By Kent E. Fillinger
Members of the American Society of Newspaper Editors met not long ago to discuss the current status of newspaper publishing.
They considered the fact that the emerging generation tends to ignore newspapers. “Recent research shows that younger people, seeking news when they want it and delivered for free on their computers, are reluctant to purchase newspapers.”1 It’s not that they don’t want news. It’s just that they want the news on their own terms.
The same is true when this generation considers the local church. They have an increasing appetite for spirituality, but many exclude the local church from their spiritual menu.
Reggie McNeal writes, “The further down you go in the generational food chain, the lower the percentage each succeeding generation reports going to church. The drop is from the 52 percent of builders (those born before 1946) and seniors to only 36 percent of gen Xers.”2
A growing number of people are leaving the institutional church for a new reason. They are not leaving because they lost faith. They are leaving the church to preserve their faith. They contend that the church no longer contributes to their spiritual development. In fact, they say, quite the opposite is true.3
Newspaper editors reached conclusions and suggested action steps that echo the course local church leaders must take. Read the editors’ prescription for strength and success and observe the corresponding application to the local church in parenthesis.
Newsrooms (churches) need to get more in touch with the communities we serve. We must write (preach and communicate) more stories about how events (the Bible) impact the lives of readers (followers of Christ and spiritual seekers). We must have more newsroom (leadership board) conversations about such things as ethics, and we must explain, patiently and often, our policies (doctrinal beliefs) and practices (ministry plans) to readers (followers of Christ and spiritual seekers).
We must do more to look out for the interest of our readers (followers of Christ and spiritual seekers), from holding public officials (church leaders) accountable to helping readers (followers of Christ and spiritual seekers) deal with everything from commuting hassles to new developments in health care (the details of their lives). In an era when so much conflicting information is being presented from so many different sources (conflicting spiritual thinkers), we need to do a better job verifying conflicting claims and making complex matters understandable (communicating the timeless truths of the Bible in a relevant and understandable manner).
In all of this, we need to provide coverage (biblical application) that is more practical and personal.
Finally, we need to come up with ways for more groups of readers (followers of Christ and spiritual seekers) to become involved in the conversation, through such things as newspaper-sponsored blogs and online debates (small group Bible studies, online discussion groups, and spiritual blogs).
Newspaper editors must find new ways of connecting with readers, or they will become obsolete. Likewise, local church leaders face the same crisis of decision. Like newspapers, churches can take one of three potential courses of action.
Newspaper editors could ignore the statistics and continue to produce the same newspapers for a dwindling audience.
Unfortunately, this mind-set reflects the thinking of too many churches today. They ignore stagnation and decline and disregard the fact that many no longer view the church as a relevant resource for answering today’s toughest questions. They form motionless holy huddles repeating the same ministry programming for fewer people at a greater expense.
As McNeal says, “So far the North American church largely has responded with heavy infusions of denial, believing the culture will come to its senses and come back around to the church.”4 Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
The church is no longer predominantly viewed as the source for hope, healing, or help in times of personal need or crisis. Instead, our culture turns to other sources for truth and applauds the psychobabble disseminated by the likes of Oprah and Dr. Phil. Much of the church in stubborn self-centeredness has continued to do church business as usual. As a result, the church suffers an increasing exodus from each successive generation.
2. Make cosmetic changes to attract attention without making the critical changes to alter the current decline.
A few weeks after this editorial appeared, the editor of the Indianapolis Star announced an addition to the newspaper. Touted as the source for key news stories in special sections, it would be readable in one minute.
As a regular reader, I quickly realized that the news items in the “one minute” section—advertised as important highlights for the day—were actually nothing more than superficial articles containing trivial data. The newspaper did not deliver what it had promised.
Similarly, churches often make cosmetic changes, such as a new sign, changing their printed publications, or sending a prepackaged direct mail postcard in an attempt to garner some attention. “Look at us! We’re new and different! Try us this Sunday!”
Too often nothing really has changed. The ministry encountered inside the church contradicts the prepackaged message the church purchased for itself. Thus, the church damages its credibility even further and frustrates true spiritual seekers even more. When you change only your appearance and not your approach, you experience only short-term progress.
If something in your ministry is new and improved, you must effectively tell your community about it. Excellence is the only acceptable standard for all a church’s communication. But if the church does not make significant ministry changes first, it will not be able to afford the expense of false advertising. The church must ensure that it can deliver on its promises to reengage a culture spiritually disillusioned with the church.
3. Evaluate your audience, think strategically and creatively, and change your ministry model.
A cut-and-paste vision or ministry model adopted from another church will not produce the change required to alter the current course. There is no one answer that fits every situation or church context. It is difficult to infuse the objectivity needed into a church leadership team without defined processes and measurements and without an impartial facilitator to lead the team through the essential steps of strategic thinking and planning.
Einstein also said, “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” For the church to turn this impending corner requires new ways of thinking and new means of action.
An outside ministry partner can help you in the evaluation and planning processes. Together you’ll decide where your ministry is strong and where it’s ineffective. Then you’ll be ready to plan for a better future.
Thoughtful analysis is the best foundation for introducing change at your church. And change is essential to stem the spiritual tide creating a surge away from the local church to alternative forms of spiritual expression.
The result will be different in every ministry context, but a fresh, mission-driven approach will create a new environment to reengage spiritual seekers in our culture.
1 Dennis Ryerson, The Indianapolis Star, 17 April 2005, E1.
2 Reggie McNeal, The Present Future (Jossey-Bass, 2003), 3.
3 Ibid., 4.
4 Ibid., 2.
Next week: What churches can learn from Starbucks.
Kent Fillinger is president of 3:STRANDS Consulting in Indianapolis, Indiana.