I want to share two surprising statistics with you.
Wherever I look, it seems like churches abound. Think about the stretch of road in front of Willow Creek Church. As you turn off Tuskawilla and head toward 17-92, we have a Seventh Day Adventist church on the corner; Community Alliance Church just down the road; then us, Willow Creek Church; then you have New Covenant Assembly; then you have Iglesia Christiana Hispana; then it turns into Seminola and we have First Baptist Chapel of Casselberry; then First Baptist Church; then St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church; and then it turns into Dog Track Road and we have one of the largest churches in America: Northland. All of this in the space of just 6.2 miles (10km)!
Beyond these, it seems like there are new churches starting everyday around here. Every time I turn around, I hear of a new church plant. Seriously, is there a middle school or a high school in our area without a church meeting in it?
So, how does one explain that statistic? One possible explanation is that appearances might exceed actual engagement. Not only is Orlando the 9th most unchurched city; Barna found that it is also the 6th most de-churched city.(2) The de-churched are, for the purposes of the study, those who were once active in a local church but have not, in the last six months, attended a church service with the exception of a wedding or a funeral. In other words, we might have a lot of churches, but people are attending them less frequently.
This isn’t unique to us, either. It is part of a well-documented national trend. Looking at its own data, the Pew Research Center recently remarked that "The share of Americans who do not identify with a religious group is surely growing: While nationwide surveys in the 1970s and ’80s found that fewer than one-in-ten U.S. adults said they had no religious affiliation, fully 23% now describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or 'nothing in particular.’"(3)
These statistics probably require some nuanced explanation. For instance, many respondents who indicated no formal church affiliation yet maintain personal religious belief; they believe in God, but - for whatever reason - choose not to attend or affiliate with a local church. Noting this, Pew suggested at least two possible explanations. On the one hand, it’s now more socially acceptable to claim no religious affiliation than in previous generations. In that instance, people might just be lying less about their involvement as compared to previous generations! On the other, it is true that as older generations die, the younger generations replacing them (Gen X down to Millennials) are decidedly less religious in general. This might change over time, but hasn’t yet.(4)
What’s causing these trends? That’s the bazillion dollar question, and theologians and missiologists have spilled a lot of ink trying to answer it. I wouldn’t claim to have all the answers, and even if I did probably couldn't enumerate them here. However, some insights seem to be gaining traction in the minds of many. Here are just a few.
We have been “off message” for far too long.
Christianity is not ultimately about morality and behavior. It is not ultimately about what we do or don’t do for God. It’s not ultimately about making us into good little boys and good little girls. Although following Jesus Christ certainly has implications for ethics and morality, Christianity ultimately rests on substitution: Jesus Christ being for us what we could never be for ourselves. We are great sinners in need of the greater Savior. In the words of our membership vows, we are "wholly without hope, except in his sovereign mercy."
When our pulpits shift the primary emphasis of Christianity to what we do for God, rather than what he’s done for us, they inevitably produce either Pharisees (those deluded enough to believe that their obedience makes them good and pleasing and maybe even perfect before God) or pariahs (those who never seem to measure up and are demoralized by not achieving the ever-elusive goal of peace through moral performance - i.e. doing more, trying harder, and being better). Pharisees prioritize church (their involvement is one more reassurance that they’re good), but pariahs eventually give up and drop out.
We are viewed by many as coercive, holier-than-thou, and hypocritical.
As this reduction of the central Christian message to one of morality and behavior entered the public sphere, it found expression in the family values movements of the Religious Right, the Moral Majority, and so on. These were not without value. However, for many pastors and churches, the primacy of gospel proclamation was deemphasized in favor of preserving America as a “Christian nation” through political activism. Rather than confessing our shared identity as great sinners in need of a greater Savior, we (somewhat inadvertently) divided our nation into two camps - good and bad, moral and immoral, saints and sinners. This holier-than-thou attitude and approach rested on a functional denial of the gospel, and only set us up for exposure as hypocrites when carefully crafted (i.e. deceitful) appearances crumbled in the wake of inevitable scandals (sex, financial, etc.). A lingering result of our arrogance and duplicity was a loss of confidence in the church and its clergy.
We often continue to operate within the assumptions of Christendom.
Christianity has enjoyed a position of cultural favor in the West ever since the Emperor Constantine signed the Edict of Milan legalizing its practice in 313AD. Although initially modest, Constantine’s actions gradually extended to Christians and the Church a special relationship within the empire of the fourth century. The special relationship eventually transformed Christians from a marginalized and occasionally persecuted social minority to one of social dominance. Reflected in and increasingly reinforced by social institutions, Christianity in general and the Church in particular came to provide a galvanizing social ethos for the empire, later European nation-states, and eventually the United States of America.
This social ethos has been in sharp decline for decades. Today, most admit that we are an increasingly post-Christian and post-Christendom nation. Even so, many clergy and churches remain unwilling to adapt, and don’t take time to “exegete” or interpret the culture around them. They therefore can’t effectively engage or influence it.
So, what are we to do? How should we respond? Great questions!
NEXT, our ten year vision, was born with these questions in mind. As such, it reflects a desire to keep Willow Creek Church “on message,” and thereby ministering with humble compassion in our rapidly changing and increasingly diverse communities.
In the next several posts, I’ll share some of the unique ways we’re hoping to keep the message of the gospel central to our ministries moving forward. If you're part of the Willow Creek Church family, I hope you'll join us as we refine and pursue the great work of "declaring and demonstrating the power of the gospel, inviting people to discover and deepen their relationship with Jesus."