Liberal Theology Empties Churches

The Episcopal Church in America reached peak membership in 1959, with about 3.5 million baptized members, rising from just over one million in a decade. Since the population of the USA also rose during this period, another way to put it is to say the Episcopal Church had in 1959 about 19.4 members per every 1,000 citizens, rising from 17 per 1,000 in 1949. Total church membership has since fallen, with membership about 1.8 million in 2015, or 5.5 per 1,000, and dropping none too slowly.

Liberal versus Conservative

Similar rapid decreases are seen among the Presbyterian (PCUSA), United Methodist, and Lutheran (ELCA) churches. Episcopalians, Presbyterians (USA), Lutherans (ELCA) and United Methodists represent historical or mainline Protestant Churches in the USA,

The much more evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, because of its age, is similarly situated. Numbers are better in the large Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) than in the Mainline. But membership in SBC congregations has not been keeping track with population increases.

In contrast, evangelical denominations, such as for example the Assemblies of God, while still individually smaller than mainline Protestant congregations, have seen significant growth. The Assemblies of God had only about 300 thousand members in 1950 (about 2.1 per 1,000), swelling ten times to 3.1 million last year (9.8 per 1,000).

Broadly speaking, and using the colloquial understanding of the terms, conservative Protestant churches have had increases this past half century, and liberal churches have had decreases. It is, of course, of interest to shore up these loose expressions and discover just what “conservative” and “liberal” mean in this context.

Enter the paper “Theology Matters: Comparing the Traits of Growing and Declining Mainline Protestant Church Attendees and Clergy” by David Millard Haskell, Kevin N. Flatt, and Stephanie Burgoyne in the journal Review of Religious Research. The trio asked questions of the clergy and congregations of 22 Protestant churches drawn from the Anglican Church of Canada (5), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (4), the Presbyterian Church in Canada (8), and the United Church of Canada (4) all centered in southern Ontario. Of these, 13 had declining populations from 2003 to 2013 and 9 had increasing populations.

Now this isn’t an especially large or necessarily representative sample of churches outside Canada; however, as the survey questions will show, there is still much that can be learned.

Congregations in Growing and Declining Churches
Several questions were asked of the congregants, and many answers showed wide disagreement between the Growing and Declining churches.

For instance, 79% of Growing congregants agreed strongly with the statement “Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God provided a way for the forgiveness of my sins,” whereas only 57% of Declining congregants thought the same. About 19% of Growing congregants strongly agreed that “the beliefs of the Christian faith need to change over time to stay relevant,” whereas 31% of Declining congregants thought so.

Three questions in particular were revealing in the conservative-liberal gap. Only 7% of Growing congregants strongly agreed that “the Bible is the product of human thinking about God, so some of its teachings are wrong or misguided,” whereas over 15% of Declining congregants strongly agreed.

About 13% of Growing congregants strongly agreed that “all major religions are equally good and true,” but more than twice as many Declining congregants, or 25%, thought so. On the fundamental basis of the Christian religion, 66% of Growing congregants strongly agreed that “Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh and blood body, leaving behind an empty tomb,” but only 37% of Declining congregants did.

Not surprisingly, about 29% of Growing congregants thought their church’s mission was evangelism, and 16% thought it was social justice, whereas the numbers in Declining congregations was 9% and 31%.

Clergy in Growing and Declining Churches

Questions were also asked of the clergy, and the differences between Growing and Declining congregations was starker.

The largest difference was in the statement “Jesus was not the divine Son of God,” where it might be expected no clergy member could agree. And, indeed, no Growing clergy member agreed in any way. Yet 13% of Declining clergy agreed at least moderately.

Likewise, no Declining clergy strongly agreed that “it is very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians,” but 77% of Growing clergy did. The statement “The beliefs of the Christian faith need to change over time to stay relevant” could not get any Growing clergy to agree in any way, but 69% of Declining clergy at least moderately agreed.

Some 70% of Growing clergy strongly agreed that “those who die face a divine judgement where some will be punished eternally,” but only 6% of Declining clergy moderately agreed, and none strongly agreed. On that same fundamental question asked of the congregation, 85% of Growing clergy strongly agreed (and none strongly disagreed) that “Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh and blood body, leaving behind an empty tomb,” yet only 38% of Declining clergy thought so (and 19% strongly disagreed).

Has the call for liberalization failed?

Writing in the Washington Post, one of the authors of the study (Haskell), reminds us of the 1999 book by Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong Why Christianity Must Change or Die. “Spong, a theological liberal, said congregations would grow if they abandoned their literal interpretation of the Bible and transformed along with changing times.”

The Episcopal Church followed this advice. They have female priests and bishops. They allow “the ordination of openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender clergy.” They even had a practicing homosexual bishop in a (government-defined) “marriage” to another man, a “marriage” which was further liberalized into a “divorce.”

Yet, even though Haskell says Spong’s theory “won favor with academics” and was “praised” at no less eminent a place than the Harvard Divinity School to assist in “shifting Christianity to meet the needs of the modern world,” the Episcopal Church’s membership dropped precipitously, with no sign of slowing. The Church even splintered, with the Anglican Church in North America forming from former Episcopalians who could not countenance Spong’s liberal theology.

As for the anti-climatic conclusion of his study, Haskell blandly writes, “Conservative Protestant theology, with its more literal view of the Bible, is a significant predictor of church growth while liberal theology leads to decline.”

Apparently theological liberalism empties churches. (For more from the author of “Liberal Theology Empties Churches” please click HERE)

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Excommunication and the Church: A Dose of Discipline with a Side of Grace

I was 17 years old when I first witnessed an evangelical “excommunication.” It was disturbing, sad, frightening, unnerving — and necessary. Unfortunately, excommunication is often misunderstood, even by The online guide claims that “excommunication is a formal way of describing what happens when someone gets kicked out of his or her church, for good.” It goes on to say:

Excommunication is really a kind of banishment, a punishment that’s handed out by a church when one of its members breaks some important church rule.

