EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was adapted from Hugh’s new book, BiVo: A Modern-Day Guide for Bi-Vocational Saints, Leveraging All Of Life Into One Calling. CLICK HERE to get it.
You may have noticed the world of ministry has changed because the world has changed. No need for statistics and long, drawn out ammo to persuade you. If you’ve been a concerned Christian or professional saint, you know things are shifting. Economically, the world is in turmoil and no one can balance a budget. Upward mobility is becoming a thing of the past, and those under the age of 40 will most likely be the first generation to fail at outearning their parents.
The economics of the world are deeply affecting the economics of the church in more ways that just money. Because of the desperate focus on having or maintaining jobs, people move on average almost every five years to keep pace. In Denver alone, the average metro or suburban citizen moves every 18 months, and thus churches have to operate based on the probability of losing many of their congregational members every few years, just like a college ministry.
Ministry, therefore, may not be able to be based on sustainability, but rather on pure blind faithfulness to make disciples one by one.
As people lose their sense of stability, security and sustainability, their tendency is to move from generosity to scarcity—they simply won’t give like they used to. At present, the average Christian gives to the church at the exact percentage nonbelievers give to charities—just fewer than 3 percent.
Culturally, those under 40 have shifted in their value sets. Fifty years ago, one of the highest virtues was “loyalty,” and people would give faithfully to the church, trusting the institution and the leaders to use the money wisely.
And even if they didn’t agree with a building fund or focus for the corporate finances, they would continue to give simply because they trusted the spiritual hierarchy.
Today’s believers are not loyal or blindly trusting. One of their highest values is “meaning,” and they will only give to what they see is making a visible difference, or what they perceive will bring them meaning at a personal level. You may argue with this at a philosophical level, but you will not be able to fight it at the street level.
People, even those inside the church, are exhausted from giving to boxes or buildings whose influence is waning, and they simply won’t give to keep the lights on or pay the staff. They want to help real people with real needs.
These rough seas, brought about by the winds of global change, are going to keep blowing, and the collective unconscious and conscious atmosphere, values, and ethos for practical living and kingdom building have been forever changed. Black and white is now grey.
Generosity, faithfulness, kingdom impact and God’s design for building His church are now vast question marks with unlimited opportunities. Those that navigate well will not only survive, but thrive in this new world.
The Downwardly Mobile Church
In 2013, the Carnival cruise ship The Triumph lost power off the coast of the Yucatan peninsula. The voyage for consumers who had hoped for a beautiful, restful and enjoyable cruise turned into a nightmare as they had to be towed over a week’s time back to Alabama.
The toilets stopped, the air conditioning failed, the food spoiled and the travelers realized that their dream vacation was not worth a penny, let alone the thousands they had spent.
This is a picture of the failing consumer church—large, medium and micro forms. Yes, there will always be churches that seem to be avoiding all these shifts—churches that show growth based on old measurements and who seem to be growing both numerically and financially—but don’t be fooled by these aberrations.
Wise leaders look beyond the occasional success story and instead stare honestly at the undeniable trends. In seasons of economic struggle, what always occurs is a growing chasm between the haves and the have nots.
As church attendance declines nationally, and as we fail on a global scale to see new disciples made, megachurches and growing churches are tasting what could be the last wave of transfer growth before the reality of the trends hit home.
Regardless of the size of the ship you serve in, calculating leaders must adjust to the trends.
The western church’s business model based on the expectation of growth, optimism and promise of financial blessing has proven to be a consumer nightmare.
We’ve tried to attract people with safety for our kids, hand sanitizers in every hallway, programs, preaching and worship that look more like a carnival theatre night, and what have we gotten for all our spiritual protection and provision?
A harbor full of drifting ships who have lost power and are quickly losing the return customers we thought would always stay with us.
Many churches are leveraged to the max, and the engines are decelerating at best or have totally shut down at worst. Like the tugboats that slowly pull the massive vessels back to port, God has not abandoned ship, but is pulling us back for a serious retrofit.
We need a new model of disciple making, a new model of doing church, a new vision for our lives and what our money and time can accomplish.
By the year 2025, America will be as unchurched as the rest of the western world. As a consultant to church plants, megachurches, traditional churches, denominations, parachurch and missions agencies, the most conservative advice I can give is to tell you that the old is now passing away.
Gone are the days when a young man or woman can graduate from Bible school or seminary and find a great church to go work for. Like a man caught on a catamaran in high winds, people are being hurled into the unknown without any vision or practical skills for how to follow God and lead people.
Will the Real Church Please Stand Up?
