Tuesday, October 5, 2010

How the West Was Won

So, have you defined the problem yet? I will share some of my thoughts in this article, but I think it might be helpful to give you a bit of background information before I do.

One of the most intriguing and informative books I've read in many years is The Churching of America: 1776 to 2005 by co-authors Roger Finke and Rodney Stark. Dr. Roger Finke is a Professor of Sociology and Religious Studies at the Pennsylvania State University who helped create the Association of Religion Data Archives which provides significant information on religious life in America (and a resource I use for our work in Houston). Dr. Rodney Stark was for 32 years professor of sociology and comparative religion at the University of Washington. In 2004 he became University Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University where he also serves as the co-director for the Institute for Studies of Religion. (I believe this is a book anyone interested in reaching our world for Christ should read! To purchase a copy of The Churching of America: 1776 to 2005 click here.)
In The Churching of America: 1776 to 2005 the authors look at the history of the church in America, how it grew, what factors contributed to the growth of some denominations and the decline of others. For example, in 1776, the leading denominations in America were Congregationalists, Anglicans (Episcopalians) and Presbyterians. Baptists and Methodists were considered sects. By 1850 everything changed! Methodists and Baptists were the largest denominations. Congregationalists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians fell far behind. Changes in the Methodist church in the 1880s caused their growth to stall out while Baptists continued to grow becoming the largest denomination in the US.

What happened? What contributed to the growth of Baptists and the decline of other denominations? Social scientists believe there were several contributing factors (things we need to pay attention to today).

Structure made a difference. Churches were not highly organized. Their structure was simple and congregational. Among Methodists, the class meetings (home Bible studies led by laymen) were a primary source of spiritual and social support for members.

Pastors were not professionals. A highly professionalized clergy had not yet developed. Among both Baptists and Methodists, pastoral functions were mostly performed by unpaid, local "amateurs," what were sometimes called "farmer-preachers." The call of George Truett to ministry was typical of what was going on in churches at that time. His church needed a pastor. George was just a young man in the congregation. During a congregational meeting, a layman announced "I believe God is calling George Truett to be our pastor." George wasn't convinced. He planned to study the law, but the congregation prevailed upon him and he became their pastor. That's how one of Baptists greatest leaders entered the ministry!

And there is much, much more in the book (and history) we can learn from, but this is enough for now.

In my last article I said we need to define the problem, we need to see what impedes our reaching all the people in our city with the gospel, what is contributing to the loss of market share for the church in Houston and in America (sorry if stating things in such crass terms is unsettling for you)?
I'll answer by referring you back to a conversation with a new friend and neighbor (posted in August). In our first meeting, he asked what I did. After I told him he said, "I go to church with my fiancee. It's a Presbyterian church, but it's not really a church because we meet in a school."

Did you catch his idea of what a real church is? Therein lies the problem. What is it? I think it is in our institutionalized understanding of church. Even though we know "the church" is the people, we've allowed an institutional model to creep into our thought process and take over our understanding of church. I believe that model of church is a major impediment to the rapid multiplication of disciples. (And for those who ask, is it about making disciples or planting churches, I think the distinction is only relevant if we think of church as an institution. In my mind, the concepts are more alike than distinct.)

It's probably dangerous for me to say so, but I believe we need to de-institutionalize church. We need to find models of church that are consistent with the biblical characteristics of church but without many of the trappings that we think of when we think of church: buildings, professionally trained clergy, large budgets, complex organizational structure.

Now I realize that's probably not going to happen in the US unless something quite frame-breaking happens (like the taxation of the church, and don't think that couldn't happen!). So rather than dismantle church as we know it, I believe we need to lay another system alongside the institutional church, a system of simple church that empowers the laity and doesn't require significant funding. But that's a conversation for later when we start talking about solving the problem. For now I'm just trying to define it.

For more on "How the West Was Won, the Growth of the Church in America," plan to attend our January Quarterly Meeting when I'll be doing a more extensive presentation of this material.
In case you missed it, I would also encourage you to read my July article entitled "Insanity Redefined" for data that shows it would take 1,452 years and $47.9 billion dollars to reach the unreached population of Houston using our current strategy for starting institutional model churches!
And thanks for all who are engaging the conversation by making comments. Keep those cards and letters coming. :-)


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  2. I've decided to expand this blog and provide additional background information. I'll post something each week through this month so you can see some of the thinking that influences me. I hope it will be helpful.