Troubling Trends in the American Church

By: Scott Ridout 

The church is God’s vehicle to take the gospel to the world.  I am grateful to God that I have had the privilege of spending the last 36 years of my life involved in numerous ministries that understood the high privilege of being used by God to advance his Kingdom, will and purpose in this world.  I’ve seen the power of the gospel in my own life as well as the lives of other individuals, small groups, large groups and people groups. I’ve seen entire communities transformed by churches that decided to collaborate because they believed they were better together.

Pastoring a church in the Phoenix Metro area for 21 years provided me with a wealth of opportunity to observe God’s work among churches of all kinds, sizes and flavors in that community.   As the president of Converge, I have the privilege of sitting in a front row seat on the 1470+ churches across our movement.  As a member of the National Association of Evangelicals, I also have access to the stories from 25 other evangelical denominations who are working together to move the gospel forward.  From this perspective, I can say that I am very excited about the future of the church in the United States.  The leaders that I have met are humble, godly, and focused on advancing God’s purpose in this world.

However, this bandwidth of perspective has also allowed me to see some troubling trends as well. My observation is this: that while most of these trends are not problems to be solved, they are definitely tensions to be managed.

Throughout history, the focus of the American church has tended swing like a pendulum between good things that I believe that God intended to complementary and not competing.  They are not problems to be solved, but tensions to be managed.  (Think for example of the tension between grace and truth in the Christian life.  Which one is more important?  Neither – this is not a problem to be solved, but a tension to be managed.) Throughout the centuries, the church has experienced seasons of self-correction, swinging back toward center. And when the church has lost this tension for any extended period of time, God has led the Church in a revolutionary reset through repentance and revival.

I want to be clear that, while I am very optimistic about our future, I believe that we are approaching a time of repentance and revival if we do not correct our course soon.  In this short article, I will make observations that only touch the surface on the opportunity we have for change.  However, my hope is that in your reading of these observations, that you will be compelled by God to live and lead on the solution side of our present reality.

Troubling Trends in the American church

1) Growth has eclipsed health

Health and growth can be related, but they’re not the same.  I’ve heard the phrase “healthy things grow” relating to the church.  Of course healthy things will grow… But so do viruses.

When it comes to health and growth, Jesus didn’t give us an “either/or” but a “both/and” proposition. We want healthy, growing churches.

Please don’t question my motives here – after all, I was lead pastor at a church that was listed in Outreach magazines 100 fastest growing for several years. I want to see churches, large and small, grow to impact every facet of their ministry to their communities and the world.  My hope is that if an article was written on the “100 healthiest churches in America” would we see the same churches mentioned in the “100 largest” list!  Yet we know that is not the case.

As I mentioned before, I will not solve this problem in a paragraph, but I am willing to suggest this: Churches that have chosen growth over health should consider creating a definition of a discipled person then designing maturity pathways and leadership development processes to help people move in that direction. It is time to redefine maturity (if we don’t define it, people will make up their own definition) moving away from knowledge alone to include giving, serving, sharing, going and everything else that is exemplified in the NT church.

2) Free agency has eclipsed farms systems

If you are not familiar with these terms, I am referring to baseball.  Every year there is a draft where each team choose young high potential players which they place in their system.  All are placed in the “farm system” at the appropriate level to build their skills and experience that will move them up the ladder to hopefully make it to the Major League. Thousands of players receive coaching and training in hopes that  will make it one day to the Major Leagues.    I had the privilege of working with the summer league rookies for the Colorado Rockies many years ago.  Two of the very young players, Jamie Wright and Nephi Perez, had great careers in the MLB.  Yet before that, PJ Carey (who later became the MLB Manager for the Rockies) took great pains to make sure these young high capacity performers we fully developed.

Other players are acquired by baseball teams through “free agency”.  Typically these free agents are high performers who have proven themselves on other teams.

The American church, for the most part, has abandoned their farm systems and are depending on free agency to help their churches grow.  In doing so, many have abandoned the call to multiply disciples, leaders and congregations by adding outside help.   In many American ministries, ministering to crowds has eclipsed developing the core, and leaders are not being raised from the inside.

