Read an Excerpt
The Present Future
Six Tough Questions for the Church
By Reggie McNeal
John Wiley & Sons
Copyright © 2003
All right reserved.
New Reality Number One
The Collapse of the Church Culture
The current church culture in North America is on life
support. It is living off the work, money, and energy of previous
generations from a previous world order. The plug will be
pulled either when the money runs out (80 percent of money
given to congregations comes from people aged fifty-five and
older) or when the remaining three-fourths of a generation who
are institutional loyalists die off or both.
Please don't hear what I am not saying. The death of the
church culture as we know it will not be the death of the church.
The church Jesus founded is good; it is right. The church established
by Jesus will survive until he returns. The imminent demise
under discussion is the collapse of the unique culture in North
America that has come to be called "church." This church culture
has become confused with biblical Christianity, both inside
the church and out. In reality, the church culture in North America
is a vestige of the original movement, an institutional expression
of religion that is in part a civil religion and in part aclub
where religious people can hang out with other people whose politics,
worldview, and lifestyle match theirs. As he hung on the
cross Jesus probably never thought the impact of his sacrifice
would be reduced to an invitation for people to join and to support
We are witnessing the emergence of a new world. The church
of Jesus is moving into the postmodern world. Its expression is going
to be more different than most people realize or may want to imagine.
The scale of the shift will rank along with the epochal transitions
of ancient church to medieval, from medieval to modern.
This phenomenon has been noted by many who tag the
emerging culture as post-Christian, pre-Christian, or postmodern.
The point is, the world is profoundly different than it was at the
middle of the last century, and everybody knows it. Even the
church culture. But knowing it and acting on it are two very different
things. So far the North American church largely has
responded with heavy infusions of denial, believing the culture
will come to its senses and come back around to the church. This
denial shows up in many ways. Many churches have withdrawn
from the community. An alternate form of denial has been the
attempt to fix the culture by flexing political and economic muscle.
Still another form of denial shows up in the church's obsession
with internal theological-methodological debates designed to
determine who the true believers are while the world is headed
to hell in a handbasket.
All Is Not Well
If you don't need much convincing that the church ain't cuttin'
it in terms of missional effectiveness, then you might want to skip
this section. This next stuff is for those of you who need convincing
or who need ammunition for making the case to others.
The collapse of the church culture can be demonstrated in several
ways. One is through demographics. The percentage of Americans
who claim to go to church each week has hung in the 40 to 43 percent
range for thirty years. But I ask you, do you really believe
those numbers? I recently asked a group of pastors in a conference
setting whether any of them live in a community where 40 percent
of the population shows up at church on Sunday. Only one raised
his hand. A study conducted in the late 1990s suggested Americans
might be lying about their churchgoing habits to pollsters. It
pegged church attendance at only 26 percent of Americans. (The
study was conducted by sociologist Stanley Presser of the University
of Maryland and research assistant Linda Stinson of the U.S.
Bureau of Labor Statistics, who assessed church attendance by
actual diary entries as opposed to responses to pollsters.) Quite a
difference! Think about it. Does your town even have room in all
the churches for 40 percent of the population? A friend of mine
in a Southern Bible Belt town called every church in his town
after Easter in 2001 and reported that only about 25 percent of
the town attended church-on Easter!
Let's say you do believe the church attendance that people
report. There is still cause for alarm. The further down you go in
the generational food chain, the lower the percentage each succeeding
generation reports going to church. The drop is from the
52 percent of builders (those born before 1946) and seniors to
only 36 percent of gen Xers. What does this spell for the church
in the future? Armed with this information, of course, churches
are launching an all-out effort to reach gen Xers. I wish! Most
churches have actually just written them off, waiting for them to
grow up and learn to like what the church has to offer.
Or let's take a look at the unchurched population. A 2001 survey
reported in the Christian Science Monitor reveals that the number
of Americans who have "no religious preference" has doubled
from 1990 to 2001, reaching 14 percent of the population. (These
are not skeptics-only 1 percent identified themselves as atheists.
