I recently came across this post by Tim Stephens of Granger Community Church: 10 Hard Questions Every Planter Needs to Ask. A couple of paragraphs grabbed my attention:
Just about every church in America can be described by three words: “Come to us.” That is it. We put on amazing services and do everything we can to communicate truth to the people who make the effort to come to “the box” for worship. Some boxes are beautiful, and others are utilitarian. Some boxes are ornate with stained glass and a pipe organ, and others are located in an empty Walmart. But most of what we do is at, through and around “the box.” Many times even the mercy and justice ministries we engage in outside the walls are done for the primary purpose of inviting people to “come to the box.”
I remember being at a leadership conference where Alan Hirsch was teaching through the main thesis his watershed book, The Forgotten Ways. We had opportunity to ask questions, push back and consider the practical application for our churches. Alan said he believed that this “come to us” model of church still works for around 40 percent of our population. Does that mean 40 percent attend? Not at all. But there is probably around 40 percent of the population for whom the model still works. We can put on great weekend services, and 40 percent of the people in our community are still attracted to, or at least not repelled by, that model….
Maybe the number is much lower in the Northeast or Northwest. Maybe it’s much higher in the Bible Belt states. But every pastor I have talked to agrees that the number, whatever it is, is shrinking. Whatever you decide the number is for your community, it is likely getting smaller every year.
I believe in Burlington, Vermont, and across New England that far less than 40% of the population responds to the “come to the box” approach. Much more gifted leaders than myself have tried that approach in this area with limited impact. Every poll and study I’ve read over the past five years has confirmed that people in our city and state are increasingly disinterested in coming to the box. A 2009 Gallup Poll discovered 23% of Vermont residents frequently attend any kind of church service, lowest among the states. The more recent Barna Cities report states that in the Burlington-Plattsburgh area only 33% of the population attends any type or church service over the last month.
Some would suggest this means people here will not respond to the message of Jesus. I don’t buy that. Others wonder if churches can even be started here: I obviously believe the answer is “yes!”… but it may not be through the institutionalized centralized approach we’ve grown used to. We may have to rediscover the message of Jesus. We may have to rediscover how to make disciples. We may have to rediscover how to be the church. Thankfully, Jesus is willing to teach us how.