The statistics tell an alarming story. Mainline churches have shrunk dramatically. The number of Catholics who attend mass on a regular basis has declined by half. Southern Baptist membership has hit a 47-year low. The “Nones”–a group comprising atheists, agnostics, and those who describe their religion as “nothing in particular”–is now the largest cohort in the U.S. (28%). Unaffiliated adults outnumber Catholics (23%) or evangelical Protestants (24%).

Observers propose possible reasons for the decline, which didn’t fully reverse after the disruptive pandemic. Have prominent scandals damaged the church’s reputation beyond repair? Or are we simply following the secularization slide that started years ago in Western Europe?

Next Sunday...the future of the churchWhile pondering these questions, I came across an incisive book, Next Sunday: An Honest Dialogue About the Future of the Church, by a mother-daughter team. For more than 20 years Nancy Beach directed programming at Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago. She incorporated drama and other creative arts into worship services, in a model copied throughout the world—until the church’s leadership problems burst into public view. Nancy recruited her daughter, Samantha Beach Kiley, as a coauthor in order to include the view of a millennial. Both have experienced the best and the worst of the church, have absorbed some blows along the way, and yet continue to serve in local churches at the intersection of art and faith.

Nancy describes several different approaches to church. As I read her account, it struck me that in my years of churchgoing I have sampled each of them, with their various strengths and weaknesses.

Attractional

This approach tries to make church as appealing as possible. Willow Creek began with a door-to-door survey in which the founders asked non-churchgoers what kept them away. Uncomfortable seats, requests for money, boring sermons, strange music, unfamiliar rituals—Bill Hybels and his crew devised a format to address all these complaints. Well-produced “seeker services” presented the basics of Christianity in clear, inviting ways, often using drama to reinforce the message. Regular attenders were then encouraged to get involved in activities—such as small groups, summer camps, mission trips, or interest groups—that reinforce what it means to become a Jesus follower.

Quality programs take resources, and in recent years megachurches—defined as having a weekly attendance of 2000 or more—have mushroomed, often built around a star speaker who can draw a crowd. Whereas mainline churches compress the sermon into 15 to 20 minutes, many megachurches allot 45 minutes or more for the sermon. Visiting some, I’ve come away wondering which seminary taught these macho pastors (almost all men) how to be so funny and engaging, and to trade in robes and suits for muscle shirts and tattoos.

Attraction - the future of the church

Around 40 percent of the largest churches in the U.S. are nondenominational, having no accountability structure beyond the local church board. This may lead to implosions, as happened at Willow Creek and at Mars Hill Church in Seattle.

The church I attend started with a talented young pastor who grew the congregation from 250 to more than 1,000. After a standoff with the board, the pastor left, taking several hundred members with him. That church still exists, although now about 30 of us, mostly senior citizens, meet together in a rented school room on Sundays. The church has no children’s program because we have no children. Most weeks we sing to downloaded music, following words projected on a video screen.

I remind myself that our congregation of several dozen is far more typical than the glitzy megachurches down the highway. The average congregation in the U.S. has 65 members, after all, so we’re halfway there.

Community

Some people look for a church to satisfy their longing for community. Where else can a person find a substitute family that includes a diverse mixture of children, adults, and senior citizens?

Community - the future of the church

When my wife and I first moved to Colorado from downtown Chicago, we frequented an informal church that had decided against a paid pastor and a church building. Instead, various members took turns with the teaching duties and the church rented a local meeting hall. The teaching was uneven, to put it kindly, but we used the money saved on staff and building upkeep to support worthy causes.

For us newcomers, however, the sense of community was paramount. The service allotted time for people to mention joys and concerns: for example, we learned about Troy’s quest to make the Winter Olympics ski team and heard regular updates on the congregation’s ailing members—and even on Jan’s sick horse. The church finally disbanded, but we still count members of that group among our dearest friends.

