A reality which is not easy for most churches to accept is that we now live in a time referred to as post-Christendom. What this means is that the elevated status which the Christian church experienced previously is no longer true today. Anyone who is actively involved in a church realizes that there are fewer people who attend worship services, even fewer people who attend activities sponsored by the church, and extremely fewer people who participate in any form of Christian education classes than in the 1950s in the United States. There are many factors which has led to the movement past Christendom but this is a reality which needs to be accepted.
If this is the reality which we now face in the Western Christian church, what are we to do about it? My first response is to realize that well planned programming and an outstanding marketing campaign are no longer the answers. The general approach of the church when it was on top of the societal spectrum was all we have to do is get them in the door then we will be able to add them as members. This could not be any farther from the truth these days. I have watched churches (and attempted myself) to provide the best programming options for people. I have seen very hard work put into getting the name of a church before as many people as possible. Yet, over and over this produced limited, if any, measurable results.
What the church needs to realize is that the priority of getting people in the pews is a futile goal. Instead, the church needs to move out of the building and to the locations where the people are located. This will require the church to operate in a completely different manner than the way we have conducted ourselves in the past. The training that our church leaders have received, and in many cases still are receiving, will provide limited assistance as we move into this new era. There remains value in our church leaders learning the academic information so they can assist people when they are searching for their own answers. However, there now needs to be a component regarding how to seek out people where they live, work, and play. Training must be done to teach our leaders ways to minister outside the building and to lead other members of the fellowship to do the same.
My perception is that we are being required to the model of ministry which was common during Jesus’ time and a model which the church has adopted at various times throughout history. Jesus clearly went where the people were to minister to them and to share the message from God. He would be found in pastures, on hillsides, along lakes, in market places, and in the temples and synagogues. He would spend his time taking care of the physical and spiritual needs of the people. Then he would share the message of God using images which the people in the particular location understood. There was not a specific location which was set aside for worship, practical ministry, or education. A specific day or time was not set up for any of this to take place.
Another reality of the post-Christendom society in which we live is that what people are seeking in their faith journeys is different today than in the era before. While there is still a place for ritual and learning, people today want to focus on practically applying their faith to life. There exists a strong desire to make an impact on the world in a positive manner. Instead of an inward focus, there is an outward focus. The church has an awesome opportunity here and can emerge as a great leader in this area. First, we demonstrate it by leaving the walls of a building and immersing ourselves where people are gathering. Second, we share our love in words and actions which allows us to point to God, the source and very nature of love. Third, we make ourselves available for people to ask questions. Fourth, we show people how to apply the love of God in their daily lives and as a body of individuals who go into the world instead of a building.
The church is no longer on top. We can choose to sit in our buildings, spend hours trying to figure out how to get others to come sit in our buildings, and bemoan the fact that our buildings become emptier every year, or…. We can re-imagine how we can be the church outside of the walls. We can learn to worship, teach, care for, and fellowship with people in a variety of settings. We can learn from the model of Jesus and the itinerant leaders of our past. We can continue to be the church with a new list of priorities.