No, no and no. Merriam-Webster’s definition is much better. The dictionary discusses the rights of church membership that are affected, but also highlights that it’s “an exclusion from fellowship in a group or community.” That’s more like it. It’s exclusion, but not necessarily permanent.

Yes, We’re All Guilty

It’s an unfortunate reality and a consequence of our humanity that each of us sins. Some are just a little better at sinning with the noticeable stuff. In some cases, certainly not all, this warrants excommunication from the body of believers. In the case at my church, it was temporary. A married woman was in a relationship with another man and, although she cried profusely in front of the church body, she refused to end the relationship. So she was cut off from our body of believers temporarily. Call it grace, call it true repentance, call it church policy but she was allowed back into the church after some time. This after she and her husband divorced and she married the man with whom she’d had an extramarital relationship.

For whatever reason, the church felt at that time that she was repentant and eligible to commune with the body once again.

But We Can See You Better

Situations like these get ugly when the sinner is a high-profile Christian leader, as in the case of Tullian Tchividjian, former pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church and grandson of “America’s Pastor” Billy Graham. Following his confession to extramarital affairs and subsequent divorce, many Christian leaders have recently signed a statement saying that Tchividjian has “disqualified” himself “from any form of public vocational ministry.” Tchividjian resigned from Coral Ridge in 2015 and worked for a while at Willow Creek Church near Chicago in a non-ministry post but was fired when it was discovered that he’d had another inappropriate relationship. Tchividjian re-married last month.

While pastors and friends in church leadership continue to plead publicly with Tchividjian to “repent of his wickedness and demonstrate his repentance by submitting himself to the leadership of his church of membership, pursuing forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation with those whom he has sinned against,” Tchividjian told Christianity Today that he is doing just that. “Nothing grieves me more than the fact that people are suffering because of my sins, both in my past as well as in the present,” he stated. “I want to be perfectly clear that I take full responsibility for this.” He went on to say:

Please pray for those who are most deeply affected and please respect their privacy. … God knows how sorry I am for all the damage I’ve caused and the people who have been hurt. Please pray that the good work God has begun will be carried out to completion.

Don’t Be a Stumbling Block

He said he is committed to the “painful and progressive process” of repentance. Yes, it’s painful, but oh-so-necessary, too. That’s because people, particularly those in high-profile positions of Christian leadership, have the capacity to harm the faith of others. My church failed to address the well-known sexual sin of my former fiancée. I struggled with my faith (and relationships) as a direct consequence of that for many years. Others undoubtedly did as well. Jesus knew this — about me and humans in general — and addressed it during a sermon at Capernaum:

Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves (Luke 17:1-3).

Even more so, those in leadership will have to rise to a higher standard and will one day answer for their actions that caused others to fall: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).

Just Good Discipleship

Christianity Today’s Mark Galli wrote an insightful piece on church discipline last month, stating, “We do no one any favors if we ignore or downplay core beliefs.” His November 23 piece covered InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s decision to ask employees who disagreed with their theological commitments on human sexuality to resign. IVCF takes a traditionally orthodox theological stance on the issue of human sexuality. Galli said that this isn’t a “witch hunt,” or “purge,” but simply good discipleship. The church must hold high standards set not by an arbitrary panel of human leaders but by the Leader of the Church, Jesus Christ. It is “crucial to be clear about doctrinal and ethical standards,” said Galli, something that IVCF is doing. To do less than clearly state biblical orthodoxy and hold the Word of God up as the standard would be a tremendous disservice to believers as they live out their faith. Not only because the sinner continues in a pattern of sin and outside of the holy will of God, but also because his or her sin will cause others to stumble in their faith.

With Grace In Mind At All Times

On the other hand, the Church must allow for grace, forgiveness and true repentance. asserts correctly that “discipline is everything the church does to help its members pursue holiness and fight sin.” Once sin has gained a foothold in someone’s life, the goal is to draw the person back to holiness, not to permanently bar them from church. “Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” (2 Timothy 2:25-26)

While it may be necessary to bar someone from church fellowship for a time, the goal is always to bring them back to fullness with Christ through true repentance. No, it isn’t permanent; no, it isn’t banishment; and no, it isn’t about “some important church rule” that has been broken. It’s allowing the broken person to come to a place of repentance and acceptance of God’s forgiveness, which ideally the Church mirrors in her love for the sinner — just as Tchividjian says he has experienced, as he expressed in a Facebook post:

I could tell you a thousand stories of the ways God has sweetly met me very specifically in my darkest and most despairing moments, of which there have been many. Through many of you, God has met my guilt with his grace, my mess with his mercy, my sin with his salvation.

(For more from the author of “Excommunication and the Church: A Dose of Discipline with a Side of Grace” please click HERE)

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Surprise! Conservative Theology Keeps People in Church

A recent study found that conservative theology (meaning a more literal interpretation of scripture) is a much better driver of church attendance than liberal theology, according to a five-year academic study of Canadian churchgoers.

This isn’t surprising whatsoever and should be a big fat “duh” moment for everyone remotely familiar with Christianity and/or the Holy Bible in the first place.

According to a story at the Guardian:

“If we are talking solely about what belief system is more likely to lead to numerical growth among Protestant churches, the evidence suggests conservative Protestant theology is the clear winner,” said David Haskell, the Canadian study’s lead researcher.

The findings contradict earlier studies undertaken in the US and the UK, which attempted to discover the underlying causes of a steep decline in church attendance in recent decades but concluded that theology was not a significant factor.

The findings corroborate research published in Baylor sociologist Dr. Rodney Stark’s The Triumph of Faith last year, which also found that while liberal Protestant denominations have been hemorrhaging membership for years now, conservative Catholic and evangelical congregations are actually growing, while actually levels of irreligion are holding steady.

