Thursday, December 21, 2006

Giving Yourself A Christmas Gift?

Here are some recommendations and reprises from earlier posts. But first, four recent buys of mine to recommend, and of which I will have more to say soon I am sure. [And don't forget Christian Voices in Unitarian Universalism, Skinner House, 2006, edited by Kathleen Rolenz. Go to

1. The new book to begin it all. Ed Stetzer's Planting Missional Churches: Planting a Church that's biblically sound and reaching people in culture (2006). This is the new place I would start for any church planting conversation and effort, replacing Aubrey Malphurs or Ralph Moore's. It is comprehensive, and so there is a lot left unsaid about each of the models, but he includes good places to go to get more depth on whether it is house church network or rapid large start or others. I liked this one much better than his previous one on planting churches in a postmodern age, which was too laden with theological/culturalese. It probably goes without saying I think he is wrong on what constitutes biblically soundness, but don't let that stop you. And don't pass this one up even if you aren't involved or interested in church plant; the principles are good for looking at what you will need to do and be within existing churches to keep up with all the new being planted around you anyway. So it applies to new ministries within existing churches.

A few nuggets:

Today's church planter should be 1. missional. 2. incarnational. 3. theological. 4. ecclesiological. 5. spiritual.

objections that hold people back from church planting:
1. large church mentality. The newer the church, not the bigger the church, the more effective it is at reaching unchurched, dechurched.
2. parish-church mind-set. have to get beyond geographical limitations and turf politeness. [Alert to my UU readers, though I know this is a mainline issue as well in some places].
In 1900, 28 churches for every 10,000 Americans. In 1950, 17 churches for same number. In 2000, dropped to 12 churches per, and in 2004, dropped again to 11 church per 10,000 Americans.
3. professional-church syndrome. Have to break out of church equals seminary trained pastor model, particularly as churches begin to multiple themselves.
4. rescue-the-dying syndrome. have to break out of addiction of rescuing the dying churches within movements before starting new ones. Look at how resources are allocated on national level.
5. already-reached myth. Or I would call it the "they will find us if they need us" mentality. Goes along with buying into the secular myth that faith communities aren't needed for the wholeness/salvation of the soul, can do it alone.

Check back for much more out of and about this new resource.

2. Future Church: ministry in a post-seeker age by Jim Wilson with foreword by Sally Morgenthaler (2004). It has a kind of Len Sweet feel to it but with a more conservative theological orientation, maybe Barna-light. Very story-oriented, which is good. Seven main connections based on a set of assumptions and questions for the church trying to meet the future now (also a good connection with Reggie McNeal's book The Present Future, also based on a question and response format, though there are more stories in this one by Wilson). Definitely good for those looking at how to keep connected to existing churches and move them through transformation to revolution. Here are the seven levers (ways you can look at your ministry setting):

Get Creative: CW says that people don't want to be "preached to" and told how to live. They prefeer to set their own rules for living and rely on the entertainment industry--cinemas, sporting events, and theaters--for their inspiration. What is the church's response?
Get Spiritual: CW says that one religion is as good as another. Christians are often viewed as mean-spirited, narrow-minded bigots. Gurus, mystics, and psychics are as legitimate as priests, rabbis, and minister's in today's supercharged environment. What is the church's response?
Get Radical: CW says that emerging generations lack real purpose and are drifting through life. They've become cynical, not really believing that anything can make society--or their souls--whole again. What is the church's response?
Get Real: CW says that current culture will not tolerate duplicity and will immediately dismiss anyone who says one thing and does another. They are suspicious of anything is slick, orchestrated, or too good to be true. What is the church's response?
Get Truthful: CW says that people no longer believe in absolute truth and are suspicious of experts, institutions, and anyone who makes exclusive claims. What is the church's response?
Get Multi: CW says that culture celebrates diversity and loathes intolerance. Emerging generations don't want to be pigeonholed or lumped into a group. What is the church's response?
Get Connected: CW says that people are isolated from one another and are destined to drift from one failed relationship to another. What is the church's response?

