A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To Church

At one time in my life, I was the original church rat. My mom was a church secretary and I can remember spending my youngest of years hanging out the church gym because my mom was at the church all day. I would play hoops, hang out, or help set up for the evening potluck. I think I put up more folding chairs and ate more deviled eggs before I was 10 than most people do in a lifetime. That was 1976 ‐ and I was 10 years old. In small town Illinois, the church was my hub of social and family life.

Fast forward to today. It’s 2013, I am 46, and I live in Portland, Oregon. Some researchers suggest that my area (Multnomah County, Portland, Oregon) is the least churched county in the least churched city in the least churched state in America. Large Christian churches are declining in numbers, Christian denominations are declining in both loyalty and numbers, and “church” is starting to look a lot different today than it did just 32 years ago. However, these trends are not unique to Portland. There is a growing body of research that would indicate the church is in decline. And, my travel experiences serving over 90 clients in 33 states nationwide would anecdotally confirm that we are in a brave new world when it comes to the North American Christian church.

A funny thing happened on the way to church between the 1970’s and 2013. What is it? We take a look at the changing church as our fourth in a series of Ten Trends that are impacting the landscape of education and non‐profits.

Does This Even Matter?
You might ask if studying the church is even a relevant endeavor. I think it is. Why? The church, school, and government are the three oldest and most mature industries in America. They share a lot of both of the same trends, issues, and even make some of the same mistakes. Moreover, many of our clients work within colleges or schools that possess some sort of church connection. Trends that are impacting the church are not unique to the church ‐ they are incredibly relevant to the independent school and college sector. In other words, we can learn much from the church and its current challenges ‐ schools and colleges are not immune from these challenges, as well.

What Happened?
Good question ‐ and it needs good answers. The good news is that there is a growing body of literature and research that has been produced during the past five years that is pointing to a major trend of church change. And, I don’t mean that churches are changing (that might be a nice idea) but that the whole environment has changed around them.

The list is long, but here are a few of the essential reads on this topic: Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller, They Like Jesus But Not the Church by Dan Kimball, Revolution by George Barna, and Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell. Each of these books take the effort to document how the world around the church has shifted dramatically and how others see them.

Perhaps the best example ‐ and best summary of all of the above resources ‐ is a great new movie called, somewhat appropriately, “Lord, Save Us from Your Followers”. Produced in 2008, take a look at this trailer and you’ll get the picture.


So, what are the major themes ‐ the big takeaways ‐ from all of these books, videos, and movies? I will take my best shot at outlining the five most important issues facing the North American Christian church today. Now, if you are a church lover, please have a thick skin. This is not a criticism of Jesus ‐ this is a criticism of this crazy Christian bubble that we have created in North America. And, it is not so much just my criticism ‐ but the perceptions of the average American on the street.

Perception: Churches Are Not Culturally Relevant
One the biggest criticisms that most people share with me ‐ and that they have shared in the works outlined above ‐ is that churches today simply are not particularly relevant to the changing culture around them. They have not kept pace with changing trends in America and have certainly not organized around them. At one time in American history, churches had the reputation of being heavily connected and in step with the issues and social fabric of mainstream America. Today, what we are hearing, is that churches really struggle with maintaining relevance to the changing demographics, population, and social issues that are important to Americans. In a world that is moving at an exponential speed, change happens fast ‐ the church has to keep up.

Perception: Churches Divide People Rather Than Love Them
I saw a fascinating bumper sticker sitting in carpool the other day waiting for my daughter to come out of school. It read:

“I am for the separation of church and hate.”

Now, that is hard‐hitting. Is it quite possible that the church itself has fallen into a behavior that divides people through judgment and lack of social discourse? There is certainly that sentiment among many people interviewed in the books cited above. And, as evidenced by the title and the entire thesis of Dan Kimball’s book, the average American is intrigued ‐ if nothing else ‐ by the work of Jesus. They just can’t reconcile the division and judgment that is coming out of churches as the work of Jesus.

Perception: Churches Are Not Involved in Major Social Issues
Now, this perception is not completely true, but there does exist a growing concern that the North American church has recently found itself quite behind and often less involved in major social issues, whether it be poverty, disease, or homelessness. The worldwide AIDS pandemic is an example. It has had a following for 15 years ‐ the North American church has just recently started to mobilize resources to assist. For years, some churches had a tough time addressing it, assuming that it was the wholesale result of homosexuality or promiscuous living. The reality is that the church has done great things for many years in the name of social issues. The challenge here is that there the perception is often reality.

Perception: Churches Are Only Focused on Themselves ‐ Not the Rest of the World
Which type of organization would you rather serve? One that is interested in preserving it’s very important mission, or one that is merely focused on preserving the organization itself? The difference is very important. There seems to be a growing perception ‐ which has some truth behind it ‐ that churches are more interested in preserving their organization rather than the mission for which they were set into existence. This perception serves to reinforce another common attitude of a lack of disconnect and cultural relevance on the part of the church. Again, perception is reality. 

Perception: Church Happens Outside of the Traditional Church
Finally, the major trend others and I am noticing is the general sentiment all over the nation that one does not need to go to a church in order to find God. The big trend is that “church” is happening all over the nation in very non‐traditional settings:  Starbucks, living rooms, bars, and city parks. And, what we are also hearing and noticing among the church is that many people often feel closer to and better connected to God when in more relational and authentic settings, rather than in contrived and forced cultural settings such as a church sanctuary.

My personal favorite example of this is the amazing work of U2 and Bono. Collectively, this superstar and band have been using scripture in their lyrics for over 25 years and their current concerts push the limits of praise. Here’s the catch ‐ they are not just culturally relevant and sharing a big message, but they are pushing people to action on issues of social justice.

Take a look at the following YouTube video that is a concert excerpt followed by Bono’s appearance at the 2006 Washington DC Prayer Breakfast.


Something funny happened on the way to church during the past 30 years. The world and culture changed. The question is: will the church respond?