There was a really good book that got made into an okay movie called ‘I, Robot’ where, in the future, robots try to take control of the world from humanity after the achievement of AI (Artificial Intelligence). Anyway, the plot of the movie isn’t important to what I’m talking about. What is important, however, is one vital plot section where the detective has a pre-programmed virtual recording of a dead scientist that will answer questions that relate to the investigation. The scientist knew he was going to be killed and, to help the investigation, has a preset system of answers to questions to help the investigation.
Here’s the important part; throughout the investigation the detective asks different questions and the hologram keeps telling him, “I’m sorry… You must ask the right questions.” He keeps finding more clues and, eventually, he asks a question and the hologram replies with, “That, detective, is the right question.” Asking the right question allowed the detective to crack the case and eventually save humanity from being overtaken by the robots. It’s a great plot twist for sure.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that portion of the movie. Over and over I keep replaying that part where the detective finally gets to the main idea and the hologram tells him that he has finally asked the right question. Here’s why it’s been on my mind so much: I think we as the Church have been asking the wrong question for decades now. We have tried a variety of things to get people to come back to church and get plugged in to our local church communities yet people are still leaving the Church in droves. We are also living in a time where Christianity is waning so much that it may no longer be the world’s main religion within the next 40 years (pewresearchcenter.corg).
What is causing such a change in world culture and the slow but steady decline in Christianity? To answer such a question would take an entire book to write about (one of my favorites is Revolution by George Barna). What I will do quickly is recap the last 30 years of Church history to help get into where we are today and my point in this post. For centuries, Christianity was spread by missionaries and local church communities who truly wanted to impact their areas for the Gospel. Generation after generation embraced the Judeo-Christian worldview and it was just expected to do things like read the Bible and be part of the church community. In the 1900s however, world-wide issues such as 5 wars, massive technological advances, and scientific discoveries took the focus off of localized religion and placed it on globalization and gave rise to humanism.
During this time we saw the rise and fall of the ‘modern’ generation. Modernism depicts the generation from the mid-1800s through the late 1900s where people began to focus on science and reasoning and away from faith and spirituality. Ironically, modernists were willing to take the Bible as a starting point but were loath to speak about spiritual issues (this was the generation brought up to never talk about politics, sex, money, or religion). Yet, as the modernist movement waned and the postmodernist movement began we saw a trend to the opposite of the previous view; now people are more than willing to talk about spiritual things, politics, sex, and finances but quickly see you as intolerant if you subscribe to only one view as correct.
As we moved through the modernist movement and into postmodernism American culture was inundated with Darwinian evolution, war on a global scale, world-wide industrialization, and scientific advances that replaced a deep-seated trust in Christianity to provide the answers to life. It is with this backdrop that the Church in America got too comfortable and saw a steady decline in church attendance even though most Americans would still identify as Christian. The problem is that a person can label themselves as Christian without practicing the lifestyle they espouse (this is much more predominant in the southern U.S.).
This is the environment the American Church found themselves in during the late 1900s and early 2000s. In response to this environment, the American Church largely experienced in great numbers the Emergent Church movement. This was an attempt to draw people back into local church communities by updating the atmosphere through changing sanctuaries into auditoriums, choirs in to praise bands, pastors wearing suits into becoming hipsters, paper Bibles into verses projected onto televisions, dressy church attire into casual clothing, and the focus switching from doctrine into basic spiritual life skills (for more information see Church History Vol. II by John D. Woodbridge or The Story of Christianity Vol. 2 by Justo L. Gonzalez).
Yet, all of these changes have not created the net result that was hoped for. Studies still show that the vast majority of Americans will not go into religious buildings during their life time and that having faith is valued but what faith it is doesn’t matter near as much as having a faith system in general (Ibid, Barna). I posted this article (http://faithit.com/12-reasons-millennials-over-church-sam-eaton/) on Facebook earlier this week but consider some of these startling statistics about this current generation and faith:
- Only 2 in 10 Americans under 30 believe attending a church is important or worthwhile (an all-time low).
