Does The Church Have A Future?

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{I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, just wanted to hang onto it since this is the meat of most of the conference talks and keynotes I’ve given in the last year}

Seriously, what is the future of the church? I could go a hundred different ways with this thought; gay marriage, globalization, fossil fuels, consumerism, theology, death of the suburbs, fall of dictatorships and any number of changes in culture both in the United States and the world.

But I want to focus on something quite fundamental that, even in the midst of massive cultural change, never seems to even be on the table for discussion in any meaningful way; going to church. The next paragraph will draw a line in the sand that many of you will simply not be able to understand let alone free your mind enough to even consider crossing. You can’t have a revolution without pissing at least someone off, right?

The exercise of going to a building filled with hundreds or thousands of people to listen to a talking head and sing some songs is a peculiar one, irregardless of what you may believe in terms of God and religion. I’m not alone when I say that ‘going to church’, as we know it, is a struggling fiction at best, on it’s death bed at worst. I’m speaking specifically about the ‘time and place’ gathering we call ‘going to church’, not all the other functions of the local church (that’s another post unto itself); so stay focused with me here.

This might scare you. This might encourage you; as it does me.

Being & Doing
Let me state right here and now that it is of utmost importance that Christ Followers gather together at the same place and time as often as possible for the purpose of being the church balanced by as much, or even better, more doing Kingdom work. I am in NO WAY advocating we stop getting together. I’m also going to be speaking under the umbrella of basic Christian truths and keeping in practical. That is to say; I’m assuming you and I have the same basic theological framework for our understanding of this conversation.

Yes, I’m excited about this cultural change. I’m excited because I see the flip side of this reality and there is possibility there if we are willing to look and willing to change. Let’s start with Sunday and ask some questions.

What do we hire the Sunday morning experience to accomplish?

That is to say; why do people go to church? I’ve had this conversation with my team, church leaders around the country and spoken about it at various conferences and leadership gatherings. I’ve narrowed it down to three things and everything you do during a time and place gathering of the church falls into one of these three buckets; spiritual experience, community experience and content consumption.

This is where we are running into roadblocks in innovation and creativity because we are chained down by the limited possibility of the time and place gathering. Let me show you what I mean.

What is the absolute best way to have a spiritual experience?

This is hard to answer because it is a very personal thing, but in short, spiritual experience is at it’s best when we draw near to God. The problem is, we all do that differently. For some drawing near to God happens when they are deep in the Bible or singing worship songs or serving people or being in contact with His creation. Once you’ve listed all the ways different people draw near to God you quickly see that it is not something that scales well at all. It’s clear that corporate singing of songs is about as scaleable as you can get, which is why it has stood the test of time. It’s not the best way to have a spiritual experience for most but it is good enough for scale.

At it’s foundation, it is simply not possible to scale spiritual experience in a time and place context. True spiritual experience is far too personal, sure we can scale surrogate spiritual experience but not the real thing.

What is the absolute best way to have a community experience?

This is an easy one; sit around a table and have a meal. The table is the centerpiece of true community. Although not super scaleable; on a meal by meal basis it is, however, really easy to pull off.

What is the best way to have a content consumption experience? Or even better; how do people prefer to consume content?

Right now, in 2013, it is clear that people prefer to consume content in video form on a screen in an ‘on-demand’ manner. The average American watches nearly 20 hours of TV per month, 830 minutes of YouTube.com videos per month.

Clearly these three things that we have leaned on ‘going to church’ to serve to us are far better experienced and exercised in contexts that are much different than what we have spent so much time and money building.

What are the outside pressures prompting the need for change?

“Great, you boiled down what ‘going to church’ is Vince, but what does that have to do with the future of church?”

I’m glad you asked.

I don’t have to convince you that culture today is different than that of 100 years ago and now that we have distilled the going to church experience down to the raw ingredients we can see that is has not changed in 100 years. Sure the packaging has changed but the same three things are the product; spiritual experience, community experience and content consumption. Our current version of going to church, in western culture, has not changed since before the industrial revolution yet society has changed dramatically.

Let me show you.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I’m speaking strictly in terms of practicality. I want to talk about the practical reasons why ‘going to church’ as we now know it is a struggling concept. Here are just a few thoughts.