There's a "sermon series" or conversational topics for you. Need more progressives responding from our biblical basis to these same touchstones.

3. Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a religious revolutionary, by Marcus Borg (2006). Get inspired by the Jesus Borg rightly points to, and then put Stetzer, Wilson, et al into practice. Here is a good updating, retelling of the progressive Christian encounter with Jesus and the Risen Christ as the spirit of Jesus in our lives and world today. Combines the best of his previous works (and you can see that he is incorporated the responses to the opposition of that work) into one "unifying vision for a critical time" as the blurb puts it. If you are already familiar with Borg's works, then it is still worthwhile for the epilogue on Jesus and American Christianity today. In it he connects his work with the emergent and emerging Christianity, and is in favor of the transformation of the church. Maybe it is beyond his purview or passion, but as he does a good job of extolling the importance of churches ("God can do without churches. But we can't.") I wish there was some nod not only to the theological transformation of the existing mainline churches but to the need for new progressive church plants to be better able to create in their initial DNA this kind vision of Jesus.

4. The Churching of America: 1776-2005, by Rodney Stark and Roger Finke (2006). I am a big Stark fan. If you want to read a thesis on why the congregationalists/Unitarians are so small compared to even others in the mainline, not to mention the 20th century evangelicals, and why the mainlines are succombing to this as well and the evangelicals might be on the verge of it, and the rise of Mormonism, et al as other new "upstarts" then this is the book. Develops his/their thesis of religious economy that he used on new religious movements. Great diagnosis of the reasons mergers and unifications and ecumenical enterprises in general (UU alert) don't live up to the expectations of their dreamers and founders. His thesis is that we have gotten more religious and spiritual involvement from colonial days, but our blinders and perferences for establishment churches of that era have kept us from being able to see this. [Barna might point out that church affiliation is a loose notion and doesn't equate with conviction and committment, and why we are still in an unchurched, dechurched era, but that is part of the fluid notion that might send evangelicals the same way as other dominant groups in the past; still a good conversation I would like to listen to is one between Stark and Barna; does anyone know if it has existed?]....The "less regulated" the religious economy of the culture is, the easier for new starts to take the field. [I wonder if you could apply this also to the "regulation" of a local church group, and one of the reasons why mainlines decline has been their committment to regulation and control, ala Easum and Bandy's work]....Interesting commentary here on the "audience economy" of the New Age movements, and why they don't think it signals a significant growth in the American religious landscape [wonder how it might also apply to churches and the post-denominational "dabbling" though?]. And finally they disagree that there has been a seismic shift from mainline decline to evangelical eruption; rather they see it as something happening gradually over a couple of hundred years, and media attention seemed to propel it in people's perception. The market share of the churches had been dwindling all along. And, just because once large groups are now small, doesn't necessarily mean they will be able to rise in market share again. They repeat their arguement from previous books that more than anything else it is putting a high cost on membership and applying strict boundaries is what propels a church. But that alone doesn't work either. Many will become so strict in such a way as to fail. As he wrote in One True God, they also include the role of theological belief in an active, exclusionary God in offering the rewards that drive allegiance. Opening up a place for experimental, innovative new churches is also key, and here mainlines have failed in the past. The path is to increase tension with the outside culture. [on this point more to come from me post-holiday crush].

And don't forget "The Shaping of Things To Come" by Frost and Hirsch, "Emerging Churches" by Gibbs and Bolger, "Organic Church" by Neil Cole and "Revolution" by George Barna. All of which have their own posts elsewhere in the blog. Blessings.

2006 American Religion in Review: Four Areas from Barna

Here is one synopsis of a religious surveyor and analyst's review of the year 2006 in American religion. By George Barna

First, Barna identified some of the most prolific news stories of the year that involved religion:
1. the role of evangelicals in the mid-term elections,
2. Hollywood’s pursuit of the Christian audience,
3. scandals concerning priests and ministers,
4. the shooting of five Amish school children and their community’s response,
5. the internal politics of the Episcopal Church,
6. the controversy involving Muslims and the Pope.

