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The Decline of the Western Church and the Call to renew your Church's Ecclesiology

triperspectival-ecclesiology.gif The Western Church is in decline. Part of the challenge is the church is stuck in old models of ecclesiology based on Constantinian views of church.  The church is seen as a power structure seeking to 'attract' people from the outside to join.  This model is set to fail to change our culture, as author Alan Hirsch puts it:

A combination of recent research in Australia indicates that about 10-15 percent of that population is attracted to what we call the contemporary church growth model. In other words, this model has significant "market appeal" to about 12 percent of our population. The more successful forms of this model tend to be large, highly professionalized, and overwhelmingly middle class, and express themselves culturally using contemporary, "seeker friendly" language and middle-of-the-road music forms. (source: The Forgotten Ways)

In America, we may have a couple decades before we reach the 10-15 percent. Yet churches continue to try to one-up each other to create better programs, funnier messages, more creative marketing to capture people from this pool of seekers.  For example, Outreach magazine's June 2007 issue reported a seemingly encouraging statistic: 97% of Protestant churches reported doing something evangelistic within the year. (Source: Ellison Research's "Facts and Trends")  It was only when you dig deeper, the stat loses some punch:

  • 70% did a Vacation Bible School
  • 59% passed out literature such as tracts or magazines
  • 56% held large events such as block parties and fall festivals

These are good things to do, but all of these are attractional-based evangelism that will reach people who share a similar worldview to Christians.  Meaning, when people hold a similar morality, view of absolutes and typically conservative background these events are effective.  For most others, they are ineffective.

In response to this, here are a few items I am thinking through: 

1. Corporate Gatherings are important to reflect the exaltation of Christ, just as mission moves us into a more incarnational mode.  We need multiple forms of gatherings to reflect the fullness of the church. I say this in contrast to some in the emerging movement who prefer to abolish larger corporate gatherings.  Yet, in stark contrast to most Evangelical churches the corporate gathering is not the center of the church universe.   Goheen writes: “There is a need to continue to struggle with communal patterns of ecclesial life that will enable the church corporately to be a preview of the kingdom. However, this should not be done at the expense of the mission of God’s people in their various and scattered callings. This continues to be the primary point of missionary engagement in Western culture.”   (HT: Brad Brisco) For a visual on this, view the Triperspectival Ecclesiology diagram

Triperspectival note: As Corporate gathering & Classes occur there is a greater emphasis on Normative (red circle).  Missional Communities and Home Groups have an emphasis on Existential (blue circle) while Tribal encounters (going with others to where non-believers live/meet) and being a missionary to people is more Situational (green circle).

2. You need to rethink the success of your church.  Too many pastors find their identity in the number of people that attend on Sundays.  Your church can have a great number of people attend on Sunday's but if this is where their connection to being the church ends, you may only be feeding the idols of consumerism.  Churches should spend much more emphasis on creating disciples to embody the gospel in daily life. Goheen quotes Newbigin as he writes: “I do not believe that the role of the Church in a secular society is primarily exercised in the corporate action of the churches as organized bodies in the political or cultural fields . . . On the contrary, I believe that it is [exercised] through the action of Christian lay people playing their roles as citizens, workers, managers, legislators.” (HT: Brad Brisco)

3. Bible Studies are great, but to reach people churches need to form missional communities.  Small gatherings of people who are a committed to a neighborhood.  It is these people who pray for the area, are deeply committed to the needs and express this in acts of love and mercy.  These people need to be an active hermeneutic of the gospel on display for unbelievers to see.  This paradigm will require active engagement in a neighborhood to build trust and reach those who are open or spiritually curious. 

4. Churches that aren't actively embodying the gospel to tribes of people will only reach seekers.  Hirsch calls mission going out and incarnation as going deep.  We need to develop a culture in our church of mission and pastors, elders and deacons need to model how to be incarnational to reach people groups who do not respond to attractional ministries.  We need to create a new missionary mindset in our people.  It will be these individuals living out the gospel who embed in tribes of people who will be able to reach those who doubt, hold to alternative faiths or even stand in opposition to the Christian message.  The more extreme the resistance, the more relational mission becomes and often is only able to be bridged by specific people who either come from a similar background or somehow develop a connection based on other extenuating factors.

