This Dog Doesn’t Hunt Anymore

To everything there is a season, 
A time for every purpose under heaven (Ecclesiastes 3:1 NKJV).
New Wine In Old Wineskins
            Old Beau was a good old dog.  In his day he and his master Jake would never come back from hunting without game.  But things had changed, all old Beau wants to do is lie around on the porch.  Jake still takes him out in search of game, but it’s no fun any more.  It’s too much like work trying to get him to do anything.  Jake looks at Beau lying on the porch half-asleep and thinks; this dog just does not hunt anymore.
            Maybe sometimes we “do church” like Jake does hunting with Beau.  I am not suggesting that the church is an old dog, just the opposite.   Jesus said, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18 NKJV).  The church is indestructible. Every new creation in Christ is alive and vibrant and the church (its communal expression) should be also.  What I am submitting to you is that maybe we are trying to put new wine (life and vitality) in old wineskins (out of date and worn out methodology).
Bowling Alone
            Our scriptural reference says that there is a season for everything.  Seasons come and seasons go.  Steve Hewitt in his eBook The New Protestant Reformation mentions research by Harvard University professor Robert D. Putman.  Involvement in social organizations like the PTA, the Boy and Girl Scouts, etc. is down across the board from the 1960’s through the 90’s.  Putman is his book, Bowling Alone, documents an interesting trend in relation to this recreational activity.  Over time owners of bowling alleys noticed that people did not want to join bowling leagues like they once did.  They preferred to bowl alone or with a small group of friends or family.  The bowling alleys scaled back their leagues and instituted specialty nights where small groups could bowl together.  The result is that just as many people are bowling today compared with the heyday of the leagues and the bowling alleys have survived.
            The church is facing a changing social landscape where people are just not joiners.  Hewitt suggest some reasons.  First he mentions what he calls the “Personal Communication Age.”  People today due to technology and social media live with an information overload.  They have moved away from sources Hewitt calls  “information and connectivity” such as newspapers, network TV, etc..  They are looking for a personal source for their information.  The church seeks to inform and connect primarily via large group meetings, which can appear impersonal to many people.
            Also, people seem to want to be part of the process.  As Hewitt says, “one way communication doesn’t work the way it used to work.”  People want to comment, question and be part of the conversation.”  They want to obtain information through personal dialogue. Even social media is personal to them as they connect, follow, and like each other.  An example of this is the popularity of the medium with which I am communicating these ideas, the blog.  It is a simple idea that takes “one way” communication and allows people to comment and question and truly become active in the discussion. 
Signs Of The Times
            The Barna Research Group and many others have discovered some interesting statistics in relation to church attendance.  In 1992 there were about 22% of Americans attending on a regular basis (twice a month).  In 1999 it had dropped to 19% and by 2002 it had plummeted to 18%.  Some predict the figure may be close to 15% currently.  Surveys show that at least 50% of Americans considers themselves as Christians. Yet, less than 18% support or attend regularly the conventional church.  How can this be happening?  Are people ignoring Hebrews 10:25, …not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together…?  On the surface the answer may appear to be yes, but one Barna study questions this conclusion.  The study indicates that 25% of those who call themselves Christians are not affiliated with a church, yet study the Bible on a regular basis.  Barna has been watching the house church movement and in a 2006 study he stated;
            The new study, based on interviews with more than 5000 randomly selected
            adults across the nation, found that 9% of the adults attended a house church
            during a typical week.  That is remarkable growth in the last decade, shooting
            up from 1% to near double digit involvement.  In total, one of five adults
            attends a house church at least once a month.
            From the above mentioned research and many others we can make some conclusions.
The preferences of the American people are changing.  People are more likely to join a group that is smaller in size.  They want to get their information on a more personal basis.  They seek to be able to interact with the source of the information and not just receive “one way”
communication.  To affect the personal nature of their interactions, small seems to be better. There is a growing group of un-churched people who are interested in spiritual things who don’t or won’t join the conventional church.  According to the statistics of the church’s overall attendance decline, the people are voting with their feet.  Are there many and varied exceptions? Yes, but the trend is pretty clear.  Someone once said, “wisdom is just having a keen sense of the obvious.”
The Priesthood Of All Believers
            How has the church addressed these societal adjustments?  In many ways we have found ourselves a day late and a dollar short.  We have been slow to recognize and adapt to the signs of the times.  There are reasons for our resistance to change.  The church has to be conservative as we are called to maintain the unchanging message of the Gospel.  Many have done this and paid for it with their lives.  But our greatest strength can become our greatest weakness.  We include with the Word of God media and ministry structures by which we deliver the message thinking they are divinely inspired. They may be things that may have worked in their “season” but not now.  Do we need to rethink things like church membership, where and how we do church?  We must think outside the box to get people to interface with God’s people.  But once they are with the church we must give them the same message the Apostle Paul preached.  The message must never be modified but the medium must always be evolving.  Unlike the operators of the bowling alleys the church has been slow to embrace change and to adapt and present the Gospel in a cultural context that is viable to our clientele. 
            I hesitated in writing this blog.  I feared it might come across as being critical of the church that I love.  I was apprehensive that I might just pit the conventional church against the house church movement.  There are numerous vibrant and healthy traditional churches in this land.  Who am I to be critical of what God is doing through these groups of believers?  But for every healthy and growing church there are hundreds, maybe thousands of marginally successful ones.  These churches are pastored by people working their hearts out and wondering; what am I doing wrong?  Maybe they are doing nothing wrong.  Just trying to do church in a way that will not work for them.  Should we all seek vertical church growth as opposed to horizontal?  By vertical I mean where we build bigger and bigger church buildings to accommodate larger and larger audiences.  Or should we be thinking horizontally where you plant cell groups of believers, who when they grow past 12 or 15, subdivide and plant themselves in another neighborhood in your city.  At this point you might say, we already have home groups.  Yes, but do you give your groups the amount of freedom and autonomy which people today are seeking; the latitude to view themselves as churches within a church.  In the business world it is well known that people take care of their own business better than someone else’s. When we empower people and give them ownership they generally respond well.  But, isn’t this risky, you might ask?  Of course it is; but no risk, no gain.  What if by chance a church loses a group?  Then they have spun off a group of believers who are people discipling people where they live.   Not a bad model to affect the priesthood of all believers. Maybe churches, instead of fearing losing people, ought to think about how many (as Hewitt calls them) micro-churches they can spin off.
            It is not my purpose to highlight the benefits of small groups or the house church over the conventional church.  They both have strengths and weaknesses.  God is big enough to grow His church in either type of setting.  Maybe we should take a hint from the first century church, And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus asthe Christ (Acts 5:42 NKJV).  It may not be “either or”, but “and also”.  The conventional church and the cell group, be it a house church or a group that meets in an office, can sit around and be critical of each other, but what eternal purpose does that serve?  If we love, serve, and recognize our need for each other, we may awaken a sleeping giant.  As Bob Dylan once sung, The Times They Are a-Changin.  If we are open to God’s changing seasons, who knows, we may see old Beau hunting again.

Learn more about “micro” churches.

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