Caveat – I am a young pastor and, believe it or not, I am fully aware I am not an expert. This is not a space for me to get preachy and offer advice to others in ministry but to present concepts and ask questions that have been important to me and ones I have been wrestling with during my experience in ministry in a post-Christian culture.
America’s ever-changing religious landscape
One of the fastest growing religious groups in America is the “nones” (not nuns). While it is hardly a “religious” category it is a growing percentage of Americans who are choosing not to attach themselves to any religious group. This group of nones includes atheists, agnostics and what I describe as the “mehs” which are the folks that when asked if they think religion has any importance or bearing on their life they respond with something along the lines of “Meh.” This is a group that does not necessarily see the value of ascribing or aligning themselves to a particular religious belief system or worldview. So, they simply don’t.
There have been studies coming out that describe this increasing trend in America’s approaching post-Christian culture. Pew research came out with a study in 2012 that describes this ballooning group of “nones”:
“The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling. In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%). This large and growing group of Americans is less religious than the public at large on many conventional measures, including frequency of attendance at religious services and the degree of importance they attach to religion in their lives.”
Further research (chart below, which came out this year) is showing that this category of "nones" is only growing as we move down through the younger generations. While some Millennials will end up affiliating with a religion as they grow older, studies seem to indicate that generational groups (particularly Millennials) are actually becoming less religious with age.
These numbers show a national trend but what many people may not realize is that scattered throughout the United States are pockets of culture that more than double the national percentage of “nones.”
Two years ago my wife Suzanna and I moved from the northern suburbs of Indianapolis to the rural town of Clark, Colorado so that we could help develop a church plant. In our time here we have seen this cultural shift first hand. In Routt County the percentage of people who are connected with a local church is thought to hover around 20% and many of my fellow pastors think that is actually a very generous estimate. In fact, in my research I found that less than 30% of Routt County claim any religious affiliation at all. So that means 70% of people in our county are “nones” and chances are that they will rarely walk into the doors of a church on their own accord. This was a stunning realization. If our primary forms of ministry are done within the walls of the church we will only minister to a shrinking demographic of folks who already at least loosely identify as church-going Christians.
So the question that can make pastors crazy is “How do we get the “nones” into our churches?”
This question should be alarming because if ministries and churches are structured so that someone has to come to a building to hear the Gospel, then they will inevitably be missing a rising percentage of the population that for a variety of reasons (many valid), have decided for themselves that they will not be going to church.
With that reality in mind, I think we might be asking the wrong question. Instead, we may need to challenge our preconceived notions of ministry and ask ourselves a simpler question...
How does the church love and minister to a growing category of people who no longer come to church?
In order to answer that question we need to consider a potential change of perspective. So let me share with you a paradigm shift that has been instrumental in how I view ministry, especially as I find myself in a culture that is particularly averse to the thought of attending a service or church event.
“Attractional” or “Missional”
Now, in order to understand the basic difference between ministry frameworks I am just going to describe them in an incredibly generalized way so the distinctions of philosophies can be seen more clearly. In reality, each church will probably have a mix of both perspectives. However, for the most part churches will function primarily out a "missional" posture or an "attractional" one.
What do both of these made up words mean? Well, in its simplest form it can be broken down like this...
Attractional: the general perspective that “if you build it they will come.” Through a variety of means churches intend to draw people into their community, often in a building. Some ways in which churches try and draw folks in is with nice facilities, engaging worship, relevant messages, organic doughnuts, and enticing free fair-trade coffee. The hope is that once they are here, they can hear the Gospel and be discipled. This perspective is marked by an invitational spirit to join us in our space so that we can minister to you. Sometimes this can lead to a Christian consumerism if we are only attracting folks with shiny lights, top notch pastor jokes, childcare and good programing.
Missional: a general perspective that is marked by a sending out of the church into the world, rather than the world coming to church. This means that the primary role of church leadership is to equip the saints for works of ministry (Eph. 4:11-12). This perspective is marked by the understanding of each Christian's "sentness" into a broken world as ambassadors of God's redemptive Kingdom. These churches tend to focus primarily on doing - including serving, addressing community issues, the lost, and social justice. This can sometimes create its own type of social justice legalism if we focus more on what we do for God, rather than who we are in God.
For those of you who are visual I have made some diagrams (albeit generalized) for the Attractional and Missional church models. Attractional (left) - Missional (right)
I believe that it is not an either/or but a both/and. One is focused on gathering the body; the other is focused on sending the body out. But it seems to me that a true biblical understanding of the church is to gather and to send because both are a part of the Mission of God. The Gospel has gathered a new people under the grace of God and the lordship of Jesus and that same people have been given a mission.
I think a healthy church body exhibits rhythms of gathering and rhythms of being sent. These are rhythms that we see mark the early church as they gather together in homes and the public spaces like the temple and they break bread, share life, listen to the teachings of Jesus and praise God together. We also see them going out to proclaim Jesus and address areas of brokenness as they take care of the sick, the poor, the widows and others in need. The world was both attracted to them by the way they lived and the Holy Spirit seen in their lives but they also had a mission to the world to be witnesses to Jesus and make disciples of all nations.
In light of our shifting culture it may be time for the western church to relearn the rhythms of gathered and sent.
No matter what I have said you may be confused by the missional jargon I have been using. Why be missional? What is the point? Well the deep seeded motivation for a missional philosophy of ministry actually starts with the assumption that the church has a mission.
