I believe that there will be many new and challenging issues facing the church as we plow into the 21st century. There is the pervading post-modern culture to engage in, the rise of Islam to contend with, and economic hardship to struggle with. However, the trend that concerns me the most and will need to be addressed throughout the course of my ministry is what Pastor and author Reggie McNeal calls “post-congregational Christians.”
He says, “A growing number of people are leaving the institutional church for a new reason. They are not leaving because they have lost faith. They are leaving the church to preserve faith. They contend that the church no longer contributes to their spiritual development. In fact, they say, quite the opposite is true. The number of “post-congregational” Christians is growing. David Barret, author of the World Christian Encyclopedia, estimates that there are about 112 million “churchless Christians” worldwide, about 5 percent of all adherents, but he projects that number will double in the next twenty years” (McNeal 4 — 5).
Spiritual and/or Religious
So why are people staying away from congregational worship and membership? It appears that there are two strong contributors. First, as stated above by McNeal, some people feel that the church does not help them grow spiritually. According to them, the congregation does not have a lot to offer and they are not being fed there. The other reason has to do with this ugly word called religion. A recent article in USA Today gave the results of a survey done by LifeWay Christian Resources. This organization conducted a survey of 1,200 18-29 year-olds and found that 72% claim to be more spiritual than religious (Grossman). Many people, especially younger people do not want to be considered religious and the way of thinking seems to be that if you have membership at a congregation then religious is exactly what you are. The pervading mindset is that being called religious is an insult that says you are closed-minded, shut off from the world, and that you think you are better than everybody else.
Now let me start by saying that I do believe that you can be a Christian and have a saving faith in Jesus without attending a church congregation. However, I do not agree with the theological understanding, “Once saved, always saved.” Christians that do not have the support of a caring congregation and the guidance of a loving shepherd are in danger of losing their faith. The souls of millions are in jeopardy and this is why the post-congregational issue concerns me deeply.
Christians that do not have the support of a caring congregation and the guidance of a loving shepherd are in danger of losing their faith.
So how can the church prepare for this ongoing challenge? First, we need to address the criticism of those who claim they are not being spiritually fed. Now I think the church often starts off on the wrong foot trying to address this issue because we misunderstand what it means to be fed. We think being fed means meeting people’s needs such as security, intimacy, friendship, and direction. The church addresses these needs by striving toward having bigger and better programs. Our pastors focus on being counselors and allocators of advice. However, people can meet these needs through other organizations other than a church congregation and at a more convenient time than Sunday mornings or Wednesday evenings.
Meeting people’s needs is a good thing. However what we really need to be focusing on is what the church has to offer that no other organization can. Ultimately, there is only one thing that separates the church from other organizations. It is where God promises to be present and where he speaks. Granted, God is omnipresent (everywhere at all times) but he promises to be with us in worship in a special way and when we go to church we can be sure to hear God speak to us. If one were to ask a Christian where Jesus is, the typical answer they would receive is, “He is in heaven (at the right hand of God the Father)” or “He is in my heart,” but one would hardly hear the response that Jesus is in the church. It is important to recognize that Jesus is active today and is speaking to us through the office of preaching which he instituted. This includes preaching and the administration of the sacraments of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and confession and absolution. Jesus’ ministry did not end when he ascended to heaven but he is continuing his work of salvation through the office of preaching.
Ministry in and to the World
It is imperative that Christians be working with the right narrative. Often when we think of Christ’s work of salvation, we point to his active obedience and death as the payment for our sins. This is most certainly true, but we need to remember how Christ worked out salvation. When Christ entered into the world his whole life and ministry — not only his death on the cross — was his work of salvation. Jesus forgave sins, healed people, cast out demons, and raised people from the dead. When Jesus spoke forgiveness to the paralytic man, that man was experiencing Christ’s salvation in that moment in time.