Offhand, I pretty much agree with the list. But I would rate them in this order, not of newsworthiness by the way, but of lasting significance:

1. Hollywood--media always shapes meaning and leads to organizational embodiment
2. Episcopals--emblematic of widening rift in what it means to be Christian, new kind of Reformation
3. Evangelical shift--politics and religion will get murkier, not less so; the polarization into the Christian Right and the Secular Progressives, as so many wish to keep alive, will be history as the Center holds. Might throw in here news items surrounding Stem-Cell, also the spiritual dimensions of Immigration Debate, the emergence of Hilary and Obama and McCain as emblematic of Center on these issues.
4. Scandals--Haggard, et al. part of the shift toward decentralized celebrity-less spirituality.
5. Muslim and Pope--"Western Civilization" "Christian Europe" "Inter-religious engagement that is based on differences" in 100 years this could be seen as the most significant, and have boiled over in this flat world to the American scene.
6. Shooting and Response. Shootings will continue, but will the response of the Amish become a touchstone of response and lead to changes in understandings of justice?

Second, Barna's own 12 most significant findings of 2006 based on the year's research, in his order of what he deems most important. Details below.
1. Disparity between public claims and claims of regular church-goers, and perceptions by pastors
2. 75 percent of teenagers engage at least once in some form of "psychic or witchcraft" experience while only 30 percent of churches seem concerned enough to teach on it.
3. "Holiness" not a concern.
4. wide difference between what he calls "Christian Revolutionaries" (see his book called Revolution) who are dedicated to living out faith fully, and the "born-again" whose faith is mostly in profession.
5. Rise of house churches, though most (80 percent) in house church still have some connection to more formal church organization.
6. Very few are engaged in spiritual gifts discernment, and for those that do it is still seen as related to "volunteerism."
7. high rate of involvement in faith community in teen years drops off in the twenties.
8. post 9-11 faith rise dropped off five years later back to normal
9. disconnect between perceptions of parents about faith development of their children, and what children report.
10. only 1 out of 6 think spiritual faith maturity should be developed within context of a church community.
11. few Americans recognize names of top Christian book-sellers and pastors.
12. numbers of people claiming "born-again" continues to rise, as does bible study and small group involvement.

My own rearrangment of the order of importance of those 12 findings of his would be as follows:

My one is his number 10---loss of interest in church. Old news but all flows from it.
My two is his number 4---rise of "revolutionaries" becoming distinct different faith grouping
My three is his number 5--rise of house church
My four is his number 9--parental/children disconnect
My five is his number 1--difference in perception in pew and pulpit
My six is his number 6---no spiritual gifts discernment going on, really, anywhere
My seven is his number 2--not for the obvious spiritual warfare alert as he sees it, but as an indicator of the rise of fantasy as personal spiritual allegiance and practice
My eight is his number 12--indicating rise of importance in seeking intimacy and Story
My nine is his number 3--holiness dropping off the chart, probably for good reason (see Paul's admonition in Romans that God is for the unrighteous), but the loss of moral center, community values, and rise of uncontrolled behavior and addictions should be of more vital concern, especially to progressives.
My ten is his number 7--losing young adults to status quo faith communities
My eleven is his number 11--lack of recognition just shows secular/spiritual divide widening
My twelve is his number 8--post 9-11 illusions and disillusions.

(the order of these also shows a relationship between them to the general shift away from churched culture to dechurched and unchurched culture, to the rise of generational cultural differences, and cultural modernity's demise).

