The Choice Before Us

“There exists in every church something that sooner or later works against the very purpose for which it came into existence. So we must strive very hard, by the grace of God, to keep the church focused on the mission that Christ originally gave to it.”  

~ C.S. Lewis

I want to begin with a story. It’s the story of the Church. Once upon a time, and for almost two thousand years, the Church enjoyed a prominent and important place in society, America included. The Church was a culturally significant and respected institution. In this period of time called Christendom the Church stood at the epicenter of culture.

As the center of society, the Church had tremendous authority and influence. Like E.F. Hutton, when the Church spoke, people listened. Universities listened. The Media listened. Businesses listened. Governments listened. These institutions were guided by the wisdom dispensed by the Church. And in many cases, people sought out the Church to find the answers to the big questions of life. And it was the happiest of days for this thing called the Church.

But in the United States, as had already happened in Western Europe, something changed. A seismic shift occurred. The nature of that shift can be illustrated by a seemingly innocuous event one sleepy Sunday evening in Greenville, South Carolina, 1963. That night the Fox Theater defied the state’s time-honored blue laws and opened for business. Unbeknownst to most, Christendom in America was mortally wounded.

In the words of Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, 

“That evening has come to represent a watershed in the history of Christendom…On that night, Greenville, South Carolina—the last pocket of resistance to secularity in the Western world—served notice it would no longer be a prop for the Church. There would be no more free passes for the Church, no more free rides. The Fox Theater went head to head with the Church over who would provide the world view for the young. That night in 1963, the Fox Theater won the opening skirmish.” 

Ever since, the cultural landscape in America has changed dramatically.The Church is no longer the central institution in Western society. It’s been dethroned—marginalized by an increasingly secularized culture. With its influence diminished the Church has now become just one of any number of different places that people go to find Truth and Meaning. Optimistically, a few might still look to the Church for answers. The reality, however, is that the Church has become culturally insignificant.  

Even though these seismic changes have radically altered the way our culture relates to the Church, the Church has not adapted in response. Consequently, the Church finds itself in a precarious position.  Consider the following statistics from a previous post

34% of the U.S. adult population has not attended any type of church service during the past 6 months

6 out of 10 unchurched people consider themselves to be Christian

1 out of every 3 is unchurched (73 million adults)

Since 1991, the adult population in the US has grown by 15%, and during the same period the number of adults who do not attend church has nearly doubled (39 million to 75 million)

Roughly half of all churches in America didn’t add one new person through conversion growth last year

These numbers are dated, conservative, and the trend is accelerating the Church toward precipitous decline. Without massive change, might the Church’s lampstand in the West be removed? What should be done? How should the Church seek to reach a culture that continually pays less and less attention to it?  What are the churches options? They are twofold. The choice is before us.

The first option is attractional in nature and consumeristic at heart. It says this, “we the Church must out-compete the other influences vying for people’s attention.” Over the last fifty years Evangelicals have believed that if we could get people to come through the front doors of a building we might be able to win people over with good coffee and a smorgasbord of relevant, felt-need related programs. Many churches have become, as Alan Hirsch puts it, expert “vendors of religious goods and services.”

In fact, you name it and the Church has tried it in order to get people through its doors.  In many ways, we’ve adopted a Field of Dreams mindset. “If you build it (attractive facilities, programs, preaching center, etc.) they will come.” Sometimes it has worked. On occasion, people have stayed and found Christ. But most churches simply don’t have the kind of resources to out-compete a Disneyland and grab people’s attention long enough to hold them. A select few churches, those with a plentitude of resources, have often grown very large ministering this way. The mega-church movement is proof positive of this. Sadly enough, one of the unintended results of the mega-church movement has been the cannibalization of under-resourced churches that simply can’t compete. With the residue of Christendom not wholly washed away churches may continue to see modest success ministering this way, but not enough to fully reverse the decline.  

And yet, Christians continue to think that this strategy will work; that the decline might be reversed. But it won’t. Eventually the final residue of Christendom will wear off and the Church will exist in a fully post-Christendom society. While we wait to get our act together the darkness over the land continues to creep and spread.  

There is, however, an alternative; a second, better, and forgotten way. In this second option the church responds to this seismic cultural shift, decentralizes and sends itself. The culture won’t come to us so we must go to it. I want to suggest to you that unless we adopt this second way of doing church, we will continue to grow increasingly irrelevant to the culture around us.

The exciting thing is this model of ministry is nothing new or even all that radical. I think Jesus intended this decentralized way of life in mind from the very beginning. John 20:19-21 says,

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”

Our job as followers of the Way is to send ourselves in response to Jesus’ command.  We have to take the light of Christ to the darkness. Empowered by the Holy Spirit we must send ourselves in obedience to Jesus. This posture is what I call “sentness” and it is critically important for the future health and well-being of God’s church.

So, the Church in the West is at a crossroads with a choice. M. Scott Boren eloquently summarizes this choice when he says,

“We can fight to reestablish the church as a physical place where certain things happen.  We can work harder to compete with society, to out-entertain and lure people in with as much pomp and circumstance as a church can afford.  Or, we can become a church on a mission.” 

For the glory of God and the health of his Church, I choose the latter. Live sent!

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