This group doesn't see the church as vital to their spiritual
life.) George Barna reports (State of the Church 2002, p. 17) that
the unchurched population has grown from 24 to 34 percent in
just one decade! (Barna defines people as unchurched "if they
have not attended a Christian church service during the past six
months, other than for special events such as weddings or funerals.")
Among some subgroups the increase is even more substantial.
Since 1991, the number of unchurched women has risen
from 18 to 30 percent; the number of unchurched Hispanics has
jumped from 19 percent to 33 percent; the number of unchurched
in the Northeast is up from 26 to 38 percent; and the unchurched
population on the West Coast has risen from 29 to 40 percent. (If
you've been in California on Sunday you may be suspicious that
the reported numbers of unchurched are so low!)
For evangelicals, the situation looks even bleaker. Thom
Rainer of the Billy Graham School of Evangelism at Southern
Baptist Seminary reports some disturbing responses to the two frequently
asked Evangelism Explosion questions ("Do you know for
certain that if you died today you would go to heaven?" and "If
you were to die today, what would you say to God if he asked you
why he should let you into his heaven?"). The interview included
about 1,300 persons of each of four generational groups that
Rainer identified and investigated (5,200 in all). Analyzing the
responses for evidence that the respondents were born-again (the
evangelical definition of one's being a Christian) yielded the following
results: builders (born before 1946)-65 percent; boomers
(born between 1946 and 1964)-35 percent; busters (born between
1965 and 1976)-15 percent; bridgers (born between 1976 and
1994)-4 percent. Those interviewed in the bridger category were
at least seventeen years old.
What about retention rates? Dawson McAlister, national
youth ministry specialist, says that 90 percent of kids active in
high school youth groups do not go to church by the time they
are sophomores in college. One-third of these will never return.
This rate of disconnection indicates a dilemma far more serious
than mere youthful rebellion.
A growing number of people are leaving the institutional
church for a new reason. They are not leaving because they have
lost faith. They are leaving the church to preserve their faith.
They contend that the church no longer contributes to their spiritual
development. In fact, they say, quite the opposite is true. The
number of "post-congregational" Christians is growing. David Barrett,
author of the World Christian Encyclopedia, estimates that
there are about 112 million "churchless Christians" worldwide,
about 5 percent of all adherents, but he projects that number will
double in the next twenty years!
The bottom line is that the bottom line is not looking too
good, no matter how you cut it. Underneath the semblance of
an American culture influenced by Christianity, the tectonic
plates have shifted.
It's more than numbers. The American culture no longer
props up the church the way it did, no longer automatically
accepts the church as a player at the table in public life, and can
be downright hostile to the church's presence. The collapse I am
detailing also involves the realization that values of classic Christianity
no longer dominate the way Americans believe or behave.
Sure, when there's a community disaster or a national calamity
such as 9/11, people scurry to church. This is not because they
have a sudden interest in church but because they have a huge
need for God, and they still seek sacred spaces to pray. Some argue
that these church attendance spikes reflect more peoples' need for
community in times of shared grief than anything else. At any
rate, within a few weeks of these disasters things are back to normal
in terms of church attendance. The prognosticators who view
these spikes as a renewal or beginning of a spiritual awakening
remain frustrated. Most significant, a vast number of churches
squander the window of opportunity by failing to connect with
new people in these moments in meaningful ways that will bring
The World Has Ended
We can place the enormous changes taking place against the
larger landscape. We are entering a new epoch of human history
called the postmodern age. The postmodern world will demand a
new church expression, just as did the rise of the modern world.
The church took years to accommodate itself to the modern world
that adopted Galileo's and Copernicus's view of the universe
(deposing God from his fixed, top-of-heap position) and embraced
Cartesian logic (pushing God to a diminishing domain of what
could not be explained away by reasoning).