Here is Barna's elaboration on the findings and links to the surveys from this past year:

Although large majorities of the public claim to be “deeply spiritual” and say that their religious faith is “very important” in their life, only 15% of those who regularly attend a Christian church ranked their relationship with God as the top priority in their life. As alarming as that finding was, its significance was magnified by research showing that on average pastors believe that 70% of the adults in their congregation consider their relationship with God to be their highest priority in life.
For related information, see the January 10th Barna Update click here

Three out of every four teenagers have engaged in at least one type of psychic or witchcraft-related activity. Among the most common of those endeavors are using a Ouija board, reading books about witchcraft or Wicca, playing games involving sorcery or witchcraft, having a “professional” do a palm reading or having their fortune told. Conversely, during the past year fewer than three out of every ten churched teenagers had received any teaching from their church about elements of the supernatural.
For related information, see the January 23rd Barna Update click here

The notion of personal holiness has slipped out of the consciousness of the vast majority of Christians. While just 21% of adults consider themselves to be holy, by their own admission large numbers have no idea what “holiness” means and only one out of every three (35%) believe that God expects people to become holy.
For related information, see the Februrary 20th Barna Update click here

The growing movement of Christian Revolutionaries in the U.S. distinguished themselves from an already-select group of people – born again Christians – through their deeds, beliefs and self-views. Revolutionaries demonstrated substantially higher levels of community service, financial contributions, daily Bible study, personal quiet times each day, family Bible studies, daily worship experiences, engagement in spiritual mentoring, and evangelistic efforts. They also had a series of beliefs that were much more likely than those of typical born again adults to coincide with biblical teachings. Their self-perceptions were also dramatically different than that of other born again adults.
For related information, see the March 6th Barna Update click here

Involvement in a house church is rapidly growing, although the transition is occurring with some trepidation: four out of every five house church participants maintain some connection to a conventional church as well.
For related information, see the June 19th Barna Update click here

Evaluating spiritual maturity remains an elusive process for clergy as well as individuals. Across the nation, the only measure of spiritual health used by at least half of all pastors was the extent of volunteer activity or ministry involvement. Adults were no more consistent in their self-examination of their spirituality.
For related information, see the January 10th Barna Update click here

Most Americans have a period of time during their teen years when they are actively engaged in a church youth group. However, Barna’s tracking of young people showed that most of them had disengaged from organized religion during their twenties.
For related information, see the September 11th Barna Update click here

A comparison of people’s faith before and after the September 11 terrorist attack showed that five years after the momentous day, none of the 19 faith measures studied had undergone statistically significant change. Those measures covered aspects such as religious behaviors, beliefs, spiritual commitment and self-identity.
For related information, see the August 28th Barna Update click here

Seven out of ten parents claim they are effective at developing the spiritual maturity of their children, but the Barna survey among 8-to-12-year-olds discovered that only one-third of them say a church has made “a positive difference” in their life; one-third contend that prayer is very important in their life; most of them would rather be popular than to do what is morally right. In fact, “tweeners” (those ages 8 to 12) deem their family to be vitally important in their life, but just 57% said they look forward to spending time with their family and only one out of every three say it is easy for them to talk to their parents about things that matter to them.
For related information, see the September 30th Barna Update click here

Relatively few people – just one out of every six – believe that spiritual maturity is meant to be developed within the context of a local church or within the context of a community of faith.
For related information, see the April 18th Barna Update click here

Five of the highest-profile Christian leaders – Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, James Dobson, Tim LaHaye and T.D. Jakes – were unknown to a majority of the population. Most of those leaders were also unknown to most born again Christians.
For related information, see the November 27th Barna Update click here

The faith contours of America continue to shift substantially over the course of time. The proportion of adults who are born again has risen dramatically in the past quarter century, from 31% to 45%. During the past two decades, every spiritual behavior has fluctuated significantly, with recent upsurge in Bible reading, church attendance, and small group involvement.
For related information, see the March 27th Barna Update click here

Third, Barna's analysis of the 4 themes in the patterns: George Barna noted that there were four themes that consistently emerged from the various surveys his firm conducted throughout the year.

“First of all,” noted Barna, “Americans are very comfortable with religious faith. Most adults and even teenagers see themselves as people of faith. Toward that end, they have definite opinions about religion, they possess well-honed beliefs, and invest substantial amounts of their time, money and energy in religious activities. Faith and spirituality remain hot issues in people’s lives. The mass media, through news and feature stories, also play a role in keeping spiritual issues in the forefront of people’s minds.”