In the U.K. only 6 percent of the population goes to church, and yet during the pandemic 25 percent of Brits tuned in to online church services. Alpha groups, which guide small clusters of people through an 11-week course on the basics of Christianity, flourished online as well. In a time of crisis, non-church people sought companionship and comfort even in a virtual community.

During the lockdown months, I regularly tuned in to the London church that had birthed the Alpha course. They created a regular Sunday program featuring great music and video interviews with recent converts, interesting church members, and teams who brought food and medicines to shut-ins. Sermons—more like meditations—were lively and inspiring, and none lasted more than 15 minutes. The uplifting, fast-paced style kept my attention, a bright spot during those dreary days. I felt part of a community who were actively living out their faith thousands of miles away.

To my disappointment, after the lockdown expired the church returned to a straight televised church service. The medium no longer seemed to fit the message.

Outreach

Outreach - the future of the church

Samantha Beach Kiley recalls, “I never had much luck getting any of my friends in the Chicago theater scene to visit my church on a Sunday—not even at Easter or Christmas. But one weekend our church canceled services to go out and serve the city. I signed up to help sort clothes in a homeless shelter. When my group leader texted us that we could use a few more volunteers, I sent out a text early Sunday morning to eight friends—folks who had never been to or participated [in my church] before. Within an hour all eight showed up at the homeless shelter. It was the easiest invitation I ever made.”

While living in Chicago in my thirties, I belonged to a downtown church that launched urban ministries such as school tutoring, a counseling center, and a legal aid clinic for the poor. My wife directed a senior citizens’ program. Before long that mostly-yuppie congregation found itself hosting several pews full of African-American senior citizens from a nearby housing project, along with younger clients of the counselors and benevolent lawyers. They wanted to belong to the group that had helped them through tough times.

Earlier this month I visited Resurrection Church in Kansas City, the largest United Methodist church in the U.S. With 24,000 members, it’s a bona fide megachurch. And yet if you ask the people of Kansas City what they know about Resurrection, they’re likely to mention its work with Habitat for Humanity, or refugee settlement, or the schools they’ve adopted to provide free breakfasts and lunches, or the food pantry, or the trucks that deliver free beds to any child who lacks one.

Samantha, the millennial author, sees practical help for the needy as key to the church’s future. She says, “Most people in our world want to do something to make a difference, and they jump at the chance to help in practical ways. Their experience often leads to community, to the beginning of relationships. And eventually, for some, this will lead to a step of faith and a commitment to Christ.”

St. Francis of Assisi is often quoted as saying, “Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words.” Jesus did both. His first sermon, after all, spoke of good news for the poor, freedom for prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind (Luke 4). In what might be considered his last public sermon (Matthew 25), Jesus extolled those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the prisoners. “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” he said.

The future of the church

Sociologists such as Rodney Stark point to the early church as a model. There were few missionaries or evangelists in the Roman Empire, and no such thing as a “seeker church.” Instead, Christians simply showed their neighbors a different way to live: adopting rather than abandoning unwanted babies, nursing plague victims rather than fleeing from them, inviting all social classes to worship together, sharing resources with the poor. Ultimately Romans decided, “I like how they live more than how I live. I want what they’ve got.” Not a bad formula for church growth.

Philip Yancey

 

 

 

 

 

No church does everything right.  As you read about these different styles, which elements most resonated with you?

 

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35 responses to “The Future of the Church”

  1. Bobbe Pennington says:

    Hi Philip,

    I always appreciate your thoughtful views on our Christian faith. You write, “There were few missionaries or evangelists in the Roman Empire…” I would think there were quite a few since the Empire was huge, Christians were so persecuted, and the Word kept spreading nonetheless. Am I mis-reading here or just misinformed?

    Thank you,

    Bobbe

    • Philip Yancey says:

      According to my reading, there were almost no full-time missionaries or evangelists in the century or so after the Apostle Paul. Rather, churches met in private, and only the initiated could attend services. “Outsiders” were attracted by the contrast in how Christians lived, not usually by direct attempts to evangelize. More recently, estimates of how many Christians were martyred or persecuted have been lowered, and the persecutions varied a lot from province to province.