“I don’t know what study ever found that doctrine didn’t matter in church growth,” Stark told Conservative Review in an email. “It always matters a lot. Note which churches are shrinking rapidly – all liberal – and which are growing rapidly, all traditional/conservative.”

A 2011 Study by the National Council of Churches also found similar trends among conservative evangelical and Pentecostal denominations.

But why is this? Why are those archaic strains of thought, the ones that Hillary Clinton advisers Jon Podesta, and Jennifer Palmieri mocked as “backwards” in the now-infamous “Catholic Spring” emails? After all, conventional wisdom would dictate that more progressive, comfortable, and permissive brands of Christianity ought to sell better than those whose prescriptions seem out of step with a post-Sexual Revolution society. Wouldn’t it?

Perhaps conservative theology is the key to attendance simply because it is much closer to the truth than all the various strains of modern liberal theology that tells the church to get with the times. After all, if you subscribe to the bible as written, you’d have to believe in all sorts of taboo things like natural marriage and the unborn child’s fundamental right to life. It would make far more sense for someone to avoid all the negative things that come with those beliefs — unless, of course, those beliefs are true.

Perhaps G.K. Chesterton put it best when he said, “We do not want, as the newspapers say, a Church that will move with the world. We want a Church that will move the world.” In order for that to happen, the church, whether Protestant, Orthodox, or Catholic, has to stick to the script, rather than make it accommodate the very world from which it seeks to save souls.

After all, we’re talking about the greatest story ever told in the greatest book ever written. Some watered-down, platitude-laden, post-modernist-friendly, safe space-approved substitute just won’t do.

If what you’re hearing from the pulpit makes little to no claim to absolute truth, why listen? If worship — what we render to God, and how we render it — is not of dire importance, why get up out of bed to a church on your day off? If you’re looking for a social club with a message that makes you fit in with your friends at cocktail parties, why not sleep in an hour and just meet them for brunch? It has to be far more appealing than the coffee and donuts they give you after service anyway.

But that’s the wonderful, transformative thing about Christianity: It doesn’t matter whether or not a belief is socially palatable, contemporary, or popular. It never has. The only thing that matters is whether or not that belief is true. And there is no substitute for the truth, once it is revealed.

Once people find the truth, they’ll suffer all sorts of calumnies and abuses for it. They’ll even die for it, as we’ve been tragically and heroically reminded of by the martyrs of the Islamic State over the past two years. And, yes, you can be for absolutely certain they’ll actually get out of bed and get to church for it. (For more from the author of “Surprise! Conservative Theology Keeps People in Church” please click HERE)

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Pastors, They’re Coming for You!

OK, I get it.

The title of this article sounds conspiratorial and inflammatory. In fact, it sounds like a “shock” headline designed to get your attention. Who, after all, is this ambiguous “they” I’m referring to, and why are “they” coming for “you” — referring obviously to Christian leaders? And what, pray tell, are “they” coming to do to “you?”

So I’ll admit it. I did come up with the title of this article for shock value, but the fact is, you need to be shocked. It is only sensational because it is true.

Consider this October 26 headline on Fox News: “State of Georgia demands pastor turn over sermons.” Yes, “A lay minister who is suing the Georgia Department of Public Health for religious discrimination has been ordered by the state’s attorney general to relinquish his sermons to the government, according to federal court documents.”

In the words of Attorney General Samuel Olens, “Please produce a copy of your sermon notes and/or transcripts.”

And why is the state of Georgia demanding his sermon notes and/or transcripts?

As Todd Starnes reports, “Walsh, a Seventh-day Adventist lay minister had been hired in May 2014 as a District Health Director with the Georgia Department of Public Health. A week later, a government official asked him to submit copies of his sermons for review. He complied and two days later he was fired.”

In other words, he was not fired because of any lack of qualification. To the contrary, he was highly qualified for the job.

As noted by attorney David French, Walsh’s resumé included “working for former President Bush and President Obama to combat AIDS, serving as a board member of the Latino Health Collaborative, and starting California’s first city-run dental clinic for low-income families dealing with HIV/AIDS,” but that “wasn’t sufficient to overcome the horror at Walsh’s Christian views.”

Yes, Walsh was fired for the unpardonable sin of preaching against homosexual practice, based on Scripture — and note that he was preaching this to his fellow-congregants, not giving a lecture to his staff. As Walsh’s lead attorney Jeremy Dys said, “He was fired for something he said in a sermon. If the government is allowed to fire someone over what he said in his sermons, they can come after any of us for our beliefs on anything.”

Yes, continued Dys, “It’s an incredible intrusion on the sanctity of the pulpit. This is probably the most invasive reach into the pulpit by the state that I’ve ever seen.”

It’s No Surprise

But this should not surprise us at all. As I pointed out in 2013:

Already in April, 2009, an article in the Washington Post documented how, “Faith organizations and individuals who view homosexuality as sinful and refuse to provide services to gay people are losing a growing number of legal battles that they say are costing them their religious freedom.”

This was confirmed by Georgetown Law Professor Chai Feldblum, appointed by President Obama to serve on the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and herself an out and proud lesbian, when she remarked that when religious liberty and sexual liberty conflict, “I’m having a hard time coming up with any case in which religious liberty should win.”

That’s why Atlanta Fire Chief Kelvin Cochran, was fired for his personally held beliefs about sexuality and marriage.

That’s why Dr. Angela McCaskill, associate provost of diversity and inclusion at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. (and herself deaf), was suspended from her job for signing a petition at her local church which called for a public vote on same-sex “marriage” (rather than for a legislative decision).

That’s why Crystal Dixon was fired from her position as Associate Vice President of Human Resources at the University of Toledo for writing an editorial in her local newspaper, taking issue with the idea that gay is the new black.

