A vast swing in culture. Rapid advancements in technology. Never-ending scandals. Ministers and parishioners are scrambling to find what “church” should look like in the 21st century.
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The term “mission trip” typically evokes Christians going to far-flung places around the globe. These journeys often involve building a school in Haiti, working in a medical clinic in Peru, or a choir tour through Ghana. Yet there is a new destination for such evangelizers: America’s college campuses.
Young Catholics are now reaching out to students at their universities who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” or “nones”—those who do not identify with any religion.
“Nones” are growing rapidly in the nation. Pew Research found that over 20 percent of adults and a third of Millennials (those born 1981-1996) in the nation are unaffiliated with any religion.
The goal for these young Catholics is to make the religion more attractive to their peers. An article in The Conversation described these college-age proselytizers: “The missionaries are much like any other middle-class young adult in the U.S.: They live on their iPhones, drink craft beer, buy pumpkin spice lattes and love March Madness. Some even have tattoos, often with quotes from saints.”
Declines in religious participation on college campuses speaks to a much larger issue. Church growth is either negative or stagnant across the nation. Facts & Trends magazine reported that “between 6,000 and 10,000 churches in the U.S. are dying each year. That means around 100-200 churches will close this week.”
The number of people completely “unchurched” has doubled in the last 15 years, the latest General Social Survey found. The number jumped from 15 percent to 30 percent in that time. That is 3 in 10 people who attended no religious services in the last year.
The survey found that 59 percent of Americans attend religious services just several times a year or less.
This is the Christian landscape in the United States. The future is bleak: Atheism among Generation Z, which comes after Millennials, is double the general population—13 percent versus 6 percent of adults—the Barna Group found.
The researchers labeled Gen Z as “the first truly ‘post Christian’ generation.”
For decades, the U.S. has been drifting away from its Judeo-Christian identity. On top of declines in church attendance and religious affiliation, citizens report they pray less, are less inclined to believe in God, and are less likely to read the Bible than ever before.
Religious leaders are scrambling to stop the bleeding. Like the missionaries on American college campuses, many pastors and ministers are looking for something new. Shifts in society are pushing them to change their tactics, image and outlook.
Yet the flipside of this coin is that parishioners are leaving. Traditional church outlets are not speaking to them as they once did. Leaders and lay members alike are trying to figure out what “church” should look like in the 21st century.
While the problem is multifaceted, one of the greatest reasons America is becoming unchurched is the internet. A Huffpost article explained it this way: “Though it’s not solely responsible, the Internet—along with the way it changes the way we interrelate, communicate, seek and consume information—is certainly doing its part to contribute to the decline. And it’s not just Church that is feeling the pinch; any hierarchic system in which the institution traditionally has played the role of guard, gatekeeper or mediator is finding their authority challenged.
“As for why now, the answer is more complex than any single factor. On the one hand, changing domestic, social and economic systems have caused us to spread out and move around far more than before. The churches, as a result, are no longer social hubs of neighborhoods any more. And along with being social hubs, churches also served as economic engines, as businesspeople networked after worship or over a potluck meal. Now we just use LinkedIn.”
In addition, the article stated, the social stigma attached to not attending church has almost totally disappeared. As fewer people attend religious services weekly, even fewer people will attend weekly because it is seen as OK.
Scandals are another reason for empty pews. Think of all the child abuse cases against Catholic priests. The denomination is not alone. The Houston Chronicle released a three-part series detailing 700 incidences of abuse over two decades in the Southern Baptist church.
Those who grew up attending Catholic, protestant or non-denominational churches often stop attending in adulthood after seeing hypocrisy, cronyism, political wrangling, and constant infighting.
According to Gallup, public trust in pastors is at an all-time low. Just 37 percent of Americans polled say clergy have high or very high honesty and ethical standards. The number was 67 percent in 1985.
Put simply: organized religion has left a bad taste in many mouths.
In an attempt to reverse the exodus away from churches, religious leaders are ready to try just about anything. There are church services held Sunday mornings at local bars (with no alcohol of course). The thought is to have a spiritual connection away from traditional worship buildings that may hold negative connotations for some.
Other options are making church more fun and adding service times to cater to the desires of congregants. There is also streaming services online. While this is a 21st century solution, it means physical attendance may remain low.
Historically, change is the name of the game when churches hit hard times. Think of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The results were modernizing Catholicism with moves such as allowing Mass to be delivered in local languages versus Latin and opening up dialogue with other religions.
Yet modernizing is not a surefire solution. Instead of thinking of new, outside-the-box solutions, many look to the Bible for guidance. They examine the first-century Church to inform how their 21st-century churches should look.
Later in the chapter it expands on this statement…
Steadfast members! All things common! Daily fellowship! Favor within the community! Daily Church growth!
These are qualities that every religious leader longs for. What happened? The early Church was able to have “all things common,” yet today it is not uncommon for individual congregations to split in disagreement—never mind the differing beliefs among the myriad denominations of Christendom.
History records that professing Christianity rapidly morphed away from its New Testament look. The starts of this are seen in the Bible book of III John. The elderly apostle was being opposed by Diotrephes, who “loved to have preeminence” (vs. 9).
