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The Second Coming of the Church.

By George Barna

As we prepare to enter a new century of ministry, we must address one inescapable conclusion: The church in America is losing influence and adherents faster than any other major institution in the nation.

As we prepare to enter a new century of ministry, we must address one inescapable conclusion: The church in America is losing influence and adherents faster than any other major institution in the nation. Unless a radical solution for the revival of the Christian church in the United States is implemented soon, the spiritual hunger of Americans will either go unmet or be satisfied by other faith groups.

Within the next few years, America will experience one of two outcomes: either massive spiritual revival or total moral anarchy.1 The world around us is changing at an unprecedented pace. What worked 10 years ago is already obsolete; cultural analysts estimate that our culture essentially reinvents itself every 3 to 5 years.

Most American churches, however, are holding fast to programs and goals established by their charter members years ago. Many of these ministries are also denying the cataclysmic cultural changes around them, responding with cosmetic changes that make little difference. Is it any wonder that the critical measures of the health of the Christian church show decline and a loss of influence?

UNDERSTANDING AND EMBRACING CULTURAL DIVERSITY

To remain relevant and influential, we must be current in our understanding of cultural changes and their implications. The changes that influence our lives and ministry fall within these key domains: demographics, attitudes and values, lifestyles and behaviors, and spirituality.

Understanding demographic trends—attributes such as age, education, ethnicity, and income—can permit a church to increase its responsiveness to the needs of the community it seeks to serve. We raise our probability of developing ministry solutions to the real needs of the people.

Demographic Trends

Ethnicity

Twenty years ago, the vast majority of American families were white, and most babies were born to families headed by white married couples. Today, Caucasians in the United States are at zero population growth. Our minority populations, however, are growing.2 This is attributable to two factors: increased immigration, and minority populations have a greater number of children per family. By 2050, only half of the nation will be Caucasian. Multiculturalism will be increasingly significant in our language, customs, values, relationships, and processes.

How do these realities impact Christian ministry? Before the church can begin to adapt its programs to the needs of various ethnic groups represented within the community, we must take a hard look at ourselves. We cannot expect to influence our community for good until we repent of racist attitudes, inaccurate assumptions, and unrealistic expectations related to racial diversity. Until Sunday morning ceases to be the most racially segregated time of the week, the church will never be a major agent of influence in racial matters.

Wealth

The cumulative, personal net worth of Americans continues to grow. In fact, we now have more than 3 million households in the United States considered "wealthy"—having a net worth in excess of $1 million.3

On the other hand, government statistics suggest we have more than 30 million people living in poverty. The government- sponsored safety net for the poor is gradually being removed, leaving the poor to fend for themselves.

The church must consider carefully how it will respond to this situation. As the government seeks to unload the responsibility of caring for the poor on churches and other nonprofit organizations, new economic tensions will arise. Given the declining interest in compassion ministries, costly church-related construction projects, and changing donation habits of Americans, it seems likely that growing numbers of economically disadvantaged people will continue to struggle.

Education

The educational system in America is in shambles. Last year more than a million teenagers received high school diplomas even though they couldn’t read them. Kids graduating from high school are monumentally ill-prepared to handle the world.

Half of today’s adults cannot read or write at an eighth-grade level. People’s levels of confidence in traditional forms of communication (such as the printed word) and in the integrity of popular communication media (such as television and radio) have declined.

Attention spans are getting shorter all the time. An increasing degree of learning is taking place through informal observation, rather than through listening to lectures or reading reasoned arguments.

One of the challenges the church must face is how to communicate effectively with the intended audience. The content and delivery style of much of the current teaching and preaching in churches is designed for an older audience. About 60 percent of the adults in Christian churches on any given weekend are less than 50 years old. The under-50 crowd receives and interprets information differently from their older counterparts:

If we are going to be effective, credible witnesses to the younger generations, we cannot afford to lose sight of these educational and communication-oriented principles.

Trends in Values and Attitudes

Philosophy of Life

First, most adults live for the moment and have nothing more than a loose set of ideals and principles to which they cling. These ideals often conflict with one another (for example, love your neighbor; always look out for your own best interests) and are frequently abandoned during times of stress, crisis, opportunity, or confusion.

Second, the basis of people’s philosophy is not Christianity as much as existentialism. This is often referred to as a postmodernist line of reasoning. Its essentials are as follows:

Most Americans do not recognize the underlying existentialist or postmodernist undertones to their belief system; they truly believe they are practicing Christian beliefs, values, and principles.

Core Values

Buying in to the moral relativity and "political correctness" embraced by our culture, most people no longer deliberately organize their lives around a core value system. Instead, most Americans back into a set of values that remain in force until something better or more appealing comes along.