Understanding the mission
In order to grasp the idea of missional we need to first understand our “sentness.” Whether we leave our hometown or move halfway across the globe we must understand that the church is sent because the church has a mission.
What is the mission of the church? Well, for starters I think a more appropriate question to start with is, what is God’s mission?
Since the fall God has had a plan of redemption! We see it in Noah (restarting with a remnant), the call of Abraham, the nation of Israel (as a blessing to the nations) and in a most profound climax of the story we see it in the sending of His Son Jesus to offer redemption from sin and reconciliation back to our creator. God’s mission is the redemption of His creation. We see this in Jesus and we see the end product in Revelation with the recreation of new heavens and new earth. As His church we are sent into a broken world to participate in that mission. Jesus tells us the way we do that is by bearing witness to God’s redemptive Kingdom by proclaiming the Gospel of our good king and inviting the world into relationship with Him, submitting to His redemptive rule and reign in their lives. As the church we act as signposts pointing to a radically different kingdom that is both now and coming.
“…It is not so much the case that God has a mission for his church in the world but that God has a church for his mission in the world. Mission was not made for the church; the church was made for mission - God's mission.”
-Chris Wright – The Mission of God
When we understand the gravity of God’s mission we begin to realize that the “mission field” is actually everywhere including our own streets, our neighborhoods, towns and cities – mission exists wherever there exists brokenness and a void or rejection of the gospel of Jesus Christ and His Kingdom. Since we know this world will remain broken and afflicted by sin until Jesus returns, as God's people we always live in the context of mission; we can ignore it but it exists.
Because of this reality, I think the church in America needs a perspective shift. How are we going to reach the growing number of unchurched folks? I think it is by bringing God’s church to them. We have to realize once we walk out the doors of our local church, get into our cars and drive home, God’s church has actually just scattered into neighborhoods, workplaces, families, and coffee shops all over the place. We are the church and God wants to use us to reach those who don’t know Him. I think every follower of Jesus needs to start to think of themselves as missionaries to the space God has placed them.
Thinking like missionaries in our own cities
While ministering in a culture that is incredibly unchurched has its difficulties it has given me a priceless gift. It has trained me to think like a missionary. I cannot proceed with ministry like business as usual. Like a missionary, I have to understand the culture, understand how folks think, what they value, what the idols of the culture are and what the everyday rhythms of life are - all so I can better communicate the Gospel story into theirs.
Assumptions must be thrown out
With the increasing number of “nones” comes an increasing ignorance of the story of God. This means we can no longer assume folks know the story, know Kingdom values, know the Gospel and so we need to learn how to start from scratch. It is not like the “good ol’ days” where preachers were calling back prodigal sons and trying to wake up an apathetic church (while that still exists.) More often than before we are starting in a different place. Therefore assumptions are not helpful (they usually aren’t) when it comes to talking to people about Jesus. Last year, I had a conversation with a guy for about 3 hours. For the first couple hours I just listened to his story (trying not to assume). I learned that he had some brief experience with the church when he was younger. At 25 years old he mostly understood disconnected beliefs and a few rules that Christians followed. That was his starting point. So I chose to start at the beginning and explain the narrative of scripture. Starting with Creation, our fall, the then walked through the story of Israel, our redemption in Jesus and then the promise of new creation. I explained the framework for the Christian world view as a narrative and I will never forget how he responded. He said, “I have never heard the story before.” We cannot assume that our friends, neighbors and coworkers know the story. There is an ever increasing possibility that they have never heard it.
We need to be fluent in the Gospel
If we are going to be missionaries to our own culture then we need to be fluent in the Gospel. If we are Americans then we surely already have the language of our culture down, but are we fluent in our understanding and articulation of the Gospel?
I went to a liberal arts college and it was required that we take a couple of semesters of a foreign language. I chose Spanish because I had already taken some in high school and I could still ask someone “where’s the bathroom?” So I took two semesters of Spanish. I studied, did the homework and by God’s grace I passed. But you know what? Now I don’t remember any of it. I couldn’t converse with anyone in Spanish. I could probably just mumble, “Where’s the bathroom?” And that only gets me so far in life. I think there is a parallel with how we treat the Gospel. We learn that Jesus is the only way to be restored back to God, we repeat a prayer (pass a test) and we move on – only to realize later that we can barely articulate the beauty of the Gospel and what it truly is. The Gospel is not something we move on from after salvation. Instead, it is a foundational truth that we need to continually immerse ourselves in and preach to ourselves so that it permeates all aspects of life. We need to be fluent for ourselves but also to articulate it to our culture. If we are going to be missionaries to our culture we need to be able to recognize how the Gospel story intersects with the stories of our friends, our family and our neighbors. What is ironic is that missionaries sent to a different culture need to learn the language so they can effectively communicate the Gospel – but in America we already know the language, instead I think we need to become fluent in the Gospel of grace.
In light of our changing culture we must learn to be carriers of the Gospel to all spheres of influence that we have. We can no longer assume our culture will produce Christian-esque people and that is perfectly fine because only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can transforms hearts and culture, rather than legislated morality. Now more than ever we need to be missionaries to our own nation as we continue to proclaim Jesus in word and how we live. Let us embrace this role as we move forward with the love and grace that we were shown in Christ.