“This is the time you invest in the future; it is in tough times that you build to bring you to a better future,” affirmed Paul Goldburger consulting on the over-haul and refurbishing of New York’s Penn Station train hall. [i] In June of 2019 New York State Senator Brad Hoyman wrote an op-ed in the Gothan Gazette entitled, “Penn Station Needs a Complete Overhaul. We Must Start Now,” where he asserted,
“Transit experts have spoken extensively about the serious safety concerns within Penn Station—from overcrowded platforms, to a lack of accessible exits and signage on what to do in the event of an emergency…there are a host of other improvements that should also be considered.” He went on to say, “We need to look at Penn Station and the surrounding area in Midtown West comprehensively to solve this problem in a way that makes sense for commuters, residents, workers nearby, and New York as a whole” and concludes, “If we don’t get to work to fix Penn Station now, it won’t ever happen. It’s time to act.” [ii]
What if we applied the same sentiments, enthusiasm and drive to bring the church to a better future during these difficult times? Over the past couple decades, we’ve heard the ominous language used to describe Christianity in America as well as to the churches of Christ, “steep declines, plateaued, and downward trends.” Culturally, we have witnessed growing hostility towards Christianity; a rise in those who are churchless; and increased disengagement among younger millennials and GenZ. These unsettling trends have not abated but continue to intensify. My fear is that if we do not get to work these disturbing drifts will worsen and we will have made ourselves inconsequential to the mission of Jesus (Luke 19:10). It’s time to act.
Over the past decade the warning shots have whizzed over our heads, “American churches of Christ have lost 200 people every week for more than ten years running. For the last ten years, every week in America, a church of Christ goes out of business and closes its door forever.”[iii] The alarms continue to sound forth: “The fastest growing religious group in the U.S. is that of the ‘Nones,’ those who claim no religion. By 2018 42.7% of all millennials were religiously unaffiliated and GenZ, born in 1995, are currently right there with the millennials at 42.3% unaffiliated.[iv]
If these few statistics are not alarming enough, there are the recent polls conducted by Barna’s research group in mid 2020 that carry their own threatening voice in the midst of the pandemic:[v]
32 percent of practicing Christians have dropped out completely.
50 percent of Millennials have stopped attending church or viewing online.
57 percent of Generation Z are unchurched.
So, it is time for action. If we truly want what God wants for this lost world, we must act. God wishes none to perish, but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Do we wish the same? God works to fill the earth with his knowledge and glory (Hab. 2:14), and wants all to recline at the kingdom table (Lk. 13:29). Do we yearn for the same? Jesus wants us to go forth and “make disciples” (Matt. 19:20) and glorify his Father by bearing “much fruit” (John 15:8). Do our desires align with Jesus’ desires? We are not just talking about doing something novice, something distinctive or something unconventional for the sake of being different, but rather fitting ourselves to align with our missional God and our incarnate Christ for the sake of the lost.
While the Coronavirus has brought its own challenges, this is not a time to sit back and watch as already-in-motion downward trends continue to move the church to decline. So, what are we to do? After all, things have been tough during this pandemic. I get it. Many have already adjusted, innovated, and launched into totally new areas to keep members connected. We just want to shout, “Can things just get back to normal!” Yet, when all is said and done, normal is not where we need to end up. If normal means keep doing what we were doing, we will find ourselves less relevant to the lost world around us. If we are to meet and respond to the needs of a post-Christian and post-pandemic culture then now is the time to act. Now may be the best time to rekindle, refocus, refurbish and renew ourselves towards a better future. Two areas in particular stand out providing a spring board to leap us forward.
First, PARADIGM SHIFTS. Our basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodology need revision:
Location-based to Body-based. Shifting from being building-centric to being body-centric. The church is bigger than the building. Our focus on the church building has made us like our weekly giving, we’ve become “separate and apart” from those we are trying to reach. We need to move to an Acts 2:42-46 rhythm that reflects living on mission daily. This could include prayer-walks, lunch/Bible studies, impromptu “join me for dinner” gatherings, Life groups connecting daily through common scripture readings and prayer, and conducting smaller group Bible studies or worship out in public places rather than at the building. We need a permeating sweet-aroma presence (2 Corinthians 2:14-17) out and about in our communities allowing others to see Jesus where they live.
