One of my favorite scenes in the first of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy takes place in the first part of the movie during Bilbo’s birthday party. Bilbo, the main character in JRR Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” is recounting the instance in that story of him and the dwarves he was traveling with being captured by three large trolls. The children are aghast as he tells them that the trolls were so busy discussing the “why’s and wherefores” of eating Bilbo’s group that they did not notice the sun coming up, which had the effect of turning all of the trolls to stone. What does this have to do with ministry in Colorado, or anywhere in America for that matter? I think we who are the spiritual leaders of the church have become just like those trolls. We are so busy looking at our research, our statistics (the whys and wherefores) that we have missed what is directly in front of us. And it is not a new problem. The result has been a church largely ineffective in reaching or changing culture (turned to stone). Let’s consider some things.
Much of our ministry and evangelism today has to do with how to get those pesky millennial’s back to church. Statistics tell us they are the ones leaving, the first generation leaving the church. However, is this really the truth? Are they really the first group to leave the church is such droves? In my opinion, and I strongly believe it is the correct opinion, no. People have been leaving the church in droves for decades, longer in fact. But statistically everything looked fine so we did not know we had a problem. Allow me to demonstrate what I mean.
Today statistics are used as the be all and end all. They are used to decide elections, business strategies, and church missions. It is interesting to note that when one takes a research class, as I was fortunate to do in college, one discovers that statistics are not the definition of research. In fact they are part of one step in a fourteen step process of quantifiable research (there are two types of research: quantifiable and qualifiable). Statistics are discovered through a variety of means, the most common of which is a survey. Surveys are generally designed after initial research has been done and a hypothesis is formed. The problem here is that the survey is generally designed to elicit a certain kind of response. They do not ask for the reader’s opinion so much as they ask a reader to choose from a list of about five multiple choice answers for the one that best expresses their opinion. The interpretation of these surveys is entirely up to the person or people doing the research. For example, at the end of every class I take at seminary I am asked to fill out a survey on both the class and the professor. Of the five possible answers to a question such as “Was the professor prepared for class?” two of the possible answers are “usually” and “almost always”. I am going to consider myself an academic giant the day I can actually define the difference between those two answers. This tells me (and anyone taking a research class will testify to this) that statistics as a tool are extremely subjective. They are meant to be a tool, NOT the be all and end all of research.
Now back to my point. Our statistics for years showed us that the church was doing fine, increasing as a matter of fact. However, it must be understood that cultures of church attendance, particularly in the Midwest and Southeast of the United States distorted our view of reality. It was only when statistics showed that even in these areas the group called millennials were leaving the church that we started to wake-up. Topics such as “post-modernism” started to be discussed in earnest as we tried to understand this “new” culture. The problem is we discuss this as if postmodernism is the domain of millennials alone. Postmodernism is an offshoot of a philosophical system called existentialism (1800’s) and really hit its stride in the late sixties (baby-boomers). It continued on very strong into the eighties and nineties (Generation X) and continues on into the millennials, and will in all likelihood continue on into the next generation as well. The reason understanding this is important is that to properly understand the culture we are in (Postmodernism) we must break it free of being strictly a millennial system. We also have to come to grips with the fact that we have been losing ground in most of the country for decades. Let us take the Northeast for example:
- The First Great Awakening was a movement primarily in New England. It started and was sustained in that region.
- Jonathan Edwards, everyone’s favorite American theologian, was a Massachusetts pastor.
- Rhode Island was founded as a Baptist state (anyone remember Roger Williams?).
Now look at New England today. It is not a place known for a strong Christian presence. I am a native of Maine, born and raised. We never went to church growing up; it simply was not part of our culture. I am not millennial but Generation X (b. 1972). My mother went to church when she was younger but her family dropped out in her teens. She is a boomer (b. 1945). Of all of the friends I had growing up I cannot name any that were church-goers, accept for the few Catholic friends I had who went to church on Christmas and Easter. This seems to indicate that people leaving the church is not a new problem; people have been doing it for quite some time. Even before the rise of existentialism in the 1800’s we had the age of enlightenment which led to the age of industrialization. It was in this period that Nietzsche, that great German philosopher happily proclaimed the death of God. And it was a message well-received by Germany; the same Germany where Martin Luther and Phillip Melanchthon had forged the fires of the Reformation. See, it is not a new problem. It is not a millennial problem. It is a consistent problem of the human condition. People, in the flesh and throughout the last several hundred years, have been leaving the church. It just never affected us as much as it does now. This is why the blame is being thrown on millenials and post-moderns, when in fact we have had decades to do something and failed. Now that we know that what must we do?
First, stop classifying millenials or post-moderns as the enemies. They are not. Second, put statistics in their proper place and stop allowing them (or the people who misuse them) to dictate your outreach strategy. Doing so will help us move from a reactive mode of evangelism (tail wagging the dog) to a pro-active mode of evangelism. We can feel good as good when a seventy year old man comes to Christ as we feel when a seventeen year old man comes to Christ. By the way, it is interesting to note that the Bible never speaks of an age-focused outreach model or an age-specific church model. Paul seemed to value old and young and middle aged. We should also. We must recognize that the flesh is part of all of us, regardless of age. The flesh sets itself against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh. Paul was good enough to explain this to us in both Romans and Galatians and it is no less true today than when he wrote it. The flesh does not want to go and worship God, period. It never has and never will.
Finally, we need to re-assess our view of ministry success and adjust our strategies accordingly. Producing disciples needs to be the bar, not bottoms in seats and dollars in our plates. In theory, producing disciples (defined as those who look more and more like Jesus) should put more people in our seats because disciples produce disciples. I really think the problem is that too many of us, myself included, have concentrated so much on getting people in the seats that discipleship has become secondary. Is it possible we have become more obedient to our annual Baptist reports then we have to the Great Commission? I would say yes, what do you say? And when we make people in our seats the bar of success, and a certain age-demographic does not fall in line with that bar, we demonize them and target them for evangelistic work not because we want them in the Kingdom of God but because we want to feel successful again. We need to take a hard look at ourselves, a very hard look. We need to be unafraid of asking the Holy Spirit to examine the culture of our churches. We need to submit ourselves to Scripture over everything else in order to reach a lost and dying culture. We need to stop looking for the next “home run” church or church plant and start realizing that the work of reaching culture is a never-ending one and requires grass-roots level, long term work, not more mega-churches. We need to love the people within culture, those close to God and those far away. That love needs to be seen and it needs to be felt.
The sun is coming up ladies and gentlemen. Will we be turned to stone, lifeless and ineffective? Are we so busy discussing our “Whither-toos and Why-fors” that we are missing the first rays breaking through the horizon? Or will we get to work? The choice is ours; let’s make it a wise one.Leave a reply →