In 2008, Washington Post journalist, Julia Duin, wrote about why churches were experiencing decline. Her insightful conclusion was that ministers’ lack of leadership skills, diminished commitments to core beliefs, and an increase in consumerism, were exacerbating an exodus. To what degree are such observations still valid in future-proofing today’s churches? What have the last two years of COVID disruption revealed about way in which churches might best maintain their relevance and impact?
Of course, the desire to discern societal trends typically sees consultants and innovators leading us to believe that change is as frequent as it is monumental. Their supposed enlightened knowledge sells seminar tickets and books, while soothing many a change-related anxiety with some simplistic explanations. For example, tribal traits of younger generations are often seen to be without parallel or precedent among their forbears, so that we are now running out of letters in the alphabet to describe each successive generation and its supposed uniqueness.
Church worship styles are similarly characterised. Our real need to contemporise churches often overcorrects to the extent of bringing so much change as to idolise relevance. When there is a strong sense among many, though, that church won’t be the same post-COVID (and when we are indeed seeing a loss of volunteers) we have to ask ourselves what has changed but what key practices should remain unchanged.
What’s really changed?
Perhaps surprisingly, ‘contemporary worship’ differs little to that in evidence forty years ago at the height of the charismatic movement’s impact. Musical rhythms emerging at the time are still present in songs whose main difference is their complexity, itself sometimes a turn-off for deep engagement.
Many cosmetic changes over that time have been helpful – new song choices, different lighting, the use of props, barista coffee, and the swapping of suits and ties for tees and trackies – but these do little to retain people long-term if style is not accompanied by substance.
That’s why I was quite content to suggest during the multiple Melbourne lockdowns of 2020-21 that, while emerging from them would change a few expectations and delivery models, best practice in churches pre-COVID would more or less represent the very same requirements beyond it. Yes, some have opted out, but COVID has just consolidated existing discontent because of what was already missing. What was broken and needed fixing still need the same solutions, but available resources will sort out size, capacity and delivery issues.
What we too often have today is a church made in the image and likeness of its clientele. Rather than calling people to holiness, yieldedness, and conformity to Christ, many churches tend to seek inspirational events as the solution, events with which people then disengage almost as quickly as they have engaged. Self-styled solutions need to give way to community-based ones.
But today, we have leaders struggling to find volunteers among people who are not first disciples committed within Christian community.
We have churches struggling to integrate new people into community because the established members are not compellingly different.
We have services that lack engaging worship because it is not flowing amidst a critical mass of passionate participants displaying holy lives that honour God.
Where did this all start?
On one level, we might say the Garden of Eden! Cultural pressures that pull back to self-focused busyness or individualism are born of an innate human tendency to live apart from the will of God (necessitating leadership and community support). That’s not to say that dissatisfaction with some aspects of church are not justified. No one person or group is at fault for any shortcomings. But when Christian individuals take little ownership of personal spirituality and then project expectations on to whole congregations or leaders to provide their ‘shot in the arm’ lest they move on elsewhere, then something is amiss.
Some seeds of self-absorption were sown at the end of the charismatic movement in the late 1980s. The flow of people into churches who had been trading dry traditional religious forms for an expressive and passionate faith was certainly stemmed. Cynicism over the excesses of televangelist, Jimmy Bakker, and the tearful admissions of consorting with prostitutes by another even more well-known one in Jimmy Swaggart, spurred a ever-growing mistrust of leaders.
What then commenced as a noble ideal, to be ‘seeker sensitive’ toward those inquiring about faith, created a jargon-free and user-friendly environment so focused on unchurched people that it created a new standard of minimal commitment for too many churchgoers. The needs of the ‘Unchurched Harry and Mary’ became the priorities of the long-churched Janet and John. (Similarities to any living person are coincidental only!)
And what began as a commendable desire to engage young people with the Gospel in quality, high-energy Youth Alive events became a replicable ‘outreach’ formula that nevertheless failed to mature enough genuine followers of Jesus among the crowds they pomisingly gathered.
What started out as a desirable and catchy celebration of passionate worship tracks through Hillsong, stripped of the corny choruses and Old English lyrics of yesteryear, became a push for contemporary musical excellence beyond the capacity of many churches to deliver.
And so, the very initiatives rightly designed to improve the church unwittingly pandered to the growing desire to customise a personal spirituality that was easy, attractive, consumable, and self-focused. Not for everyone, but for many who later simply ‘checked out.’
In its desire to become relevant to the world outside the church, the core clientele often became less relevant than ever, all the while compromising holiness under the guise of a grace that confused judgment with judgmentalism. As the people busied themselves with other interests and greater spending on personal pleasures, the so-called ‘third place’ of church (after home and work) was being relegated to fourth or fifth behind a growing list of other needs and interests. Sunday trading played its part in feeding this congestion of priorities as church attendance took a significant hit over the ensuing decades.
The seeds of modern dispassion or disengagement, then, were sown thirty years ago.
And the queue of hungry potential leaders and volunteers began to shorten. Some ministers became valued more for their ability to promote the best models and methods rather than to promote Jesus. The ‘noughties’ started to bring many churches over the hump of their peak impact and few realised what was happening.
Some leaders were still busy beating their chests over past glories and momentary triumphs neglecting the sputtering sounds of emerging failures in their key growth engines.
What can we do about all this?
The malaise wasn’t seen everywhere, and it would be unfair to suggest that there weren’t problems before about 1990. But some churches have managed to stay focused on important core essentials while embracing the best elements of change that has been happening all around us. This has been in preference to staying anchored in the past or acceding to reactionary movements. For example, the ‘emerging church’ devotees of twenty years ago jumped on board with what became a failed experiment, rightly reacting to the very problems that had been threatening Churches but failing to build anything of lasting significance from what they were busy deconstructing.
Therefore, whether it is in the pursuing larger traditional models of church or smaller relational alternatives, certain critical practices still need to assure that we future-proof the right kind of success, one that will see the laity craving more of it, wanting to be part of the solution and not the problem.
These are the very practices that key leaders need to drive while also empowering others. These are practices bathed in prayer, biblical depth and a communal sacrifice, which have been maximised in churches that have maintained growth in their development and influence, despite decline elsewhere.
These take the form of five important elements that will remain an important focus in successful churches of the future. These embrace the best learnings of the past and work within any context that seeks to harness lives for the cause of Christ.