Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Natural Selection: Why the Church Must Adapt or Die

Of people born from 1981 on, some 26 percent claim no religious affiliation. Among people born between 1965 and 1980, the percentage of non-believers is a lower 20 percent. Heading farther back, those born from 1946 to 1964 are only 13-percent non-religious.

A doubling, that is, between the boomers and the most recent generation. As you know, doubling is a geometric function. If the number of non-believers doubles again in 50 years, then by around 2050, the United States will be a majority non-religious country. Clearly, if Christianity seeks to not only stay relevant but viable, it must adapt. The proof is in the numbers; Christianity is suffering. ~Alex Wilhelm (from his article Why Christianity Must Adapt... or Perish)
i've heard a lot of chatter lately about going back. "i want my America back!" frankly, most go beyond chatter - yelling might be a better word. in the world of American Christiandom, the conversation often steers towards the proverbial 'we need to go back to America's roots as a Christian nation.' i think those who say that might very well have good intentions. after all, the past always seems better as time goes by, does it not? nostalgia has a funny way of almost distorting the actuality of past events.

don't get me wrong, i have some fond memories of the past. and there are times that i'd go back to being 12 years old in a heartbeat. as Richard Dreyfuss most eloquently put it (a la Stephen King) in the movie Stand By Me "I never had friends later on in life like I did when I was 12. God, does anyone?"

be that as it may - going back doesn't always mean things would be better than they are right now... or in the future.

from a political stand point - what exactly do 'we' want to go back to? war? slavery? no civil rights? oppression of woman? with all the good that came about when our sweet nation began governing - there were certainly a number of flaws.

we've made progress over the years. we'd all agree with that. so why go back? why not go forward?

i often here this same argument in the church. if you took a magnifying glass and looked at the way many churches function, you see many institutions stuck in the past. recreating what has already been done is not progress. there is nothing progressive about it. but progressiveness and post-modernism are scary things for the church these days.

and so the argument goes like this: "why can't we go back to our roots of our nation, with Christianity at the center?" in a perfect world - we'd be a nation of people seeking after the heart of God - not after our own selfish wants and desires. in a perfect world, we'd care about other people and other nations as we do ourselves, too. but we live not in that world.

should or could that be a goal for the 21st century church? yes. absolutely. but that will never happen by wishing and hoping to 'go back.' save your breath. save your energy. 'going back' will not bring non-religious, non-Christ like or nominal Christians either back to church or closer to God.

going forward will. like the statistic says above: less and less people in America are claiming any religious affiliation at all. Natural selection is in full effect: we must adapt or die. it's survival of the fittest and the church is that sloth lounging on the couch in front of the television.

so what are the steps deemed necessary to bring about adaptation?
(my humble opine follows)

1. The church and/or Christians must stop their obsession with proving how wrong everyone is and how right 'we' are. frankly, we've got Plank Eye Syndrome. We concern ourselves so much with the sins and imperfections of others that we neglect to see the sins of our own. (Jesus talked about that in Matthew chapter 7 verses 3 through 5) Following Jesus is not about being right - it's about obeying. it's about loving. it's about empathizing and caring... with no conditions.

2. Strive to become 'quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. (James 1:19) We like to talk a lot. but how well do we listen? Are we listening to the heartache and cries of our communities? Are we seeing their true needs? or are we telling them what we think they need? telling a man he 'needs Jesus' doesn't put food on his table. am i suggesting we squelch our desires to share the gosepel? not at all. i am suggesting though, before we speak it - we live it. We show Jesus to the world through our acts of compassion and love. Actions do speak louder than words.

3. Realize that church does not exclusively exist for 'us' - but for those not part of the Christ-centered community. we do things we like and expect others to just show up. 50 years ago - the fact that churches had doors and a steeple and a bell that rang on Sunday mornings compelled people to come. Many churches still hold to that same expectation. Understand this: in the 21st century people will not walk through the church doors simply because the church doors are open at 9am every Sunday morning. I believe the church doors should be open... but perhaps they should be open so that we would 'go out' rather than wait or expect others to 'come in.'

4. Learn to deal with conflict differently. i recently read about how metaphors rule our lives. i've never thought about that before - but when it comes to conflict or disagreement - we often think of it as a battle or a war. "Argument is War" When disagrement comes or when arguments arise - our passion gets the blood boiling. We aim to 'defeat' our opponent. we want to destroy their message. We aim to 'defend' our point of view. We want to 'WIN!' But what if our arguments and disagrements were not viewed as war - but as a dance.

Robert Schnase, a Methodist bishop so eloguently wrote about this in his book The Balancing Act (with inspiration from Metaphors We Live By.) In a dance - both performers play essential and important roles - but one is not out to 'take down' the other. IF our disagrements within the church and with the world were not combative - but more like a graceful dance, think of how more productive we might be or could be?

Both dance parties compel the others movement - "pushing each other along - closer to the truth. We might 'focus on where we need to go and whether we are farther along than the last time we talked. Rather than winning or losing we might say things like 'He really pushed you forward with that idea. er suggestion took us a step higher. We made real progress. I feel like we're getting closer and closer.'"
When conflict and disagreement comes - if we expect a war, then a war we will get. If we expect a dance, something more graceful might arise. Which one is a more Christ-like approach?

5. Act like disciples. Dallas Willard, author, pastor and theologian said this: “Generally, what I find is that the ordinary people who come to church are basically running their lives on their own, utilizing ‘the arm of the flesh’—their natural abilities—to negotiate their way. They believe there is a God and they need to check in with him. But they don’t have any sense that he is an active agent in their lives. As a result, they don’t become disciples of Jesus.”*

One's faith is meant to be active - not passive. the church needs disciples who are disciplined and dedicated to Jesus first.

6. Separate Politics from Church. yeah - i have high expectations if i think this will ever happen - but it doesn't mean it couldn't. imagine. imagine if Christians in America made their decisions based on Christ Jesus first, political party of choice second. Imagine. Imagine what the world would look like if we truly lived the Greatest commandment: Love God. Love People. (Matthew 22:37-40). Jesus said EVERYTHING hangs on these two commands!

Jesus is not a politician. And he need not be a second fiddle to any candidate, movement or call for political action.

this list could go on. and frankly - i could be wrong. but this is what i am thinking... right now.

i love the church and am hopeful that it might become viable and authentic and humble and loving - beyond what we may ever comprehend. but we need to adapt... or we will die. the church will die. yeah, there will probably still be churches on every corner - but will they be alive? full of life? full of love? full of Jesus' active messages of truth? a building does not a church make. loving, intentional, selfless disciples do.

just my 2 cents. for what it's worth.


Jen said...

good thoughts.

Jared Woodward said...

Great thoughts Tim. I think you really put into context a lot of the frustrations younger Church leaders face within the Church today. Thankfully, we are put into leadership of those who can change the Church, 'adapt', and hopefully continue to grow the Church for the glory of Jesus Christ. Amen brother.

Anonymous said...

Good stuff, man. However, I think that one of the dangers with churches adapting is that they may end up compromising their beliefs --the Word of God-- through the adaption process.

However, as you have said, the church must adapt in order to survive. A lot of prayer needs to be involved and we need to keep the Word of God always on our hearts.