Many young adults with only a nominal connection to Christianity have watched as the concept of Christianity has been severely tested in recent years. Too many Protestant television evangelists became money hungry, and too many Catholic priests have molested children. People who have only a vague Christian commitment have distanced themselves from the church under these circumstances. Can we really blame the next generation for abandoning an institution that allows such things to happen? But is Christianity more than just an institution?
The total number of people who indicate they are Christians has naturally dropped as individuals who were on the fringe no longer identify themselves as Christians. The result is a statistical oddity where fewer people think of themselves as Christians, though certain types of churches are rapidly growing. As the culture has changed, the less-robust form of Christianity has imploded. On the other hand, true Christianity, which focuses on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ rather than on man-made traditions, is thriving.
Churches need to discover what makes some churches grow even though the culture is less Christian than before. Most church growth studies focus on mega-churches. While mega-churches can teach us how to do certain things, most churches are unable to do the types of projects or use the methods that mega-churches use. Therefore, we must find some smaller churches that are growing and learn what is causing them to grow. We need to study why small evangelical churches in Vermont are growing even though it is statistically the least religious state in America. We need to learn why churches in inner city areas are suddenly experiencing renewal and rebirth even as the community around them falls apart. Though we should never try to imitate what other churches do, because the context of each church is unique to that church, we can learn biblical principles and practical ideas from growing churches that we can adjust and modify to fit our own situations.
There are many bright spots on the spiritual horizon and by asking the leaders of those smaller churches what biblical principles they are following to reach their changing culture, we can learn to shine the Light of Jesus brighter in more places.
Even though there are bright spots of spiritual renewal on the horizon and the decline in Christianity may not be quite as sharp as statistics say, few Christian leaders in America would say that Christianity overall is growing. Something is obviously wrong with many churches. The problems lie mostly in the inability of the churches to connect with and retain the next generation. Postmodern young adults with only a nominal faith have wandered away from Christianity, and if the church does not do something about it, those young people probably will not come back.
We should commit ourselves to learning what we can do to apply biblical principles to our changing culture and recapture the next generation. Real Christianity has the answers to life’s greatest questions. Real Christianity does change lives. Real Christianity is relevant to all cultures and all time frames and all generations. But we must learn how to extract real Christianity from cultural Christianity in order for the church to start growing again. I will write about that in future posts.
Adapted from Terry Dorsett’s book, Mission Possible: Reaching the Next Generation through the Small Church, published by CrossBooks, a division of Lifeway Christian Resources.