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Cultural Shift – Part 3; Implications For Western Christianity

[dropcap3]A[/dropcap3]s I’ve studied church history, I think it no stretch to conclude that local churches, over the last 2 millennia, have experienced an average attendance of about 75 adults. Enter, 20th century American Christianity. Or, as I like to call it, Consumeranity.

The average church size in America at present hovers at a little more than 180 adult members, roughly 2.5x larger than historical averages. While nearly 60% of American churches are 100 or less, and around 90% are under 400; more than half of all churchgoers in America attend a church of 400 or more adults.(1) Most congregations are small but most people are apart of large congregations. Such large [Consumeranity] congregations skew the numbers, and [unfortunately] this abnormality is normal for the majority of American Christians.

This anomaly is a relatively recent phenomena (the last 50 years or less), and I believe that the cultural shift taking place in America today will – in the next generation – bring the church back to normal in terms of congregational size and makeup. But what happens when abnormal, which has become normal, reverts back to true normal?

As a result of this shift, some will feel real pain. Many (especially the “movers and shakers” of mega-church evangelicalism) will fight against it. We tend to oppose change, as change is painful. But change is an essential part of life. Alistair Begg once said, “Where there’s life, there’s change. You want no change, live in a cemetery. [There’s no change there], accept for decay.” Therefore, if the church is to experience vitality and life, it will be faced with regular change, or it will decay.

What then does normal Christianity look like in the context of 21st century America? I think it looks like church has for 2,000 years. The gatherings of believers are smaller in size, community oriented, or people-group centered fellowships. For lack of a better word, they are tribal. This being the case, I’m not necessarily sure that multi-cultural, multi-ethnic churches are the norm. That’s not to say that there are not beautiful things that take place in such settings, they’re just not the norm.

Frontline missions has sought for generations to establish self-replicating, indigenous church planting movements. But in our own backyard we constantly seek for an American (or western) multiculturalism within the local body. Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not advocating segregation, only setting forth for consideration the idea that congregations have an established cultural identity from which they worship and express Christian love and character in a way that is relevant to the cultural makeup of the gathered believers.

What then does it practically look like? In all honesty it is quite hard to say, as I have no rhyme or reason for my belief, other than a hunch. I do however think that over the next 30 years the larger congregations in America will fracture along tribal fault-lines as the charismatic executive leaders move on. The churches will become multifarious. They would therefore do well to be proactive in their planning now, if they are to have influence then. I suggest that the best thing the larger traditional church can do is not to scrap it all in favor of a “home church movement” (as one home church movement leader once exhorted me to do) or fight against the shift to prop up the establishment, but to embrace the reality of a smaller community church model by taking what I believe is an Antioch approach.

The Church of Antioch was the first thriving “uttermost parts” church mentioned in the book of Acts. It was the first Gentile church, and the first at which the followers of Christ were referred to as “Christians.” Little is said in the book of Acts about the makeup of the Antioch church, but my gut tells me that it was a fairly large fellowship with multiple meeting places throughout the region.  They were one church, composed of many congregations, superintend by a plurality of overseers (I have purposefully chosen not to use “plurality of elders,” as it means something more than what I’m saying here). The core leadership of Antioch consisted of five apostolic, teaching leaders; Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius, Manaen, Saul (Paul). Antioch thrived for several centuries and was known as a charitable, missional and evangelical church.

As large western churches navigate the current cultural shift, and more and more church planters step forth to birth new works; I propose (as possible first steps) that they/we maintain established church structures to raise up a multiplicity of lay pastors to oversee small community fellowships throughout a city, county or region. Furthermore, churches ought to establish an apostolic core of leadership dedicated to discipleship, for equipping an ever increasing population of overseeing pastors and missionaries.

Ideally, for our fellowship (Calvary Escondido), I’d love to see us get to a point where we have 30+ lay pastors, overseeing small gatherings (under 75) in homes, community centers and other well-suited venues throughout our city and the surrounding region. I would expect we would maintain the structure we currently have for regular corporate worship gatherings as well as a central meeting place for equipping and training. Such a body incorporates the strengths of smaller fellowships (self-care of benevolence, discipline, counsel and other pastoral care needs) as well as the accountability and enabling resources of a larger congregation.

I am quite sure that I’ve overlooked several blind-spots in my consideration of where ecclesiology is headed in 21st century western culture, but as I’m certain it is experiencing a course correction, I want to be at least hypothesizing what that may look like. At the end of the day, I know one thing for sure… God builds his church, I tend to be just “along for the ride.”

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(1) National Congregations Study – 2006-07

7 replies
  1. Tim Brown
    Tim Brown says:

    Hi, Miles –
    This is the 3rd installment in this series you’re writing. I can’t remember back that far – can you refresh me and in a couple sentences or so describe the cultural shift that is going to dramatically affect the size of the megachurches. Do you see this dynamic currently at work and, if so, provide a couple of examples.

    Calling American churches with 400+ members ‘Consumeranity’ is a strong statement. Aren’t you 400+? Would you put yourself in the category of ‘Consumeranity’? Your implication seems to be that if a church is 400+ it must be catering to the flesh. Are you using hyperbole and I just need to chill or is there a sociological/spiritual comment somewhere in there?

