Watch: Expert panel contemplates the post-pandemic church
SEARCY, Ark. — What will it take for the post-pandemic…
Where do Churches of Christ go from here?
A panel organized by The Christian Chronicle sought to answer that question during the 98th annual Bible Lectureship at Harding University in Searcy, Ark.
The pandemic has certainly brought new obstacles, but churches were in trouble even before anyone heard of COVID-19.
Royster said Churches of Christ saw a 10 percent drop in adherents — which includes baptized members as well as children and other adult attendees — from 2010 to 2020.
Andy Miller has been in ministry for over 35 years and started an Orlando church plant with his wife, Roslyn, in 2018. He cited this statistic: “Once every six days, a Church of Christ closes its doors forever.”
The 21st Century Christian directory listed 12,300 U.S. congregations in its 2015 directory. The latest number given online is 11,905, and the actual decrease could be worse, as the pandemic has delayed Royster’s numerical research.
The decline is not unique to Churches of Christ. Some religious groups did better over the past decade, but many did worse, Royster noted. Overall, the trend is clear: Christianity is in decline.
Much of the reason for this is a strong growth in the group of “nones,” who have no specific affiliation or interest in being part of a congregation.
Miller added that there is also a large number of “dones,” who are leaving the church and Christianity altogether.
He said Generation Z, broadly defined as those born after 1997, is the first to grow up in a post-Christian culture. The percentage of Gen Z that identifies as atheist is double that of the U.S. adult population as a whole, according to a 2018 Barna Research study.
Glenn Newton — a Florida church planter and director of organizational advancement for the Herald of Truth, based in Abilene, Texas — likened the church to Sears, once a retail giant but now on life support in the era of e-commerce.
“They used that same model that they had always used over and over and over again, and then something came along called Amazon, and Sears had to close their doors,” Newton said. “It was because of an unwillingness to change.”
He said the church is behaving similarly — trying to do things the same way they’ve always been done and not trying to replace older generations, which the Pew Research Center estimates make up nearly three-quarters of Church of Christ membership.
But Matt Dabbs — minister and lead equipper for Backyard Church in Auburn, Ala. — said that now, amid the upset caused by the pandemic, is the perfect time to make necessary changes.
“I really hope that God gets our attention with this pandemic, that we can see some of the things that needed to change,” Dabbs said.
Newton said many churches have turned inward during the pandemic, going into a survival mode and trying to keep things as close to normal as possible. But the congregations that are being most successful are those that realize they can’t go back to normal — they have to change.
“I became a preacher to change the world, to share the Gospel. … And a lot of that is not happening.”
He said a maintenance-minded leadership was what led him to become a church planter more than two years ago.
“I became a preacher to change the world, to share the Gospel, to preach the Word, to be evangelistic, disciple people,” he said. “And a lot of that is not happening.”
Likewise, Roslyn Miller noted that God has called Christians to be salt and light to the world, and if they do that, they can find people looking for faith — even among Gen Z.
“The Gen Zs we’re talking about, even if they’re not associating with a religion, they still have what God placed in them, which is a need for him,” she said. “They don’t know it yet, but they are looking for something. They know they need something.”
Dabbs said that requires effort and, sometimes, getting out of one’s comfort zone. He describes himself as an introvert. In the past, he’s found it hard to share the Gospel. But with practice and prayer, he’s gotten better at doing so and telling people how God has impacted his life.
But he said something else is necessary to reach the lost, too: love.
“Until we love the lost, we won’t reach the lost.”
“Until we love the lost, we won’t reach the lost,” Dabbs said. “I can give you all kids of tactics, but if you don’t love the lost, none of this is going to matter.”
Roslyn Miller said she and Andy used to — like many Christians — think of faithfulness in terms of going to church. But then they realized there’s much more to it.
“We were seeing a lot of discrepancies between what our contemporary experience was and what we were seeing with Scripture,” Miller said, “and, again, wanting to teach Christ, to tell the good news, to share the Gospel message with our coming generation. … Many of them have been disillusioned by church participation.”
Similarly, one congregation Newton has helped to grow learned that the church is not designed to be something people just show up to on Sunday morning and go home from. Rather, the church must “make known the manifold wisdom of God,” he said. Christians have to understand that the church is who they are — not just something they do. It’s not about a building.
“I grew weary of business meetings or elders’ meetings where you sit around a table and for two hours, you discuss what time the parking lot lights should go off,” Newton said. “And I’ve been in that meeting, and we wonder why the churches aren’t growing.”
In fact, the congregation Newton planted in St. Augustine, Fla., never intends to own a building. He said his congregation rents a store front and holds activities at coffee shops, parks and an apartment complex.
Finding ways to get together with members and the community outside of the building is important.
“Jesus didn’t sit in the synagogue and wait for people to come and learn on the Sabbath. Jesus went out and about and met people in the street.”
Andy Miller said that’s the best way to reach the nones, who are not likely ever to come to a church service — at least not at first. But Christians can go to them.
“Jesus didn’t sit in the synagogue and wait for people to come and learn on the Sabbath,” Miller said. “Jesus went out and about and met people in the street and made himself accessible so that they could also come to him. And that is a mindset difference that we need to have in the church.”
Royster said that, ultimately, Christians need to look to God for ways to grow the church — the same God who added to the church daily in Acts 2. He’s the only one who can fix its problems.
“We have to not get in God’s way,” he said, “coming up with a plan and then saying, ‘God, bless this. This is for you. You bless it. I’ve got it all worked out. We just need you to make it happen.’”
“God is amazing. Just put him to the test, humble yourself, surrender and submit, and watch what God will do.”
It is this reliance on God that Dabbs said has been the greatest lesson that Christians can take from the pandemic — to seek him in humility, to pray constantly and see what he will do.
“God is amazing,” he said. “Just put him to the test, humble yourself, surrender and submit, and watch what God will do. It will blow your mind, and you will be so convicted about what you’re doing.”
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