There was a time, just a few centuries ago, when nautical maps of Europe
had legends that included the location of churches on land. Church
steeples doubled as navigational tools for ship captains. Churches were
typically built on choice real estate in the center of town or atop the
highest hill. And in some places, there were ordinances against building
anything taller than the church steeple so it would occupy the place
closest to heaven. Nothing was more visible on the pre-modern skyline
than church steeples. And in a sense, church steeples symbolized the
place of the church in culture. There was a day, in the not too distant
past, when church was the center of culture. Church was the place to go.
Church was the thing to do. Nothing was more visible than the church
steeple. Nothing was more audible than the church bells. And it might
be a slight exaggeration, but all the pre-modern church had to do was
raise a steeple and ring a bell.
Is it safe to say that things have changed?
The church no longer enjoys a cultural monopoly! We are the minority
in post-Christian America. And the significance of that is this: we can’t
afford to do church the way it’s always been done. Our incarnational
tactics must change.
Don’t get me wrong: the message is sacred. But methods are not. And the
moment we anoint our methods as sacred, we stop creating the future
and start repeating the past. We stop doing ministry out of imagination
and start doing ministry out of memory. And if we think that raising the
steeple or ringing the bells will get the job done; the church in America
will end up right where the Israelites found themselves in Judges 2:10:
After that generation died, another generation grew up who
did not acknowledge the Lord or remember the mighty things
he had done for Israel.
According to George Barna, 61% of twenty-somethings who grew
up going to church stop going to church at some point during their
twenties. They become dechurched. They still feel connected to God in
some form or fashion, but there is a disconnect with organized religion
and the institutional church. And for one reason or another, they are
checking out of the church at an alarming rate.
I love the church. I believe in the church.
Some people hear statistics like the one just cited — 61% of twenty-
somethings that grew up in church leave the church — and they wonder
what’s wrong with this generation. I think that’s the wrong reaction. I
can’t help but wonder what’s wrong with the church.
In the words of Pogo: we have seen the enemy and he is us.
As long as the
church stays on the
periphery, our culture will
never experience an epiphany.