The web party started when the late Michael Spencer suggested in 2009 what many were already noticing: the looming collapse of evangelicalism in America had arrived. [I blogged about the same issue from a Canadian perspective here.] His blog post turned into a Newsweek article that catalyzed feverish dialogue. “It can’t be true,” oblivious parishioners lamented as if they hadn’t seen it coming (they hadn’t).
Fast forward two years and the Globe & Mail published a peculiar article about Calgary’s First Alliance Church (FAC), a huge evangelical church located in the heart of an industrial park in the South East. The gist of the article from what I gathered was the success of this particular brand of church in an age where attendance is dwindling to a trickle.
Not so for FAC who have boasted a reported 75% increase since the recession. Things couldn’t be better. But is the reported success really indicative of ongoing trends in Calgary and beyond? Does First Alliance have the secret recipe to church success in the 21st century?
At FAC it’s ABC: (attendance, big building plans, millions in cash). By these points they’re doing admirably. But how can a church be growing in what is supposedly an age of imminent collapse?
In my mind there are only two ways we can interpret the Globe’s observations. Either FAC is growing because there is a resurgence (revival if you will) in Christian spirituality, or FAC is merely a burgeoning life raft jettisoned from a sinking ship.
[I don’t mean to pick exclusively on FAC, they are merely subjects in the article and a good example of the typical successful big box church in any city.]
I don’t for a minute believe there is a resurgence in Christian spirituality and all evidence from those who actually count this kind of thing points to the same. That would mean the latter must be true–Christianity is on the outs. Perhaps I should re-phrase. The dominant position Christianity used to have in our culture is no more. We can no longer assume the average Joe has any form of religious memory, nor should we believe that any form of lobby will reclaim a golden age of evangelicalism.
As we have observed culture around us changing the way we do church has largely remained stagnant. For the past 30 years it’s revolved around a mostly consumer oriented model of build it and they will come. Although the article itself probably takes liberties when they describe the lead pastor’s attitude towards church, (…bring people to God? “Through parking and bathrooms”, he replies,) it accurately reflects a predominantly individualistic brand of contemporary evangelicalism, (“if it’s going to be, it’s up to me”) seen throughout.
With this context let’s go back to the question I posed: does FAC have a recipe for church success? Indeed, they DO, and that recipe is simply: they do church really well. At FAC the music is top notch, the lights are flashy and dashy, the preaching is relevant, and a variety of programs are available to support their upper-middle class demographic and beyond. Their million dollar budget pays off in the pew as a generation of consumer oriented attendees placate themselves with ‘church’ of the highest quality.
But this is evangelicalisms problem not FAC, the majority of churches attempt to engage in the same pursuit for great church ‘service’ unknowingly forming their congregations to correlate good church with great shows. The correlation? In the consumer age if everyone is trying to provide a ‘service’ (double entendre intended) dissatisfied consumers will eventually check-in to something better. That something better is FAC; small churches who play this game don’t stand a chance.
The exodus is already on the way. After all, FAC has grown by 75% and remember there’s no revival underway. That means the growth experienced by the churches who put on the best show is predominantly through transfer Christians jumping ship from one church to another. Be it additional services or even pseudo church-plants, growth can be attributed to fickle consumer oriented Christians looking to meet their demands of what ‘church’ should be.
This likely doesn’t come as news to many who pay attention to demographic trends in our culture today (or heck, just read the newspaper). What IS, however, surprising is how many benefitting from these shifts are unaware their growth is attributed to transfers. This is crucial because the inability to identify the transfer trend contributes to a repetitive and vicious cycle whereby churches try to come up with the latest attractive fad (online church?!?) while simultaneously ignoring the root problem–an exponentially declining rate of discipleship. No disciples = no replication (unless you think altar calls still work.)
The Globe article was a surprising wake-up call for many at FAC and beyond. In a sense they are being forced to re-asses their insulated view of themselves and empathize with Joe Average’s perceptions of the most glamours churches of the lot.
It’s not just the biggest and best who need to pay heed either. A lack foresight will eventually lead to everyone’s demise. When will this happen? For the smallest it already has. For the largest? Years to come, perhaps decades. And although we can pass the problem to upcoming generations of lead pastors who will inherit big box buildings with empty pews, it would be far more astute to fundamentally address the paradigm of how we do church and change it from one of self-centric consumerism to Christ-centric networks of Kingdom participants.