  2. Suzanne Jones says:

    Well done and so true. I do wish more churches were truly a community, but those churches are few and far between. One thing no one brings up in the declining church argument is the fact the majority of churches are structured as an institution for couples and families; even though, there is a huge population of single adults in the United States. I am single and I have given up finding a church because of the issue. Instead I listen to worship serves on line. Why is this issue never talked about or addressed? I wonder this often.

  3. Roy David Stafford says:

    We love all your books. The Christian church has an aspect that is being ignored and that is a commitment to justice. The church played and important role in the civil rights movement, but failed in fascist Germany. There is a looming crisis in November. Abraham Lincoln led us through the civil war and touched moral hearts for what equality is about. My wife and I felt very moved and uplifted with hope for our country after reading the transcript of the commencement address at Brandeis University by the historian and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who is loved and respected for his art of filmmaking . The series “The Civil War” and “The History of Baseball” were major hallmarks of his art.  His message to the graduates was profound and wise and made me think of Abraham Lincoln’s words of healing to a torn nation.  It moved us to tears and I hope you and all your readers find it important and moving also and choose to spread the word and share this message at this terrible juncture in our American history.
    Roy and Carol Stafford

     https://www.brandeis.edu/commencement/2024/burns.html

  4. Marta says:

    “Sermons—more like meditations—were lively and inspiring, and none lasted more than 15 minutes.”
    Pity they’ve dropped this format as this is precisely what’s needed these days. What will happen when ‘mobile phone children and teenagers’ grow up? They won’t sit in a church for 1-2 hours listening to a very long sermon. The whole methodology has to change, the church needs to get online with a short form message. I don’t know what the future of church attendance in an actual physical building is. It doesn’t look good when one considers that kids cannot/do not want to separate from their phones even in classes. And then we have the growth of AI which will impact physical contact and relationships in a tremendous way.

  5. Ann O'Malley says:

    Interesting that you should publish this just as I’m finishing reading Marva J. Dawn’s “Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down” (1995). She was writing at the height of the worship wars, trying to determine, from both her experience in leading worship and her research on church growth and decline, what worship should be. Her major point is that the job of the church is to praise God for all of who He is and to nurture Christian character. Everything else flows from this.

    We can’t praise God for all of who He is without continually getting to know Him better, both intellectually and experientially. Growing in our Christian character is often a painful process. But if we do these two things as God intends, asking what He wants instead of what we want, the result will be all the qualities that people are attracted to: a deeper understanding of what’s truly important in life, a caring community where all feel welcome, a commitment to serve those in need out of a heart of love, a vibrant demonstration of the fruit of the Spirit, and so on.

    I don’t have any special training in church history or theology and I might be oversimplifying this, but one analysis that I’ve heard over the years is that the mainline denominations began to decline when they put more emphasis on ministering to the needy than on believing and teaching the truth of the gospel. When it got to the point where people weren’t getting anything at church that they couldn’t get elsewhere (the truth of God’s Word), they had no reason to stay.

    Any time the church focuses primarily on anything other than the two goals of knowing God in all His fullness and and growing in our Christian character, it will eventually lead to decline.

  6. Yes, Mr. Philip, now the churches and pastors care more about those with money than they care about those with psychological, spiritual, and material needs. The poor, the oppressed, the weak, the sinful, and the wounded, unfortunately, have no place in the church now.
    نعم يا سيد فيليب، الآن الكنائس والقساوسة يهتمون بأصحاب المال أكثر من اهتمامهم بذوي الاحتياجات النفسية والروحية والمادية. إن الفقراء والمظلومين والضعفاء والخطأة والجرحى، للأسف، ليس لهم مكان في الكنيسة الآن.

  7. Mike Lennon says:

    Yes – the young millenial has the right thought — if we don’t demonstrate in action how the love of Jesus can transform lives, then we have nothing but words. The church will die a slow death if it doesn’t return to the early “bottom-up” servant leadership of the early (pre-Contantine) church. “inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these” is the ticket for the future of the church – catholic or protestant – it’s the ekklesia coming back to life that will change the world – in the power of the Holy Spirit!

