James Emery White rocked the Christian world in 2014 with The Rise of the Nones. No, it’s not a horror movie about some Catholic sisters who try to take over the world. It’s a book about the increasing number of people who check “none” on the religious preference form in the US census. When asked if they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or whatever, more and more American’s are simply saying: “None of the above.”
The curve is much steeper if we only measure adults under 30 (36%). The curve is even steeper in Europe. In the UK, for example, 66% of 18-24 year olds say they have no religion whatsoever.
This is not just because of immigration either. 20% of Americans now consider themselves “former Christians.”
The Barna group decided to do a more thorough study, considering people’s actions and and beliefs. In 2013, they found that 37% of Americans were Post-Christian. Just two years later, in 2015, that number had jumped to 44%. Not only are we losing ground every year, but the pace of our decline is also increasing exponentially.
The Church of the Nazarene mirrors this trend. If you look at a growth chartfor the Church of the Nazarene in the USA and Canada, you will see that the line is flat. We have actually experienced a 2% decrease in overall membership in the USA Canada Region in the past 10 years. Not a single district on the Olivet region has experienced growth over the past decade. (Correction - via Dale Schaeffer - the NW Illinois District has experienced modest growth.)
What these numbers don’t show is that we have had a tremendous explosion of growth in our multicultural and non-English speaking churches. For example, in Northern California, the mostly white, mostly English speaking churches have mostly emptied, but each building now houses two or three congregations worshiping in other languages - some 17 different languages on that one district. The total district numbers look stable, but that masks a shocking decline among the English speaking churches. This pattern is duplicated across the USA - although with less diversity in the Midwest. A few decades ago, NW Indiana had almost twice as many churches as we have now. The great decline of most of our churches has been somewhat masked by the great growth of a few churches. Across the USA, Nazarene churches are mostly shrinking.
Now, hear me clearly. I’m not saying that our white churches are more important, but I am saying that our white churches have a big problem. What we are doing just isn’t working. How we are doing church is not connecting with our non-Christian neighbors - or with most of our Christian neighbors, for that matter.
On the other hand, the Church of the Nazarene is growing rapidly in many parts of the world. Now, more than 1 in 4 Nazarenes live in Africa. In fact, for the first time ever, there are more Nazarenes in Africa than there are in USA and Canada.
What’s happening and why? Obviously, that’s very complicated, but let me suggest two basic reasons the church is GROWING in other places and is mostly SHRINKING in North America.
First, in most places around the world, the Church of the Nazarene still embodies the compassion of Jesus. In most places around the world, we are still like the church that Bresee started in the slums of Los Angeles, which was like the church the apostles started in the streets of Jerusalem. The way of Christ is the way of compassion and service. When we don’t live with genuine compassion and service to the least of our neighbors, then the Christian message rings hollow and empty. The first most obvious reason we are not experiencing growth in our churches is that we have mostly stopped being good news to our neighbors in practical ways.
The second reason is more subtle. Most of the world-areas where we are experiencing the most growth are premodern or modern. Most of the cultures where we are experiencing the most decline are postmodern. Or, look at it another way, we are growing the most in developing countries, among communities that are making the transition out of deep poverty into sustainability and health. We are growing the least in the more affluent nations like the USA and Western Europe, where the needs are less obvious and where people have grown more jaded toward religion. As culture and world-views have shifted, Christianity as currently offered in our churches looks less and less appealing to more and more people.
The problem gets even more complicated when we begin to think about how we fund global missions. Within the Church of the Nazarene, around 95% of all giving to the World Evangelism Fund comes from the USA/Canada Region. Although we have some missionaries sent directly from other world areas like Korea, Germany, and Africa, the vast majority of our missionaries and our missions structures are funded through giving from the USA. If the American church continues its downward trend, we could see a massive recall of missionaries because our shrinking churches simply can’t keep funding them.
Scottish theologian John Phillip Newell recently wrote a book called, The Rebirthing of God, and in the introduction he tells the story of the famous Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, who was a devout Christian. When Carl Jung was just a boy, he was walking through his home town of Basel, and he saw the newly built cathedral of Basel shining in all of its magnificent glory. And he was overwhelmed with a prophetic vision. There above the cathedral of Basel, he saw the holy throne of God Almighty, just like in Isaiah 6. Then he saw the judgment of God descending from the throne and falling upon the cathedral of Basel in slow motion. The weight of God’s judgment was pressing down the roof and causing the walls to crumble and collapse.
John Phillip Newell believes this was a genuine prophetic vision describing the collapse of the church as we know it now in the 21st century. The walls are falling down all around us. The church we have was built for a world that no longer exists. If missionaries came to America for the first time today, there is no way they would build the kind of churches that we have. Our church structures and habits are not effective for reaching our world. Our world needs a new kind of church.
When we look at the decline of the church, and when we see the signs of collapse all around us, John Phillip Newell says most people respond in one of three ways.
- Denial. Nothing is wrong. Nothing to see here. Everybody just go about business as usual. Don’t mind the cracks in the walls. Carry on, just keep singing everyone.
- Try harder. We see the cracks, and we run around trying to fix them all. We see the decline and we think the solution is to try harder, to pray harder, to ask God to give us revival of the old ways again.
- Participate in the birthing of the new. Years ago, I asked Richard Spindle, who was then president of MidAmerica Nazarene University, what he thought about the the changing nature of church and where all of this is headed. He said, “Josh, something old is dying, and something new is being born. We just don’t know exactly what that is yet.” God is doing a new thing. The Church is literally being born again. Our calling as church leaders is to be midwives to the rebirth of the Church. God is calling forth a new way of being the eternal Church of Jesus Christ and it is our job to guide this new beautiful, tender life safely into the world.
