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Trends Reshaping the American Church, Part I

  • Paul J. Dean Pastor, Counselor & Professor
  • 2005 30 Dec
Trends Reshaping the American Church, Part I

Four key trends in the church should be noted according to the Barna Group. "Ignoring reporters' questions about church growth figures by stating, 'church attendance is grossly overrated as a measure of anything that is spiritually significant,' researcher George Barna instead offered four factors that he described as indicative of the reshaping of the church in the U.S."


Of course, the statement that "church attendance is grossly overrated as a measure of anything that is spiritually significant" is extremely significant. Long have we been told by church growth proponents that attendance is the be all to end all. It has been attendance that defines successful ministries, launches pastors to positions of prominence and leadership, and drives seminars on "how to do it like we do." It is refreshing to hear Barna speak of that which is spiritually significant and look beyond the surface issue of attendance.


Scripture does indeed place a great deal of emphasis upon numbers, especially in the book of Acts. Yet, the more pressing concern in Acts is the saving work of God in those who attend as opposed to an emphasis on a high attendance of pretenders. The spiritual condition of all churches with large numbers of attendees is not being called into question with that statement. Rather, one might call into question the spiritual condition of those churches with large numbers of attendees who engage in manipulative evangelistic methodology, who are largely man-centered in their approach to ministry and worship, and who forsake church discipline. At the same time, no church is perfect, large or small. Therefore each church must be viewed on its own rather than lumped in with any group.


Having dispensed with introductory comments, Barna's conclusions concerning key trends may be highlighted. "The first of those patterns had to do with the priorities embraced by church leaders, in which most local churches essentially ignore three critical spiritual dimensions: ministry to children, ministry to families, and prayer." Certainly these areas of ministry are critical.


Regarding children, it appears to me that too often we seem to assume that they are saved by virtue of the fact they are raised in the church and make the required profession of faith. Yet, approximately 80 percent of those children fall away when they hit college. We must minister to them and in such a way that they are confronted with and equipped to defend a biblical worldview.


At the same time in my estimation, the issue of family ministry has largely been ignored in the sense that church is viewed as that dynamic at which we get our spiritual fix so that we might then return to our normal activities for a week or so. But biblically speaking, the father is a prophet, priest, and king in his own home. Churches must equip him to be such that he might minister effectively to his own family.

When families come to church these days, they are separated into various groups that they might ostensibly receive specialized instruction. Perhaps if the whole family received ministry as a family with an emphasis upon the family unit, then families would understand their roles in relation to one another and view it as quite normal that the family would come together for times of worship and devotion, even at home. The divide and conquer approach to family ministry seems to be working: our families are being divided and conquered.


Of course prayer is all but forgotten by most of us today. It is rarely practiced in some contexts and merely part of the duty check list in others. Spurgeon pointed to his constant prayer warriors as the source of power in his church and ministry. Would that individuals and churches could see the difference between being individuals and churches that pray at times vs. being praying individuals and praying churches.


"A second trend defined by Barna is that congregations are rapidly incorporating new technologies into their activities. Among the fastest-growing adoptions are big-screen projection systems, websites, and e-mail blasts to congregants." No doubt exists that technology can and should be used for the glory of God.


E-mail can be used in a number of ways. We certainly use it to send weekly Bible studies to our teachers, devotionals to certain segments of the congregation, prayer requests to all, and announcements to the appropriate parties.


Websites can not only be informative with reference to a particular church, but can actually give a church a much broader ministry impact depending upon how the website is utilized. Indeed, the web can be a gateway opened to the world. Audio and the written word can be used effectively by any local congregation.


Regarding big screen projection systems, we in fact use that medium for announcements in between Sunday School and worship. We also use it during the services for our singing. We feel it gets our heads up toward the Lord rather then down in a book (though there is nothing wrong with hymn books), and, the sound is better when we look up as well. We use it for Scripture reading and we often have responsive reading and use it for that too. The rest of the time, the Screen is off. We want folk to be focused on the "preaching event," and not distracted. We want them focused on the preached Word as the Scriptures make much of its importance (1 Corinthians 1-2 for example).


However, we must be careful. Much of what goes on in some churches "on screen" I would not embrace for biblical reasons. Much of that is driven by the entertainment oriented nature of our culture. There is nothing wrong with entertainment at appropriate times. Yet we must not be entertainment driven, especially in our relationship with God. He is Holy. We are driven by amusement in our culture (think of the word thinking). We must not be so in our worship of Almighty God.


One reason many resort to "Power Point" presentations in worship is that it provides variety or something different for the people. Someone thinks it would be great to be able to do something, others copy to compete (there's another issue, competition in the church of Jesus Christ), and before you know it, people demand high tech, high powered, shows or they will go somewhere else. The danger is that we get onto the slippery slope and before we know it, we are too far down the hill to climb back up, at least with those who are with us, as many would rather keep sliding down the hill for lack of discernment.

Let me again say that we use "Power Point." We actually put the words of the solo and/or choir up there as well. Our rationale is that the words are the most important thing, not the entertainment value of the choir or soloist. We appreciate the talent God gives people, but our focus must be on Him and not on those who sing. Reading the words as they sing helps us to focus on God and His truth.

Dr. Paul J. Dean is an adjunct professor at Erskine Theological Seminary and serves as the Director of Supervised Ministry at the Greenville, SC extension of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is actively involved in the field of biblical counseling having co-founded the Southern Baptist Association of Biblical Counselors.