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We Need More but Different Churches

The number of church closures continues to rise. According to a study published by Lifeway Research last May, about 4,500 churches closed their doors in 2019 while only 3,000 churches were started. This is a shift from 2014 when Lifeway found 3,700 closures compared to 4,000 new church starts.

The net number of churches in American is in decline.

The number of people affiliated with churches in America also is waning. According to a separate study by Public Religion Research Institute, white evangelical Protestants have significantly dropped in number from 23% of Americans in 2006 to just 12% in 2020.  Meanwhile, 23% of Americans in 2020 identify as unaffiliated, which is especially true of young adults who make up 36% of the “nones.”

The pandemic of the last two years likely has increased the number of church closures and dramatically diminished church planting efforts. Moreover, it has been more difficult for congregations to maintain contact with their parishioners and for people to feel a sense of communal belonging with protective measures in place and events being postponed at churches and in communities. The reality is that churches are in decline and need to reconsider how we do church.

The pandemic forced many church leaders to broaden their ministry repertoires. In greater numbers, services are now streamed online and maintained on the internet for later viewing; Bible studies and small groups continue to meet by Zoom or in hybrid form; trainings and conferences from around the world are streamed to reach a boarder context. Many of these methods are here to stay and need to become an ongoing part of how we seek to reach people in the kingdom.

Our world is increasingly polarized, and this includes many congregations. Issues continue to cause division in the church. Should we wear a mask to limit the spread of the pandemic? Is racism an ongoing systemic issue? Should LGBTQ persons be welcomed and affirmed in the church? Just to name a few.

Add these societal issues to the ongoing internal challenges of churches to agree on funding missions, worship music selections, pastoral preaching styles, appropriate teaching of teens, even whether to serve donuts, and we regularly find ourselves in a conundrum in the local congregation.

As stated in my previous article in Baptist News Global, we need to prioritize acceptance and inclusion within the local church. However, it also is important to realize that part of befriending each other is validating that we do not all have to agree to be kind and respectful of each other. Local congregations should find the space to be accepting of other churches and various denominations within the community to work collaboratively to advance the kingdom.

Likewise, we should consider starting new, but different churches in the community. While church revitalization is a valuable approach and worth the effort in many congregations, a more successful effort may be to start new churches. In the kingdom of God, followers of Jesus are not called to build our own churches and personal or communal kingdoms; we are called to expand the global kingdom of Jesus. This means we should consider every possible way for us to reach people regardless of the particular locale where they worship, give and serve.

“While church revitalization is a valuable approach and worth the efforts in many congregations, a more successful effort may be to start new churches.”

In Acts 16, Paul travels to Philippi, goes outside the city to find the synagogue and meets a group of women gathering to pray. He talks to them about Jesus, and a new church is born. Denominational leaders and local pastors need to recognize the urgency of following Paul’s example. We would do well to go where people are, come alongside them in their life experiences, share with them the goodness of Jesus, and consider starting new communities of faith that are intentional for the unique needs of those who gather.

This may occur through tried-and-true methods of the past. Denominational collaboration, sponsoring a church plant pastor or establishing a mission church from a local congregation remain viable means of extending the kingdom. However, it may also come through being self-aware of what is going on in the community and in the surrounding context of the local congregation.

Local pastors should not defer the responsibility of knowing the needs in our communities exclusively to denominational leaders and church planters. We should be watchful to sense how God is working in our communities and where ministerial gaps occur. In particular, those who are in churches that are well established should evaluate who is reaching other sectors of the population.

For example, since many people over the last three decades have walked away from organized religion and are now classified as “nones,” a community of faith could be started intentionally to provide a safe space for this group.

When I recently stepped down as a pastor in my community, a group of us decided to try this new way of thinking, and nearly 100 people showed up at our first gathering. We are now in the process of establishing a new community of faith that is based on a totally different reevaluation of how we want to do “church,” providing a safe space for those who feel ostracized and unaccepted in many local congregations.

In a country where Christian nationalism has wed the conservative evangelical viewpoint with national government, many have become disenfranchised with church. While the vast majority of conservative Christians regularly affiliate with a local church, increasingly more moderate-leaning Christians are leaving their church affiliations. The answer to the complex problem is not for conservative Christians to coerce or oppress others to come to their side, nor is it through moderate Christians throwing away the value of belonging in a community of faith. Rather, it is both groups (and everyone in between) to recognize that we are all working toward one kingdom. We can do that by starting more churches that reach different demographics than our own local congregation.

“Get to know people in the community around you. Avoid going out on an evangelistic campaign to ‘win souls.’”

Here are some suggestions if you embark on this journey:

  1. Get outside your church building. Get to know people in the community around you. Avoid going out on an evangelistic campaign to “win souls.” Just get to know the people who live around you. The Great Commission compels us to go into the world. Disciple-making begins by befriending. Listen to people’s stories, empathize with their struggles and give them the freedom to work out their salvation with the Lord in their own way.
  2. Evaluate the gaps. As you get to know unchurched people around you, consider where you would go to church if you were in their shoes. Avoid assuming that everyone should come to your church just because you love it. Understanding their particular circumstances, ask: Is there a church where they would find acceptance and community?
  3. Consider what it would take to launch a small group, a new ministry or a church to minister to an unreached group in your community. The “nones” are the most significant mission field in America. Our goal should not be to convert them to join the very churches where they feel unwelcome. Rather, it is either to change our welcoming nature in our churches and/or to create safe places where they feel welcome in new communities of faith.
  4. Realize that it may be easier and better to start something new than to try to change something established. A cruise ship does not turn very fast, and neither does an established church change very quickly. It may be more successful to start a new ministry or church than to try to adapt your church to reach new people.

I want to end with a final note to pastors like me: If you are contemplating a change from serving in the church where you are and going to a new congregation to serve, at least consider starting a new church. I am only four months in to my journey to start a new church in my community, but I will tell you it is both the scariest and the most exciting thing I have ever experienced.

While I am being stretched and feel inadequate, I’m in awe over the Lord’s continued provision and the network of people around me who help me to dream, evaluate and move forward. I am increasingly convinced if we are going to effectively reach the emergent generation, we have to do church differently and we will all be the better for it.

Let’s be open to new ideas, new strategies, and yes — even new churches.

Patrick Wilson has served as a pastor for 25 years in Dallas and Austin, Texas, and most recently in in Rolla, Mo., where he currently is building a new table through a church plant. He is a graduate of Baylor University, earned two master’s degrees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctor of ministry degree from Logsdon Seminary.