But despite all this negativity, there is a silver lining. The church, at least the real one that God is building, is not just the buildings, the structures, programs or paradigms of ministry. The church is the people of God, and what that means is that all of us, both paid and unpaid, are feeling the pain together.
The questions for some are how do we keep our churches alive, sustainable, vibrant and open to God’s voice?
The questions for others are how am I to live, how can I live a life after God that my children will want to follow and emulate, how do I play a role in God’s kingdom when I can’t stand going to church?
I could go on with many more honest questions, but suffice it to say that everyone, at least those who truly care about Jesus and his kingdom movement, should care about The Church.
During my sabbatical in 2013, my 19-year-old daughter asked me what I was thinking about doing after 25 years of pastoring. I’ll admit, I was pooped out and would have loved to call for a sub or just tap out for a while, and she sensed it.
“So, Dad, you’re not thinking of leaving our church are you?”
“Well, babe, everything is on the table. So, maybe.” I responded.
To my surprise, she said angrily, “Dad, you have to keep pastoring and leading us. I’ve now seen other churches and I’m around other Christians all the time who hate their churches and are barely making it spiritually.”
Then she asked, “Do you know how different we are, how unique our people and our story is? Dad, any of my friends, both Christian and especially the ones that aren’t, would love Adullam. In fact, we need our type of church to take over the world.”
With that one 10-minute conversation, I was hooked again.
But what does it mean for me, and maybe you, to work with God in building His church in a world that seems so unattracted to our churchy ways? If God were to shine bright through his people, his church, what would it cost me, or us?
Yes, there will always be churches that expand through transfer growth and that can keep their pastors paid and their churchy folks happy and safe, but what about the rest of us who are no longer content to simply exist in the religious zone?
What about those of us who can’t play the games anymore, who don’t want to keep consumer Christians happy? What will it truly cost if we take Jesus’ words seriously, and I mean all of his words? Is it possible that Jesus has a plan for us?
I would not only answer with a whole-hearted Yes! but I would also say that maybe Jesus is glad we are finally feeling enough pain to look up, ask hard questions and turn to him for his answers. I believe that currents of change are helping us drift back toward His design for our lives and the church. And true change always begins with some struggle before harmony settles in.
God’s mission is not dependent upon the things we think it is.
It never has been.
And once we acknowledge this and recalibrate, I believe we will find a creative new story that not only feels better at a life level, but also makes sense to people who are trying to find God and the good news of kingdom life.
Jesus meant to set us free, which also means he meant to free the church, but we must follow him as he challenges us at the level of the wallet.
As Jesus plainly said, “You cannot serve both God and money,” and thus every aspect of our faith, fears, plans and dreams will be challenged at this basic level. Currency is the control switch of both building his kingdom and building our own kingdoms, and the leaders of God’s evolving church will be those who can lean into the tension and find a pure path through it all.
If we don’t tack to the ways of his kingdom, if we don’t open our sails to the wind of the Holy Spirit, we will soon find ourselves dwindling under the hot sun in a quiet, drifting, fruitless void. It’s time to accept the change and have Jesus teach us anew how to lighten the loads of these other kingdoms and have him leverage us to the hilt.
Who will survive?
Those who have courage to think, look and function outside the box. Those who cast off pure dependence on others, blind dependence upon a church, or expect God to make ministry easy. Jesus has always led his missional saints into the tension of kingdom life and kingdom provision.
The gospel came to us through a church of barely paid and nonpaid saints, and we can once again recover the beautiful freedom that will bring the gospel to the next epoch of history.
The Bank, or Our Model of Church, Isn’t the Only Thing Broke
But this isn’t just about the church or your ministry calling. It’s really about you. Beyond the dollars and cents of ministry are hundreds of thousands of faithful saints who really do want to serve the world, but who now struggle to stay afloat. Treading water isn’t just about financial survival. It’s also about spiritual survival.
As I’ve talked to waves of leaders both young and old, the pain of the church has gotten them close to shipwrecking their souls.
- “How do I manage my true faith amidst the lies I’ve seen in the organized church?”
- “How do I live faithfully after Christ without pandering to the consumer whims of the next cruise ship to go down?”
These and a hundred other deep questions cause the present and future leaders of the church to question their very calling. We were sold a bill of goods that told us if we could preach well, organize staff and run weekend programs, we would be honored, respected, followed and provided for.
But none of that is true.
The skills that once gave us meaning have left us yearning for more. But where do we go to learn the new skills and the new way of life for God’s legitimate leaders?
I may fail to deliver, but it is my heart to try to provide at least a start for you to rethink your vision, renew your faith, restore your heart and re-imagine a fruitful and even fun life of service to the King of Glory.