The modern world assaulted God, shoving him further and further
into the corner with its determination to drain all the mystery
out of life and the universe. Everything that could be explained
scientifically further diminished the realm of the spiritual.
Having retreated into a diminishing corner for several hundreds
of years, the North American church culture unfortunately
now reflects the materialism and secularism of the modern era.
Not only do we not need God to explain the universe, we don't
need God to operate the church. Many operate like giant
machines, with church leaders serving as mechanics. God doesn't
have to show up to get done what's being done. The culture does
not want the powerless God of the modern church.
We need to take courage. Though secularism and nihilism
have taken their best shot to kill God, they have lost. The postmodern
world, governed by quantum physics and its emphasis on
relationships, is God's end run around the modern world. A quantum
world stands ready to accept divine design and divine interaction.
God himself is stirring the pot. If we can pay attention we
will eventually discover that not only will we not lose God in this
emerging postmodern world, we will find him again!
Although the next church's shape is not yet obvious, the
forces that will give it shape are. They are futures that are already
present. The first of these present futures is shocking and dramatic,
because it declares that much of what we call church is not going
This first new reality is in many ways foundational to the
other five that follow. As with all emerging futures it presents us
with a choice. It is a choice between seeking answers in pursuit
of the wrong question or noodling on the tough question posed
by the arrival of the new world. Its creation has made obsolete
much of our goals and activities in the church world. These no-longer-relevant
pursuits are reflected in the wrong question.
Wrong Question: How Do We Do Church Better?
Faced with diminishing returns on investment of money, time,
and energy, church leaders have spent much of the last five
decades trying to figure out how to do church better. Emphases
have come and gone in rapid succession. Church and lay
renewal has given way to church growth, which has given way to
church health. The results beg the question.
An entire industry has been spawned to help churches do
whatever it is they decide to do. Consultants, parachurch ministries,
denominational headquarters, and publishing houses prod
and push the church toward whatever the current fad is. A spate
of program fixes have consistently overpromised and under-delivered.
The suggestions are plentiful: offer small groups, contemporize
your worship, market your services, focus on customer service,
create a spiritual experience, become seeker-friendly, create a
high-expectation member culture, purify the church from bad
doctrine, return the church to the basics. After decades of this
kind of environment no wonder church leaders are a little skeptical
about the "next thing" and why many feel that just about the
time they catch up they fall further behind. But the mailings keep
coming, the seminars keep filling up, and the conference notebooks
keep stacking up on the shelves.
All this activity anesthetizes the pain of loss. It offers a way to
stay busy and preoccupied with methodological pursuits while not
facing the hard truth: none of this seems to making much of a difference.
Church activity is a poor substitute for genuine spiritual
The fallout from this frenetic effort to run in place is staggering
in every direction. Consider the burnout of many ministers who
struggle with the increase of expectations on the part of church
members. Many men and women who entered the ministry with a
clear sense of call to make a difference feel overwhelmed, bewildered,
defeated, and generally underprepared for the challenges they
face. Having packed their bags for the journey of the church age,
they now have no idea what should be in their leadership backpack
for the current excursion. The portfolio of skills that once gave
them standing in the community of faith no longer distinguishes
them, ensures their effectiveness, or guarantees their continued leadership
position. The senior pastor of a multiple-hundred-member
congregation now must be manager of the corporate culture, headhunter,
personnel manager, strategic planner, fundraiser, expert
communicator, chief vision developer and caster, ministry entrepreneur,
spiritual guru, architectural consultant, plus whatever particular
assistance or role the congregation needs at any given time.
Fallout is not limited to the clergy. Many church members
feel they have been sold a bill of goods. They were promised that
if they would be a good church member, if they would discover
their gifts, or join a small group, sign up for a church ministry, give
to the building program, learn to clap or dance in worship, or
attend this or that, they would experience a full and meaningful
Excerpted from The Present Future
by Reggie McNeal
Copyright © 2003 by Reggie McNeal.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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