  8. Dave Broucek says:

    Thank you for one more stimulating newsletter, Philip. I was pleased to read your comments about your church in Chicago with its school tutoring, counseling center and legal aid clinic. You brought back pleasant memories. That was my church home in the late 60s when I was a student at Moody Bible Institute only a few blocks away. I would also mention the highly engaging sermons and rich, worshipful music and post-service forums that addressed contemporary issues.
    As a retired missionary and mission administrator, I’ve been in many, many churches and have been responsible for several. As both a participant and an observer, I’ve learned that “doing church right” is not easy. Churches differ according to culture. They have personalities like people do. Styles and sizes differ. Now, I’m less concerned about the “best” form of church. I’m grateful for every church that maintains faithful witness – in word and deed, in unity and harmony, in spirit and in truth, in love and service.

  9. Jeannette Vandervalk says:

    As a pastor and missionaries daughter, now 84, I agree with Ralph’s comment. God is so much bigger, more personal, so much better than I’d ever dreamed. Some religious wounds went very deep, but God in His mercy has even, just recently, worked to heal one of the deepest.
    I am very grateful for your book “Where the Light Fell”, especially the picture of your encounter with Jesus. Thank you, Jeannette Smith V
    .

  10. Rick Adler says:

    I shouldn’t be surprised at the graciousness of this blog, your heart and recall of the decline of a church and the heart felt curiosity about how children of God/followers of Jesus are continuing to reach out.

    There is so much inner work we each need to do with Jesus at the curator of the garden of our souls, for me his words: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” points the way. To wage peace I must first be at peace, my battle ground, so as I reach out it is peace that is sown.

  11. Joannie Barth says:

    While leadership decisions may impact our opinions about one church style or another, sheer demographics will continue to drive the size of congregations, as shown here:
    https://youtu.be/CZ-ImBxmpJw?feature=shared

  12. Good Morning,
    The “hunger” that seems to be sought and not fulfilled relates to the volume of sound within said services. The music is so loud, too repetitious to have meaning, and too dramatic to be anything less than a poor attempt to be a mini concert. The music does NOT reflect the message. Even during the sermon, or prayer times, music is listed as a priority requirement. I say music – it is a noise provided by an instrument, produced by someone who has not knowledge of said instrument, and drowns out the message of the speaker. This is a phenomenon my family has encountered throughout our travels. We pray every day that worship services one day will return to worshiping GOD and doing so in a way that EVERYONE is participating in giving GOD the GLORY and not the sound engineer.

  13. Franziska Moser says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed the blog and the discussion. Insightful, thought provoking, and motivating. Thank you everybody.

  14. Doug Yancey says:

    Perhaps if we examined the churches that are increasing in membership we might have some idea of the problem. Could it be teachings, practices, doctrines or claims?

  15. Lee Ann Marona says:

    Thank you for your reply. I am sorry for coming across so harshly.

  16. Sue says:

    I wonder about the “nones”- I am a practicing Catholic and I love my faith. But…I do wonder- because so often we “church people” look a little askance at those who are not, hoping somehow to lure them back…
    Maybe- and this is just a thought- they are believers, just like us, but trusting that God’s love and mercy is so great that they don’t have to prove their goodness or worthiness by showing up for Sunday services. Just like a son who never comes to family functions knows his parent will always love him no matter what. Maybe their trust in the goodness and all out love of the Father is the greatest faith of all.
    Just wondering…

  17. Susan Parlamento says:

    Our Presbyterian pastor retired and started two non-churchy “Gatherings” to reach those wanting community, opportunities to give, and to learn about God’s love without rhetoric or judgment. This especially resonates with those marginalized elsewhere. He “preaches” without compensation and we meet rent-free in a marina bar and the event room of a brewery in a north Alabama town known for music recording. Incredible music is provided by professional musician participants. An inconspicuous bucket in the back collects donations without pressure. 100% goes to worthy, mostly local causes. They recently built and now fund a medical clinic serving a poor, remote area of Haiti. You can feel God’s spirit here and that, I believe, is what people are yearning for. This model works because of the donated services and meeting space so it might not work everywhere, but it definitely works here.

