Friday, October 28, 2016

RICK BROWN: Churches must adapt to changing times

By Rick Brown, |October 26, 2016

If we only listen to statistics, there is great cause for concern for the future of the church in America. The current reality is this: no major Christian tradition is growing in the U.S. today.

The Christian faith is not growing as fast as the population growth. That means that any growth is still keeping us very far behind the same rate our population is growing. There are great challenges ahead.

Think about it: how exactly would any church connect with its community in a way to bring them together into something called a church? Every city has a story. And every person in the city has a story. Each person represents a vision for their own life. Different philosophies of life. Different politics. 

Different personalities.

It's a big challenge. But it is not a challenge unique to us. Just a few weeks after Jesus ascended into heaven a ragtag group of his followers met in an upper room. There were 120 of them. That's it. Tasked with the job of being witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth.

And yet they did it. They were not even large enough to make a blip on the screen of the population of the day. And within 300 years when Constantine needed something to pull a fractured Roman Empire together, he would make Christianity the official religion because it had grown so large - even with its opposition and persecution - that it was the one thing most of his people had in common.

If that could happen then, could we dream that it will happen now?

Not if we look at our current reality. 18 to 29 year-olds make up 22 percent of the U.S. population but only 10 percent of the church population. 40-50 percent of youth group seniors drift from God and the faith community after they graduate high school. 78 percent of those who check the box labeled "none" on religious affiliation surveys were raised in a particular religious group but now claim no connection with them.

These are sobering statistics. It's a big challenge. But it is not a new challenge. In fact, it's an exciting challenge! It is not a time to despair and long for the good old days. It is a time to jettison the canoes and climb the mountains. Let me explain.

Lewis and Clark set out to find a waterway passage to the Pacific. They believed what everyone before them believed: that the unexplored west was the same geography as the familiar east. When they instead found the Rockies they had a decision to make. Abort the mission or adapt and adventure. They had to get out of their canoes and learn how to instead navigate the Rockies. (See "Canoeing the Mountains" by Tod Bolsinger for more.)

That's what we have to do in the church today. We've come this far in canoes. We've done what we've known to do. But from this point on what is behind us will not necessarily help. We have to learn new/old ways of being a church if we want to see health and we want to see our kids carry the faith. The pre-Christian world of the New Testament can inform and guide the post-Christian world we find ourselves in today.

The church needs to not focus so much on developing programs as it needs to focus on developing people. That was Paul's vision. In Galatians 4:19 he writes: "I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you." Spiritual formation of followers of Jesus was his goal.

The "you" he speaks of is plural. The church did this together. When they were faced with challenges larger than ours in the Upper Room we are told they were "of one mind." It's a unique Greek word: homothymadon. 10 of the 12 times it is used in the New Testament it is used in Acts. It tells us how unique the Christian community was. It is a compound word made up of two words that mean "to rush along" and "in unison."

And that's what they did. The Spirit blew them along together. And in doing so they formed people spiritually. They reproduced faith communities where "Christ was formed."

We've got to change the statistics. We have to adapt. And as the church today "rushes along in unison" it will have the adventure of a lifetime.

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