“Second,” he continued, “people do not have an accurate view of themselves when it comes to spirituality. American Christians are not as devoted to their faith as they like to believe. They have positive feelings about the importance of faith, but their faith is rarely the focal point of their life or a critical factor in their decision-making. The fact that few people take the time to evaluate their spiritual journey, or to develop benchmarks or indicators of their spiritual health, facilitates a distorted view of the prominence and purity of faith in their life.”

Barna’s third theme was that if people’s faith is objectively measured against a biblical standard of how faith is to be practiced, Americans are spiritually lukewarm. “Very limited effort is devoted to spiritual growth. Most Americans experience ‘accidental spiritual growth’ since there is generally no plan or process other than showing up at a church and absorbing a few ideas here and there. Even then, few people have a defined understanding of what they are hoping to become, as followers of Christ.” Barna attributed much of this to the numerous distractions common in most people’s lives.

Finally, the bestselling author of nearly 40 books contended that the most intriguing blip on the radar screen is the growth of various converging movements of deeply spiritual people who are departing from the conventional forms and communities of faith. “The Revolutionary community – which incorporates divergent but compatible groups of people who are seeking to make their faith the driving force in their life – is reshaping American faith in ways which we are just beginning to understand.” Few researchers and journalists are tracking the behavior and beliefs of those nascent segments. "

Fourth, his view of the horizon of the future in American religious trends:
When asked what he saw on the horizon regarding Americans’ faith, Barna described findings from some research currently in process related to the future of faith. He listed three general patterns he expects to gain prominence in the coming years.

Diversity. There will be new forms of spiritual leadership, different expressions of faith, and greater variety in when and where people meet together to be communities of faith. Ecumenism will expand, as the emerging generations pay less attention to doctrine and more attention to relationships and experiences. Barna predicted that there will be a broader network of micro-faith communities built around lifestyle affinities, such as gay communities of faith, marketplace professionals who gather for faith experiences, and so forth.

Bifurcation. Barna expects to see a widening gap between the intensely committed and those who are casually involved in faith matters. The difference will become strikingly evident between those who make faith the core of their life and those who simply attach a religious component on to an already mature lifestyle.

Media. Spiritual content and experiences will be increasingly related to the use of media. New technologies that will gain market share over the coming decade will significantly reshape how people experience and express their faith, and the ways in which they form communities of faith.

During the past year Barna formed a company (Good News Holdings) with a group of media professionals to approach the faith community not only with facts and figures drawn from research but also with stories and imagery conveyed through media. Asked why he took this new approach, he stated that the job of a servant of God is to be an obedient missionary. “It’s important to go where the people are whom you wish to reach with your message, and then to communicate that message through the language and symbols that they understand,” he explained. “The typical American spends roughly twenty times more hours each week engaged with media than involved with all forms of traditional religious activity. In our society there is a false barrier between those two worlds, and we’re trying to bridge the gap.”

I will post more of my comments in the comments, but I think he is right on in his "most intriguing development of 2006" and his expectation of it continuing in the future, that is the growth of new forms of spiritual community made up of more dedicated "Revolutionaries" (see my earlier post on Barna's book "Revolution"). The question is how will it take shape or will it among Christian progressives. But he has outlined a way again to audit your own community, your own tradition, your own association as to how is it engaging with Diversity, Bifurcation, Media.

Friday, December 01, 2006

"Supersized" mega-church Sociology and Christian Century article

I read in the latest Nov. 28 issue of The Christian Century there is an article called "Supersized" by Mark Chavez taking a look at the reasons behind the growth of mega-churches and the concentration of church goers in them. It is an excerpt of a longer essay in the Review of Religious Research back in June. I haven't had a chance to read the longer essay yet; also haven't yet found online link to the Christian Century article or the RRR essay but I suspect CC will have one up soon on their site at

The gist, or the old news: As Schaller has pointed out to us for many years, a majority of churches in America are small ones but the majority of church goers are going to churches in large and very large churches. Chavez documents this once again.