Here are some of the most widely accepted values of Americans today:

Millions of Americans have resisted and resented Christianity because they perceive its principles and laws to be limiting rather than freeing. If the church is going to effect real change, we must first teach ourselves to recognize false values, and once again embrace God’s principles. Our relationships, teachings, and programs must be wholly consistent with scriptural values. But it is the consistency of our own lives with biblical values that will give us the opportunity to be heard.

Moral Truth

To the average American, truth is relative to one’s values and circumstances. Only one out of every four adults—and even fewer teenagers—believe there is such a thing as absolute moral truth. Human reason and emotion become the paramount determinants of all that is desirable and appropriate.

Without an objective standard of right and wrong, laws and regulations become recommendations rather than mandates. Rights are nothing more than sets of competing preferences. There can be no such thing as deception, only differing vantage points. Without accepted guideline pillars to anchor reality, those who succeed are the ones who argue loudest, most convincingly, and most diligently.

Without absolute moral truth, there can be no right and wrong. Without right and wrong, there is no such thing as sin. Without sin, there can be no such thing as judgment and no such thing as condemnation. If there is no condemnation, there is no need for a Savior. This progression renders the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ historically unique—and eternally meaningless.

Until the church can persuade people that absolute relativism is not only inherently contradictory, but ultimately self-defeating and wrong, all the great biblical teaching we can muster will be negated by a perceptual filter that equates truth with personal preference.

Behavioral and Lifestyle Trends

Longevity

People change jobs and careers with reckless abandon. It is projected that Baby Busters will change industries—not companies within an industry, but entire industries—6 to 12 times during their working years. (Builders and Seniors typically remained in the same industry for their entire career, while Boomers change industries once or twice.) Building a community of faith is by nature a long-term proposition. Without stability it is difficult to invest in future-oriented outcomes and partnerships.

Local churches find themselves always taking one step forward and two steps back because of the constant relearning curve and the loss of expertise and knowledge brought about by continual departures of key players. If the church is going to maximize its influence, we must find ways to develop longer-lasting commitments, both to relationships and to ministry plans.

Technology

Most households now own at least one computer, and millions use a modem to connect their PC (or TV) to the Internet. The amount of time we spend involved with mass media (television, radio, newspapers, magazines) and targeted communications media (the Internet, E-mail, faxes) continues to expand. Teenagers now devote an average of 7 of their 17 waking hours each day to input from the media.

The technological changes that have swept America in the past few years—and the new breakthroughs announced with each passing month—are nothing short of remarkable.

Where does this leave the church? Church gatherings represent one of just a handful of remaining opportunities available to people to have regular face-to-face contact with people, other than family, who share their interests and background. Realize, too, that growing numbers of people now judge the validity and relevance of a church by the church’s use of technology. Their perception is that if a church is intimately connected to the new digital world, it is more likely to understand their pressures and challenges, and is therefore more likely to offer relevant commentary and solutions.

Family

Three out of four adults concur that the family unit is weaker today than it was 30 years ago. Here are some changes that have shaped today’s family:

In the past, we defined family as people related by birth, adoption, or marriage. These days, you earn your family by virtue of your emotional attachment. The danger is that family becomes very fluid: Here today, gone tomorrow. This approach to family undermines the potential for trust, loyalty, commitment, forgiveness, sacrifice, and emotional intimacy. The challenge to the church is to provide people with more than solid teaching about the importance of family.

Religious and Spiritual Trends

Every weekend the number of people attending Christian churches outnumbers those who attend any other type of religious gathering. Nevertheless, Americans are still searching spiritually and willingly admit their commitment to Christianity is rather lukewarm.

More and more people, enticed by the narcissistic or feel-good focus of other religions, will abandon Jesus Christ in favor of faiths that seem more in tune with their needs. Indeed, given people’s underlying assumption that religious faith exists for the personal benefit of the individual, it is only natural for them to assume that defining, organizing, and practicing spirituality in ways that satisfy their personal needs is completely legitimate.

One of the chief struggles facing the Christian church in the days ahead will be to persuade people that the blending of disparate religious beliefs and practices into a customized, impure version of Christianity is illegitimate.

A VISION FOR SPIRITUAL RENEWAL

What Can We Learn From the Early Church?

There are a number of things about building the authentic church we can learn both from Jesus’ ministry and the activities of the Early Church. [See also Ten Important Steps To Building an Authentic Church.]

