Some things become painfully obvious when seen in the light of solid information. For years the Church in the United States has been in a constant state of decline with no end in sight. Our neighbors to the north, Canada, have seen an increase in church starts beginning in 1997. While Church planting is flourishing in other countries, here in the States we continue to see a massive drop in church starts. Hundreds of thousands of churches are half full each Sunday with little prospect of dynamic new growth.
Well known researchers are speaking of at least 80% of the church being stagnant or declining in growth. Few church leaders will entertain the notion of a fresh move of God in our land. It is no wonder that a high percentage of pastors in a recent poll indicated they would get out of the ministry if they could.
The United States may be the one place where it will take a miracle of God to see a saturation church planting effort. Imagine trying to get the Church of America to join in what would appear to be yet another campaign to evangelize the nation. Hasn't every local church at some point thrown its energies and resources into a cooperative effort that in the long run produced little or no new growth for their congregation? Many attempts to cast vision to pastors and church leaders across the land has been met with a cold reception.
American Christians tend to believe we are the most churched country in the world. The reality, however, is that the United States is the fourth largest unchurched population in the world. It also appears that much of what we have identified as Church in the United States has very little chance of multiplying and filling the nation with the glory of God. While there are perhaps 3,000 mega churches that are filling their pews, many of those attending are little more than spectators. Most neighborhood churches see gatherings between 40 and 80 people. And most of those churches haven’t baptized a new member in years.
Something in the structure of Church that has worked so well for our parents has lost its glimmer in this post-modern world. We are no longer reproducing disciples who walk in the love of the Lord and set their world on fire. It just isn't authentic or real anymore to this “emerging” generation. It is viewed by many as a system of do’s and don’ts, as legalistic and controlling.
While it is reaching some, its ability to transform culture and reach two hundred million people is seriously in question. It seems to me that the culture in North America had changed dramatically over the past century, but the Church has not caught up. In fact, the church now looks and acts in large measure, just like the culture. Our measure of success and our system of validation and affirmation matches the business models of our day. True life in Christ and the joy of community in Christ have faded on many fronts. The tremendous move of God around the world is being thwarted in the U.S. by what has become “Standard American Churchianity." My persistent prayer is, “Lord, how can we impact the millions of people who have either left the Church or won’t go to it?”
I long for a “church” that is new, refreshing, able to multiply by becoming “all things to all men” in order to reach the masses that want a relationship with Jesus but need a new door to enter through. A Church that is not so much about structure as it is about a way of life.
Jesus summed up all that was written when He encouraged us to fall in love with His Father and let that love flow through our families and spheres of influence. The problem in the American church is centered on the decline in true intimacy with the Father and in the understanding of nurturing communities where life and love are shared and freely expressed among the beloved. Our hearts are broken and only the love of the Father can heal them.
I believe with all my heart that God will raise up a people in America who will move up to another level of growth and impact. They will hear the voice of God and make an impact in their spheres. They will rebel against the status quo and model biblical community, earnestly seeking the mind of the Lord for His people. The idea of living every day with Jesus and each other will become their common thread. Their belief in a 24/7 relationship with God and people will lead them to see structure as a secondary issue. “Church” IS the people (not property) and happens in the midst of the people. They will emphasize the idea of relational community. They will invest in a discipleship process much in the style of Jesus’ model of discipleship. They will live relationally with each other and they will grow!
Larry Kreider in his book, House Church Networks states, “House churches, and churches of any kind, should never be exclusive entities cut off from the rest of the body of Christ. The healthy house church will focus on loving the Lord, loving each other, reaching the lost and loving the rest of the body of Christ anywhere and everywhere. Healthy believers will want to relate closely to the rest of the body of Christ because they want to be 'one with the Father and each other.'" Rather than living in isolation they see themselves as another extension of all that God is doing in the world. Furthermore, they see the opportunity to partner with more traditional models of “church” to saturate a city or state with the presence of Christ.
I see a new wind blowing across the land. God is raising up a new generation that will bring a whole new vitality, empowerment and expansion to the Church in North America. Though referred to by such terms as organic church, New Testament church, house church, redemptive community, oikos, lighthouse or other terms, an umbrella name that could be used is “simple church.” A simple definition of "simple church" could be - “Simple church is a small group of people seeking intimate relationship with God and each other through hearing from God and living the Kingdom lifestyle.”
For years, the Body of Christ in Western Culture has assumed that Church is a major event requiring great expertise to lead. Have we missed the essential truth that God fully intended Adam and Eve to be the foundational model for the Church? Church was meant to begin, and to be lived out, in the family. The simplest and most primary expression of the Church is the family. The essential building blocks for the Body of Christ are healthy spiritual parents giving birth to healthy spiritual sons and daughters who give birth to healthy spiritual families. Healthy families will naturally reproduce and multiply.
Most people think of the church as a place and event at a certain time. Since "simple church" is about people, where they meet is secondary. The important idea does not revolve around a building or a meeting place but a lifestyle. When they do gather they could be in cells, house churches, neighborhood churches, mega churches and so on. Simple church is at the core of life in Christ, no matter the structure used for the gathering of the saints together. Simple church is about being the “church” not going to “church."
A new emphasis to plant churches is exploding all around the country. It is yet to be seen what form these new churches will take. Though they may take many forms, shapes and sizes, at a heart level, church may become a way to experience Kingdom life lived out in relational intimacy with God and with fellow believers. In its purest form, church is Mom and Dad living the life of Christ in the home. It can be experienced in one family, a neighborhood gathering, the cell of a larger congregation, an affinity group or other small gathering. It is characterized by outreach to the unsaved, by reproducing every time the group reaches about 15, by participation by all in the gathering, and by the absence of need for ordained professional clergy or separate buildings. Imagine what a mega church would look like with all their families living out a relational lifestyle? You would see hundreds of families incarnating the love and presence of Christ in their neighborhoods daily. The Kingdom alive and incarnating the presence of Christ in the midst of the people in a community would be a tremendous example of the love of Christ touching every part of life.
The new essentials of Church will affect real life! It's going to be a source of life for you, for your family, for your neighbors and for your whole neighborhood! Church could happen 24/7, all week long! If you set out to start a church, it is common to put the church in front of family. But, if you start out to be God's people as a family, and bless each other, (and you can do that), then other people will just naturally be drawn in, and it won't take a toll on your family.
God has been moving through His Body around the world for at least the last 15-20 years in a new and pervasive way (house churches expanding throughout new communities). It may just be the season for the Church in the United States to join this work of the Holy Spirit around the world and enjoy the life of the Kingdom in this country.
It is my sincere belief that we are on the verge of a significant movement of God in North America that will spawn healthy, multiplying “extended families” all across our nation.