A Christian Case Study
The problems and trends facing society are complex: moral turpitude and decay; increased crime; the deterioration and demise of the family; despair, loss of purpose and insidious incompetence among our young; economic irresponsibility and the disappearance of personal and corporate integrity. These problems are essentially spiritual problems and relational in their essence. Systemic solutions related to the welfare system, economic system, and criminal justice system merely the symptoms of the problems. It is logical that spiritual approaches to these problems are the most effective means to ameliorate them and their negative and all-too-often tragic consequences.
Trends: What Will We See?
There is a scene in the movie The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (New Line Cinema, 2001) where the Lady Galadriel asks Frodo Baggins to look into the Mirror of Galadriel and Frodo replies with the question, “What will I see?” As the second decade of the 21st century draws to its conclusion, we can look back to get an idea of what’s in store for the next decade… but only an idea. As that eminent philosopher Sly Stone once said: “The way you go depends only in part on where you’ve been.” If Frodo were to look into the Mirror of Galadriel, what would he see coming into the second decade of the 21st century?
I see the demise of religion and the rise of relationships.
Technology vs. Spirituality
The universal, apostolic, evangelical, Biblical church of Jesus Christ is potentially the most powerful change agent in the history of mankind. It has already demonstrated and manifested this potential over the history of its existence. Yet two decades into the 21st century, the problems facing society seem more intense, complex, and pervasive. These problems include moral turpitude and decay; increased crime; the deterioration and demise of the family; despair, loss of purpose and insidious incompetence among our young; economic irresponsibility and the disappearance of personal and corporate integrity. At the same time, these problems seem less and less amenable to attempted solutions suggested and developed by the near-miraculous technological advances of the 20th and 21st centuries. It is my belief that these problems are not, in essence, technological problems. It is my belief that they are, essentially, spiritual problems and thus, are relational in their essence.
Pursuant to this view, it is logical that spiritual approaches to these problems are the most effective means to ameliorate them and their negative and all-too-often tragic consequences. George F. Will, the distinguished columnist, writing for the Washington Post Writers Group, in an article entitled, “Is faith-based approach to social woes wave of future?”, states it this way: “The data are hardly counterintuitive. Just as the density of liquor outlets in a neighborhood correlates with negative phenomena, the density of churches correlates with positive ones. Indeed, individuals who may not themselves go to church but who live on a block where people go to church are less likely to commit crimes or wind up on welfare.” Most of the solutions suggested by technology focus on systems—the welfare system, the economic system, the criminal justice system. These systems and their ineffective responses can address merely the symptoms of the problems—the circumstances surrounding the people within or impacted by these systems, but rarely the people themselves.
While technological advances have been nothing short of spectacular, the church has available to it a power and resource that technology cannot emulate or duplicate. That power and resource is the Holy Spirit of God and His written Word, the Holy Bible. The practical application of the Word of God under the anointing of the Holy Spirit is the most effective, and yet, least effectively applied means to address these problems. Will writes, “Can the nation save the inner-city African-American community?” That question may be backward. There are 65,000 black churches with 23 million adherents, most of them in inner cities. The nation thirsts for good news and grounds for hope about the struggles of inner-city African-Americans….” The church was created and designed to impact the “inner man,” to address the problems cited above at their source—within the hearts and minds of the people. It is only then and there that effective, lasting changes in the circumstances surrounding the people may be implemented. Will goes on to write, “African-American churches may be saving more than their communities’ souls. By preaching—and demonstrating—that the solutions to most problems begin with spiritual rather than material betterment, they may be saving the nation’s soul as well.”
It is in the demonstration that churches and other houses of worship—regardless of their ethnic/racial composition, economic wherewithal, denominational affiliation, or location—are falling far short of their potential. In my book, Discipleship and Discipline: Second Edition, it states:
“This book is written to challenge the church to be what it is meant to be: the greatest, single most potent change agent in the history of the world—past, present and future—because the church was made to change the hearts of men and women. The church has lost sight of its vision, if not of its mission. We are fragmented by denominations, by doctrinal infidelity, by stultifying institutional/ritual rictus and structural decay/inflexibility/insensitivity. Mega-churches proliferate and compete for numbers but do nothing to reach and teach the individual souls God says “all are mine (Ezekiel 18)”. We are charged by Christ to have two (2) elements to our job description as disciples: we are to make disciples and we are to be His witnesses. The church is failing at making disciples, failing at teaching the professed followers of Christ “all that He has commanded us (Matthew 28)”. The church is fragmented, disjointed, at odds with itself and with His Word. It is failing to “equip the saints for the work of service (Ephesians 4)”. The church lacks power because few are following His instructions on the imperative and method to make disciples. Consequently, witnessing has been relegated to attending church on Sunday at 11:00AM which remains ‘the most segregated hour in America’. We can do better. We must do better. Each of us who confess to be followers of Jesus Christ must first become His disciples and then we must apply the discipline of disciples to the making of other disciples and to our task as witnesses for Him.”
