by Joani Schultz
I admit it. I’m a softie.
My heart melts when I hear stories about how God changes someone’s life. When friends tell me stories of Jesus’ love in action, I get misty-eyed. I can’t help it—(ask anyone who knows me)—I’m driven by authentic, heartfelt accounts of God’s love in real life. (That said, I welcome hearing stories from you, too; so send them my way to add to my thick file of God stories.)
Although I may be compelled by my emotions, I also pay attention to facts. And sadly, there are some facts that bring tears to my eyes. There’s an undeniable truth: The American church “as we know it” is on a steady decline—an accelerating decline.
Consider these statistics:
—Church attendance is shrinking. While 40 percent of Americans say they attend church every week, the actual number is less than 20 percent.
—Every year, more than 4,000 churches close their doors, compared to around 1,000 new (and mostly very small) churches that start.
—Half of all churches in the U.S. did not add any new members to their ranks in the last 2 years.
The rate of change is so rapid, that when Thom and I led our Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore workshops last fall, statistics changed. We shared about the Nones, those who say they have no religious affiliation. Their numbers had grown to 19 percent. By this spring, that number had risen to 22 percent. And in our state of Colorado, it had risen to 28 percent. That stunned me.
And to add to my amazement, we’ve uncovered another group of people leaving the church. We call them the Dones. This group consists of many churches’ best and brightest, who say they’re just done with the organized church—but, interestingly, not done with Jesus. Some estimate this group nears 60 million. A new Group book, Church Refugees, by Sociologist Josh Packard, explores this cultural phenomenon.
There’s no doubt the American church as we know it is shrinking. And it’s happening faster than we realize. Seismic cultural shifts are rocking the church world like devastating earthquakes. In fact, Millennials, who are now in their 20s and 30s, are attending church far less than older generations. And they have no plans on returning.
My heart breaks over these statistics because they represent lives—the lives of people Jesus loves.
I believe God is trying to tell us something. If only we’d listen.
We MUST change the church as we know it to become the church Jesus wants us to be. That means WE are the church, we must BE the church. And I see great hope! Here’s why:
—We can create environments where authentic relationships thrive—and God works. I know. I see it every week at Lifetree Cafe (www.lifetreecafe.com). I sit at a table of four, for an hour of God-conversation guided by a friendly facilitator. Last week I sat with a spiritually searching young woman. In a safe, comfortable environment, I was able to let her know she was completely, unconditionally loved by Jesus. “He really loves me? You think he really does?” she asked. “Yes, Jesus loves you so much he was willing to die for you. He loves you that much,” I could tell her face-to-face, heart-to-heart. In that conversational environment, I know Jesus was at work, transforming her. That gives me hope.
—God is using unconventional, fresh ways for people to experience him. It happens when we free people to be Jesus to each other. Our documentary When God Left the Building (whengodleftthebuilding.com) gave me a glimpse of brave people breaking free from the shackles of the church as we know it to reach out. They’re serving moms on Skid Row, creating faith conversations in a pub, providing free furniture, clothing, and medical care to those in need. It’s thrilling to see the creative ways they’re letting Jesus’ light shine. That gives me hope.
So, yes; there are statistics that break my heart. But God is up to something new. And that brings me tears of joy!