Yet not too much later an utterly different form of Christianity appeared. The Lutheran historian Mosheim described an apostasy in the early Church: “Christian churches had scarcely been organized when men rose up, who, not being contented with the simplicity and purity of that religion which the Apostles taught, attempted innovations, and fashioned religion according to their own liking” (Ecclesiastical History).
After the original apostles died, the Church entered into what has been called the “Lost Century.”
Methodist historian Jesse Lyman Hurlbut called that period the “Age of Shadows.” He wrote that “of all periods in the history, it is the one about which we know the least…For fifty years after St. Paul’s life a curtain hangs over the church, through which we strive vainly to look; and when at last it rises, about 120 A.D. with the writings of the earliest church fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul” (The Story of the Christian Church).
Again, what happened?
The answer many would say is that human nature happened. Congregations are made up of people who can dispute and disagree. Differing personalities will lead to differing organizations, the thinking goes. Yet this is disheartening. We all want what Christians had in Acts 2.
Ask: Why did this model work for the original apostles and then seem to fail forever after?
The answer is that the New Testament has a lot more to say than just the second chapter in the book of Acts. In fact, God’s Word illustrates exactly what the Church should look like—then and now.
Start with the words of Jesus Christ. He plainly stated: “I will build My church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).
Do not overcomplicate this. Jesus said He would build a Church. He said it would never be destroyed.
Notice that this is a singular Church, one. Think about what the Son of God meant here. Is this one, single organization? Or a loose collective of all churches in Christendom?
John 17:11 shows Christ’s hope for His Church. He prayed: “And now I am no more in the world, but these [Christians] are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your own name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one, as We are.”
The Father and Jesus Christ are completely unified in everything they do. John 10:30 confirms this by stating simply: “I and My Father are one.”
Again, is this many organizations? Is there room for disagreement? The apostle Paul answered this in I Corinthians. There was disunity that cropped up in the congregation. A longer passage shows the stark emphasis on being completely on the same page (emphasis added).
Starting in chapter 12: “For as the body is one, and has many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many” (vs. 12-15).
Paul is keeping this simple and using repetition to make his point. He stated Jesus Christ has one body. Read the gospels—He has one body!
Continue reading: “And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now has God set the members every one of them in the body, as it has pleased Him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body” (vs. 16-20).
Earlier, Paul asked a question in chapter 1, verse 13: “Is Christ divided?” The obvious answer is NO!
If there is a question that this is some sort of amorphous spiritual church body, the apostle adds more detail in Ephesians 4: “Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as you are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (vs. 3-6).
Verse 16 makes the point clear: “From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplies, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, makes increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.”
A physical body must be connected and whole to stay alive. God’s Word plainly states the same about Christ’s spiritual Body.
Time to ask some hard questions. Did Christ merely hope the Church He built would stay unified? Was His prayer to the Father ineffectual? Is His Body today a series dismembered limbs and organs strewn the world over?
How can we reconcile modern Christendom with what God’s Word so clearly declares?
The decline in U.S. churches should necessitate deep soul-searching on the part of religious leaders. They are in charge of those organizations and should ask: “What are we doing wrong?” But, for those who have never found a modern organization that matches what they see in the Bible, this can be a time to follow the breadcrumbs leading to a true Church home that matches what is seen in God’s Word.
Start with the word “Church.” The New Testament was originally written in Greek. The English word “Church” is translated from the Greek word ekklesia, which means “called out ones.”
Specifically, Strong’s Dictionary states this term can mean “a calling out”—“especially a religious congregation.”
The Church is the household of God (Eph. 2:19). It is a spiritual family made up of brothers and sisters. It is a building growing and taking shape to be a holy temple completed when Christ returns to rule all nations.
These “called out ones” are unified in doctrines and beliefs. They are also unified with Christ as the Head by only teaching what He taught in His Word—never doctrines born from the ideas of men.
Christ is clear in Matthew 15:9 where He condemned manmade belief systems: “But in vain they do worship Me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men.”
Put this all together. The Church Jesus built is unified with one purpose and drive. It teaches only what the Bible does.
Another clear earmark of this singular organization: Throughout the New Testament, there is one name for this Church. Twelve verses use a form of the name “Church of God.”
Here are a few:
Search out these verses in your Bible. Over and over again, the Church is called the “Church of God”—and sometimes the “Church of God at…” to represent a specific congregation or the “Churches of God” to represent a few congregations.
“Church of God” is the clear pattern as the name for Christ’s Body. Today this organization must add a little more to the name to distinguish itself corporately. An example from the 20th century is the Worldwide Church of God, which was the predecessor to the publisher of this magazine, The Restored Church of God.
This organization is the Church Jesus said He would build!
Yet do not take our word for it. God tells everyone who follows Him: “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (I Thes. 5:21). Go to rcg.org and read what we teach—pull out your Bible and prove it for yourself. Keep an open mind. If it differs from what you have previously learned, see if it matches what God says in His Word.
God’s Church has dedicated, converted, fully trained and ordained ministers throughout the globe. They are ready to answer any questions you may have. However, you must request it! (You can do so on our website.)
Jesus said, “Go not from house to house” (Luke 10:7). None of the early apostles ever approached anyone unless the person expressed interest and initiated the contact. The same is true today.
Use your Bible. Look deeply into these things—and prove for yourself what God’s Church looks like today!