A sustainable, multi-generational church
“You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” (Second Timothy 2:1-2, ESV)
There seems to be no question that Christianity in this country has fallen on hard times. While there are certainly individual examples of denominations and congregations which continue to experience a measure of growth in membership and attendance, the overall trend appears to be pointing in the direction of significant losses among the churches, both in terms of membership and in terms of the spiritual influence of the churches upon our culture and national life.
This loss of membership, influence and cultural clout is most obvious in the mainline denominations, most of which have been hemorrhaging in terms of membership losses for multiple decades.(1) In their desire to be “with it” and “relevant” to the culture by conforming to the constantly-shifting trends of the culture, ironically the mainline churches have, in large part, become spiritually irrelevant to significant segments of their own membership, who are leaving the mainline in droves for either a secular life or for more orthodox expressions of the Faith. This loss of membership, influence and cultural clout of the churches can also be seen in that an increasing percentage of the population, especially among the younger generations such as “millenials,” are identifying themselves as “nones” (meaning, “no religion” or no formal religious affiliation, or simply “spiritual but not religious”)(2).
It seems that the churches in this nation are doing a poor job in passing along the Christian Faith and sustainable Christian churches to future generations. Sure, the big Walmart-style megachurches in this nation continue to add to their numbers and to pack their large auditoriums with attendees (who, truth be told, are often drawn out of more traditional, less exciting “mom-and-pop”-style churches and from other megachurches in the area which haven’t kept up as well with “the next big thing” in church life). But the evidence seems to be mounting that sooner or later the megachurches too will go the way of the mainline, as some already have. Once the excitement of “the next big thing” has died down, or once the visionary pastor who started the church moves on or dies, such megachurches often seem to quickly sputter and die. For example, this has happened with the late Robert Schuller’s “Crystal Cathedral” megachurch in California, which ended up going bankrupt after his death. (Schuller’s impressive edifice has since been sold to the Roman Catholic Church. See http://www.christcathedralcalifornia.org/)
A visionary, charismatic pastor who runs the church like a CEO runs a business; a large, plush church edifice offering 7-days-a-week “ministries” and activities serving every demographic niche conceivable; church services which are so packed with warm bodies that even members (if such churches even have formal membership, which not all of them do!) can remain almost completely anonymous and safely hidden from view in the crowd; these features attract many today to the megachurch. The megachurches appeal to the radical individualism and autonomy of this present age. But they cannot sustain the church for the long haul, for they do not reflect a biblical model for a sustainable church that will thrive for multiple generations.
How, then, can we in the church pass on to future generations a more sustainable, multigenerational church, especially in light of all the challenges Christ’s church faces in our current cultural climate? Over at the White Horse Inn the Reformed theologian, Dr. Michael Horton, along with his co-hosts, have been doing an excellent series recently on sustainable churches. I strongly recommend that all serious-minded Christians who are concerned about the future of Christ’s church listen to these podcasts(3):
“Sustainable Churches”: http://www.whitehorseinn.org/blog/entry/2015-show-archive/2015/07/05/whi-1265-sustainable-churches
“The Nature of Spiritual Growth”: http://www.whitehorseinn.org/blog/entry/2015-show-archive/2015/07/12/whi-1266-the-nature-of-spiritual-growth
“Celebrity Pastors”: http://www.whitehorseinn.org/blog/entry/2015-show-archive/2015/07/26/whi-1268-celebrity-pastors
(1) I suspect that if current trends in the mainline continue, many of the mainline Protestant denominations in this nation will be closing up shop entirely in a generation or two, or at least severely downsizing. It appears that some of them are only surviving off the sale of church buildings and the generosity of endowments from a more orthodox past.
(2) While I don’t agree with or endorse everything the writer states, here is an interesting article on the “nones” and how they are changing the religious landscape of our nation: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gary-laderman/the-rise-of-religious-non_b_2913000.html For further information on the “nones,” go here: http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/
(3) Each podcast is about 30 minutes in length. If your time is limited, I would at least recommend that you make time to listen to the first one, on “Sustainable Churches.”