The professor of my ministry class in 2002 explained in a single sentence one of the main reasons why larger evangelical congregations, like his own megachurch, had been so successful:
"We learned that people didn't feel comfortable going to buildings that felt like a church, so we designed our church to feel like a hotel or conference center."
He didn't lie. A visit to his church or the chain hotel downtown felt exactly the same, right down to the spiralling carpet patterns, muted earth tones on the walls, and wide open hallways and lobby areas. This has been the tried and true hallmark for many evangelicals: remove any barrier possible in order to share the gospel with people. It has made us both effective at communicating the gospel in American culture and particularly vulnerable to its unseen pitfalls.
The success of megachurches not withstanding, the Hartford Institute for Religious Research reported that the median attendance for 58 per cent of US churches has dipped below an average of 100 attendees for the first time since the data was first collected in 2000. Over 80 per cent of the churches below the 100 attendee mark are reported to have lower spiritual vitality. Once a church goes over 100 attendees, it is more than twice as likely to be spiritually vital.
With so many churches in America teetering on the brink, pastors will no doubt feel pressure to search for solutions to turn their congregations around. However, the young adults who comprise the future of the church are the generation that is least likely to attend church, as over one in three millennials are religiously unaffiliated.
How will pastors keep young adults in the church and reach young adults who are unlikely to see religion as relevant to their lives?
Most churches in America are past the tipping point for a quick fix solution like the one described by my professor. Tweaking the atmosphere may have helped people interested in God but intimidated by traditional churches in the past. If people aren't even looking for God in the first place, a facility or program facelift hardly comes close to reaching a disengaged generation.
When I met with a group of pastors, ministry leaders, and writers to discuss the future of the church, the majority agreed that modeling costly discipleship and actively living by faith are essential. However, we were slow to nail down a single programme or plan for moving forward. This struck me as wise.
The majority of denominations in America are in decline or just barely growing. Younger generations may be committed to the church in some pockets, but groups like Pew Research and LifeWay note that they remain outside of the church in larger numbers than any other generation and many are not expected to return on their own.
Ed Stetzer of LifeWay took the time to ask young adults why they left the church, and the overwhelming response from 52 per cent was a shift in religious, ethical, or political beliefs. It's particularly notable that 18 per cent left over disagreements tied to political or social issues, while 17 per cent said they had only gone to church in order to please others.
I've seen this up close and personal with people very close to me. One left the faith because she was taught that Christianity was incompatible with evolution, while others had a right wing ideology intertwined with their faith. As others shifted their views on social issues, they were told that the Bible must be interpreted in one way and one way only in order to be faithful.
In other words, a large number of younger Christians were told that being a follower of Jesus had to be linked to a particular political ideology or biblical interpretation. It's likely that more evangelism is needed, but we can't overlook the fact that some of the largest denominations have been bounded set in their thinking, emphasizing many distinctives and requirements in order to belong.
The more I talk about discipleship with pastors, the more discipleship stands apart from the kind of boundary-based battles over culture and doctrine that have been so troubling to young adults. Discipleship is far more centered set, calling people toward Christ at the center, trusting that the disciple who pursues a transforming relationship with Christ won't need boundaries and threats of excommunication to stay oriented toward Christ.
If we invest in defending certain interpretations of the Bible as the foundation of our faith, then we may well end up with our Bibles and theological agendas intact, but we shouldn't be surprised when we fail to offer anything compelling or life-changing to the next generation. Living the truth of "Jesus is alive" with a focus on discipleship is far more important than battling for a particular sexual ethic or theological viewpoint. How do we expect people to move toward holiness if they are not transformed by Christ? How does the truth of the Bible become relevant if its promises aren't replicated in our daily lives?
This isn't to say that our beliefs are irrelevant. Rather, our beliefs must be put into practice within the context of discipleship, a life changing encounter with the risen Christ that results in bearing our crosses daily and imitating the life of Jesus.
This is long, slow work. It's the kind of work that unfolds over a lifetime. It's not a programme that we can implement and then track and measure within a few years. A large segment of young adults needs to experience the kind of Christianity that is distinguished by an encounter with Christ, not the kind of Christianity that mans the gates of theological and cultural battles to defend ideas about Christ.
Most importantly, if today's unaffiliated young adults are ever going to experience the new life of Christ, they are going to need mentors and guides who can show the way forward. That means it's on us to take discipleship seriously if we ever hope to see our churches thrive with people who are living in the freedom and joy of Christ. This may be the slowest "fix" possible for our declining attendance problems, and that's exactly why it may work.