As a small child there was a quaint little saying that was common. We folded out hands and said, "Here is the church." We then put our two index fingers together and said, "There is the steeple." Then we turned our hands over and wiggled our fingers and said, "Open the door and see all the people." I know, it's dumb, really dumb. But I do remember it. There was one thing we felt really good about, back in the 1950s and 60s. The church was full of people. Some things do change.
I have documented here before the simple, identifiable fact that the church is in numerical decline in the West. Europe is already post-Christian and America is going down the same road, just not quite as rapidly. There are many theories about this decline. One is the impact of secularism on the culture. Another connects this loss to the way the boomer generation failed to disciple its own children, leaving them to the local church to do that job. Other theories have to do with the loss of confidence in the Bible's authority, the lack of moral clarity inside the church or the malaise that we see in terms of reaching our own neighbors with the gospel. (There are variations of all of these ideas if you dig into this debate deeply enough.)
One thing I am sure about. Unless we see a massive revival, which I am not sure we will see in the "old model" way we once used this term, then the church will likely continue down this same path for the next generation or more.
Where have all the people gone? Western Christians have watched, very passively in many instances, while the leaders of our culture have severed the sacred from the secular and consigned the sacred to church, or to the realm of the private and unimportant truths in society. Since the 1950s Christians have undertaken dozens of initiatives to reverse this trend. We have tried scores of well-taught programs for growth, various new style churches, renaming everything in sight (and dropping old names like Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc.) and adopting the various expressions of pop culture that we think will help turn this around. Despite all of these efforts, some of which might even be useful, overall decline continues. The present evidence for this statement is so strong as to be beyond any serious doubt. Even the most cheerful among us cannot put a positive spin on this, one that says, "We've got this figured out and we are seeing growth like no one else." I know, I know, every major population center has one or more big churches, growing in significant ways numerically. (Get outside the United States and this is not true, as I saw in Vancouver recently.) But I have two questions for those who are excited about these few large, growing churches? First, how many of these people have really come from some other church, which they saw as dying, to your larger and more prosperous congregation? What percentage of your growth is actually based on reaching "churched" people who are simply looking for the biggest and fastest growing church in town? Second, how many of the "converts" that you claim have become real disciples who grasp what it means to radically follow Christ in the modern, and now increasingly postmodern, world? Are we, to put this quite simply, getting more decisions in the same old way or are we actually raising up real disciples who grasp the vocation of following Christ as Lord and who are involved in his mission meaningfully?
Are there leaders who can reverse this trend? I think so, but most of them are not in the West. Most Western leaders follow a lone ranger/chief executive model of leadership. This is not only an unbiblical or non-apostolic form of leadership but it is proving to be ineffective the longer we go down this road. I believe the one sign of hope is to be seen in a rising group of younger leaders who want to move from hierarchies toward apostolic ("sent") networks. These leaders are usually found, though not exclusively so, in smaller churches and within diverse movements that are nothing like those I grew up in as a young pastor. The question for these young leaders is the question that I raise in my forthcoming book, Your Church Is Too Small. How can these churches and leaders come together to utilize the various gifts and skills that are to be found in the "one church" that exists in a city or region? How do you nourish and equip leaders for this future-faith reality that is surely coming?
Some have called this new approach "the Antioch model." This idea is based upon the ancient church in Antioch which seems to have been a resource for a vast network of local church fellowships. This idea is also rooted in the theology of the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church" of the creed and the New Testament. It understands that the church in a city consists of many congregations but it is one spiritual reality. It embraces the theology of the kingdom of God and seeks to build that kingdom, not the local church under the leadership of some charismatic pastor who is the head guy. There is room for charismatic leaders and preachers in this new (ancient) model but they will use their gifts in service of the unity of the whole church, not simply to build up their "own" church/congregation/ministry. This will require unusual humility and vision, something that few older leaders seem to possess.
Ask yourself this question: How much does your church actually do to promote the kingdom of God in your city or region? Is the agenda that your leaders embrace really about their vision, their plans, and their strategies? Or is it in line with the prayer Jesus actually prayed in John 17:20–24? The answer will tell you if your church is too small regardless of how many people actually sit there on Saturday and Sunday.