Event-Oriented to Lifestyle-Oriented. Shifting from attractional, asking people to come to us and our events (mostly at the building) to missional, sending our people out to be missionaries in the marketplace. Making the transition from event-focused to daily-mission-focused brings Jesus to people. Events planned by the church often rely on people coming to us, lifestyle-oriented evangelism allows us to join people where they are: coffee houses, restaurants, workplace, neighborhood, or recreations. In addition to being a gathering people we need a renewed sense of what it means to be a scattering people, taking the message out to the masses.
Inward-focused to Outward-focused. We need to come to the realization that the church itself is not the mission, but that the church is God’s mission for the world. We’ve done pretty good at creating ministries and events that solely serve the body, but how are we doing at serving and reaching the lost around us? Where does your community need to be served? What niches need to be reached? Who are the over-looked and often-forgotten individuals that need a helping hand? A turn to mission mindedness in our local context with the view to share the gospel and make disciples will lay the foundation for bringing us to a better future.
Second, NEW METRICS. We must move away from having our sole measurements of spiritual health being: attendance, building size, and budget. What metrics would Jesus use to check the spiritual pulse of the church today? If not the “big three” then what? Here are a few healthier and more Christ-centered metrics to consider:
- Are disciples being made?
- Are disciples being equipped to share the gospel?
- Is there an increase in gospel conversations with non-Christians?
- Are new missional niches being reached and established?
- Is there increased ownership of mission/vision by members?
- Is leadership being developed?
- Are non-Christians in Bible studies and being baptized into Christ?
- Are members actively sharing the message of Jesus?
- Is there an increased percentage of individuals involved in Discipleship Groups?
- Is there an increased percentage reaching out in tangible ways to the community?
- Are guests entering and connecting with members?
- Are we partnering with God’s work in people allowing giftedness?
- Are we learning the language of people outside the church?
- Are we listening to God, our local community, and one another?
- Has fasting and prayer become part of our reliance and rhythm?
- Are we living abundant missional lives where we live (being salt and light)?
- Are our ministries designed with the lost of our community in mind?
- Are we growing to become more like Jesus?
- Where have we’ve seen the power of the Holy Spirit at work?
- Where have we’ve seen Jesus breaking out in our lives?
- How many languages/ethnic/cultural backgrounds are represented as we gather?
- How often are we sharing and celebrating stories of God’s work in the world?
The burdens of the pandemic have been great. Many congregations are struggling at times to keep their head above water. Yet, the shifts in our daily rhythm have also given us time to reevaluate, reflect, and ask “What is church?” Hopefully we have realized that the church is bigger than the building, at least that is a start. Let’s continue the journey of rediscovering our mission realizing this is not the time to wait things out, this is a time for action. We cannot remain the same or go back to normal if we truly desire to turn the tide on what are increasingly troubling trends. We can resist needed changes and become more isolated and removed from those we ought to be seeking and reaching, or we can engage the changes needed making ourselves more approachable and accessible to those looking for Jesus.
It was in the middle of the pandemic, that the renovation and expansion of Penn Station finished on December 31 of 2020. New Yorkers had waited decades for Penn Station to be reimagined. New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, stated,
“This monumental accomplishment is a shot of hope as we come out of one of darkest periods in our history and sends a clear message to the world that while we suffered greatly as a result of this once-in-a-century health crisis, the pandemic did not stop us from dreaming big and building for the future.”[vi]
I also hope that the pandemic does not stop us from dreaming big and building for the future. Paul S. Williams concluding charge in his book, Exiles on Mission, speaks to the task before us:
“It is time to face up to the missional challenges of our generation; to sharpen our focus, perception, and prayer lives; to resolutely seek awareness of what God is doing so as to follow him; and to harness our resources as if we mean business. It is time to move out and once again become a people of the Way.”[vii]
Amen! I don’t believe the church can wait any longer, pandemic or no pandemic, the time to act is now.
[i] Paul Godburger, a Pulitzer prize winner architectural critic, interview by Jeff Glor of CBS This Morning Saturday, January 2, 2021.
[ii] Hoylma, Brad. Gotham Gazette, “Penn Station Needs a Complete Overhaul. We Must Start Now.” June 07, 2019.
[iii] Young, David M. New Day, Restoring the Revolutionary Mission of Christ’s Church, p.42.
[iv] Burge, Ryan P. Christianity Today, “The Possible Decline of the Nones Isn’t a Boost for Evangelicals,” March 3, 2020.
[v] Barna.com Research, State of the Church 2020.
[vii] Williams, Paul S. Exiles on Mission: How Christians Can Thrive in a Post-Christian World. Dec. 27, 2020.