  18. Chris Beck says:

    I’m an elder at a “remnant” church. Pre-pandemic we ran close to 300 a week as a satellite campus of a “mega church” across town (albeit at just over 2,000, a small mega church). Our area is very red in a blue state, and when COVID mandates came down from the state government church leadership decided to comply as much as reasonable. Upset by this “fearful” and “cowardly” response, many left. And others came, either for health reasons or uncomfortable with their church’s more defiant stances. We’re now half of what we were, and, like children of divorce, we’re still mourning broken, strained relationships and feeling like we did something wrong. Our new church, launched independent from our parent church (who is also adjusting to being a fraction of their previous size), was born largely out of this pain. We’re not interested in the polished theatrics anymore; as those left behind, community has become vital. We have monthly potlucks that are a highlight people hate to miss, we share celebration stories and prayer requests, everything is very “grass roots,” and community outreach focuses on forging sustainable relationships with low income schools and parachurch ministries. Visitors are welcome to join our community, but if they’re looking for entertainment instead, they’ll go elsewhere. It’s resulted in a much higher level of engagement and sense of ownership. It feels like the healthiest body I’ve ever been a part of.

  19. BRAD HOLLOWAY says:

    I’m so glad you ended this article the way you did. Having been in church world for 48 years, I’ve seen soooooooo much. In recent years I have experienced a lot of hurt from church staff and the “system” in which I have found myself. So my thinking has been adjusted/ing to reflect more of a 1st century mindset- as best I understand it (L. Hurtaldo has helped with this). My involvement in the local church has changed and is changing too. The “machine” the church has become is… I don’t know- just so far from the original version. The simplicity of the early church (never mind Ananias and Sapphira and the persecution of the early church) had to be much simpler than we make it out to be. These days I find a lot more peace of mind reading my Bible for lengthy periods of time, making disciple makers, periodic mission trips, periodic teaching a class in my church and once a week church attendance.

  20. R Parks says:

    I think the most important means of reaching the lost is conviction by preaching the word. In 1 Cor. 14 the apostle Paul told the church that when they exercised their gift of prophesy (i.e. – simply speaking God’s inspired word to hearers), and unbelievers who had entered their worship heard this Word, the secrets of their heart would be disclosed, and only after that would they would they fall down and declare “God was certainly among them.” (1 Cor 14:24&25). That conviction from preaching, more than programs, is how you convert people to Christ.

  21. Charles Fillingham says:

    Thank you Philip. At 69 I’ve been blessed to be part of several good churches we left some for geography reasons one our pastor fell. It’s interesting the differences. Our church now seems to be a mix of these styles with about 120 on Sundays.

  22. Ralph says:

    The closing paragraph about the early believers living under Caesar reminds me of a great chapter in one of Brant Hansen’s books “Blessed Are the Misfits” where he talks about the fact that those who seem like unnatural “evangelizers” are fit in the kingdom, because it’s more about living out the gospel more than finding people to talk at and preach. A lot of the themes/issues are also touched on by Mike Cosper in his podcast about Mars Hill, which I just finished listening to. I’m definitely in a process of reconstructing my faith (not discarding, though), and much of it involves dealing with some of the issues stemming from my upbringing in the same Bible college you attended, Philip. We serve a God who is SO much better and bigger than any institution we’ve ever seen or experienced, and that’s the God we’re called to follow.

  23. Samuel W France says:

    The early church model you describe at the end of the article is what most resonates with myself and I think non-believers. Our church runs a pantry and that one ministry does more good for the community than any other activity we do (and we do a lot). I see the Acts 1 church as the real model for what church should be. Small groups are the glue in my mind along with outreach ministry like those you describe.

