I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Over the past several weeks I’ve been hither and yon across the country training church leaders in evangelism and church transformation. One would think with the way things are that leaders would be ready to hear what’s working. But by and large, that’s not the case. And the more European the denomination, the more push-back we get. I’m finding that the worse off the church becomes, the more church leaders seem to “need” to cling to something for stability and comfort … and that something is almost always tradition. Whether it’s traditional worship style, traditional doctrines, or traditional thinking, it’s clear that Tevye was right … tradition keeps the fiddler on the roof (with images of Rome burning flitting through my mind) and it keeps the church on track to irrelevance and all too many local churches to extinction.

This week, the ARIS came out – the America Religous Identification Survey from Trinity College in Hartford, CT. If you’re waiting for good numbers, you’re going to be disappointed. Christianity in North America is it a flat spin, which is significantly worse than a tailspin (just ask a jet pilot).

  • The percentage of “Nones” (no religion) has risen from 8.2 percent in 2001 to 15 percent in 2008. The percentage of “Nones” has grown in every state of the Union.
  • The percentage of people claiming to be Christian has plummeted from 86.2 percent in the 90s to 76 percent – and 90 percent of that decline comes largely from the mainline. Notice, that’s a full 10 percent loss in less than twenty years.
  • The mainline lost enough members that they’ve gone from 18.7 percent of the population in 1990 to only 12.9 percent.
  • Even the Baptists are shrinking, in terms of percent of the population. On the other hand, the Mormons are growing enough numerically that they’re keeping up their “market share” at 1.4 percent of the population … a number that is now greater than those who claim to be religiously Jewish (at 1.2 percent).
  • A full 12 percent of the population are philosophically atheists.

The news is, shall we say, pretty grim. There is some good news … sort of. The number of those attending mega-churches has literally skyrocketed from less than 200,000 in 1990 to over 8 million today. Of course, a good number of those attending these mega-churches have left the small membership churches. Which is one of the reasons it’s so frustrating being a church consultant in these times. Churches are hunkering down. Church leaders are more married to their church traditions and antiquated priorities that they’d rather let their churches die than do what it takes to stem the hemorrhaging.

So, what did I teach at these training sessions that was so abhorrent that church leaders were metaphorically clapping their hands over their ears?

  1. Church transformation must be built on a spiritual foundation – and a spiritual foundation isn’t based on some prescribed set of denominational tenets, but upon practicing discipleship (Bible reading, prayer, faith sharing, encouraging one-another, etc.).
  2. Church leaders must lead in these spiritual practices if they expect the congregation to follow. If the pastor isn’t spending time with the unchurched and sharing their faith with them and bringing them into worship, the congregation isn’t going to. Indeed, according to the above figures, it’s clear that most mainline congregation’s are already following their pastor’s example … and they’re following it very well.
  3. Church leaders cannot allow conflict to go unresolved. Conflict isn’t going away on its own, so pastors are going to have to get a backbone, step up, and deal with it (see the many posts I’ve written on resolving conflict).
  4. Church leaders must shift their focus from teaching to discipling. Discipleship is 90 percent behavioral and 10 percent right thinking, not the other way around. We won’t turn these trends around until Christians start acting like Christians in church, at home, at work, in school, when making any decision about anything – but particularly about how they spend their money and how they spend their time.

And there were other things, but these were the offending key points … and the two most heinous were (1) Pastors have to model, not just tell everyone what they need to do, and (2) Teaching all those doctrinal points are mostly a waste of time. Nobody outside the church really cares about reformed theology. What they’re looking for is a religion that actually changes lives and is so life-transforming that it’s worth giving their lives to.