Church attendance is down. That’s partly due to living in a post-churched culture and partly due to more activities that compete for time. People’s schedules are jammed, and for many, church is less essential than so many other agenda items. Why?
The 20th Century approach to doing church presented the church as a member-based club like the Lions, Masons, or Girl Scouts. It worked well in a churched culture, and attracted people who were looking for that sort of community, but not so well for those not actively looking for it. The Church Growth Movement came out of this mentality, essentially creating competition among churches for numbers, focusing on butts & bucks (public worship attendance and offerings).
But that’s not working anymore. Honestly, it was never really working, because we never should have focused on those markers. They’re important, but they’re not measurements of success or effectiveness, and focusing on them can actively inhibit true success.
So how do we discover the problem? Go back to the start: Genesis. God created us in His image. (Genesis 1:26-27) Trinity: a multiple unity. The first problem? Being alone. (Genesis 2:18) God solved this by creating Eve, also in His image. And when we’re isolated, things get bad. (Genesis 3:1-8) This has been demonstrated in the lab and has massive repercussions for legislation, parenting, and especially churches.
So if we’re created for community, why isn’t the church flourishing? We gather people together every week! I was listening to a leadership podcast with Glen Jackson, the co-founder of Jackson Spalding, which talked about how to compete, and it left me asking, “What is the church’s competition?” I realized that the answer takes us back to the first problem: isolation.
When we gather, we look at the backs of each other’s heads! It’s not community any more than a movie theater except that we know the names of more of the people around us, usually. We might know some details through prayer requests, like illnesses or anniversaries. We might know some superfluous details through small talk before or after the service, like who went to the fair and what they ate there.
But think about the people sitting around you. Do you know how they struggle with sin? Do you know their life dreams, what they’re doing to accomplish them, or why they’ve given up on them? How many could you call up at 3 AM in a crisis, and they’d be glad you called and insulted if you didn’t?
Realistically, you can’t have that deep of a relationship with dozens of people. Outside immediate family, most people could only handle about a half-dozen, tops.
The answer, then, is small groups with no more than 6 people. These can be same-sex groups like Journey Groups, interest-based groups, or anything else. Topic isn’t all that important, but they need 2 components for spiritual success: safe vulnerability (created by an informal-but-explicit confidentiality agreement and willingness to unconditionally accept and forgive each other) and a framework to promote spiritual conversations, like a topic-based discussion, Bible study, or accountability group. Groups should meet regularly, face-to-face whenever possible, and stay in touch when not meeting. Serving others together in some capacity strengthens bonds, as does enjoying some entertainment together, and welcoming newcomers into the group expands the benefit to others. (Although when the group gets larger than about 6, it needs to multiply into 2 groups so it doesn’t lose its closeness. Friends should remain friends, but they’ll often find their level of connection changing due to each person’s social capacity.)
Other forms of communication (social media, texting, phone calls, greeting cards) can supplement this personal interaction, but they’re no substitute for sharing spaces and faces.
It’s no coincidence that the church grew exponentially in its early years through this method. (Acts 2:44-47)
So why did we give it up? I don’t know. But it’s time to take it back.