Last month Ken and I celebrated 20 years by flying to Oregon to attend an SOE (Standards Of Excellence) workshop and the MissionConnexion STM Conference. Yes, we are romantics haha. — I will make note that Ken did totally (for my “This Is Us” fan friends) “Jack” our anniversary. I highly recommend both of these conferences for churches looking to develop or strengthen their missions program. However, I was a bit disappointed with the event because I arrived at the conference with a different set of questions on my mind. Questions this conference was not intended to address. (Again, the conference is wonderful. This was an it’s me, not you situation.)
For the last 9 months, I have been chewing on some hard realities about the American Church. Ken and I had the opportunity to participate in two church plants in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. It was during this time that the American church realized it was rapidly becoming irrelevant to the everyday American. So we became a part of the leadership that dressed up the Bride. We put her in new clothes, simplified her language, modernized her music and embraced technology. By early 2000…. WOW! The richer portions of The Bride looked sooo good…. She was that girl you date and enjoy spending an hour basking in her beauty once a week and don’t even think about her for the next 6 days. She became the girl anyone could consume anytime and anywhere until she asked for something in return or were just tired of her completely. During the early 2000’s, the average community-based church continued to die while the larger “mega” church (the rich, attractive Bride) grew in numbers. Some had over 40,000 attendees each weekend. These churches were able to pay for staff to run children’s church and hospitality, fed our culture’s need for surface spirituality but left “attendees” feeling dry from lack of purpose and genuine community. As a result, in the last few years, even these well-adorned Brides are seeing a decline in both attendance and giving.
This reality led me to grapple with new questions. The questions that swirled in my head at the STM conference.
If the megachurch "dies", what happens to our vast array of church-facilitated missions and local outreach programs? What will church-based missions look like in 20 years? Can the church be the church without missions?
The reality is that church leaders are beginning to experience a new tension as they are forced to decide between keeping the lights on, paying their committed staff a living wage, providing fun and engaging programming or investing in missions and outreach. Each church will have to make painful cuts. As a result, I, as someone who is passionate about missions, have to confront the reality that some of these churches will choose to keep internal church programs going at the expense of missions. Or maybe redefine their programs as mission.
Side Note: I spent years as a Hospice nurse, so when I use the term Dying Church it does not mean total loss and destruction to me. It means the church in the form we know is being forced to take on a new form…. Like Isaiah 61
Ok, now back to my questions….
Many solutions have been rolled around in my circles about how outreach can survive in the era of the “dying” or transforming the church. One of the most prominent ideas is that churches should outsource outreach to local or international self-sustaining, non-profits. This keeps the manpower and financial burden off the drowning church and ensures that those in need will be provided for. But, I’m not sure the Bride is the Bride if she is not actively engaged in self-sacrificially loving her neighbor. It leaves me with the image of whitewashed tombs.
There has also been those who have been inspired to get back to the roots of the early church. I have been slowly wading my way through the book “The Patient Fermentation of the Early Church, The Impossible Rise of Christianity in the Roman Empire” , by Alan Kreider. This book requires lots of patience and time for fermentation but I am learning a ton about the practices of the early church. This book talks about how Christianity grew from an outcast’s belief to Rome’s national religion in just 300 years. Yes, Rome becoming a Christian nation had a lot to do with the heavy hand of Constantine, but there is something about the simple worship-filled life of the early church that got the fire going. Something my heart longs for…
The early church was human and imperfect, but I think we should take a few hints from our founding fathers…
The Early Church
They met in small community groups in homes.
All were considered equal. No differentiation was made in relation to gender, ethnicity, rank or financial status.
Tithes were primarily used to care for those in need in the community.
Living in very tight living spaces and under persecution, the early church held community close.
The focus was on prayer, worship, and discipleship.
These days the new/old, usually home-based, churches have struggled to get going and tend to fall away due to lack of infrastructure and support that is found in larger church structures.
This leads me to ask even more questions….
Is there a 3rd path? What if the Body of Christ looked more like the one found in the book of Acts or 2nd century Rome, yet stayed connected to a larger body for support? What would happen if we released a few staff members and replaced them with volunteers and bi-vocational pastors or sold or rented out a building or two? Would the church be the church without these things? What would missions look like in this type of setting? Would the Bride be as beautiful without all the adornment? Is the simple radiance of the Spirit of God that pours out love and compassion enough to transform lives?
What do you think the church will look like in 20 years? How will that impact missions as we know it?