Jesus seemed more intent on the quality of ministry than on the quantity of people He was able to touch. His primary investment was not in the crowds that flocked to see Him but in the core of leaders He lived with and mentored as the backbone of the first-century Church. He was most concerned with whether or not the apostles achieved a deep understanding of the Christian faith. He knew that if they really got it, they would be devoted to spreading it. A larger and growing quantity of believers would come as a result of quality in discipleship.

Jesus showed His followers that the church is truly different from existing pagan and religious groups, only if Christians are known for the quality of their hearts. In other words, their reputation must be unlike that of any other group: They must be known as the most loving, most sincere, and most caring group of people around. This goes far deeper than mere friendliness. The church that glorifies Jesus Christ ought to be known by the depth and consistency of its love of all people—especially love of other believers.

Integrity was a hallmark of the Early Church. This was realized through an intense commitment to accountability. If believers sinned and showed no signs of acknowledgment and repentance, they were confronted. If the church preached one view but collectively lived another, individuals would call the church to repent. Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth are examples of how seriously the Early Church guarded the quality of believers’ lives. And the experience in Acts 6 where the church was accused of abandoning the needs of its widows is yet another sign of its devotion to integrity.

The first-century church was distinguished by its attitude. Specifically, the Christians of the day felt a sense of urgency about ministry. Not knowing when Christ would return, and acutely aware that the ministry agenda He had outlined was of the utmost significance, they felt a need to be diligent about ministry. They also exhibited an intense passion for Christ and for serving Him with their lives. And they were committed to doing their service with excellence because they knew it reflected their own depth of commitment to Christ.

The Lord would have searched for evidence of dependence on God. Constant and wholehearted engagement in worship suggests our recognition of our own insignificance and an understanding that God is awesome. Investing substantial time and energy in prayer is another indication of our reliance upon God. Even the degree to which we count on the church as a central means of emotional and spiritual support is a signal of our devotion to the resources provided by God for our strength and development.

The true church is strategic in its response to conditions and opportunities. When conditions change, the church’s responses must also change. Operating in ways that fulfill God’s vision for our lives and ministries requires that we hold the vision constant but the plans and strategies as flexible guides toward our vision-based goals.

Three Strategic Thrusts

The church must pursue a three-pronged strategy for vision and renewal. The aggressive and intelligent pursuit of these three outcomes will position the church for strength and impact for years to come, enabling Christianity to successfully compete for the minds, hearts, and souls of the people.

1. Motivate people to pursue, embrace, and live according to a biblical worldview. Churches today are filled with people who claim they are Christians but who demonstrate no depth of understanding or consistent application of core biblical principles.

2. Allow the church to be led by the people whom God has called and anointed for that task—that is, leaders. As long as the church persists in being led by teachers, it will flounder. Identifying, developing, deploying, and supporting gifted leaders will renew the vision, energy, and impact of the church. Most of the leaders that need to be invited and nurtured within ministries will be laypeople. While seminaries may produce some of our future leaders, the majority will arise from within our congregations to sharpen their leadership abilities and use the leadership gifts they possess.

3. Develop new forums and formats through which people will experience, understand, and serve God. New models of the church must be allowed to blossom—models that reflect the diversity of needs, opportunities, and perspectives that define our culture. These new models will make the Christian faith accessible and relevant to people who otherwise would not consider Christianity to be an option worthy of exploration.

ENDNOTES

1. These two outcomes are not necessarily mutually exclusive. However, it seems probable that one or the other will be the dominant, if not exclusive, outcome.

2. The term "minority" must be used carefully these days. Minority groups, such as African Americans, represent the majority in many of our largest cities and metropolitan areas. In a growing number of communities it is the Caucasian population which is the minority group. In an even greater number of communities the population has become so diversified that there is no majority segment; every ethnic or racial group is in the minority.

3. Information on wealth comes from a variety of sources. Among those cited here are data from the Census Bureau; information contained in The Millionaire Next Door, by Thomas Stanley and William Danko (Atlanta: Longstreet Press, 1996); and Trends 2000, by Gerald Celente, (New York: Warner Books, 1997).

4. The most comprehensive edition of facts on the spiritual state of the nation is contained in The Index of Leading Spiritual Indicators, by George Barna (Dallas: Word Books, 1996). The book contains data pertaining to 13 dimensions of America’s current spiritual character and perspectives. Updated information is accessible through The Barna Report, a bimonthly newsletter available from Word Ministry Resources, Nashville (1-800-933-9673) and via the Barna Research website (www.barna.org).


George Barna is founder and president of Barna Research Group. This article was adapted from The Second Coming of the Church, Barna Research Group, Ltd., Ventura, California, and used by permission. You may purchase The Second Coming of the Church at www.barna.org or call GPH at 1-800-641-4310.

 

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