There are 350,000 Churches (the people of God) in the United States of various Christian denominations. 15,000 of them are growing but only 2% or 300 are growing out of active evangelization to grow. The others are growing out of default: new homes building communities and immigration. 335,000 churches (peoples of God) are in membership decline.
Yet the mission of Jesus Christ was quite clear. We are to love God and neighbor and make disciples of all nations. What is happening to the mission of Jesus’s Church (the people of God)? If he would physically return would he not ask Christian people, their priests, ministers and elders the same question He asked Simon Peter three times? Do you love me Peter? Feed my lambs and feed my sheep. Peter denied Christ three times; three times Peter denied God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Three times Jesus asked Peter to love him in loving lGod the Father, loving God the Son and loving God the Holy Spirit. In like manner if Jesus physically came to San Diego he would ask church leaders and church members do you love Him? Do you love God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit?
We know that if we were to put the bible down to one word about the relationship between God and His people it would be “nuptials”. Yahweh and the Kahal the People of God in the Old Testament and in the New Testament Christ is the groom and the people the Church is the bride. When it comes to dating we are all good sales people but after the marriage customer service wanes so that around 70% of marriages in America fail. I believe the reason our Churches are in decline is because we have not romantically fallen in love with God. We have not continued the dating relationship after the marriage of our baptism, confirmation or ordination. Such a marriage without continuing to fall in love with God is undoubtedly destined to fail.
The reason the priest wears vestments, is because he being the Christ on earth today, is inviting all of us to the marriage feast. The priest represents Christ the groom dressed in first century wedding garb, meaning that this wedding invitation transcends the centuries and is the same in the 1st as it is in the 21st Century. Each week we Catholics show up to be reminded to continue our dating relationship with Christ. If the Mass matters to us in our lives there will likely not be a dry eye in the house typical of most weddings. We will be paying attention to the readings, intensely finding the meaning of the phrases in our songs, taking sermon notes on our bulletins, volunteering to do anything to help our church family in finding more disciples to cultivate.
I am suggesting unless we love Jesus Christ more than our Christian buildings, congregations that regularly show up at church services and our Christian denominational ideology we as church people will continue to decline. Some of us in our declining churches might have a false sense of security knowing that Jesus Christ promised us the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church. I believe we take comfort in His other promise that when two or more gather in prayer He is with us. I don’t think Jesus Christ would prefer just two or three of us in prayer only. Instead His charge for us to make disciples of all nations. Nation building is a lot of people. To have a vision of completing His assignment we will need to make changes, from knowing about the Shepherd to knowing the Shepherd.
How do we make changes in our lives to know the Shepherd.? Preaching the Shepherd is mediocre. Knowing the Shepherd intimately, is excellence! Changes in our thinking are not rocket science. If we want to lose weight, then we must eat less and burn more calories in exercise. If we want to get out of debt, then we need to make more money and cut down on our expenses. Changes in our spiritual life are not complicated either. Habits of prayer, fasting alms giving, forgiveness, are not difficult to understand. Yet we struggle because the status quo may have become our demeanor. Some act mediocre like the Church of Laodicea and while others are dead like the Church of Laodicea Reve.ation 3:14-16.
“These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. 15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
When we talk about evangelization and discipleship, we are talking about change and growth. The old way of guilt and fear no longer works. I moved into a neighborhood several years ago and somehow the church got my name and said in a letter that I must register in the Church. I am curious where there is an invitation in the words, “must register?” Can you imagine Jesus coming to our neighborhoods, saying that He is Jesus Christ the Son of God and therefore we must register with him in order to follow him? God woos us but to God never demanded us to follow Him.
Evangelization and discipleship will require change and growth. Letters of demands, guilt and fear will just not work. Jesus inspired people to follow Him he did not demand them to do so. He gave people a vision of the kingdom of God. In order to set a vision for the unchurched people to follow we (meaning church members and religious leaders) will need to understand them better.
They are steeped in a distaste and for some a hatred for organized religion. Some are right in my own neighborhood. Yet a majority of Americans do believe in God. Why the disparity? We live in a culture of deism that is gaining ground. Deism is a belief in God’s existence and that’s about all that is required for anyone to know. God does not take an active role in our lives. God has created the world and left the world to its own devices. Deism is contrary to the story of Jesus Christ about a God who became one of us to show us the way to our true happiness in God the Father. There are people in our pews at church are more or less deists.
We church people are not doing well with the unchurched and “Used to be Catholics”, different age groups, Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y and even worse with Millennials. All we need to do is go into our Church lobbies and reception areas to see how inviting they are for this particular age group. Los Angeles Times Thursday March 24 Libby Hill says of Millennials, 70% binge viewing. Not television alone but more and more live streaming of five series episodes at a time. 90% of them say they multitask while watching, including surfing the Internet, social networking, text messaging or checking email. Like it or not the flat screens in Churches will help relate to this group. Music will too but more important will be the message by the minister or priest on the pulpit and the welcoming message of the hosts/greeters/ushers and parking lot attendants/hosts and…… long before they are ever introduce to a personal God in the Eucharist. Once they know and love the Eucharist then the preaching, music and church lobby will not matter as it doesn’t so much for the church member insiders.
To grow our churches will have to challenge members to become disciples and change the demeanor and likely the physical campus to attract the unchurched. It will require to know about the unchurched lifestyle, culture, likes and dislikes. The ‘deliberate growth’ Churches are already adapting to such a 21st Century culture and environment. They not only have effective preaching that knows the Shepherd, but flat screens where the messaging takes place rather than church bulletins, along with words to music singing raising heads with the elimination of hymnals, effective spotlight lighting, moments of inspirational silence, environmental and cultural sensitivity to families with small children, face book pages, dynamic websites and other social media tools, eliminating church class rooms for Sunday School and Confirmation Classes replacing them with small groups on the floor with bean bag seats for youth and living room furnishings for adults just like at home. We have to stop putting square pegs into our round holes, while at the same time never negotiating truth of Jesus Christ in our messaging. Words matter!
We will need to begin there with a fragile understanding of how God really loves us and fill in the details. Rather than preaching about going to Church, our work instead ought to be about making Church matter. The message is about a personal and intimate God that loves us from the time we were formed in the womb, gave us life and the Son who calls us, prods us and woos us into a discipleship movement.
Young people have not change since even since the time of St. Francis. Today the young want a sense of purpose, mission and togetherness. They say they are spiritual but that is a rather impersonal relationship with God. We can manage learning so that people discover there is a Holy Spirit that walks with us daily and guides our steps. Through the Holy Spirit we become other Jesus Christs where He lives and breathes through us to share with others on our blogs, snap chat, Instagram and twitter. The message we share is all about the grace of what God does for us and the truth of what he calls us to do. It is a message of witnessing grace and truth. It is a romantic love relationship with God! That is what growing churches have found.