And the list goes on and on, growing on a regular basis, as I and others have documented now for years. (Just check out the chapter “Big Brother Is Watching, and He Really Is Gay” in A Queer Thing Happened to America for some sobering examples.)

And I used these three examples here because in each case, gay sensitivities not only trumped religious rights, they also demonstrated that, when it comes to “gay rights,” even black Americans can be perceived as victimizers rather than victims (Cochran, McCaskill, and Dixon were all black).

As we have now learned with Dr. Walsh (did I mention he’s black as well?), not even the pulpits are safe.

But this too should not surprise us. After all, it was just last year that Annise Parker, the lesbian mayor of Houston, along with the city attorney, David Feldman, demanded that five local pastors turn over their sermons, speeches, presentations, and even emails to congregants which addressed the issues of homosexuality and gender identity, among other subjects.

It was only when Parker and Feldman came under intense national pressure that they backed down, with Parker still denying that “the request[s] were in any way illegal or intended to intrude on religious liberties.” (I document this in detail in the chapter “The Day the Line Was Crossed” in Outlasting the Gay Revolution.)

With all respect to the mayor’s position, her explanation was absolute rubbish, and there is no question that what she did intruded on religious liberties.

The Church Must Resist!

As I warned last week, if Hillary Clinton is elected, this will only get worse. Even if Donald Trump is elected, abuses like this will continue on a local level for years to come. There’s only thing that can stop it, and that is simply the Church of Jesus, led by its pastors and elders, standing up to speak what is right and do what is right, regardless of cost or consequence. If we do, the tide will turn.

Now, I’m quite aware that I sound like a broken record, having written on this theme three times in two weeks, including this article (see here and here).

But I will keep sounding the alarm until God’s people wake up — beginning with the leaders — and with yet another example staring us in the face, we sleep on to our own peril, not to mention our lasting shame.

In recent days, I’ve been reading a terrific book by Dean G. Stroud entitled, Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich. And while I am absolutely not comparing our current government to Nazi Germany and while I do not believe we will go the way Nazi Germany went, I can’t help but see the striking parallels between our two countries, beginning with these incremental attacks on religious freedom, back then and today.

And so, while I am not saying that America will one day look like Nazi Germany, I am saying that very soon, America will hardly be recognizable, the antithesis of the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

After all, who would have believed that in the last two years, government officials would be demanding that pastors and Christian teachers turn over their sermons, sermons notes, and private emails dealing with sexual morality and that, in the last 10 years, Christians would be fired from their jobs or kicked out of their schools because of their privately held, biblical beliefs?

And so, I will say it again. It’s time to wake up! (For more from the author of “Pastors, They’re Coming for You!” please click HERE)

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How Does the Church Reach Millennials? Hint: It’s Not Flashing Lights or Rock Band Worship

Don’t lie to a Millennial. They will smell it a mile away.

At least that’s what the latest research from Barna and the Cornerstone Knowledge Network shows in a detailed report called “Making Space for Millennials.” The study explored key characteristics of people from 18-30 years old and discussed how churches can make room for their ideas and influence.

Millennials are leaving the church in large numbers: 70 percent of those raised in the church leave by the time they are in their 20s; one-third of those under 30 in the United States claim to have “no religion.” As more and more Millennials leave the church, ministry leaders are asking “why?” and “what can we do about it?”

Here’s what Millennials really want in a church.

Millennials Can Handle the Truth

Millennials want authenticity — a genuine Christianity and a legitimate worship experience. Taylor Snodgrass of the Church & Its 20-somethings has pointed out that if churches are not authentic, Millennials will leave. “Our generation has been advertised at our whole life, and even now on social media. Consequently, when a company isn’t being authentic with their story we can easily see through this. If the church isn’t giving you the whole story, if it’s sugarcoated and they’re trying to put on an act on stage, people in their 20s will see through this. This causes us to leave. We’re good at seeing when people are lying to us.”

Millennials are “not disillusioned with tradition; they are frustrated with slick or shallow expressions of religion,” says David Kinnaman, president of the Barna Group and author of You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith. Millennials are tired of big box churches marketing entertainment to them rather than following Jesus. They want an authentic Christianity.

“Millennials are not looking for perfect people,” says Frank Powell. “Jesus already handled that. Millennials are looking for people to be real and honest about struggles and temptations.”

Part of being an authentic Christian and living authentically is digging deeper — becoming the mature Christian who eats meat rather than drinks milk as described in Hebrews 5:12-14. And Millennials want that. Snodgrass says that Millennials want to be challenged to think about real-world issues. “We don’t just want to have easy topics each week. We want to dive into difficult-to-understand topics and passages and explore how they apply.”

Kayla Rush and Kyle Smith, authors of “What Millennials Need from the Church,” say that few have bothered to ask Millennials why they’re leaving the church, but being intellectually bored is part of the problem. “In our youth groups we were taught — exhorted, in fact — to want to go deeper, and we’re not getting that from grown-up church,” they said, adding that while churches seem to have a fear of questioning, “questioning is at the heart of education: it leads us into deeper knowledge, not unbelief. We need intellectual engagement.”

Give Me the Real Jesus

Drew Dyck, in his blog article “Millennials Need a Bigger God, Not a Hipper Pastor,” addresses the concerns over why many Millennials are disinterested in church:

Millennials have a dim view of church. They are highly skeptical of religion. Yet they are still thirsty for transcendence. But when we portray God as a cosmic buddy, we lose them (they have enough friends). When we tell them that God will give them a better marriage and family, it’s white noise (they’re delaying marriage and kids or forgoing them altogether). When we tell them they’re special, we’re merely echoing what educators, coaches, and parents have told them their whole lives. But when we present a ravishing vision of a loving and holy God, it just might get their attention and capture their hearts as well (Emphasis added).

