By Dave Crampton (A NZer)
Many people have decided that they don’t want to go to church any more. It’s got nothing to do with God or faith. It has to do with Christendom. Church is becoming irrelevant, pointless, and peripheral, even to Christians, who are leaving in droves. People seeing spiritual meaning are looking elsewhere and the disinterested don’t have a reason to look at all because their friends are not giving them a reason to – at least in a meaningful way that can be clearly understood.
Church leaders have struggled to come to grips with how to communicate their mission to those in their own churches, let alone the surrounding post-modern culture. At the same time they are attempting to retain their dwindling membership, their own faith levels, and encourage a culture of worship. To paraphrase U2, they are stuck in a moment, and they can’t get out of it.
Mission is not intended to originate from churches. It is not the church of God that has a mission to surrounding cultures, but the God of mission who has a church among the culture. Mission is broader than church, modeled after Jesus, yet churches tend to treat mission as something that happens overseas – or something additional to the core focus of a Sunday worship service, shaped and modeled by the way they do church – church culture.
Do you remember seeker services? They were services aimed at people searching for the Christian faith, and were all the rage several years ago. However they ended up reaching de-churched people, rather than the un-churched. In fact much of the growth in seeker service churches was “church-hopping growth” at the expense of smaller churches. Now, leaders who desire to reach out into their communities are discussing words such as “relevant, missional, seeker-sensitive, incarnational, emerging, authentic, organic” – and even “ecumenical” – in their strategic attempts to build community within congregations while attempting to “reach the lost”.
But the only thing that has changed is that church attendance is declining and churches are getting smaller. The group that has the fastest growth in the western church is the leavers, or the de-churched. This group is increasingly being challenged by those- the believing un-churched – who come to faith outside churches and are remaining outside after a brief foray into the weird culture of Christendom. Those who join churches are attending less regularly than was the case twenty or thirty years ago. These days, turning up to church monthly is seen as regular attendance.
Mosaic lead pastor Erwin McManus believes that the “greatest enemy to the movement of Jesus Christ is Christianity”. I would have thought it was Christendom, but I’m assuming that is a pointed barb at the relevance and role of churches. One problem is that some church leaders and members are finding it increasingly difficult to develop close personal relationships with those the surrounding culture. Consequently their authenticity is unnoticed and their mission is insular as they develop friendships in-house through their involvement in church life, to the detriment of relating to secular people. This makes incarnational mission rather difficult, if not impossible.
Some of those who consider themselves evangelical and have meaningful relationships with secular people have changed from becoming ecumenical to post-denominational to the point that their mission is bordering on syncretism. This is because their relationships with secular people are often more meaningful than their weakening links to a church and to those in the church, even though their faith is solid. They are just happy “being authentic and Christian” without the distraction of the church, or the hassle of being actively evangelical. They are not post-evangelical, rather passive evangelicals. They are slipping in and out of churches occasionally, or walking out of church halls and into the closet.
Also, the increasing diversity within congregations is leading to challenges in building organic community. When people in churches are struggling to build community with each other, their energies are spend building community, to the detriment of building relationships with those in the surrounding postmodern culture.
And that is the key word: Relationships. People are building and maintaining relationships in quite a different way than they did ten years ago. Currently, relationships are often built and maintained through networking via an Internet connection and an email address. Networks of relationships are formed in chat rooms around mutual interests – often with people thousands of miles away, and by people who don’t even know their next-door neighbor. Networks are more important than neighborhoods, while communication has replaced community. Even within churches, some people don’t know each other, they casually connect with each other with comments such as “how are you – good thanks”, before moving on to the weather and then the next person. They then go home, log on and provide more meaningful dialogue via e-mail.
Building relationships is often seen as bridge building -but its no point bridge building if you can’t get people across the bridges from one side to the other. From what I have seen, the churchgoers who are best at building relationships with un-churched people are often creative types sitting on the fringes of church life. Perhaps that is because of the influence of Christendom. Christendom tends to have an anaesthetizing influence on us and unless we shake out of this, we will find it increasingly difficult to encounter the counter-culture. Many of those on the church fringes are already encountering the counter-culture and need to be listened to and their creativity and ideas encouraged, without being swamped into the clutches of Christendom.
Such people, rather than pastors, are the future of the church in a postmodern world. These are the people placed to promote the mission of God, not by being revolutionary or reformist, but by telling a totally different story. If Church leaders do not embrace their ideas or creativity; these people will be increasingly likely to join the church of the lapsed. The church will be stuck in the moment, and it won’t be able to get out of it.