Just finished my book that’s now in the hands of the editor. I’m aiming squarely at the lost heritage of the church, and how we cope. So far, not well. Yet I believe post-Christendom is a great opportunity for the church, but only if we make the right changes to survive and thrive.

Here’s one shift that’s happening (and needs to happen).

Church attendance in North America reached its high watermark in the 1950s. Since then it’s been on a straight trajectory down. Baby boomers were the first generation to leave the modern church in droves, followed by each subsequent generation. That would mean we have a millennial generation where 1/3 have never been to church, whose parents never went, and whose grandparents never went. This is the growing minority of people contemporary churches have little competency on how to connect with. But here’s the thing, it’s a certain kind of church that has declined the most. When I say the church is in decline, I really mean the majority church. The majority church is the one that benefited from inherited power in Christendom. The majority church in the US is the white Protestant church, and in Canada the white Protestant and white Catholic church.

There are a number of factors why the white church inherited cultural power and privilege, such as the evils of colonialism and slavery. However, the major factor was numeric. White Christians dominated culture by sheer numbers. Early colonizers and immigrants across North America were European. They brought values and cultures that have remained dominant until recently. Today the culture balance has shifted. There are two main reasons why.

Firstly, immigration patterns have changed. White Christians are no longer the majority segment in the American religious landscape[3] which in 2016 hovered at 41%. Secondly, beginning with those baby boomers[4], church attendance and affiliation has declined considerably, but only in white congregations.  At the same time white congregations declined (including white evangelicals), ethnic Protestants, namely black and Hispanic evangelicals, have gained.[6]

The decline of Christianity in North America is a result of white Christians leaving the church.

My question is, in church leadership, church planting, church innovation, church growth, why aren’t the prominent voices the pastors who have expertise growing churches in decades of decline? Why don’t white churches lean on ethnic leaders to inform necessary shifts?

I think the reason is twofold. (I’m ignoring the obvious issue of race here. White churches learning from a black or Hispanics cuts across the cultural grain.)

Firstly, church exceptionalism prevents new voices from entering the fray. If a few mega churches do well those leaders dominate the conversation. Declining churches are built to assume there’s a magic strategy that can prevent decline for everyone, not just the mega variety. What we don’t acknowledge is that the few exceptions won’t save the whole.

Secondly, do white church leaders have significant relationships with people who are different than them and their congregations? They are the gatekeepers to open the door to new voices, but if their friends, who they learn from, what they read, mentors, denominational people, elders board, etc., are all white, there’s no room for something (or someone) different.

I commented on obvious disparity in a recent blog post on the New Leaf Network. (We are doing a series on race in the Canadian church.) A recent church conference boasted 100% white male presenters. Nobody buying tickets batted an eye. It’s normal for all white male presenters even for visible minorities. It’s just what we’re used to, even when those voices are from churches that have demonstrated over decades they don’t have the solutions to help the church as a whole get over the decline.

I’m speaking broadly here. There’s a lot of value in the majority church. But we rarely hear from the other side. (From what I’ve seen, America is light years ahead when it comes to listening to ethnic leaders and women. I tip my hat to you.)

Where should we go from here? Quite simply I think the church in North America as a whole is in a moment of opportunity for those who wish to make the changes to thrive and survive in a completely different culture. Leading the shift will be those churches who start to reflect the new America and Canada, one that is no longer overwhelming white, nor informed by those voices.

[3] PRRI, American Values Atlas, 2016. Retrieved from http://ava.prri.org/#religious/2016/States/religion

[4] Bibby, 2017, page 32.

[6] General Social Survey, 1974-2012; PRRI, American Values Atlas, 2013-2014. Retrieve from http://ava.prri.org/