- 59 percent of millennials raised in a church have dropped out.
- 35 percent of millennials have an anti-churchstance, believing the church does more harm than good.
- Millennials are the least likely age group of anyone to attend church (by far).
This is a very, very big problem. I cannot state this emphatically enough. If this trend keeps going we are only 1 (maybe 2) generations away from the church in America being dead. The church community my grandparents were so active in during their lifetime has slowly died off and now they have around 10 people each week. As the final members die off, quite literally, their church community will die. The building will be there but the people will be gone. It will be a museum of the past and how life used to be lived in our area. The failure of their church community to reach out and build relationships with the next generation caused them to slowly die off.
This is a very real sampling of what is happening to the church in America on a large scale. We are seeing the church in America fail to reach out to the next generation and, if we do not find a way to be effective, we will become like my grandparent’s church community: a museum to the past. This can be seen all throughout Europe where church buildings have been converted into museums that people tour through and observe the way things used to be and see the testimony of the failings of the Church to reach out to the next generation in a meaningful way.
Because of this, I think that we have to reassess the approach we have been taking. We have been trying to reach this generation the same way we reached the previous generation. This, however, is simply not working. Read the article I posted on Facebook; it says much of what I would write here. What I will say is that I think we must do because I think we have done what our forefathers did: we have tried to bring people into the church building and thought that would be enough. We have trusted that like the movie said, ‘if we build it, they will come.’ Yet they are not coming.
The reason why I brought up the situation from the movie “I, Robot.” The detective spent all of his time searching until he asked the right question. I think that for the last decade or so we have been asking the wrong questions. We have been asking, “What can we change to bring people back into the Church?” We have changed our music style, our worship environment, the way we dress, the way we present our messages, have done small groups, life groups, updated our youth and children’s group environments, hired tons of staff members, written books, done outreach, and tons of other things. Yet, we are still failing.
What if we have been asking the wrong questions for all this time? What if people, like myself, have been so caught up in bringing people into the church buildings that we are losing so many others along the way? I have spent years studying church models and have even spent the last few years writing a book on small group dynamics in mid-sized church communities so I am not happy to have to look at this different perspective. Yet, we must realize that what we have been doing is not working and it would be insanity to keep trying to do the same things over and over but expecting a different result.
So, here is my new question; and I think that, like in the movie, this is the right question. What if, instead of trying to get this generation to come back to the Church that we would go to them? What if, instead of spending the majority of our resources trying to draw these valuable people into the building (multiple services, comfortable atmospheres, contemporary music, etc.) we focused our efforts on going out to meet people and have meaningful conversations? What if, instead of expecting the pastor to share the Gospel, we all saw ourselves as ambassadors of the Kingdom?
Now, don’t hear what I’m not saying; we need the church to continually have a main location to house the body, to learn the Bible from trained pastors, and to hold Bible studies, life groups, and all the other wonderful things that the Church needs to do to bring the Kingdom. What I am saying, is that we need to refocus our efforts to put the majority of our attempts to reach this current generation outside of the building and do the things the early Church did (cf. Acts of the Apostles 2:42-27).
This, I believe, properly takes the data we are seeing over and over when it deals with reaching this current generation into account and provides a meaningful answer to it. It won’t solve it overnight. It will take a lot of conversations and understanding. It will take us getting off of our pews and into the streets. It will mean going to campuses and inviting people into our homes and feeding not just their bellies but their souls as well. It will mean focusing on answering the questions meaningful to them and doing that trite old saying that ‘people don’t care what you know until they know that you care.’
We must put our money where our mouths are and begin doing the things that the early Church did: feed the hungry, clothe the needy, help those with real life issues, and share the Gospel both inside of the church buildings but also in daily conversations. We must become ambassadors for Christ and bring the Kingdom here on Earth like it is in Heaven. Like the pre-programed hologram I think I can say to you that this, my friends, is the right question.
 For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation.  So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!”  For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:19-21 NLT)