loren Eric Swanson: Changing the Trajectory of the Church in the 21st Century

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Changing the Trajectory of the Church in the 21st Century

Changing the Trajectory of the Church in the 21st Century
by: Eric Swanson

This is the first installment on my thougths on the future of the faith from a paper I wrote in October 2004.

The church is in a fix today, as deep a fix as perhaps never before in the history of the church. Many signs of the times tell us otherwise. Christian book sales have blown the roof off of the sales charts. Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life, reports that this book has sold in excess of forty million copies—more than the Harry Potter series, The Da Vinci Code, and Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, combined.[1] The blockbuster movie of 2004 is Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” The Prayer of Jabez left its impact on millions of believer and unbeliever alike. WWJD bracelets have adorned the wrists of school children and CEOs alike. Mega-churches (frequently defined as those in excess of 1% of surrounding population), once scarce, are all but ubiquitous in suburban landscape of America. We have an outspoken evangelical as our President. All market indicators would tell us that Christianity has never been doing better. But in fact it may never have been doing worse.
Ed Stetzer, in his book Planting New Churches in a Postmodern Age, makes a number of observations regarding the demise of the church in America. For example:
In 1900, 27 churches existed for every 10,000 Americans
In 1950, 17 churches existed for every 10,000 Americans
In 1996, 11 churches existed for every 10,000 Americans[2]
Further he cites Win Arn’s report that 3,500 to 4,000 close their doors each year in the U.S.[3] making the US is the fifth largest mission field on earth.[4] David Smith writes,
‘We ring our bells, says Darrell Guder, ‘conduct our services…and wait for this very different world to come to us.’ Pastors continue to preach sermons and carry on internal polemics over doctrine as though nothing outside has changed, but the reality is that everything has changed and the people ‘are not coming back to the churches.’[5]

Tom Clegg and Warren Bird, in their book, Lost in America, tell us “roughly half of all churches in America did not add one new person through conversion growth last year.”[6] Further they state, “In America, it takes the combined effort of eighty-five Christians working over an entire year to produce one convert.”[7] Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, creators and instructors of ZerOrientation, inform us that although this year in the U.S. 1,300 churches will be started, 3,750 will disband and close their doors.[8] Ninety-eight percent of church growth is by transfer growth as smaller churches close their doors and growth is consolidated into fewer, though larger churches.[9] Although there are few true atheists in the U.S. and the vast majority of unchurched people describe themselves as “spiritual” (though not religious) and would like a deeper relationship with God,[10] the church is doing a dismal job of connecting with these seekers. If present trends continue, by 2060 “no one will be in church.”[11] David Smith observes
that the real problem of Christian mission in the modern West is not the absence of spiritual hunger within the postmodern generation, but rather the church’s failure to recognize the existence and significance of this quest on the part of thousands of people beyond its doors. Even where such recognition does occur there is often a refusal to respond on the terms set by the searchers, rather than those dictated by existing ecclesiastical traditions and structures.[12]

We cannot expect the trajectory of the church in the future to change by doing the same things in the present that we have done in the past. We need to think differently and act differently if we expect the future to be different…and better. How can we change the trajectory of the church? The answer lies in five imperative strategies:
The church must multiply as well as grow
The church needs to start congregational churches and simple churches
The church needs to evangelize and develop leaders
The church must be attractional and missional
The church needs to be good news and share good news
The church has be the church and build the kingdom
[1] Rick Warren said this on September 21, 2004 at Generous Giving Meeting at Northpoint Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia.
[2] Ed Stetzer, Planting New Churches in a Postmodern Age (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Press, 2003), p. 9

[3] Stetzer, p. 10
[4] Stetzer, p. 10
[5] David Smith, Mission After Christendom (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2003), p. 33
[6] Thomas Clegg and Warren Bird, Lost in America (Loveland, CO: Group Publishing, 2001), p. 27
[7] Clegg and Bird 2001, p. 29
[8] Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, ZerOrientation—Creating Church Where It Doesn’t Exist (Anaheim, CA: Church Resource Ministries, 2004), P. 2
[9] Halter and Smay, lecture, September 28, 2004
[10] Insights from Pete Ward’s Liquid Church, p. 2-5
[11] Halter and Smay, lecture, September 28. 2004
[12] Smith, p. 73


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