He also found that when “frequent attendance” is defined by attending church at least twice a month, the statistics in the United States are as follows:
- 22% of Americans “frequently” attended church in 1992
- 20.5% of Americans “frequently” attended church in 1995
- 19% of Americans “frequently” attended church in 1999
- 18.0% of Americans “frequently” attended in church in 2002
Today we will focus on the Western church, as it is clearly in decline as a whole. While there are different contributing factors for the decline of individual congregations, I believe that two main “culprits” responsible for the decline of the Western church are focus and leadership.
When the church was born in Acts 2, the church was clearly focused on serving Jesus. The church adhered to Christ’s teachings of loving God and loving others, and did so even at the expense of their own physical peril. The results are seen in Acts 2:42-47:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Somewhere along the way, however, the church’s focus shifted from Jesus to the church. Jesus was certainly present, but no longer was the church “out and about” as described in Acts 2. The church now had a building. It had programs and events. It now had paid staff. So the focus was less on Jesus and more on the church. Instead of spreading CHRISTianity, the church was winning people to what Reggie McNeal called CHURCHianity (emphasis mine). McNeal wrote:
In North America the invitation to become a Christian has become largely an invitation to convert to the church. The assumption is that anyone serious about being a Christian will order their lives around the church, shift their life and work rhythms around the church schedule, channel their charitable giving through the church, and serve in some church ministry; in other words, serve the church and become a fervent marketer to bring others into the church to do the same. (McNeal, 2003, p. 11)
Therefore, the church has become centralized and institutional. People are taken out of the context of their lives and placed in the isolation of the church building. Instead of being in the temple courts (which is NOT equivalent to a church building by the way) and in their homes and neighborhoods as in Acts 2, the church was now hanging out in the building doing fellowship dinners and Bible studies. People started going to church instead of being the church.
There are two ways in which the Western church’s approach to leadership has contributed to decline.
First, leadership, like the structure of the church itself, has become centralized. The hiring of staff has allowed the church to delegate ministry to those staff. With hired staff, people started to think, “It is the preacher’s job to study and teach. It is the minister’s job to evangelize. It is the pastor who is supposed to be visiting the hospitals and praying for people. It’s even the staff’s job to come up with ministry opportunities.” As McNeal wrote, “Every time I see the slogan “every member a minister” I cringe. It usually means that there has been a lot of effort put into getting church members to get church work done” (p. 45)
Secondly, leadership in the church has neglected the full scope of God’s intentions. Hirsch and Catchim identified the problem as a focus on the “shepherd and teacher” aspect of ministry. Most paid ministers and key leaders such as elders have been focused on these aspects of ministry. However, Hirsch and Catchim suggest that Ephesians 4 is prescriptive for the church and that the church should have leaders who are gifted in one of the fivefold areas of ministry: apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd, and teacher. Each one of these areas should be present in the church if it is to reach its God-intended potential. Though a full discussion of these roles will be reserved for another post, it is the apostle, prophet, and evangelist roles that must be present for maintaining the ultimate mission of “sentness” and renewal of the church.
Moving forward, the church must become the movement God intended it to be. This will require a great deal of “unfreezing” of the underlying assumptions about church that are wrong. We must decentralize the structure and ministry of the church and release people to be the church where they exist each and every day. Our people already exist in a cross-cultural and diverse environment as a whole. If they simply live with Jesus as their focus and obey the word of God; and if they partner with other believers, the church will reflect that diverse environment. These shifts require us not to use new theories, but require us to return to the ancient example and instruction for the church.
So what do you think? Why is the Western church (and American church in particular) in decline? What do you think we need to do as a church?