Millennials need to experience the life-changing love of God through other people — and be able to give it as well. According to Powell, Millennials are optimistic about the culture because this is the “model of Jesus.” “He loves all types of people, does ministry in the city, and engages the culture,” said Powell. “To reach people today, the church must be immersed in the community for the glory of God.”

Connecting With God in the Worship Space — Keep it Simple

For Millennials, the worship experience begins at the door. Millennials want to know where to go and what is expected of them right away. “Visual clarity is huge,” said Snodgrass. “We walked into a few churches that didn’t have good signage, and we just wandered around. We weren’t sure where to go — and Millennials don’t want to ask. We just want to go in and experience the space without having to ask someone, especially if it’s our first time at church … the biggest thing is to create a welcoming space that isn’t confusing.”

While the research indicated that Millennials tend to want more traditional services, they want a space where they can feel comfortable — like Door of Hope in Portland, Oregon, said Snodgrass. Housed in an old church building without signage and just a stairway up to the sanctuary, the worship area held “rag-tag bunch of chairs set up everywhere and a drum set that had never been used, and people walking around with coffee. There were no pews.”

Research suggests that Millennials prefer more utilitarian spaces with landscape features. Nature helps Millennials connect with God, they said, and they also want a place to rest, rather than a church full of activities. “Our culture is highly fragmented and frenetic, and there are few places to take a breather and gain much-needed perspective,” Kinnaman said. “Ironically, most churches offer what they think people want: more to do, more to see. Yet that’s exactly the opposite of what many young adults crave when it comes to sacred space.”

According to Aspen Group architect Derek DeGroot, church architects are still exploring what a church built for non-activity would look like. Although busy church activities are meant to bring people to God and others, DeGroot said that “church buildings still need to be a place where people can experience Jesus’ invitation: ‘Come unto me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’”

Some churches with younger parishioners have scrapped activities altogether. Pastor Tony Ranvestel at Clear River Church has a congregation largely composed of Millennials. “We call people to follow Jesus; that’s our primary activity,” Ranvestel said. “If you follow Jesus, this leads to serving and justice.” This method seems to be just what Millennials want: a simple, clear, authentic Christian message with no frills. Clear River Church is “unapologetically a place of worship, learning and experiencing community,” and Millennials there have found that it’s a different kind of place than they’ve found anywhere else.

One-on-One Relationships

Millennials crave relationships within the church. They do not want to be just a number. They don’t want to slip in after the music and out before the closing prayer. Millennials want a more individualized approach — and some churches are beginning to do just that. According to pastor and Christianity Today writer Karl Vaters, “By forcing us out of a group approach to church and into a more individualized way of seeing people, Millennials may be poised to bring about the biggest shift in the way churches do ministry since the Reformation.” The relational component of church, said Vaters, is more relevant than any program, method or musical style. The number one way to reach Millennials, he said, is through the church-as-relational-community model: love God and love others.

Ranvestel said Millennials are trying to figure out the purpose of their life. “We present this and try to show them the goodness of God, the goodness of being in community,” he said, “We’re heavy on person-to-person discipleship and believe this happens best in relationships,” adding that he talks to young people about how God’s principles apply to everyday situations.

The way to create a sense of community for Millennials is acknowledging them, greeting them, learning (and using) their names, and engaging them in conversations.

“[W]e’re raising a generation that’s rich in material goods, but poor in relationships,” said Vaters. “That’s the need we should be finding and fulfilling.”

Closing the Generation Gap: Guidance Through Mentorship

Unlike Generation X before them, Millennials want to make connections with and learn from older adults. Boomers (and Gen-Xers) used to say, “Don’t trust anyone over 30!” Vaters says that simply isn’t the case with Millennials. “[T]his generation is hungry for connection with the wisdom and friendship of previous generations.” Barna’s research indicated that young people who have an older mentor from their faith community are 59 percent more likely to stay in church than those who do not.

Founding partner of Cornerstone Knowledge Network Ed Bahler said that “Mentoring and discipling this next generation is everything,” especially if we wish to equip Millennials to lead the church in the coming years.

But it isn’t a one-way street. The church should be open to “reverse mentoring,” said Kinnaman. This means asking Millennials to share knowledge about how to “navigate life in this digital age,” and reciprocal sharing between generations. According to Bahler, “Ultimately,” the future of the church “rests on our ability to connect the generations.”

Millennial Role Play

Just as Millennials don’t want to take the back seat in church, they don’t want to take a back seat in participation, either. Vaters said the churches that are successfully reaching current generations are “doing ministry with active participants.” Millennials want to have a seat at the table and be involved in meaningful discussions. Shawn Williams, pastor at Community Christian Church-Yellow Box said Millennials want a role to play. “They don’t want to sit on the sidelines and observe. If they’re going to be part of a church, it must have value and meaning … If it doesn’t provide meaning and value to them, they won’t participate. They’ll go and find something that does have meaning and value.”

Millennials want to be taken seriously — and given real responsibility. Ed Cyzewski, in his article “‘How Do We Get Millennials to Attend Church?’ Why that is the wrong question,” said if church leaders don’t have Millennials’ input, they cannot know why they are leaving church. “We all have different suspicions about why millennials don’t find church relevant or don’t want to attend church. Some may say it’s because of Bible teaching or cultural compromise … Our suspicions and isolated observations mean very little in the grand scheme of things if young adults don’t have a respected place at the table as full members and leaders in training with voices that are valued and considered.”

Rush and Smith said that church leadership is dominated by their parents’ and grandparents’ generations — so they don’t have a voice in the church. “[Y]outh groups … give teenagers a voice. They speak their minds, they state their preferences, and they are heard. When we graduate and head out into the big bad world of grown-up church, this changes … we no longer have a pastor whose primary job is to listen to our needs and concerns as young people and respond. We have good ideas … but no one seems to care. … So we’re back to square one, having to work our way up through the ranks in hopes of maybe one day having our voices heard and being able to change the status quo … We need to be taken seriously.”

What Now?