For most traditional or evangelical churches moving from a Sunday event with some mid-week Bible Studies to a church who takes mission seriously will be difficult.  It will take people completely out of their comfort zone and require both great patience and love as Christians move into active relationships with non-believers.  This is difficult being many mature Christians have completely isolated themselves from the unbelieving world.  For many Christians there will need to be a complete shift in ideology and a conversion to mission in order for this to occur.  Sadly, churches who go through this process will end up losing people unwilling to follow their leaders as they follow Christ.  But ultimately this transition is critical for the Western Church to once again move to the margins of society where we began and were able to completely change the Roman world through decentralized missional living.

11 Comments

  1. “many mature Christians have completely isolated themselves from the unbelieving world.”

    Is it possible to be a “mature” Christian and neglect the main thrust of the Good News? Is it spiritually “responsible” to immerse yourself in Christian Culture and ignore the very world we are called to Love? Is it possible to “balance” outreach and “making disciples”. Or, is the very purpose of “making disciples” to train people to follow Jesus Christ in an undeniable way that “reaches out in Love” to those around them?

    Just some questions I have struggled with while working in the “declining western church”.

  2. Thanks for the excellent post. This is an issue I struggle with as I pastor a very traditional church. Trying to get people to understand that it is time for the church to “Go out and go deep” is not easy.

    My prayer is for more ‘traditional’ pastors from ‘traditional’ denominations and non-denominations make the ideological shift from a mainly attractional church model to one that is, in my opinion, more in line with the ministry of Jesus and the church of the first three centuries.

    Your post has given me more ‘talking points’ as I continue the transitional process. Thanks. – Dave.

  3. D. Goodmanson

    May 7, 2007 at 11:31 am

    Don -thanks for your comment. I should have better defined ‘mature’ as I meant in terms of length of time versus being more changed by the gospel.

    David – These are exciting times as many voices are speaking about this shift. I’ve been blessed by two people in particular: Goheen & Hirsch who I quote in the post.

  4. Drew

    What an excellent post! I find the diagram to be most helpful as well. I have not yet had the opportunity to listen to the Goheen link but will soon. Is the diagram Goheen’s? Or did you put this together?

  5. D. Goodmanson

    May 8, 2007 at 7:29 am

    Brad – I created the diagram.

  6. Well then major kudos to you! This is a very helpful way to deal with the tension on multiple fronts. I believe this provides a great way to see the differences between each ecclesial form and at the same time to help recognize the benefits of each in connecting with others. I think this is also helpful to assist those in the church to see the different forms at which we need to be functioning biblically, and my hope is that it will help us see the benefit of what others are doing even when it doesn’t align with our mode of ministry.

  7. I loved that diagram so much that I showed it to Frame.(hope you don’t mind – but this is a public blog at any rate) I totally agree that this is a difficult adjustment for traditional churches seeking to transition away from their old models to a more missional one. Having tried to make this adjustment in my old church and denomination I have seen this difficulty first hand. Even when the church loves you, they can be so satisfied with the anemic trickle of disillusioned Church Growth Movement transfers that they feel any change (especially one so drastic) is a betrayal.
    This is extremely helpful, thank you so much for posting this. I’m going to share it with all of our Missional Community leaders.

  8. Hey Drew. We are new to the Acts 29 Network. One of our leaders linked to this blog as well as the chart. Several folks are putting in their two cents about the meaning. Would you mind giving some clarity if you have time? Thanks for blogging.

    http://sojournhuntsville.org/blogs/bob_pratico/2007/05/08/decline_of_the_western_church_and_a_call_to_renew_your_church_s_ecclesiology

    For Christ and His cities,

    David Thew
    Sojourn Founding Pastor

  9. D. Goodmanson

    May 12, 2007 at 2:19 pm

    David Thew – I put my two cents in. Great to see the discussion you guys are having…

  10. Thanks for taking the time to respond, Drew. Hearing from the author’s keyboard helps a ton. God bless you, Fairchild, and Kaleo.

  11. Many people in this enlightened age are seeing religion as the superstitious myth that it is. Christianity is not original, it is just about an exact copy of the Horus and Isis myth from Egypt that was there long before Christianity.

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