  24. Carrie Thompson says:

    I am drawn to a church with a heart. When that puts service as an utmost and attracts people with their hearts on fire for God.

    There is a young lady Cara at the church that I go to, Sanctuary Colorado city, who found a strap to Kyrie around her Bible 🙂 it’s a Bible purse! How sweet is that 🙂 she found her fiance who was homeless at the time by saying you love jesus, so do I. Such a sweet innocent loving person who loves Jesus.

    Sanctuary downtown Colorado City leads to such people.

    The last sermon was great 🙂 go to 1:56 if you want to skip the praise and worship. – I usually come in for the smoke break which is a 10 minute break in between music and message 🙂

    Then I stay afterwards for the fellowship. It’s an amazing Church!

    The church is a recovery Church and Dr E is our leader. It was a dying Church who gave the church to sanctuary. Free.

    How about them apples 🙂 it’s still small with lots of heart.

    The people who preach are people whose lives have been transformed. Many of them from addiction and their stories are amazing! I find it to feed and have sweet loving people.

    There is a meal that they serve called the Ragamuffin gospel – I’ve never gone because I meet with people on Sunday mornings for debtors anonymous via Zoom. But that’s a side note.

  25. Martha says:

    Our church ministers constantly to the community in outreach. The church folks are also as fine an example of koinonia as I have seen, caring for each other in practical ways, praying for one another, being true brothers and sisters in the Lord. Both of these are to me what the church should be.

  26. Michael Carney says:

    Thanks Philip. A thought provoking article. My wife and I have appreciated your books and videos over the years. Blessings with you.
    Do you mind if I ask what part of Colorado you’re from? Our daughter , husband and daughter live near Nederland.

  27. Kim Dealy says:

    I agree that most Christians/humans in today’s culture want to serve and help others. Not giving to more building funds. I find that confusion of mission occurs because churches will dip into government funds to help the needy/refugees, and build facilities for single moms, clinics… they are then tied to government regulation. This is a conflict of interest from my perspective. I’d appreciate what you and your staff know or understand about this issue. Thank you.

  28. A seeker and thirsty says:

    My mother was the pastor’s wife of the local Baptist church, after many storms that hit their marriage and faith they got divorced. My mom made some attempts to join the local church that her mother was part of and over and over again the fact that she was divorced made her not worthy of becoming a member of that church and prevented her from participating of the elements. The feeling of rejection made her decide to be as far as she could from churches but her deep longing to be part of a faith community made her stumble here and there with different religious groups or associations she tried Jehova’s witness, then she came across with a movement that proclaimed they had found the Messia which it was a man who proclaimed himself as Christ and arranges multiple weddings between people who he has chosen to get married. Now she is 76 years old, 5 years ago she had a car accident and now she doesn’t go to any church or religious group she watches sermons on the TV and prays with me and for me every time we talk on the phone. And I still ask myself if the church would embrace her and show mercy to her how different would our lives have been? Maybe we will never know.

  29. Neilton Nunes da Silva says:

    Muito esclarecedor e inspirador

    Igreja Batista Nikkey em Santo André Brasil

  30. Glad you discovered their book.

    When it was first released, they were kind to give me an interview.

    Paradigm-shifting insights.

  31. Susan Kiely says:

    Good morning Philip and Janet,

    I think community groups/ individuals that stand with you in good and bad times. *Stand with me in times of learning/understanding the message of the Bible: What must I do to be saved? . *Stand with me as I struggle with my challenges throughout life.*Stand with me and celebrate the goodness of life. *Stand with me as I work out my salvation through
    tending to the sick and elderly, feeding the poor, clothing the needy and living the Good News.

  32. Lee Ann Marona says:

    This is a very worthwhile discussion. Does “Next Sunday” deal at all with the church crisis created by the political hypocrisy, gullibility, media vulnerability among such a large percentage of evangelicals particularly over the past decade? Thank you.

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