It would seem that all of the effort put into large, elaborate, flashy and overdone churches has been all for naught. Millennials are the hippies of the Christian movement: they want simple and honest Christianity in a utilitarian but natural space where they can rest and connect with a very real and authentic God; they crave relationships and connections with older adults, drawing from their wisdom and insight; and they want a participatory experience where they have a seat at the table in shaping the church of the future — their church.

As Powell said, “Millennials want to go far and want their life to have meaning. In their minds this is not possible without deep, authentic, Christ-centered community.” Millennials can be encouraged to come back to church as ministry leaders seek to understand generational differences and what is meaningful to this demographic; not as a group of people, but as individuals; not as a person who warms a pew, but a person who warms a heart through a real relationship. (For more from the author of “How Does the Church Reach Millennials? Hint: It’s Not Flashing Lights or Rock Band Worship” please click HERE)

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This Election Proves the American Church Is in Even Worse Shape Than You Think

There’s been a lot of justifiable hand-wringing regarding the Christian vote in this election cycle. Unfortunately, the reality is even worse than the perception.

That’s because data suggests that what’s driving many believers to vote isn’t their beliefs as much as it is their racial/ethnic identity — just like the electorate at large. In other words, voters coming from the institution charged with preserving America’s vitally important moral foundation — the church — collectively aren’t approaching the ballot box any differently than the secularly-minded.

That’s bad news if you’re trying to conserve a society based on God-given (not government granted) rights, but more on that later. First, let’s permit the troubling data to speak for itself.

Let’s begin with Catholic voters, which are a crucial voting bloc for both Republicans and Democrats. Since Roe v. Wade, only once has either side won the presidency without winning the Catholic vote. And that was in 2000 when George W. Bush won the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote, so that’s obviously an outlier.

How critical is this bloc of voters? Consider Obama won Catholics by three points in 2012, which mirrored almost precisely his national popular vote advantage (3.8 points).

While polls have shown Democrats with a decided edge among Catholics ever since the race was narrowed to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, Trump doesn’t have a Catholic problem as much as he has a minority problem. Trump has narrowly led among white Catholics since last summer. However, that’s not enough to overcome Clinton’s astounding three-to-one lead among Hispanic Catholics.

The same pattern exists among evangelical protestants, but it’s even more striking.

LifeWay Research just published a fascinating survey drawing distinctions between voters who simply identify as evangelicals, and those who actually have evangelical beliefs. Overall, the survey found among whites who hold evangelical beliefs Trump overwhelmingly leads, 65-10. Meanwhile, Clinton holds almost the exact same lead among non-whites with evangelical beliefs, 62-15.

For the sake of its survey, LifeWay defined evangelical beliefs as the following:

Trusting in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.

Believe they have a responsibility to share their faith in Christ with others.

Believe the Bible is the final authority in their lives.

What’s unsettling is how those who claim they “believe the Bible is the final authority in their lives” could have such starkly different voting patterns. Especially because the Bible makes it clear the Christian is to set aside their worldly identity (race, ethnicity, gender, family legacy, nation of origin, etc.) in order to find his/her identity in Christ first and foremost.

Sadly, just the opposite appears to be happening with many voters.

Whites with evangelical beliefs are voting for a Republican whose lack of character and tendency to bully/demean flies in the face of what the Bible requires of our leaders. On the other hand, non-whites with evangelical beliefs are voting for a Democrat who is a staunch advocate for infanticide and sexual immorality, which are clearly condemned by the Scriptures. Not to mention Clinton’s willingness to have government violate the First Amendment to punish those who believe in Biblical morality.

Here’s why this trend spells certain doom for American Exceptionalism if it continues.

John Adams once said our Constitution establishing self-government was “meant only for a moral and religious people.” Many of his fellow founding fathers echoed similar sentiments. It’s no coincidence that as the culture has become more decadent the government has gotten bigger. The less moral restraint we have, the more government is needed to suffer the consequences of our actions.

Furthermore, those who fundamentally just believe in big government will seek to further incentivize immorality in order to justify their calls for more government. Thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Either way, morality and limited government are hand-in-hand. You cannot have one without the other.

This is why great spiritual awakenings came before liberty in our history, and then later revivals were required to secure that liberty for future generations once it was established. Spiritual revival leads to a morally-restrained people. A morally-restrained people require less government to restrain them.

But if we are now living in a time, as this data suggests, when even those who have inherited that spiritual legacy will instead see things as racially polarized and ethnically balkanized like the general population does, then the last line of defense to preserve our heritage has also been lost.

Many of us long for a day when it seems the majority of Americans once more believe in the right things regardless of our political differences. Those days will not return if believers, who are required to set their cultural biases aside to serve a greater cause, are unable to do so. For if someone is unable to set what divides us aside to serve God, they’ll never do it to serve their fellow man.

This puts us in existential danger. Without a moral and religious people, good luck preserving the notion of God-given rights that empowers individual freedom and limits government intrusion.

Is it any wonder we’re mired in a depressing presidential action between, as 19-year-old Janae Petijean told the Boston Globe, a man who “is everything wrong with America’s culture” and a woman who “is everything wrong with our government,” given everything wrong with the church? (For more from the author of “This Election Proves the American Church Is in Even Worse Shape Than You Think” please click HERE)

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A Great Awakening or a Rude Awakening: What Will It Be?

Isn’t it a shame that, at a time when America desperately needs to hear the prophetic voice of the church, what America hears instead is partisan politics in the name of Jesus?

Isn’t it a shame that, instead of the church leading the way and politicians following, it is politicians leading the way and Christian leaders following?

Of course, there are exceptions to what I’m saying — fine, godly, exceptions — but they are the distinct minority, since, the truth be told, we are guilty of putting our trust in political leaders more than in the power of the gospel.

