On a recent road trip in Texas, I encountered a sign of the changing nature of the modern church. The sign involved the signs and billboards churches used to communicate to the larger world who they were. The revelation was not the fact of the advertisement itself, but what the signs said. One billboard read: “Love God. Love Neighbors. Change the World.” A few hundred miles down the road another church’s sign exclaimed “Loving God and Loving the Community.” At numerous points along this road to the Texas coast, churches and billboards proclaimed a friendlier, more action-oriented version of the good news. Congregations that in previous generations might have highlighted their biblical faithfulness or the conservatism/liberalism of their theology are now touting the community nature of their church and robustness of their action in the world. What is going on?
These billboards and the directional shift they represent suggest a movement away from a church era dominated by wedge issue politics and denominational/theological divisions. That the prominence of those forces coincided with a large decline in church membership across all corners of Christianity in America is telling. More importantly, what is coming into being because of these trends will impact the next generation of the church.
Belonging: Belonging to a community of faith has always been an important part of our identity as Christians, but is even more so now. Large swaths of the American public have never been to church or have left the church. The fastest growing religious group in this country are those people who claim no faith community. And yet for many, the most attractive aspect of the Christian life is that we live this faith togethering. Whether it is the belonging offered by megachurches or the familial nature of truly welcoming small churches, the churches that are reversing the general decades-long decline of Christianity in this country are often the churches that figure out how to make people feel like they belong there.
Action: A closely connected aspect of the recent shifts in the church is the active nature of what the church is becoming. As the “frozen chosen”, many of our churches have witnessed the consequence of a passive or totally inactive Christian faith firsthand. Membership has declined as we have debated correct theology and polity, as well. For those that are returning to the belonging of the church, even belonging to very different churches than their childhood, the desire to pursue an active faith is paramount. It matters that the faith we profess moves us to impact the community and world around us.
The Christian church in America and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are in the midst of seismic changes. Quippy billboards and slogans can never portray the scope of that change. I do think they can suggest just a little bit of what is going in the church around us… hopefully for the better.
What are you seeing along the road?
Rev. Tim Blodgett