One of the common responses to the decline of Christianity in America is to note that it is not our fault. The decline is evidence of much larger cultural problems—a combination of postmodernism, the rise of hyper-individualism, and the influence of those who have an axe-to-grind with the church. Many would agree that the decline of American Christianity is due to factors external to the church.
This argument does have its merits. Culture is shifting. America by the day is becoming more individualistic. It’s hard to name one civic institution that is not in decline, whether the VFW or the Masons. Yet it’s hard not to think institutions do bear at least some responsibility for the state of things, particularly when one looks inside the American church. Is it possible that American Christianity has, at the very least, aided its own decline? I believe this is true—the church itself has contributed to the dwindling numbers of those who identify as Christian and regularly participate in the life of local congregations.
How has the church done this? The church growth ministry model of the last fifty years deserves much of the blame. A strategy intended to grow the church has done the opposite.
Before I dive into why I believe this is true, I must say something briefly about myself. I owe much of my Christian formation to the church growth movement. I grew up in a full-gospel megachurch with over ten thousand in attendance each week. Later, during my high school years, I attended a different church, one which prided itself on being the Willow of West Michigan, modeled after the famous Willow Creek Community Church outside of Chicago. Throughout my ministry career, I have been a pastor in three churches using the church growth model, one of them a (formerly) RCA congregation in Idaho. I owe much of my faith journey to this ministry model and my time in this movement has given me a unique vantage point into how it is aiding in the decline of the American church.
Christian Decline and the Rise of the Church Growth Movement
The decline of the American church is well-documented. Gallup reported that as of 2020, 47% of Americans regularly attended religious services (of any faith). That number is down 20% from 1999. This is a precipitous drop, to say the least. Religious service attendance had begun to dip before 1999, beginning in the 1970s. In the late 1960s, religious service attendance in American was about 73%, a level that had held steady for over 50 years. Over the next couple of decades, the average slowly declined 5%.
At the same time that religious service attendance began to decline, a new approach to church arose. In 1975, Bill Hybels founded Willow Creek Community Church in Chicagoland. Five years later, Rick Warren launched Saddleback Church in southern California. Both churches were revolutionary. Drawing on ideas pioneered by the RCA’s Robert Schuller at the Crystal Cathedral, Hybels and Warren chose to do church differently. Worship became a playground for the arts, featuring high-quality contemporary music and drama. The purpose of the worship service was to reach the lost (seekers) and find a way to catch the next generation for Christ. Both churches abandoned traditional Christian education, catechesis, and other typical forms of lay theological training. Historical worship liturgies were replaced with creative and different approaches to music, drama, and preaching. New emphasis was placed upon making the worship experience match the culture in look and feel. Lectionary preaching was replaced with practical teaching series about family, marriage, life issues, and the culture.
Within just a few years both of these church communities grew to national prominence and the seeker-sensitive megachurch era was born. Soon, the church growth model became the idyllic example of church for many. Smaller, less well-funded churches emulated what the behemoths were doing in the hope that they too could reach those outside the walls and grow in number. Preachers began changing their preaching style to more closely align with Hybels and company. Church leaders attended Willow’s Global Leadership Summit and headed home with new ideas and expectations of what the church ought to be.
Protestant churches of every stripe pursued the new model—even mainline Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches attempted to replicate the success of megachurches. The seeker-sensitive church growth model was so much in the cultural water that over the past fifty years many Protestant churches adapted to this style through a sort of cultural osmosis. And its effect is bigger than Protestantism; I recently asked a local Roman Catholic priest if the church growth model had found its way into their ministry. He responded by laughing as he said, “It’s thoroughly embedded in the Roman Catholic Church in America.”
The church growth strategy is built on very different goals than traditional things like community, sacraments, and catechism. It’s all about excellence on Sunday mornings–some even use the language of the Sunday Experience. Offerings outside of Sunday also needed to be relevant and practical, with things as diverse as “Trunk or Treats,” various conferences, and Christian concerts aimed toward drawing the outside community in.
What effect did this shift in church identity and practice have? As the church growth movement picked up steam, one would expect that church attendance nationally would have begun to move upward. In fact, the opposite occurred. As the church growth movement increased in influence, church attendance began to decline. Seeker-sensitive churches swelled as smaller traditional churches shuttered their doors. Pastors have been well-aware that they lost people from their traditional churches to seeker-sensitive churches. The church growth movement hit its peak around the turn of the century, and yet as it grew to the pinnacle of its influence, American Christianity witnessed its greatest decline.