Church, we have a problem. We have to change. We have to become more authentically like Jesus, who was a friend of sinners and ate with prostitutes and tax collectors, who touched the socially unclean, who showed grace to the blind, and healed the broken. The main problemwith our churches is that we aren’t very much like Jesus. We are stuck.
Look at this chart about the Rise of the Nones again. Think about when you first became a Christian. Where were you on this timeline? Think about when you graduated high school or college. Think about when your pastor or your main church got their primary training for ministry. No wonder we don’t know how to reach our world. We were trained by people who lived in a Christian America, and a post-Christian America has caught us all by surprise.
We have been caught flat-footed. We are lame - both crippled and boring. We have to innovate. We have to break the old molds, and shatter the old taboos. We have to try new things for Jesus, with Jesus. We have to take risks for the Kingdom. Obviously, this means we will fail often. It’s going to be uncomfortable, and hard, and confusing, and disorienting. That’s OK. Fail, and fail again, and fail again, and learn along the way, and slowly we’ll learn how to succeed in this new world.
Here in NW Indiana, NMI wants to invite you into missional innovation in two ways. Let’s learn to be missionaries together.
- Engage with our Greece Partnership. If we partner with Josh and Shannon as they the other missionaries learn the language and culture in Greece, then not only can we help them, but we can also begin to learn how to be missionaries in our own culture. Our partners in Greece want to build a ministry center, and you can find out more about the Greece partnership in our workshops today. Our first scouting team will share their pictures and their stories. Also, Shannon will do one of the workshops, and she will be able to answer your questions about the ministry center. Once the missionaries work out some legal details in Greece, we’ll be helping them fundraise for a ministry building. We will let you know when we’re ready for that. In the meantime, my church’s children’s offering will be going to Greece all year. Maybe your churches will want to do something similar.
- Be local missionaries. Do you ever turn on the radio in your car and think something like, “Who would listen to stuff like that?” or “I can’t understand anything they’re saying!” That’s because the culture has changed right around you. Just like Josh and Shannon have to learn Greek culture, we have to relearn American culture. Just like Josh and Shannon have to go out of their way to serve the refugees gathering in Greece, we have to out of our way to serve our neighbors who are most in need. NMI wants to partner with your church as you try new things and go to new places. This year, NMI did a pilot grant program with churches led by two council members. They each raised $1,000 and NMI matched it with another $1,000 to empower them to do something new in their communities. Pastor Hernan Osorio and Michiana Hispanic Ministries are buying and remodeling old homes. Pastor Robbie Cansler and Hammond’s The Mission Church hosted a Back to School party and gave away over 100 back packs to kids in need. They will tell you about their projects in the workshops, and we want to invite you and your churches to dream about what you can do to be more effective missionaries in your communities. We’ll match your first thousand dollars with another thousand. Let’s see what God can do through us together. This year, my church is learning how to be missionaries to a strip club, a trailer park, and a high school. What will you do?
In some ways, the church is in exile in America. I think Jeremiah’s message to the Jewish exiles in Babylon has something important to say to us today also.
5 Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. 6 Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! 7 And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.
Settle in. This is going to take a while. Work for the peace and prosperity of your city. It’s welfare will determine your welfare. Invest deeply in your community. Find those who are hurting and ignored by others, and pour your lives into them. Their health will determine your health. If they thrive, your church will thrive.
10 This is what the Lord says: “You will be in Babylon for seventy years. But then I will come and do for you all the good things I have promised, and I will bring you home again. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope."
70 years. That’s a long time. It means for almost everyone who was hearing this letter being read, they would spend the rest of their lives in exile. They had to embrace new ways of being God’s people in a foreign land so that their children and grandchildren would still be God’s people in 50, 60, 70 years.
We find ourselves in a very similar timeline. We have no idea how long this exile will last, but we can be fairly sure it will last longer than any of us will be alive. The pace of change toward exile is only increasing. For everyone who is an adult now, we will probably live and die with the American church still in exile in our own culture.
We also face a similar choice as exiled Israel. We can keep trying to go back - even though that is not going to happen - we can keep beating our heads against that wall until we dwindle away. We can keep repairing the old structures of the old ways of doing church until the walls crumble around us.
Or we can thank God for our good days in the past and move into the future. We can thank God for how our church’s investments then have empowered us now to go forward into a new future now. We can participate in the new thing God is trying to birth among us. We can work with God to help our churches be born again.
We can take up the roles of midwives for the rebirthing of a new way of being the church in our world. We can’t make the new come. We can’t be cool enough or hip enough or smart enough or work hard enough to create a new way of being church. But we can work with our creating God and prepare the mother church for the rebirthing of the new church, and we can guide this new tender life into our world in health and strength.
We cannot go back, but we can go forward. We cannot go back to the old ways of being the church, but we can go forward into new ways of being the church. We can’t regain the revivals of the old times, but we can be faithful and full of life in these new times. And although you and I don’t know what exactly that future is, we have God’s promise from Jeremiah that the future God has for us is good and full of hope.
Let me be clear. I believe in the Church. The [big C] Church is not dying. Many [little c] churches are dying. Our current forms and modes of doing church are changing. But the one, holy, apostolic Church is alive and strong. The Church of Jesus Christ is resilient and indestructible. We have navigated big changes like this before (about once every 500 years), and we will survive this era of change and come out stronger and more like Jesus on the other side.
Let’s go forward into a new future with the Spirit together.