The analysis of why: Chavez says there is no one simple reason for this. On this he is right. As others have pointed out before, megachurches aren't reeling in the unchurched as much as attracting those already churched, to some degree. Of course there isn't a simple understanding of what constitutes "the unchurched." Maybe his longer essay goes into his use of the term. One of the categories not mentioned in his essay is for the "dechurched."

He writes "nor can we explain this trend by reference to some constant advantage of size. It is true that there are certain attractions to worshiping as part of a big group. But the advantages should have been apparent long ago, with the appearance of the first big churches, not just since 1970." What he includes in passing reference but doesn't give much credence to because it is difficult to quantify, is the role of generational changes which began to show up in the 1970s as the boomers swept fully into adulthood, and the boomers and their cultural wants and expectations have driven the rise of the megachurch. This is also one of the reasons why the next cultural wave is for the rise of organic smaller churches in reaction to the boomer churches. He addresses suburbanization and shows how it has been in place and in play in American culture longer than the megachurch impact, but again doesn't delve into the role of the boomers on the suburban scene.

He says another possible explanation is that they offer a new organizational form in tune with the rising cultural tide. But, he adds, the big churches of earlier eras had many of the hallmarks we see in megachurches now. Besides the boomer factor, however, I might point out the role of the non-denominational vs. earlier era denominational big church. His study focuses on looking at big churches in denominations without addressing more in depth the way the denominational big churches are more non-denominational than before, as well as bringing the mega-churches that are non-denominational.

The explanation he helpfully brings to the table is an economic one--rising costs to provide religious services, especially as boomers want which differ from earlier generations, drive out many of the smaller churches and those churches survive in this new climate who can afford to provide the services, and that is why, as Schaller points out, it is the very large and the very small who live on. The mid-size church, program-driven, suffers. Add in the internal conflict that entails when this happens, as churches get on treadmills of anxiety about maintaining their status quo, and add in the external conflict that happens especially when denominations are encountering cultural change and challenges (the cultural wars), and people looking for church life will flock to where there is less conflict spilling over into their lives.

The upshot? It takes an increasing amount of resources concentrated to be able to thrive as a very large church in a very large church world. Especially if you are trying to create one from virtually nothing, i.e. to replicate Saddleback. To get there you should take your largest churches and healthiest mid-size churches and teach them how to multiply themselves.

The other upshot is that the emergent organic movement is seeking to fill in some of the gaps between the old mega-church and the old smaller church. As said, the megachurches aren't attracting the secularized unchurched as much as those who arent finding fulfillment in the smaller and more denominationally-identified churches; the emergent organic church not trying to be megachurch is more suited to connecting with the spirits of the unchurched and the dechurched. I think a lot of the movement of the boomers and Xers to the megachurch whether non-denominational or not was in line with the organizational dysfunction of the smaller mainline churches; the organic church is able to offer a different model but without the spectator-driven model of the megachurch. As Whitsell's book (posts below) shows, organic and mega aren't actually contradictions in terms either in all cases; but these growing and developing on the scene churches weren't a part, as far as I can tell, of Chavez' research.

Again, look for ways to take your big middle and your small large churches and multiply them in new ways, poly-site, video groups, turning small group ministry into networks of house churches; and also find ways to nurture and network and fund as much as possible the entrepeneurs of the emergent organic movement among you in order to ride the now and coming wave of anti-mega micro, simple, organic church next wave.

As I read the Christian Century article I kept thinking how there was a kind of disconnect between the statistics of the denominational mega churches Chavez' work looked out, and the narratives and stories of so many of the megachurches themselves. And when you read or hear the stories of those churches as individuals you want to put them into a larger statistical understanding. Now I am not so sure you can ever do both--but it is helpful to have both to see the limitations of both approaches. And as I read the article, I kept thinking about how much is left out, theologically and scripturally, from such articles that is important for planters themselves and for the churches themselves. He ends the article by talking about how much of the change we don't understand, the causes and consequences--and that is right; we won't ever fully grasp the way the Spirit moves and forms itself to meet God's present and future. And yet there is so much of the certainty of the passion of the imperative to be involved in this, all of this, that no statistical curve can ever capture.