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It’s the End of Church (As We Know It)

So we’re in this situation:

For hundreds of years, the Christian community has gathered together on Sunday mornings. Bright and early, we come together for service at a designated building. We hear a sermon. We sing songs. We show up to be seen, to connect.

These days, though, fewer and fewer of us are showing up.

I’ll spare you the statistics. You’ve heard them before. More importantly,  you’ve witnessed the change yourself. In the last fifty years, most of our congregations have hollowed out.

Maybe you’ve become a statistic yourself. At a certain point, coming to a building on Sunday morning no longer felt like an authentic, sustaining ritual for you. The draw of the community was overwhelmed by the demands of the week – of family and friends and work. Choosing between another weekend activity and a chance to rest, you chose sanity.

Or perhaps it was worse than that. Rather than withdrawing out of exhaustion, maybe you felt pushed out. Church politics and infighting added nothing to your life, just bitterness. The church’s rejection of gays, its embrace of nationalism and war, the suppression of women, and our apparent concern for individual prosperity over care for the poor. Stuff like that adds up.

There have been so many reasons to check out. So many reasons to find something better to do on Sunday mornings, even if it’s just to rest up for another work week.

Maybe you’re one of those who have been left sitting in the pews. So many others have dropped out, one by one, but you’ve hung in there. Sure, the church has its problems, but you still believe. You’re still committed to this group of people. You hold out hope that the Holy Spirit can still do something incredible with us, as short-sighted as we can be.

Broken as we are, all things are possible with God.

Still. Something has to change. The church as we’ve known it for the last several hundred years is less relevant every day. The Sunday morning show is dying. A new generation is emerging that demands something deeper. We long for a faith that can speak to the struggles and pain, joy and hope that we find in our everyday lives. We’re waiting, hungry for a Christianity that speaks to the mystery we find in the streets and the schools, the office and the coffee shop.

There is so much yearning in our culture for exactly the life and power that the gospel offers. There is an openness to a movement of the Holy Spirit, the real abundant life that we find in community around the dinner table with Jesus. We can emerge together with power, like those first Christians we read about in the book of Acts.

Or, we can choose to believe that the world is going to hell in a hand basket. 

Many of us are still so identified with the dying forms of the 20th century church that we are convinced that the church is moribund. We fail to see the reality that is right in front of our faces: The harvest is plentiful! We are ready for a re-imagined community, to become friends of Jesus in our post-modern world!

Which story will we choose to live in?

As long as we measure ourselves by 20th-century standards of how the church is supposed to look and behave, our story will be one of defensiveness and decline. We’ll just keep building our walls higher, digger our trenches deeper, wondering why no one wants to come join our Sunday-morning club. This is a sad, disheartening path, and I’ve walked it far too long. I’m ready for a more life-giving vision of what we could be as followers of Jesus.

It’s risky, of course, to push away from the shores of the known, out into the open waters of possibility. Who knows? Maybe we’ll sail over the edge of the world!

But from where I’m sitting, the risk of discovery seems like a better bet than the sad certainty of decline by attrition. It certainly sounds like more fun!

The call to discipleship is more beautiful than the story of church growth that has so captivated us in recent decades. What is it that really inspires us? Is it growing church membership? Planning the Sunday morning show? Bigger buildings, larger parking lots? Does the 20th-century model of church growth set your heart on fire?

For me and my partners in the Friends of Jesus Fellowship, Jesus’ invitation is to something far more meaningful than promoting the Sunday club and building it bigger. What would it look like to respond like the apostles did? What would it be like to truly make disciples in the way of Jesus? How will our lives need to change in order to respond to the radical demands of the in-breaking reign of God?

One thing is for sure: It won’t look like church as usual. 

Related Posts:

How to Survive the Church-pocalypse

Burn Down the Meeting House

  • broschultz

    After the usual attempts of trying to attract more members to our meeting (Christian coffee house, improved web page, special events including free BBQs) I spoke with Jesus and explained to Him that He has to show up at the meeting house when we have worship and prayer meetings. If He comes I don’t care how many others come. He agreed to come and It seems to be working. Of course it’s the lowly fishermen who are coming but that’s fine. Jesus always takes the weakest among us and empowers them so the World will know that God is amongst them. If God is for us and amongst us who can be against us? I can’t wait until He feeds the multitude. That will be some free BBQ.

    • That’s a great attitude, Jim. Thanks for sharing!

  • Jim Breiling

    Yes, the membership totals for most denominations are on a downward trajectory. But, as I recall, there are a few exceptions. And within denominations, there are exceptions, e.g., I just heard last evening that a small group of predominantly young adults who left the First Baptist Church of Clarendon have, in less than two decades, grown this church to 750 predominantly young adult singles and couples (many with children). This church has what is described as a large ministerial staff (housed in a small Baptist church building in Clarendon (closed because of its membership was approaching zero)). But it continues to meet in rented public high school space (this may well be a smart move, pre-empting burning down the church (meetinghouse) in order to put maximum resources into people to serve and grow the church).

    • Hey, Jim. There are definitely exceptions, but I think that they prove the rule. I think we’re always going to need congregations, but what will it look like to develop congregations that truly exist to make disciples and equip a movement that heals and renews the world?

  • Brilliant post, Micah!

    When I criticize the church, people think I hate it. But if I didn’t care I wouldn’t advocate a better way. Actually I love the church; it’s just that we’re mostly doing it wrong with our Sunday morning traditions.

    • Thanks, Peter! 🙂

    • Yes! Exactly. I get so frustrated with people saying I’ve “left the church.” In reality, I just believe the church can be so much more than what we’ve settled for.

      • Will, I fear that when many people “leave the church,” they’re acting more like consumers and less like people of faith.

  • Thanks for this. I say stuff like this to people and they look at me like I’m crazy. “Sure the church has problems,” they say, “but there’s no where else to be a Christian.” I want to roll my eyes, but I try not to. I love the body of Christ! I didn’t step away to leave the church behind. I stepped away to pursue a healthier way of being the church.

    • Thanks, Will. That sounds about right.

      At the end of the day, though, I do believe that we find our place in the church when we are located in a community of fellow disciples. I think a lot of people (myself included!) have made the mistake of assuming that this community must meet on Sunday mornings in a designated building.