Christianity is dependent on each generation raising up leaders for the next.  Jesus knew this when in John 4 he made the observation “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” Then he trained his disciples in ministry, knowing his presence on the earth would be short.

We must follow his example and intentionally, internally create systems that raise up leaders who know our culture, sense our chemistry and align with our vision.

3) Retaining has eclipsed sending

The great tragedy of the first two trends is the resulting third trend.  When we focus on growth and not health and then use free encyclopedia rather that’s farm systems to place leaders, it results in a scarcity mindset.  And in the scenarios, where God miraculously raises up an internal leader, we think “we have to keep every leader we can.”

This thinking works against the identity of the church as a “sent people” (John 20:21). We cannot become who God made us to be nor can we accomplish the task God has given us if we don’t reverse this trend. The way most churches set up leadership development today is not conducive to send workers to the world.  We are trying to achieve success without sacrifice, but our vision is too small. The American model has always been more focused on impacting insiders than reaching outsiders. We even see this in the use of resources in the church: The average church in America has never sent more than 3.5% of their income outside of the four walls of the church – and no more and more goes to local missions and less goes to global.

In recent years with the globalization of society, I believe many churches have lost their focus on foreign missions.   While it’s great that we’re reaching people from other countries who come here, but we cannot forget those who are far away I don’t have the immediate access to the Gospel. We can’t expect them to make the first move.  We must go. We must send.

4) Uniformity has eclipsed variety

Every generation of the church has had it’s favorite leaders.  If I say the names Billy Graham, Rick Warren, Andy Stanley, Tim Keller or Steve Furtick, most people would know, not only who I am talking about, but how each leader has influenced their personal ministry.  Ministry in America has become extremely praxis-oriented. In fact I amuse myself sometimes by attending on a Sunday morning and obesering the service to how obvious it is as to who are this churches greatest influences.  Learning from great leaders and sharing best has become an essential part of the American church.

Yet there are some inherent dangers anytime we “cut and paste” ministry methods.  The first danger is is the neglect of cultural nuances of the community. Every community is unique. While principles of ministry cross all sorts of lines, practices often do not.   The leader must be in tune with the ramifications of bringing outside methods to the local congregation  – the mission is the same for all churches, but the effective methods vary.

The second danger is the squelching of innovation.  High visibility ministries are typically at the center of American Christianity. The irony of the story of most of these ministries is that at some time, they made innovations to the existing church thinking that, over a long period of time, propelled them to the spotlight.  They moved from totally unknown to well known…and copied.

The problem with this scenario is that “every innovation has an expiration date.”  The innovation that was on the edge moved central and became a standard practice. It is an innovation no longer.

Innovation almost always happens at the edges. Every generation needs people who are seeing, thinking, and working differently, because while the new leader’s innovations are on full display and adopted, its weakness are ignored.

There is a unique nuance in our society today.  While our communities are becoming beautifully diverse, our churches continue to lag behind the diversity of who they reach.   Part of the issue for our generation is that many of the most popular leaders of innovation in American ministry target an audience made up of suburban boomers, hipsters and urban millenials.  While reaching these genre is significant is not incorrect, it is incomplete.  There are pockets of people we are not reaching in every community town and city.  Our call is to reach every ethne.

In the words of Craig Groeschel (another great innovator of our time) “To reach people we’ve not been reaching, we’ve got to do things we’ve not been doing.” Existing churches need to commit to a never-ending creative renewal of present practices, systems and programs that reach an every widening more diverse audience.  We need to encourage churches to develop “saturation strategies” plans and partnerships that help every man, women and child have opportunity to hear and respond to the gospel.

5) Competing has eclipsed collaboration

American Christianity is defined by individualism. We talk about having a personal faith and personal relationship with God. Independence and autonomy rule the day.  Yet while scripture talks about personal faith, it also talks of responsibility to the whole. Christianity, by nature is communal.  Dozens of “one another’s” are in scripture.  Yet many Christians ignore this part of Biblical teaching.

The same principle can be observed in American biases toward their local church and their church’s denominational ties, theological views and ministry alliances.  The American church tends to view the “church down the street” as competition.  They Bible says we are teammates.