For Too Long, We’ve Depended on Political ‘Saviors’

We still flock around presidential candidates as if they were savior figures, with some pastors proclaiming Hillary as “anointed” to lead and others proclaiming Trump as God’s man for the hour, as if these candidates had the power to bless or curse the nation, as if the church was beholden to them rather than them being beholden to the church.

Four years ago, in June, 2012, I wrote that the indifference of many conservative Christians towards Mitt Romney could be a positive if: “1) we don’t get caught up in the typical election year fever; 2) if we do vote for Romney, we do so remembering that he is not the answer; 3) we realize instead that the answer to America’s greatest problems is looking at us in the mirror if we align ourselves properly with God and with our neighbor.”

And I added, “Yes, Barack Hussein Obama has done great harm to our country, but he is not the primary cause of America’s current malaise, we are. And if we have messed things up, then by God’s grace, we can turn them around.”

Now, four years later, with even more stark choices than we had in 2012, will the church wake up and learn? Will we finally realize that we do not have a political savior? Will we finally realize that, as important as the office of the president is, the fate of the nation is dependent on the state of the church more than on the occupant of the White House?

Making the Church Our Priority

On the morning of Election Day, four years ago, I wrote (in the event that Romney was elected), “No more looking to the White House to transform America!”

How much more does this apply today?

“And,” I added on November 6, 2012, “what if Barack Obama is reelected? Then we would do well to avoid the trap of putting most of our energies into rebuking the president’s latest transgressions. Instead, we will have to focus our efforts like never before on fomenting a moral, cultural, and spiritual revolution. Come to think of it, that would be a sound course of action if Mitt Romney is our next president too …”

Unfortunately, many of us fell into the trap of spending much of the last four years bashing President Obama (who gave us many reasons to oppose his policies and words) and advocating for a conservative candidate to take his place, investing our energies and our passions and our finances in the heated political battle more than in the work of the gospel.

And while there is absolutely a place for our political involvement — I would even say that God has given us a stewardship to be involved politically here in America — our energies would have been much better spent in praying for revival, turning away from our own sin, reaching out to the lost, standing up for justice, and caring for the poor and needy.

Can we do all these things and get involved politically as well? Absolutely. But the question is one of priorities, of emphasis, of devotion, and it is all too easy for us to sell our souls to a political party or candidate, giving ourselves to their cause as if they were the hope of America.

Not so! There is only one hope for America, and He is not running for office.

All this being said, I actually see a silver lining in the 2016 presidential election.

What if Hillary? What if Trump?

If Hillary Clinton is elected, it could well be that our worst fears are realized and that she not only appoints disastrous judges to the courts but that she openly opposes our religious liberties, telling us that our pro-life, pro-marriage beliefs will have to change — or else.

If that’s the case, then I say bring the battle on. As distasteful as this prospect is and as painful as it could be for our kids and grandkids, it might just be the very thing that wakes up the still-sleeping church our nation.

Perhaps a Hillary victory will finally awaken us from our complacency and lethargy.

And if Donald Trump is elected, even if he appoints fine justices to the courts and stands up for our religious liberties, his flaws and shortcomings are so evident and he has been such a volatile and divisive candidate that it would be very hard to look to him as the savior of the nation.

A Trump presidency, therefore, would also be a call to prayer, a call for the church to rise up and make a difference, a call to make America great by making America dependent on the Lord.

The Church Has a Choice

The good news, then, is that having such unpopular candidates could be a blessing in disguise, forcing us to put our trust in God, not people.

The bad news is that if this election season doesn’t help us get our priorities right, almost nothing will — meaning, that we could be in for a very rude awakening.

So, what will it be, a great awakening or a rude awakening? The choice is ours to make. (For more from the author of “A Great Awakening or a Rude Awakening: What Will It Be?” please click HERE)

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Who’s Going to Save the Church?

“I’ve got a word this group really needs to hear this morning. Do you mind if I give today’s message instead of you?” It was 6:00 in the morning. Men were already scooping up their scrambled eggs and biscuits and gravy for our church’s regular Tuesday men’s breakfast.

I wasn’t scheduled to share with the group this time, but at the previous Sunday’s church business meeting, one of our members had made an impassioned call for us all to work together to “save the church.” I was just a layman, but I knew his plea needed an answer. So I approached the morning’s designated leader and made this very unusual last-minute request to speak.

A Church in Crisis

There was nothing idle in my friend’s call to “save the church.” In the short space of just three or four years:

Based on high hopes and a steep growth curve we built a new $4 million dollar sanctuary, but that growth leveled out right when we moved into the new addition and giving expectations went unmet. Result: we were becoming strapped for funds.

Our construction coordinator embezzled funds from the church.

Our greatly loved youth pastor had to admit to disqualifying issues in his life and resigned his position.

He and his family had remained in the church, but one morning not long after that, an undiagnosed lung problem caught up with him and he stopped breathing and died. He was about 35 years old.

Speaking for the whole church, his resignation and especially his death hurt like absolutely crazy. But we went on:

We hired an extremely dynamic new youth pastor.

Then our senior pastor decided (wisely, in my view) that he had led the church as far as he could take it, so he resigned.

The church split into ugly factions, first over his severance package, then over the interim leadership team taking his place. Church meetings were tension-filled nightmares.

The worst meeting by far was also the shortest: our pastor both opened and closed it with the announcement that our youth pastor was under investigation by the sheriff’s department, and had been ordered not to have any contact with minors. He ended up in federal prison.

For me and many others, that last blow hurt the worst of all. I can’t begin to describe it. I don’t even really want to try. It was that bad.

Save the Church? Not Us!

So the church was reeling, no doubt about it. We were losing members, and having trouble making the budget, and a church across the river had just closed its doors after declaring bankruptcy, and people were wondering if we were heading the same direction, and — “We’ve got to pull together to save this church!”

