A couple of books I finished in the last month - David Olson's The American Church in Crisis, and David Gibbons' The Monkey and The Fish
Both books are by ministers/leaders in the Evangelical Covenant Church, the tribe to which I belong. Both books were gifts to Covenant Ministers at a previous Midwinter Conference, so thanks to Zondervan for your generosity.
Both books cover the same general ground: the world has changed, and continues to change. What was is slowly passing, what is is in flux, and what will be is anybody's guess. Regardless, the church finds itself in trouble - losing touch with society, losing members faster than we realized, losing influence in our world; and, where there is growth, often times it is shallow, narrow, lacking in the depth and breadth that ought to mark the Kingdom of God.
Olson's book is a statistical tour de force, based on substantial research into almost every nook and cranny of the American Church. The results of that survey are pretty disturbing. Church attendance overall is down; compared to population growth, the attendance figures are even worse. Almost every denomination is losing ground in every county in every state. Old churches are stagnating and dying off, and not nearly enough new churches are being planted to stem the tide. Too many churches are simply surfing on the final waves of Christendom, enjoying the remnants of the kingdom they used to control, even while ignoring the changing landscape around them.
Gibbons' book is more of a friendly chat, looking into the amazing cultural forces at work to chance the American (and world) landscape. Any semblance of a monolithic culture is quickly passing. Our neighborhoods are filling up with people from all over the world, and our young people are wired into the world even from their very bedrooms. The 'Seeker-Sensitive' church of the 80s and 90s, the church that tried to tap into singular cultures in order to draw like-minded people, can no longer be counted on to grow the Kingdom. In fact, Gibbons would argue, it's an unbiblical model in the first place. The Church is instead called to be cross-cultural in every way: crossing ethnic lines, social lines, and socio-economic lines. He says, "Here is the reality: if we really want to see our churches grow in the way Jesus would want us to grow, if we really want to see Christ revealed in our communities and through our lives and in this global world of ours, then we must focus our strategic initiatives of love on people who make us feel uncomfortable, who don't fit into our thinking and our conventions, who are marginalized and even considered misfits and outsiders."
He goes on to say, "When the world sees the church willing to forgo size and scale to love and embrace people who are not like us, treating them as neighbors, they can sense an expression of true and genuine love. It's a thing of miraculous beauty. And people know beauty when they see it."
Both books are realistic, but also hopeful. First of all, God is still at work in the Church, so we always have reason to hope in the future. Secondly, God seems to be raising up a new group of leaders, pastors, thinkers, and church planters who can help us all move into this new world. The challenges are real, and many will be tempted to bury their head in the sand. To those who are willing to take a risk, to be "liquid," as Gibbons says, to flow with the Spirit, to carry on conversations rather than making pronouncements, to listening and learning and loving and risking, these are great times. A new wave of the Spirit may be happening before our eyes.
The question is, are we willing to give up our false ideas of importance, our desire for comfort, our (false) belief that we have all the answers? Are we willing to give up the delusion that we can return to the 'good old days'? Or will we sit back, hide, and forgo our mission to the world?
Both Gibbons and Olson challenge the church to step out in faith, to learn anew what it means to minister in the world, and to be a part of this amazing work of God. We would do well to listen.