Following a recent conversation about “growing the church,” I realized that the church we want to grow bears a striking resemblance to the church we already have… and to the church model made popular by the conservative evangelical movement of the late 20th century. A dozen different entrepreneurial pastors described their plans and strategies to reach new, young, upwardly mobile middle class Americans. Generally described as “the unchurched,” these proto-church-members are nothing more than the next generation of what we’ve always been.
In the research I did while employed by the General Board of Discipleship, I identified five predominantly unserved segments of our modern American culture with no ongoing relationship to organized religion. Each of the five seeks relationship with God, but finds the current church situation either unreceptive or hostile. The problem with any — and all — of the five groups is that to reach them, the church would need to make radical and sweeping changes.
Group number one is huge, but its primary drawback is that it has very little to contribute to our current organizational structure. Economically poor, less educated, often relegated to the fringes of society, and lacking skills or social graces, an estimated 30,000,000 Americans call themselves “Christian” but have no church affiliation. The number one reason? Churches don’t want them. Oh, certainly, many of our churches provide ministry to such people, but a slim minority are in vital ministry with them. A few other denominations do a better job than The United Methodist Church reaching, receiving, and relating to those on the lower rungs of our societal ladder, but as interview after interview revealed, no one seems to really want the poorest and least privileged in our mainline churches.
The second group exists at the other end of the economic and educational spectrum — those with the highest levels of education and a more than comfortable standard of living. The problem here is that a pervasive anti-intellectualism prevails within this country and within mainline Christianity. Wanting to apply the keenest standards of critical thinking to the basic tenets of religion, such people are not viewed as an asset, but a threat. As a higher percentage of the U.S. population attains higher levels of education, fewer people feel welcome in an anti-intellectual church.
Next comes the cynical center of the American population — those who are not willing to accept standard Christianity wholesale, but want a deeply practical and undemanding faith. Questioning anything, wanting to explore everything, this segment of our society has little tolerance for rules and regulations and they demand openness and flexibility. Quoting the Buddha and Vivekananda as freely as Jesus or Paul, many of these folks make mainliners uncomfortable, and just as many see no reason to connect with any institution that won’t accept them as they are.
In the same general place as number three, group number four is a worldly lot who believe that much that organized religion views as “immoral or sinful” is hopelessly out-of-date and indefensible. As one told me, “I smoke marijuana, I drink Stoli, I am in a sexual relationship with my girlfriend, AND I believe God loves me. I study the Bible weekly with my friends, I pray every morning and every night, I spend every Friday night working at the mission, AND I have yet to find a church that doesn’t judge me and make me feel like a ton of crap.” Most churches are marginally open to accepting such people, as long as they are willing to change completely so that they might fit in.
The final segment — also numbering in the millions in our culture — are the broken, discarded, institutionalized, ostracized, and rejected. Many of them are pierced, tattooed, scarred, and jaded. The modern equivalent of the lost, the last, and the least that Jesus himself came to save, a remarkably small number of such people are targeted by United Methodism as “potential members.” These people are risky, scary, sometimes dangerous, often strange, and among the most needy in our world.
These five groups are not exceptional. In fact, taken together, they may comprise over one-third of our current population. While there is some overlap, an estimate of close to 70 million is not out of line. One-in-four hundred claims no belief/atheism, so we shouldn’t expect 175,000 of them to be open to an authentic appeal from the Christian church, but for the remaining 69,825,000, all we need ask is, “do we really want these children of God in our churches?”
If the answer is “yes,” we will need to change — drastically. If we have no desire to change, then we need to quit whining about losing members. Our next new members are out there — but they are not like us. They are a 21st century challenge to an 18th century mindset, and a 2,000 year old faith. Can we find ways to bridge these gaps without compromising our theology and Biblical integrity? Can we find ways to operate by grace rather than by laws written for a premodern and primitive people? Can we be guided by God’s Holy Spirit to reach the unreachable, to forgive the unforgivable, and to love the unlovable?
Well, that’s enough rant for me. I talked to hundreds of people over the past five years who would love to be a part of the church, but cannot find any church that will have them. If we want to grow, we have to ask honestly, how badly do we really want it? There are millions of people who would join us if we would ask them. The trouble is, no one’s asking.