That was what I knew I had to speak to that Tuesday morning. Save the church? No! Emphatically no! Not us! Jesus Christ saved the Church! He died on the cross for His Church. He rose again in victory for His Church. He sent His Holy Spirit to establish His Church as His body.

The same Spirit is still with us with the same life and power. Jesus’ Church was thoroughly saved once, and it remains thoroughly saved.

Our job is to follow our Lord faithfully in the light of His fully finished, perfectly complete salvation. The men there that morning already knew that, I’m sure — but it needed saying anyway.

As time went on and as we trusted Christ together, we saw Christ’s power among us. The church made it through, and it’s thriving beautifully today. The factions let go of their enmity. The surrounding community noticed our endurance through that trial, and recognized it as testimony to the powerful work of Jesus Christ.

I can’t tell you how deeply I miss the richness of the love and fellowship there, since moving to another state four years ago. My wife and I would go back in a minute if God called us.

We Don’t Need To Save the Church

There’s a message here for the wider Church in America, and indeed the whole Western world. We’re under unprecedented stress, to the point that it feels like we’re seriously in danger.

Massachusetts just passed regulations empowering the state to decide what counts as a true religious gathering and what doesn’t. If a church holds a meeting — a spaghetti supper, for example — that doesn’t fit the state’s religion standards, then it must accede to the state’s version of what counts as sexual morality — even inside the church building. Who’s going to save Massachusetts’ churches from that encroachment on their liberty?

Individuals across the country are being coerced into denying conscience to fulfill state-designated moral standards. Businesses have been told they must spend their own money to fund abortion. Who’s going to save them from those infringements?

Without discounting in any what they have lost, still it is true, and I’m sure they know it: Jesus has already saved His people.

God Didn’t Put the First Amendment In the Bible

I’m a firm believer in the U.S. Constitution. I am deeply grateful for the First Amendment. I’ve got friends serving as attorneys with the Alliance Defending Freedom, and I give my unreserved support to efforts like theirs to defend religious liberty. We need to stand firm on the ground our Founders established for us. Our legal and public information battles are indeed important. I fervently hope and pray we win every one of them.

And yet I think we may be in danger of seeing our Constitutional conflicts as if we were fighting to save the Church. That’s wrong. Neither the Church nor any individuals following Christ are ultimately at risk, for God has a perfectly good eternal plan for us.

What’s really at risk is a certain familiar way of living as Christians and as the Church. It’s a good way, a way of freedom — and because it’s good, it’s well worth fighting for — but it’s not the only good way.

God didn’t put the First Amendment in Holy Scripture, and (have we forgotten?) the Church grew for seventeen centuries without it. Christians through the ages and around the world stand as witness to the way oppressed and persecuted churches can shine bright in the darkness. We could lose every legal battle, and the Church would still have the resurrection life of Christ.

The Battle Is the Lord’s

So whatever battles we may be fighting, we must remember the hope on which we stand. Speaking to persecuted Christians, the book of Hebrews (verse 10:23) says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.”

One way we know whether we’re holding on to hope is whether we can keep smiling no matter what the world may bring against the Church. Jesus told those who would be persecuted (Matthew 5:12), “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Meanwhile we must remember that the battle is the Lord’s. As Paul tells us:

For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ (2 Cor. 10:3-5).

Saving the Church isn’t our responsibility. Jesus Christ has already done it, once and for all time, even for times like ours. Let’s hold on that hope with confidence and with joy, whatever may come. (For more from the author of “Who’s Going to Save the Church?” please click HERE)

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Sturbuck Community Church

50% of Americans Are Skipping Church, but Not Because They Don’t Believe in God

Most Americans know that 50 percent of the population doesn’t go to church on Sunday. Most probably think that people who don’t go to church are staying away because they don’t believe in God.

But, a large majority of Americans — 89 percent — still believe in God, and a new Pew Research Center study released this week found that a significant portion of people who don’t go to church are actually staying away for practical or social reasons, while others admit they are simply too lazy to make the effort.

Pew found that among Americans who hardly ever go to church, one-in-five claim they are too busy, and one-in-ten claim they are “too lazy” and have “gotten out of the habit.” Another 17 percent claim social concerns as the reason to stay away from church, including that they used to go to church with a friend or family member but don’t anymore.

There is good news though: Pew found that among people who go to church at least semi-frequently, 27 percent are actually going more regularly than they used to. One-in-five of those people told Pew that they have become more religious, while “Others found themselves desiring God or religion in their life or realized religion was important as they got older or grew more mature.”

The common liberal narrative on shifts in American church attendance attributes the decline in worship on unbelief — in the eyes of liberals, a good move toward a secular, post-religious America. But these new Pew numbers show the liberal narrative is wrong. And what’s even more reassuring is that the belief in God and desire for religion in some Americans is getting even stronger. (For more from the author of “50% of Americans Are Skipping Church, but Not Because They Don’t Believe in God” please click HERE)

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Veteran Armed With Assault Rifle Walks Into Church – What the Pastor Does Next Is Incredible

A North Carolina pastor has described how a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder walked into a church with a high-powered assault rifle and asked the pastor if he could pray for him.

Pastor Larry Wright, who is a retired Army drill sergeant as well as a city councilor in Fayetteville, N.C., told the Fayetteville Observer that he was conducting a New Year’s Eve prayer service at Heal the Land Outreach Ministries when the unidentified man walked into the sanctuary with the gun in one hand and an ammunition clip in the other.

“I asked him ‘can I help you?'”, Wright told WRAL-TV. “[The gunman’s] next words were ‘can you pray for me?’ When he said that, then I knew everything was going to be all right.”

Wright took the man’s gun and patted him down to be certain there were no other weapons hidden on him. The man was invited to sit in the front pew, then approached Wright after the service.

“He gave his life to Christ,” Wright told the Observer. (Read more from “Veteran Armed With Assault Rifle Walks Into Church – What the Pastor Does Next Is Incredible” HERE)

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