Church activity levels in North America have always fluctuated.
This is not an essay on the global church, where exciting things have happened.
This is not an essay about Europe, which has its own dynamics vis-a-vis Christian activity.
North America’s ecclesial (church) vitality was always contrasted, in the past, with the “dead” church in Europe. It was also viewed as the “source” of the Global church.
American evangelical Christianity has always been seen as somewhat muscular, with the chiseled face of Billy Graham leading the parade.
It’s too early to tell, but there seems to be a shift in the weather, a change in the climate.
Church attendance appears to be experiencing the biggest drop in recent memory, and the financial climate of the country is contributing to a “perfect storm” which is putting the squeeze on a lot of congregations.
The Christian movement has also been strengthened (both economically and in terms of creativity), in the past, with a robust retail branch: books and music. The changes in technology have crippled these once mighty sectors of publishing, and you’ve certainly seen church bookstores close in your city.
Church leaders are in denial, and as is usually the case in such environments, point to the exceptions. There are big and growing churches all over the place. However, almost all of them are in areas of large population growth and suburban tract house cosnstruction.
National mainline church denominations, brought into being in the late 19th century by easy rail travel, are still holding voting conventions as if air travel and the internet had not yet been invented. Small wonder that the “votes” at these meetings get so much pushback from the grass roots. You can trace the decline curve of these archaic “railroad” organizations as an inverse line to that of air travel and video/TV/computer screens.
Roman Catholics have had their own problems, with the scandals and all. They have also lost huge numbers of young people, especially in the Northeast. Latinos will save the day, you might suggest. But half of the Latino Catholics who immigrate here ditch the RC boat and go Pentecostal or secular.
Evangelicals are the last of the three major groups to feel the pinch. A generation ago, if you had “contemporary worship” and small groups, your church would grow. If your theology was conservative, that helped too. Now, this “recipe” has reached diminishing returns. The church growth movement is over.
Here are some reasons I see. Please add your own to the comments. Let’s figure this out together.
- American Christians of the last generation did not have enough children. They fell in love with the pill. Half as many kids means…
- Many Asian immigrants (there are exceptions) are not Christian–this has diluted Christian cultural monopolies where they once existed.
- African American churches have virtually lost a whole generation of young men–totally unable to capture their imagination.
- Christian Conservatives are the least likely group to be able to dialog with a new generation raised in post-modernity.
- The evangelistic models of the past (e.g. the “bridge” illustration) no longer work in the current cultural climate.
- Contemporary Christian Music has failed, to some extent, to embrace both country and urban music. Most of it sounds very suburban.
- Parent/Child relationships are more strained than in the recent past, because there are less children and there is more “parenting per child.” You are perhaps familiar with the “helicopter parent” syndrome. Christian parents often equal non-Christian kids, for this reason.
- The first decade of the 21st century was hard on churches (and the country), economically.
- Churches have failed to embrace new media. Within a few months, I was able to establish more social media presence than all but a handful of the 20-30 thousand Lutheran pastors out there; with virtually no effort. Culture is being created out there and we are not present. See my essay on Pastors and New Media.
- Many churches are over-theological and resist open spiritual and supernatural practice. This new generation is drawn to the supernatural and we try to discourage it rather than channel it.
I don’t have a lot of answers, but this should set up a good discussion.
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