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As droves leave the church, I see an opportunity, not tragedy
Here’s some bad news for Christendom, but maybe good news for church planters: according to Pew and quoting the New York Times: “Seventy-one percent of American adults were Christian in 2014, the lowest estimate from any sizable survey to date, and a decline of 5 million adults and 8 percentage points since a similar Pew survey in 2007.”
Yikes! An eight percent drop! Makes me proud of the incremental, slowly but surely, growth of Circle of Hope.
Generally, millennials aren’t joining the church while long-time Christians are dying. But people of all ages are joining the “nones,” that vague title includes atheists, agnostics, and people who don’t believe in anything. It’s not clear exactly why this is happening, but it doesn’t affect all faiths (and even “evangelical Protestants” have increased in raw numbers).
So what does this all mean? I think it points to the seduction of the capitalist desire. We are now glued to our screens, enslaved at underpaying jobs, and hoping we’ll make enough money to buy the things and live in the place that will give us the narcisstic projection that we have succeeded. In your face boomers!
More than that, though, I think it points to the abject failure of the modern church, especially Mainline and Catholic churches. Even though Evangelicals seem to have grown, they are not keeping up with population growth. Whereas, some have argued that the reasoning behind this is that people of "younger generations who are religious are more interested in a relationship with God they can sense; Catholicism is more ritual-based and many mainline churches have rejected much of the supernatural dimension of Christianity and an interactive relationship with God is less real for them." I'm not so sure that's the case. I like what Ed Stetzer says here, but I do not think that people are simply becoming more honest about their nominal faith, nor do I think it is just a matter of intellectual honesty. It is convenient for Evangelicals to merely point the finger at their Mainline and Catholic brothers and sisters and say, "Hey! We're growing." But even they aren't matching population growth and that is a problem. Here are some more reasons what I am hearing from millennials, and why I might struggle to find a church home if it weren't for Circle of Hope.
The church has sold itself to the Republican Party. For the G.O.P. this may mean that winning another election may be harder than simply relying on the moral majority. But beyond the banality of politics, it seems to me like following the Elephant is just less attractive to a generation impacted by the quagmire war, corporate politics, and being unempowered.
The church has also stayed stuck on age-old debates that only they are interested in. We are stuck in the 16th-Century arguing with Calvin and Wesley, and not moving into a the new era. The pastors just spoke about this in a videocast entitled: “Why are Christians saying things that don't make a difference anymore?”
The church has become a product of the capitalist machine. Butts in seat, megachurches, and arbitrary growth goals echo in the minds of millennials and, honestly, I do not think they are interested. Ironically, they rebel against the machine that contemporary churches embody, while also allow it to subvert their whole lifestyle.
I think this is ultimately an opportunity. Circle of Hope has always had a special interest in the next generation, or at least, I have—mainly because I am the next generation. I am the millennial in question. And I am part of a church that wildly succeeds at including the people that are leaving the church in droves. Sometimes, we get criticized for not having enough ‘older people,’ but I am happy that we are meeting the people that are hardest to include. I think God is blessing us. Here are a few reasons why I think Circle of Hope works at meeting the “nones.”
Cells. Our cells are a safe place to meet Jesus. Jesus is in the body of Christ, and the cells are like little churches—little expressions of the body of Christ. So people meet Jesus, when they meet each other. More than the content of the meeting (which is usually a rich dialogue surrounding the Bible), is the fact that we are meeting intentionally, face-to-face, in a city where such opportunities are rare.
Community. Perhaps more than any part of reputation, our communal life is well known. People get connected to our community and all of a sudden, don’t just have new friends, they have support, love, and grace. Our community meets needs, but helps people feel known and loved in the desert of isolation and individuality central Philadelphia is. It is unique.
Public meetings. The PMs are vibrant times for worship, but more than that, they are opportunities to enter into a missional context, they are opportunities to get a purpose beyond our jobs, our debts, and our dates. The public meetings are an entry point, a launch pad, not a destination.
Compassion. In a world desperate for justice, we offer compassionate opportunities that are rooted in changing the world and creating an alternative. We are known for it across town and the whole country actually. Our compassion teams live and die on people’s passion and aren’t subject to the electoral college of the judicial system. Thank God we can create an alternative and don’t have to form a political action committee to make our voice hear. We have the ear of our Lord and Savior!
Although this news is disheartening, I am emboldened and excited for the opportunity to plant the church. People may be leaving the church, but I have an empty chair for them to sit it and try something new and very old out. I hope you can help, too.