Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (there is no salvation outside of the church)
The statement above summarized the belief the Medieval Western church held in regards to the importance of the church. For centuries, Christians have attributed the local church as the center of salvation and spiritual growth. There were exceptions, as the monastic movements in the early 2nd – 4th century reminds us, who believed spiritual vitality was to be found in the desert. Yet, for most of church history, the focus has been on institutional participation. There is much to be said about finding spiritual nourishment outside church services. But what if church participation actually hampers and limits spiritual growth?
Let me explain. In the last weeks I’ve been looking over two books that shed some light in the current transition in the North American church. The first one is the The American Church in Crisis which summarizes current trends based a 200,000 church database research. The second one is Quitting Church in which a journalist compiles the stories of people who have recently left the church. The picture painted by these books is revealing and cannot be ignored any longer. Let me quickly summarize them in a few bullet points pertinent to our topic above:
– Every denomination in the US is currently undergoing either decline or slowing growth. While some churches are growing, the overall trend is clear: a smaller % of the US population will be attending churches in the future.
– While there is a net growth (opens minus closures) of 300 churches in the US, this is far below what is needed to keep up with population growth.
– Single women, people over 35, influential people, mature Christians and even charismatics are leaving the church in significant numbers. The millenials are in no hurry to get and in and single men stop considering it an option a long time ago.
– People that left the church over time show little sign of missing the experience and some have found alternative ways to fill their spiritual needs.
As one who works with data for a living, I appreciate both these authors research and reporting of their findings. Their analysis of the problem is right on. Yet, both seem to ask the same question as the next step: “What can churches do to get them back?” Usually, the answer goes: plant more churches. Now, you have to ask, is the approach to current problem to do more of what has not worked in the past? I understand the value of church plants and how they tend to grow (or die) faster than established churches. But really, is that the best we can do?
A group who is not captured by these statistics is those who stay but struggle. Given my personal experience and those around me, even married couples with children (for long the prime demographic of church attendance) are starting to have doubts. I am also overwhelmed by the stories of hurt from church plant experiences – life plans shattered, families falling apart, promises un-kept, depression, financial ruin to name a few. I hear a lot of things from seminary friends these days but planting a church is not one of them. This is not a good sign, possibly foreshadowing a future decline beyond the current trends. When you see so many faithful and strong Christians struggling to stay in the very institution designed to help them grow, you have to wonder: Maybe the surprise shouldn’t be why so many people are leaving but why so many have stayed.
What if the right question is not how to get them back (or keep them in) but how to help them thrive spiritually wherever they are? Much of the books written on the topic seem focused on helping churches become more efficient organizations so they can grow enough to make up for their losses. This is a business mindset way to address the problem that can only do so much. You can market a product in a 1000 different ways, but it will still not sell if people don’t want to buy it. And by the way, word on the street is that customer service is very poor. Certainly, this is not just a business problem but an issue of institutional survival.
What if the problem is more systemic? What if the local church centered system has become obsolete and believers need new ways to fill their spiritual needs? What if the church can thrive outside of the “church” instead of confined in it? What if the local congregation is no longer the center of spiritual growth and formation? What would this world look like and how would it function?
In the next blogs, I would like to explore this topic that has occupied my thoughts lately. I hope to provide some good information and insight but above all to start a conversation. I welcome your feedback and comments: positive or negative.
I don’t claim to be an expert on this but intend to become a disciplined learner.