We need to figure out how to “be one.”

I’m looking forward to the day we can celebrate each other’s wins as much as our own. A time when we all actually give away our best practices in order for others to succeed and the mission to be accomplished.  Although I am seeing more these days, it is still not enough to truly transform our communities, our country and the world.

Our competition is not the church down the street, it is the world, the flesh and the devil.  Albert Mohler wrote about his desire to see the American church come together for mission in 2004 in his work “A call to Theolgical Triage and Christian Maturity”.  He challenge the church to come together around the essentials that we have in common, not split over the non-essentials that have moved us apart in order to accomplish our common mission from Christ. Biblical unity has more to do with accomplishing mission than it does with fellowship.  Until the American church adopts this belief, we won’t become the force we need to be to reach the world for the gospel.

6) Defense has eclipsed offense

Language and communication of many Christians in America these days focuses on rights instead of responsibilities.  Many Americans treat their church as a product to purchase, adopting a mentality of being consumers who never become contributors.

When I was in the Phoenix area, I became friends with Don Wilson, the former lead pastor at Christ’s Church of the Valley. I remember the moment like it was yesterday when he said this

“I think one of the biggest issues in the church is that we think we are the home team.  I played sports in college and when we went into an arena as the visiting team, we knew that we had to play a little more offense with more grit and resolve…because we knew the crowd was against us.”

It should be obvious to everyone with declining church attendance, new laws in our land and antagonistic attitudes against Christians, morals and the church that we are not the home team.

So we need to play a more offense with more grit and resolve.

Our present circumstance is not a bad thing. Throughout history and even today, the church around the world grows in areas were persecution is great and rights are few.  We need to re-orient our people to except the truth of the New Testament – that suffering for those who follow Jesus is a natural part of life – and a privilege.  Our church methonds and messages have leaned toward cursing the darkness…yet I think it is time to focus more on boldly proclaiming the light. Light beats darkness every time. We use much of our energy these days defending our rights – yet in the Bible when you see the church it is not playing much defense to fight society, it played offense to win it over.  It’s time to play more offense, take more risks and trust God in greater ways for great things.

7) Fear has eclipsed faith

As Christians, we act afraid of the world – what they think, how they will act, how they will view us – it has paralyzed us many. (Worse than that – We are afraid of our own people – and how they might complain about change, choosing comfort over conviction..but that will be the topic of a different article.

We serve a God for whom the Bible says “nothing is impossible”.  We believe in a God who can move mountains.  We serve a God who spoke the world into existence.

We are not a people of fear, we are a people of faith.

We have a big God, so we take big risks and trust him for big results.

We need to get back on mission. We need local church leadership that understand time is short, hell is hot and everyone lives forever somewhere.  The greatest need a new churches as leaders who know the right thing to do and have the courage to do it.

Summary

Despite these tensions, I remain hopeful.  I see the faithful of God still making disciples of all nations, I see the gospel advancing in places where Christ has never been named.  The Bible says that God is building his church and Jesus Christ is the cornerstone and everywhere the gospel is preached, it is bearing fruit and increasing. People are being transferred from the kingdom of darkness in the kingdom of God’s beloved son, in whom we have redemption to forgiveness of sins.   Jesus said that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church. The kingdom of God is forcefully advancing.

I remain hopeful because I understand the character of our God

My encouragement comes from the fact that I know there will always be a remnant who preach the truth of Christ to those who need to hear it.  My encouragement comes the fact that I know the end of the story – and that Christ prevails.

So I remain and call others to be resolved in heart, unreserved in action, resilient in setbacks.

I’m sure we’ll figure this out as we lean into the faith in Christ, as we are led by the Holy Spirit, and as we bind together as one church to move forward in this world.

Will you join me in trusting God to give us the wisdom in how to address and rebalance these tensions in our time?

God has blessed us. He has designed us to live for something bigger than ourselves, our families and even our churches.  We are better together…and the best is yet to come.


This article is submitted by Scott Ridout of Converge. Converge is a Missio Nexus member.  Member organizations can provide content to the Missio Nexus website. See how by clicking here.

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