December 3, 2014

The church: where we're going, why, and with whom

In the last post, we looked at “The church: where we’re coming from and where we’ve been” as individual and denominational parts of the Body of Christ. This time we’ll consider where we’re going, why, and with whom.

Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on our own assumptions and opinions. For the last couple of decades, the Barna Group has interviewed thousands of men and women with no church affiliation or ties. Editors George Barna and David Kinnaman then presented their findings in the book, Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them, published by Tyndale Momentum, an imprint of Tyndale House Publishers.

As a highly ecumenical Christian who has loved Christ and the church in all of its parts since my early childhood, I welcomed the complimentary review copy of Churchless from Tyndale Blog Network. For one thing, I cannot imagine a world without the church, but more importantly, I cannot imagine – nor do I want to! – a life without Christ.

When I was growing up almost everyone “went to church.” In recent years though, Christians have begun to see and say, “We ARE the church.” So, I’m wondering: Are people falling away from Christ or from us?

In requesting this review copy, I wanted to see how other people see Christ. I wanted to know why church doors are closing and why Christian fellowship isn’t being sought. I wanted to find out if statistics can help us to assess and address relevant issues in our churches and/or our writing lives. But mostly, I just wanted to know what we can do!

Although the book did not answer all of my questions, the editors immediately laid out a statement that, typographically, slows down our reading and summarizes the situation:

“If we perceive the gap
between ‘us’ and ‘them’
as W I D E and
essentially uncrossable,
we are less likely
to get close enough
to offer ourselves
in real relationships.”

To that summation, the editors later added, “We hear again and again, both from the unchurched and from local churches that are deeply engaged with the unchurched in their communities, that loving, genuine relationships are the only remaining currency readily exchanged between the churched and the churchless.”

Thinking of ourselves as poets, writers, publishers, or other communicators for Christ, we might ask:

With whom will I get up close and purposeful?

To whom will I offer my poems, books, or other manuscripts?

How might my writing help draw others to Christ and the church?

To find out what we’re up against, I appreciated the quick overview of stats at the beginning of the book that offered this information:

• The Minimally Churched (8%) Attend church infrequently and unpredictably

• The Actively Churched (49%) Attend church at least once a month

• The De-Churched (33%) Were once active in church but are no longer

• The Purely Unchurched (10%) Do not currently and have never attended a church

And so, right away, we find out that 57% of the 20,000+ American adults interviewed do go to church, while 43% do not or never have. To put those present statistics into perspective with the past, only 30% of the people were churchless in the 1990s.

In those earlier years, of course, the Internet did not provide social outlets that meet or, perhaps, mask our need for fellowship. Not only that, but the “digital shift” shifted “the expectation, especially among young people, that they can and should contribute, not just consume. Online technologies… enable any connected person to add his or her image, idea, or opinion to the digital mix. If you consider how most churches deliver content – appointing one person as the authority and encouraging everyone else to sit (consume) quietly while he or she speaks – it is easy to see how that delivery system may come into conflict with changing cultural expectations.”

That same digital connectedness, however, gives poets, writers, and other communicators for Christ direct, instantaneous access to people from the proverbial four corners of the earth!

Nevertheless, we have gaps to fill and negative views to overcome. For example:

“Of those who could identify one way Christians contribute to the common good, the unchurched appreciate their influence when it comes to serving the poor and disadvantaged (22 percent), bolstering morals and values (10 percent), and helping people believe in God (8 percent)./ Among those who had a complaint about Christians in society, the unchurched were least favorably disposed toward violence in the name of Christ (18 percent), the church’s stand against gay marriage (15 percent), sexual abuse scandals (13 percent), and being involved in politics (10 percent).”

With “one out of every five young adults… an exile who feels lost between church culture and the wider culture he or she feels called to inhabit and influence,” we can help by coming together as one Body ready to love, serve, forgive, and heal cultural differences, perhaps through communal outings or community concerts or concerted efforts to reach the underprivileged in our local areas.

We can help by forgiving one another and encouraging others to forgive.

We can help by counseling and educating people about the work of the church throughout history, for example, in establishing some of the finest universities in the world and establishing – throughout the world – orphanages, hospitals, and other missions that meet needs.

As Christians come together, our primary purpose is to worship and fellowship with God, which gives us fellowship, too, with one another. This connection makes us one in spirit and one part of the larger Body of Christ, where we then have the strength, power, and purpose – as a church – to educate, influence, and evangelize others in Jesus’ Name.

©2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer, is an ecumenical Christian poet, writer, and lifelong lover of Christ, the Bible, and the church in all its parts.

Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect with Them, hardback

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