I believe that there is a crisis in the American Evangelical Church.
As I look at the landscape of the Evangelical Church I am concerned when I see inconsistency in essential doctrine, lack of clarity on basic truths, the abandonment of core principles, the compromise of values, weak governing structures that cause conflict, and confusion as to what the purpose of the church is.
Those of us who follow Jesus and understand the importance of the Church must be alert to what is taking place in church culture. We cannot put our head in the sand and turn a blind eye. We must recognize concerning trends, call them out, and work towards solving them.
I believe that a shift is coming in the church. The up and coming generation is hungry for more than what the Evangelical Church is offering them.
In this post I am going to discuss the trend in many Evangelical churches towards being attraction-oriented, entertainment driven, and numbers focused.
As a result, the purpose of the corporate church gathering has become confused.
Many Evangelical church's have moved in a direction that focuses on growth in numbers, environmental attraction, and gatherings that hold attention through entertainment. If you talk with leaders in these churches they will tell you that they are trying to create an environment that will be comfortable and suitable for the unchurched person who will come in the doors.
This emphasis of creating church environments that reach the unchurched started decades ago with influential churches like Willow Creek Community Church and North Point Community Church. Churches like these led the way in a new approach to church that made the unchurched person the target audience. In the late 80's and early 90's when these churches were coming onto the scene, this approach was cutting edge. At no point before had the church gathering been approached with a filter towards those who were not yet a part of the fold.
The result was a growth in these churches. By making the church experience more "palatable" they were able to attract people who did not have a church background or people whose preconceived notions about church prevented them from attending.
The movement saw success as people who normally would have never made their way into a church gathering began attending church more regularly.
At one time, this "seeker sensitive" movement was niche, but now it has become mainstream. This movement has led to a shift in the thinking and approach to the main church gathering with many Evangelical churches seeing the main role of the church gathering as being creating an experience that is attractive and palatable to the unchurched.
Many will stand by this approach and argue that it is what the church has been lacking for centuries, but I believe that the pendulum in many cases has swung too far. Many Evangelical churches have abandoned the idea of the church as being a gathering of believers for worship, equipping, fellowship, and prayer.
Instead, a large number of Evangelical churches have moved towards making their main gathering an "experience."
This "experience-driven" trend, in many cases has led to church gatherings where...
The environment of the gathering is pursued over the spirit of the gathering
The quality of music is emphasized over the heart of worship
Inspiration replaces equipping
Comfortability supersedes conviction
Creativity is a stand-in for truth
"How do we keep them" is asked more often than "How can we feed them"
Much of this emphasis centers around targeting and retaining the unchurched.
All of this leaves me asking this question:
Is the main purpose of the church gathering to create an environment that is palatable and endearing to the unchurched?
The main church gathering should not center around the unchurched. It was never intended to. In fact, it was never intended to center around any of us for that matter.
If the unchurched continue to remain the primary focus of the main church gathering the Evangelical Church is going to usher in a generation that is disillusioned and spiritually-starved.
Before you stop reading and get angry with me, let me explain what I mean by my statement above.
I believe that there is a purpose for the corporate church gathering, but I do not see it as being what many Evangelical churches have made it. I believe the purpose of the church is a gathering of people who have a communal faith in the God of the Bible and His Son, Jesus Christ. It is a time to focus on worshipping Him, it is a time to wrestle with the reality of what it means to follow Him, and it is a time to focus on the virtues that are promoted by Christ.
When the church first started it was comprised of those who believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. They would gather together in community and celebrate the truth of who Jesus was. They would encourage one another with this truth. They would reason together to understand the Scriptures. They would celebrate the heritage of their faith. They would serve one another in love.
Throughout church history this is what the church gathering was.
But today, many American Evangelical churches have shifted and made the primary focus of the main gathering winning over the unchurched.
This shift in focus has led to some concerning trends:
Compromised Worship: Corporate worship songs are selected for ease versus truth. At times, cultural songs are thrown in to bridge the gap and make the experience more relevant.
Over-simplified messages: Speakers focus on making what they teach simple to the point that quite often substance is lost and content is repeated frequently. With this type of teaching, overtime, the church becomes theologically weak.
Self-help as the drawing factor: The unchurched are not drawn to the church gathering because of a common-held belief in the person and work of Jesus Christ, so when they become the focus of the main gathering appealing to the human desire for self-improvement becomes a method the church uses to bring the unchurched in the doors. A relationship with Jesus, therefore, is seen as the means to ultimate self-improvement.
Entertainment: A focus on "fun" and "excitement" permeate many church gatherings. The regular church gathering can seem more like a carnival than a sacred assembly.
Self-improvement Gospel: Very often in church settings where the unchurched are the main target, the Gospel is presented as a means by which a person can "live a better life," "have security," or "find freedom." The Gospel becomes a means towards greater self-improvement while repentance and turning from sin are rarely mentioned.
Perhaps you have noticed these trends?
Many leaders have moved their churches in this direction without an understanding of why. Too often the Evangelical Church emulates and copies other churches in their sphere without asking tough questions and thinking through the ramifications. "Success makes right" is the mindset. Thus if a church is experiencing growth or having influence it is equated with success and a model worth emulating.
But what if in pursuing "success" the church has lost its purpose? What if it has compromised what it is supposed to guard? What if the church has fixed its aim in the wrong direction? What if big, attractive, and entertaining is not tenable in the long run?
Ultimately, I do not think this prevalent model is tenable in the long run.
The Evangelical Church is coming up on a crossroads of identity and purpose.
Many in the up and coming generation are leaving the entertainment-driven Evangelical churches and opting for smaller settings with a more traditional approach where the depth of the Christian faith and history is explored. They are opting for places of worship where the unchurched are welcomed but where the gathering is focused on worship, fellowship, growth, and service towards one another.
The entertainment-drive, attractional church that fixes its aim on the unchurched cannot last for the long-haul. Moreover, I think that many of these churches are in danger of mistaking what the real purpose of the church is.
What should the Evangelical church do? I think there are 3 things that should be done:
1.) Re-focus on the purpose of the corporate gathering
Serious time should be spent by church leaders coming to a conviction-based conclusion on what the purpose of the corporate church gathering is. The primary way this conclusion should be reached should not be by looking at what other churches are doing and copying it. It should be reached through study of Scripture, church history, and serious prayer.
Church leaders can no longer have a bifurcated, wishy-washy answer as to what the purpose of the church is. Nor can they afford to cater to everyone. The strength and longevity of the American Evangelical Church depends on this.
2.) Move away from entertainment and embrace the sacred
As I mentioned earlier, a time is soon coming when people will leave the entertainment-driven hype that has consumed much of the Evangelical Church and seek corporate church gatherings that focus on the simple and the sacred. Prayer, communion, expository preaching, and God-focused worship should be the primary components that the corporate gathering is built around.
3.) Focus on spiritual health vs. numbers of attendees
Church leaders must move towards a serious focus on the spiritual health of the congregations they lead versus the number of attendees. Church health can no longer be predicated on the number in attendance. This is not a slam on large churches or a commendation on smaller churches -- both must shift their metrics and measurable and make spiritual health the focus.
The American Evangelical Church can have a great future, but I believe that if it stays the course that it is headed down it is in danger of becoming distracting, irrelevant, and compromising to its purpose.