    How are you using the term ‘consumerism’ in relationship w/ the church? The term has various shades of meaning.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post. A lot of it reminded me of the church growth movement literature out of the 70s and 80s that sought to articulate the sociological trajectories upon which churches grow and their organization – cell/congregation/celebration.

    Blessings – Tim

    Reply
    • Miles DeBenedictis
      Miles DeBenedictis says:

      Tim,

      As I’m running out the door I can’t give an adequate reply to all you’ve asked. Be that as it may, yes I am painting with a broad brush and [perhaps] using a small amount of hyperbole. Do I think that every 400+ church is a “consumeranity” church, no. But I do think that the larger mega-church mentality is a product of “consumeranity.”

      Is the church that I pastor 400+? Yes. Do I think that part of the reason for it’s size is from what I call “consumeranity?” I think that the fact that many of the people who come to our churches are leaving already established churches in our areas because they don’t like their church any longer, or their church is not meeting their felt-need, or they like your/my teaching better than the other guys… How can we not see that as a bit of consumerism in the hearts and minds of the people?

      Reply
      • Tim Brown
        Tim Brown says:

        None of this is meant to be construed as ‘in your face,’ – we’re just having a conversation.
        It seems to me that you are assigning unworthy motives to ‘church hoppers.’ And, no doubt, this is often the case. In your thinking, Miles, what should be the criteria for someone leaving a church and seeking another one? What would be a motive or reason worthy enough to lift it above being described as consumerism? Do you think that changing churches due to quality of preaching, quality of children’s ministry, or philosophy of ministry is a worthy motive? Do you think that the growing emphasis on community will counteract, or is counteracting church consumerism?

        Reply
    • Miles DeBenedictis
      Miles DeBenedictis says:

      Tim,

      I was actually hopeful for such discussion and critique when I posted this article.

      Daniel and I had a bit of a mind-meld at Alberto’s in San Bernadino yesterday – everything he said in his comment was very similar to what I had had ready to respond with today.

      That said, let me add that the very term “church-hopper” bleeds of consumerism. I’d also add that a 3rd reason for a church change could be the open and unrepentant sin of the leadership.

      I agree with Daniel that it is important to define what we mean by “church.” I tend to opt for a definition that establishes the church as a body of followers of Jesus Christ gathered together to utilize their gifts for the glorification of God, the edification of one another and the evangelization of the lost. I further hold that while man has a responsibility in joining himself to a church that is faithful to scriptures, God places individuals within the body. We grow best where we’re planted and ought to use our gifts for the benefit of the church. I’m convinced that when individuals join a church primarily for what it can do for them, their focus is off.

      Do I think that the growing emphasis on community will counteract, or is counteracting church consumerism? I think that it will. Is it now? In some places, yes. The house church movement in the west is partial evidence of this. I think that there is a yearning among many within the church for genuine fellowship and that growing opposition toward the church and the gospel in the west will cause the body of Chris to seek for deeper, genuine fellowship.

      Reply
  2. Kellen Criswell
    Kellen Criswell says:

    I like the post, Miles. Tim has some good questions too. The Antioch model you lay out in the post is exactly what we sensed the Spirit telling us to do in our area. It’s been good. We’ve had some slowness with some to embrace the model with some because it’s simply different than what lots of people are used to. On the other hand, many people, and especially new believers, tend to really embrace it.

    Reply
  3. Daniel Fusco
    Daniel Fusco says:

    Hey Everyone,

    Sorry that Miles has not been able to comment back. He was charged (by the Lord 😉 with helping me find a good California burrito in San Bernadino yesterday. It was an all day affair.

    This is a good and challenging post. I think that any post that has the word multifarious in it deserves special recognition 😉

    I pretty much agree with Miles assessment of things.

    Tim, In regards to your last questions of Miles, it’s interesting that each point you mentioned for changing churches is, in some sense, a consumable.

    It boils down to how you define the church. Is it something that we are a part of placed by God? Or is it a place to go and consume spiritual goods and services?

    I would say the only reason to leave a church is because either a) God’s calling or b) a doctrinal issue. If the children’s ministry at your church isn’t good, then rather than finding a church with a better kid’s ministry (text book consumerism) maybe that person should seek the Lord about being a change agent in the ministry. What these points do, in effect, is that the ‘best preaching’ (Wahtever that is) gets the marketshare. The best kid’s ministry gets the market share. Is God always in the ‘best preaching’? “best kids ministry”?

    IN a lot of ways, again not to make this a generational issue, but the boomer church (and culture) is consumer-centric. The church has adopted that. The younger generation, although still radically consumeristic, seeing the disposability of it to be an issue (although in true youthfulness may just be upset with it and not ever try and change antyhing).

    I’m traveling today so checking in may be tough, but here are some thoughts.

    Reply
  4. Tim Brown
    Tim Brown says:

    Thanks, Daniel – I like the idea of people being change agents in the ministry if they sense a lack. A consumer mentality sure has replaced a servant’s mentality.

    Reply

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