It’s an established fact that church attendance is declining and that many churches have been forced to close their doors. But this is happening at a time when more and more people are reporting increased religious engagement. These two, seemingly paradoxical, trends are tangible signs that the church is, in many ways, out of sync with the society and culture that we live in. The unavoidable conclusion: the church, as we know it, needs to change. Many view this with trepidation and skepticism: “The church hasn’t changed much in 2000 years, why should it change, now?” But I think the proper view is: “The church hasn’t changed much in 2000 years, it’s about time!” It’s natural to be uneasy about change, but at times we need to embrace it. Jesus was the greatest change agent in the history of the world! Perhaps the church of the 21st century should follow his example.
There are all kinds of people who have devoted a great deal of time and effort examining the decline of the church, and even a few helpful suggestions for change. Just a few of these voices have been Rob Bell, Richard Rohr, John Phillip Newell, Mike McHargue, Diana Butler Bass, and Pete Enns.
There are many common themes that emerge from their work:
1 - Meaning is Changing. People are looking for meaning and purpose in their lives. Having eternal life is great news, but most don’t plan on dying tomorrow. Many feel an emptiness and are longing for something more. They are seeking a sense of joy, contentment, satisfaction, and fulfillment that is missing in their lives.
2 - Theology is Changing. The church has for the most part, created an image of a God who is “up there, looking down.” A God who is judgmental and keeping score of our successes and failures. People are seeking (and have maybe even felt the presence themselves) of a God who is right here, right now!
3 - How we Read the Bible is Changing. People are uneasy about how to approach the bible. Common biblical questions include: Do I have to take the bible literally? How am I supposed to read it? What can I learn from these ancient stories that is relevant for my life in the 21st century? At times, the church has given conflicting and confusing responses to these questions.
4 - How we Create Community is Changing. Our sense of “community” is changing. Over the years, church was THE way that many people took part in a community, but today, that sense of belonging and inclusion can be found in many different ways. Social media and Starbucks are two examples.
The list is undoubtedly longer, and the solutions are not easy to identify. A great body of work in this area, however, is pointing to one overriding conclusion: The time is now to come together, step out faithfully into the future God is already calling us into, and strive to create a vision for a Brave New Church.