Throughout its existence, the church has wrestled on the horns of the dilemma of being “spiritual/ecstatic” vs “relevant/practical/secular”. My position is that the Word of God, while holy spiritual is also wholly practical as well. The church can benefit from a more deliberate, seemingly “business-like” approach to its work without sacrificing its true nature and focus. By organizing—truly being deliberate—about its mission and raison d’etre, the church can become more of an effective resource to address the problems we identify today but react to without a thought to their spiritual dimensions.
A Paradigm Shift
“Do you think outside the box?” “Yes, I do think outside the box.” “There is no box. Society tells us there is a box to think outside of, so we create it”—dialogue between Clyde Anderson, author of “FundaMENTAL W.E.A.L.T.H. Principles”.
To “get ahead,” we are often encouraged to “think outside the box,” which can lead to different approaches, methods, and activities to address all-too-familiar situations and circumstances that are persistently pernicious. My position is that the church should realize that there is no “box” for it, that it should go back to its roots—theological, doctrinal, methodological, relational—to become a more effective change agent to address today’s problems. The church should reduce reliance on ritual and rote and begin to do what Jesus did—meet people at their point(s) of need. The church should consider the value of “down-sizing” vs going for mega-church status. The church should “think outside the box” of denominational rigidity and budget “silo”-city to mission clarity and effort integration across artificially drawn lines of demarcation. The church should observe and apply Jesus’ approach to making disciples as the method/means to bring about change in individuals, which in turn will start the process of permanent change of our institutions—family, educational, social, economic, political, self—all relational contexts.
The definitive market research on the church and religion has been conducted by the Barna Group, founded by George Barna and David Kinnaman. In their “Barna Study of Religious Change Since 1991,” covering the period 1991 to 2011, the Barna Group (Ventura, CA) assembled several observations about religious practices in American society among Protestants and Catholics. Several trends were identified, including declines in church attendance, but increases in religious commitment, a proliferation in “mega-churches,” and an increase in Bible-reading.
The reality reflected in these observations—at least the potential reality—is that young people, and some older Baby Boomers, too—are abandoning ritual and rote for substantive and meaningful relationship—with God and with each other. This seems particularly true with the younger generations, the Gen Xers, the Gen Yers, and the Millennials. They seem to be telling us that they are finding little to live for in the institutions and methods—the legacies—that are characteristic of the “staid, traditional church experience,” that we are passing on to them. They are frustrated and fearful of war, poverty, empty and impotent institutions, and religious practices that offer no hope, no heritage.
As we move forward, the young see a crossroads and a crisis. They do not want to experience the train wreck of global conflict that we older persons speak of with such pride as having overcome. They seek peace, prosperity for all, and the elimination of an atmosphere of fear. The young are telling us that they reject the impotency of religious ritual in favor of true, meaningful relationships and that they are not afraid to seek it, within themselves and within each other.
And then…the COVID-19 global pandemic. The original version of this essay was written in November-December 2019. Since that time, we have seen the global Coronavirus scourge ravage all nations to the extent that, as of April 28, 2021, more than 572,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. By contrast, 418,500 Americans—military and civilian—died in WW II. The impact on religion via the institution of personal protective protocols requiring prohibition of gathering in houses of worship, social distancing, and self-imposed social isolation has further exacerbated the trend away from corporate worship experiences.
While the younger generation started this “new age exodus” away from corporate gatherings as the focal point of their relationship to God—albeit for different reasons—many older persons have taken this time to pause and reflect on the relevancy and necessity of gathering for corporate worship which, in and of itself, does not address the deeper, more spiritual longing sought by all persons of faith. While many houses of worship remain unoccupied during this “plague of biblical proportions,” many persons of faith are seeking other avenues of expression for their commitment to their relationship to their God.
Will the trend away from “organized religion” continue? I think so. Is it reversible? I think not. What, then, happens to the many houses of worship that remain standing? Re-use, Retrofit, and Reconfigure. Young people of faith will encourage (force?) the re-purposing of these edifices as places wherein positive spiritual relationships can be nurtured and where servant-service can be identified, encouraged, and enabled.