Family Redefined

In, what may be the most foundational book in the church’s understanding of the post-modern shift in culture, Jimmy Long’s ‘Generating Hope’, we just scratch the surface in terms of how Generation X relates to their family. Long describes a generation who, for many, view themselves as closer relationally to their friends than to their own parents. The western church and the act of ‘going to it’ has proliferated from generation to generation almost as an extension of the family unit itself.

Challenge one: Churches die as the next generation establishes a new family among their friends rather than their blood.

The church was the social centerpiece for the family unit. So much to the point that, historically, single people over the age of 30 have always struggled to feel at home in the western church; they just don’t belong. The ‘in’ point of the church was always blood family. Layer on top of that the reality that people are are having their first marriage later and later especially in more progressive cities.

Challenge two: Even more of those who want to attend a church struggle to connect simply because they are single adults. And as a result they see the church as only a place to consume content rather than a community experience.

Work to Play

One of the biggest shifts from Boomers to X-ers is the idea of play. Generation X takes play very seriously. The boomer tendency was to focus on a few points in the year to recreate, like vacation and holidays. Boomers also have a draw to suburban culture which comes with the work of upkeep on house, yard and vehicle; leaving very little time, energy and money for play. Gen-X and Millennials go so far as to build their life around their preferences in play. Into outdoor sports? Move to Colorado and figure out how to have a job that supports it. Into music? Move to Austin or Portland and build a career that allows it. Boomers prided themselves on hard work, staying at the same job for 30 years and going to church ‘because its good for you’.

To put it another way; we’re too busy and even play is higher on the list than going to church.

Challenge three: The act of ‘going to church’ is a lot of work and it comes at prime time for play…weekends. Not to mention THE prime time to connect in community.

Real Time

The world now moves at real time. Just yesterday the AP Twitter account was hacked and a fake tweet went out and within minutes the stock market dropped 150 points. Things change fast. The church changes slow…if at all. Being a part of a church experience is a cumbersome, slow and outdated fiction. The rising generations like to be a part of a tribe that is real time and can react to real life as it happens.

By nature, historically, the concept of church was ready made for real time action in the local context but when church was institutionalized it lost that ability. The biggest hurdle the church has to overcome is that it is dependent on people gathering in a place at a time in order to synchronize and coordinate them. That is slow. That is expensive.

Challenge four: Requiring lots of people to gather at a time and place is slow and expensive. The secondary challenge this creates is the disinterest of high capacity creative, entrepreneurial and important culture makers who are turned off by this cumbersome reality.

Expert Class

The expert class has been in charge of the church for a while now and in a culture where we all now have the tools and ability to create and share content at scale, experts just don’t have the social pull they once had. It’s not that career pastors aren’t as smart as they once were it’s that the value of the content they create has dropped significantly since the proliferation of new media; just like the film and music industries. The ability to scale, at little or no cost, immediately de-values the Sunday morning gathering from a content perspective. We cannot create a better mouse trap at any acceptable cost. That is to say; making the gathering more interesting or remarkable just won’t work. the film industry tried that.

People have been going to movie theaters less in favor of the convenience of Netflix and other on-demand outlets even though the experience is not on par with a theater experience. The movie industries answer? 3D movies. Make the theater experience better and people will come back. It hasn’t worked and it won’t work for church either.

Challenge five: Content abundance and easier access through new media has broken the information monopoly once held by the expert class.

This is just a look at the surface level, we could do this for days but I’ll stop there. I want to start building a framework for the future, but you’ll have to wait for the follow up to this post.

Until then, post in the comments some challenges you see the Church facing lately.

3 thoughts on “Does The Church Have A Future?

  1. @andrewbredow my thoughts last year on the issue @donaldmiller is writing about http://t.co/1y22XxGG8e

    February 6, 2014 at 4:36 pm
  2. this is so good, Vince. it obvious that there is a bit of a shift happening within the Church.

    “Some people were trained by an institution and now they’re trying to protect people from that institution. 

    When do you jump / try a new thing / start something?  The answer is always NOW.” -Rob Bell

    February 15, 2014 at 10:05 pm
    1. Vince

      Its a long game. I’m trying to make it happen. God is definitely moving because I don’t feel like I’m alone in my thoughts.

      February 16, 2014 at 3:48 pm

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