The Reshaping of the Church Member
What effect has this had on the layperson? I am convinced the rise of the church growth movement has caused a massive shift in mindset for church members. Traditionally, the laity participating in corporate worship joined a great cloud of witnesses—all generations, rich and poor, married, single, widowed, orphaned, all joined with the express intent of offering worship to the Lord together. Deeply interconnected relationships arose as a result.
A retired pastor once reminisced with me about the old times at his church. On Sunday mornings following worship men might talk shop together; perhaps about business dealings both parties were in on. Families would talk with other families about hurting friends. People would check-in on each other. Children would run around the fellowship hall picking up games left-off in the neighborhood or at school. In the old way of doing church, people knew each other. They didn’t know of each other; they were deeply involved in each other’s lives—from work to family to neighbors to friendships. Sometimes disagreement would break out over seemingly mundane issues like the church carpet color or the singing of psalms versus hymns. These arguments held much gravity for the community because parishioners found great meaning in their church communities. Identities were at risk when changes were made. The stakes were high.
As churches grew larger, relationships grew weaker. Church identity shifted from relationships among members to embracing the vision of a corporate church brand and strategy that had been dreamed up by the lead pastor. “Community” was not expressed in deep interconnected faith friendships but in church stickers slapped on the back of a family van. Parishioners became attendees. When the church gathered on Sunday mornings for worship, the mindset shifted from a community gathering to individual experience.
What was once a gathering of God’s people together has largely shifted to a group of individual consumers in proximity to each other. Evaluating the experience was key: the definition of goodworship was based on what was witnessed. Did the worship band bring us into the “presence of God”? Was the pastor thought-provoking, funny, and practical? Did the video make us feel something? Did the greeter team shake every new hand? Was the coffee good? In other words, did Sunday morning meet my expectations? The church growth strategy has effectively turned the Christian parishioner into a consumerist of a spiritual experience. Everything is judged. Everything is done to make the individual consumer think something or feel something. The goal of the church staff is to please its consumers.
Along the way, parishioners have been transformed from community members to church volunteers. The machinery of the seeker-sensitive enterprise must utilize many volunteers to run properly. Faithful attendees volunteer to keep the machinery running. But not every potential volunteer measures up. Gone are the days when grandmas would spend time with children in Sunday school. Longer gone are the days when the children were welcomed in the worship service. Instead, young, intelligent, attractive, and relevant people are sought to give kids their own high quality faith experience. These same people are enlisted as greeters at the front door and as worship leaders, too.
Ushering the Christian toward Churchlessness
The unintentional consequence of the church growth movement is a theology of individualistic consumerism. Movement between churches happens frequently and the term church-shopping has been popularized. If the church down the road better fits my needs and preferences than my current church—and nothing supersedes one’s preferences—why not head down the road?
The seeker-sensitive model of marketing to outsiders has unwittingly transformed those on the inside. We’ve retrained our laity and created new expectations of what the church is and how one ought to participate in it. Marshall McCluhan’s famous line the medium is the message makes a lot of sense in this regard.
A result is there are clear differences between generations in many local church communities. Older members are far better at cultivating Christian community than younger generations, who often struggle to find any semblance of community and connection. Older church members are also far more likely to understand basic Christian doctrine, creeds, catechisms, and the Bible in general. I used to joke that I could teach a four-person Trinity in new members’ classes and not be challenged. I’m not sure that’s a joke anymore
The church growth movement has led to weaker community, weaker theological acuity, weaker biblical knowledge, and little understanding or appreciation of the historic liturgies of the church. With so many fewer connections between the church and its members, it should be no wonder that many are fading away from the church altogether.
Tim Keller recently offered a new model to get the church back on track. Embracing that sort of quick-hitting multi-step process would mean embracing the same church growth strategy that got the American church into the mess that it is in. What now then? I propose that rather than adding new strategies or programs, the church do just the opposite. As many Christians struggle through deconstruction, what if the American church began doing some deconstruction of its own? Not deconstruction of its theology, but deconstruction of its methods. I suggest the church unbundle itself from the church growth movement altogether. The best cure for the state of the American church is going back to the traditional ways of being the church. Let’s abandon marketing through church logos, vision statements, and the unending search for relevance and instead begin catechizing our members.
The reality is that the church growth movement is not old. In the scope of church history, it is merely a blip. We need a resurgence of Christian communities that have a deep knowledge of one another, Christian communities that gather because they know what they believe. We need Christian communities that love being the church. Perhaps the best thing we can do is to simply stop doing what we’ve been doing. I don’t know if it’s possible to put the proverbial genie—the individualist-consumerist-spiritual mindset genie—back in the bottle. I don’t know if it’s possible to close Pandora’s box. But I believe it is the faithful thing to do. It is the brave thing to do. I believe the way forward is to go back.