It is no wonder people fail to see the need to go to church when the story they operate with is: Jesus died for me sometime around A.D. 37. This makes salvation appear as though it is something that was done a long time ago and doesn’t have a lot of relevance today. The story that people need to take hold of is this: Jesus brought with him the kingdom of God when he entered the world; through his ministry he was working salvation, he continued that ministry through commissioning the Apostles, and continues his ministry today through the church. The church is where we receive God’s grace and salvation here and now.
As I have continued to think about this problem of Christians not attending church I am starting to think that giving reasons for going to church and attempting to convince people may be the wrong approach. A better approach would be to “do church” in a way that conforms to that which makes it so special — it is where God speaks. For example, many sermons today turn into self-help lectures that give good and sound advice. The problem is as I said earlier, that you can go find good advice at other places other than the church. These sermons do not meet our vital need to be transformed by the Gospel. Preaching should ultimately look like this: a man speaking God’s transforming word of law and gospel. Preachers of today need to make preaching what God intended it to be, God speaking to his people.
In order to feed people preachers need to be proclaiming God rather than explaining him. “We have to stop explaining God. Words and opinions about God do not help anyone” (Forde 41). This is not to say that explanation is not a good thing. Catechesis, teaching, and apologetics are all wonderful things. “Not every sermon, certainly not even the entire sermon, will or must be proclamation. But it is what the theologian, the preacher, must eventually be aiming at” (Forde 45).
I believe what Forde means by “Words about God do not help anyone” is that they do not get to the root of the problem. A phrase that he likes to use is, “The only solution to the problem of the absolute is absolution” (Forde 155). We are corrupt sinners attempting to approach a Holy God. Explaining who this God is does not get us anywhere. We need Jesus, the revealed God to intervene for us. We need to be justified; we need to be forgiven. Therefore, preaching in most cases should be a speech-act. The preaching should actually do something; it should give us Jesus. The preaching should do what Jesus commissioned his apostles to do — retain and forgive sins, or, in other words, kill and make alive. This kind of preaching allows God to speak instead of being spoken about and in turn feed those who need to be fed.
We need to be justified; we need to be forgiven. Therefore, preaching in most cases should be a speech-act.
The other thing that the church needs to do to address the problem of “post-congregational Christians” is to re-invent the word “religious.” The church needs to change its reputation of being closed-minded, shut off from the world, and better than everyone else. Whether these accusations are fair or not we need to do something about it.
The first way that this can be done is simply by working harder to have genuine relationships with people. We need to honestly try to reach out and get to know people. We need to show people that we honestly care about them, no matter who they are, and that we have no hidden agenda. People today do not want to feel like they have a target on their back and that they are going to be the next tally mark on someone’s evangelism scoreboard. We live in a culture that constantly bombards us with advertisements trying to sell us their product or service. The church needs to make sure that it is not just adding one more ad campaign to the bunch. The church needs to be more than just one more organization trying to sell their product.
We need to be real and authentic with people. We should have open discussions and dialogues with each other respecting each other’s opinions. We do not have to be bashful or embarrassed about what we confess to be true, but we also don’t need to bash people over the head with our beliefs either. We have to be willing to plant seeds and let the Holy Spirit do his work.
Finally, we need to get into the community and do service. We need to be the church in our communities by listening to Jesus and serving one another. We need to shatter the perception that the church just wants to close itself off from the world and live inside its own little bubble. We can do this by getting out and helping those who are poor, oppressed, and abused. We can do this by celebrating with our communities and being a part of community events.
When people hear the word religious, we want them to think that it means being one of those people that cares about others. We want them to think that it means being one of those people that listens to others. It means being one of those people that helps others and serves them because of what God has done for them. We want them to think that being religious is something special and that they would like to be a part of that — perhaps at their local congregation.
Forde, Gerhard O. The Preached God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.
Grossman, Cathy L. “Survey: 72% of Millenials ‘More Spiritual than Religious.” USA Today 27 April 2010. http://usatoday.com/news/religion/2010-04-27-1Amillfaith27_ST_N.htm.
McNeal, Reggie. The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003.