by Josh Packard
In the past few weeks, everyone has been talking about the recent Pew study that reports a substantially higher number of “Nones” than ever before. The percentage of people claiming no religious affiliation has increased dramatically in the past few years alone.
The problem in fixating on that single number, though, is that it leads to some erroneous conclusions. It makes it sound as if the church has a problem. Of course, this might be a problem for the church, but this is not a church problem. This is a society problem. The trend of people opting out of organized religion is part of a larger movement away from social institutions more generally.
Over the last several decades, people have increasingly expressed distrust of politicians, business leaders, and doctors—as well as pastors. People are significantly less likely to express confidence in their government, schools, and civic groups—as well as their churches.
Understanding the decline in church membership as a part of a larger social trend isn’t meant to relieve the worries of people who care about church or to comfort them. Instead, I think knowing that it’s part of a larger social trend means that the church can stop figuring out who to blame or how to slightly change the message (hire a better praise band, get a new pastor, etc.), and focus on the real issue at hand.
People increasingly are disengaging from social institutions, so those institutions must find ways to engage them. The Field of Dreams (if you build it they will come) model appears to be passing. The new model will be based on going to where people are already doing the work and expanding our understanding of church and, in particular, what we pay pastors to do.
In the coming years, the job of the pastor will look markedly different for a substantial number of the congregations and churches in this country. The church in America is one with a long history of adaptation and innovation. There is no doubt in my mind that people who care passionately about the church in the broadest sense will create innovative, engaging, and empowering new institutions when the old ones cease to work.
My own field, higher education, is undergoing a similar challenge. We are constantly under pressure now to prove our worth and remake ourselves as people who teach both the liberal arts and tangible skills to an ever-increasing student body. That’s not bad news, if you ask me; rather, it’s a challenge for me to meet and an opportunity to get to do new and exciting things.
The relevant question, I think, is how to maintain core values while recognizing the need for a new mode and method of living out those values. What do you think? What are the innovative ways your church is trying to live out its mission?