13 Ways to REVIVE the Dying American Church
I am a quiet little man from a quiet little town you’ve never heard of.
I have absolutely nothing in common with Brad Pitt, Steve Jobs, or any of the other worshiped men of our time. I’ve never been the champion of an impressive sporting event or held any position of prominence that would impress you (although my turn as Winnie the Pooh in the sixth grade play did generate a lot of… buzz).
There’s no reason why revival in the Church would start with someone like me.
Truthfully, there’s no reason why you should care what I have to say at all—and for most of my life—nobody did. Then I wrote some words about millennials in the church that exploded.
As I continue to reel from all the doors that have opened since hitting the publish button, I have realized something about what I wrote that day has touched a very real fear in many of us Christians: a fear that we’ve lost the plot of this story we call church.
There’s no denying this reality: something about the way we’re doing church is turning people away in record numbers.
Between 2007 and 2014, there was a 3.7% decline in weekly church attendance. Meanwhile, the U.S. population increased by over 16 million during that same time frame. -Pew Research Center
59% of Millennials who grew up in a church have dropped out. – Barna Group
Almost half of all American adults (48%) are post-Christian (believed in the tenants of Christianity at one time but no longer do). -Barna Group
What I didn’t write in the millennials post is that I’ve spent the last six years giving my life to a local church, even buying a house closer to the building to shorten my drive on the 4 and 5 days a week I was spending volunteering in kids ministry, middle and high school youth groups, playing on worship teams (in addition to leading a young adults group in my living room, writing a blog and launching a suicide prevention ministry).
I don’t advertise the work I’ve done for the kingdom because frankly, it’s none of your business. My writing isn’t about the approval of man, it’s about glorifying God. And as it turns out, God has a lot to say to people who are willing to shut up and listen. (yes, even to social-media-addicted millennials like me).
“You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” -Jeremiah 29:13
As I sit reading my bible (most) mornings, I keep hearing a whisper through the silence that I don’t know what to do with. As I ask God to show me what we’re missing about church he keeps giving me one simple word: unity.
The truth is I think too many of us have forgotten what the Church is and what the Church isn’t.
The Church is not a building. The Church is not a congregation. The Church is not a dynamic preacher or hipster worship leader. The Church is not a silo in one small part of the earth.
The Church is a global, connected network of broken people trying to tell people to follow this incredible man named Jesus. The Church is actually ALL the people of God, all believers from all different backgrounds. The Church IS us—all of us—together working as one body.
Somewhere along the way, we got distracted by the desire for big buildings, cool light shows, and impressive websites and forgot the wise words of the great prophet Zac Efron: we’re all in this together.
The new testament is littered with a constant call to unity in the church.
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.” —1 Corinthians 1:10
Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. -Ephesians 4:25
And this, and this, and this:
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. -Philippians 2:1-2 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. -Romans 12:16 Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. 1 Peter 3:8
We can look at the statistics and respond with fear, name-calling, and attack or we can see it for what it truly is: an opportunity for revival. A chance to reshape what this world thinks of Christians and our Church.
So here are 13 ways this tiny-waisted, suburban white boy thinks we can revive the dying American church and be a little more like the Church the apostle Paul called us to be.
1.) Fewer Denominations.
Uh oh, powerful church leaders aren’t going to like this one. Am I really the only one who thinks that the estimated 217 different denominations in America might be a little over-the-top?
What would happen if we… *gasp* …consolidated? (Cue Horror Movie Music) What would it look like for the American Church to come together as one body of Christ? What would happen if we stopped being so hyper-focused on our differences and instead all answered the Great Commission together:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. —Matthew 28:19-20
What if Christians took a vow to focus our collective energy on what really matters: making disciples? What if we all put down the picket signs and political battles and started loving one another the way Christ taught us to love?
*cough* revival *cough*
Oh my gosh, did someone just say revival?
Revival will come when we find ways to unite as one body of Christ.
2.) STOP ALL THE FIGHTING
ALL OF IT.
Zero back-biting or profane talk. Zero in-fighting. For the love of anchovies STOP THE CHRISTIAN CIVIL WAR.
Constructive (probably in-person) discussions on ideas, theology, and truth – yes, yes, yes. Screaming, all-caps rants and crazy Facebook posts – no, no, no.
“Watch the way you talk. Let nothing foul or dirty come out of your mouth. Say only what helps, each word a gift. Make a clean break with all cutting, backbiting, profane talk. Be gentle with one another, sensitive. Forgive one another as quickly and thoroughly as God in Christ forgave you.” —Ephesians 4:29, 31-32
There are countless examples in the bible of how we should speak to one another and none of them start THOU SHALT SCREAM HATE. What if Paul, the author of more books in the bible than any other man, were coming to visit the American Church? What would he say to us?
I imagine it would go something like this:
“For I fear that perhaps when I come I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish—that perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. “ —2 Corinthians 12:20
What? Quarreling…Slander…Disorder…? Who us? (Quick, hide all the crazies in the closet).
The bible is pretty clear on how we should love one another. All of the fighting, power struggles and politics of church is one of the single greatest factors keeping people away.
Revival will come when we look and sound more like the church Paul dreamed we could be.
3.) More Inter-Church Collaboration
Alright kid, pull your head out of the clouds and get practical. Give us tangible things we can do today! Ay, ay captain.
What if we start our march towards unity through simple collaboration?
What would it look like for all churches in a regional area to come together and support each other in deeper and more meaningful ways?
What if a weekly email went out asking other churches what they need or how our church could pray for them?
What if people in our community saw all of the churches working together to feed the poor and meet the needs of those around us?
What if all the hard work we do stops being about the glory of our single church building and instead, forces to people to give the glory to God alone.
Rather than “look what that church is doing” there is no other explanation except “look what God is doing.”
Revival will come when we learn to leave what divides us at the door and become intently focused on building a greater, more-connected Church community.
4.) More Guest Preaching
I always find a guest preacher to be a breath of fresh air. Whenever they start speaking, I jolt awake in a different way. Not because I don’t love our incredible pastors, but because it breaks me out of the routine.
I also think Pastors with different denominational backgrounds have different depths and expertise that should be welcomed. The Catholic Priest on the Non-Denominational Stage? You bet. The Baptist Minister just chillin’ with the coffee-breathing Lutherans? Heck yes!
One easy way to build bonds with other churches is to invite guest preachers or do a Sunday preaching exchange. I know this happens in a lot of areas, but what would it mean to go even further?
And so the preacher says something you don’t totally agree with. Beautiful! Meet in the Fellowship Hall after the service for some healthy discussion and bacon. Mmmm, bacon.
Revival will come when we loosen our death-grip on identifying ourselves first by denomination rather than as a follower of Jesus.
5.) Inter-Church City-Wide Service Days
What if we picked a day and all churches came together to serve the community? How many needs could we meet and what message would that send to see hundreds of Christians out on the same day?
I’m thinking we call it something like Love Your Neighbor Day and then we actually live out the parts of the bible that calls us to serve the least of these. That’d be pretty neat right there.
That same study that cited 48% are “post-Christian” asked them why they left. There were 3 main answers:
35% cite the church’s irrelevance, hypocrisy, and the moral failures of its leaders as reasons to check out of church altogether.
I don’t think the Church is actually as hypocritical as the media portrays. I do think Christians (myself included) could do a better job of showing rather than telling about our faith to the masses.
The world listened to Mother Theresa because she focused on action and love long before speech. Mother Theresa was one of the world’s most respected women because she lived out James 2:14-16
Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense? -James 2:14-16 (MSG)
What better way to bring unity than to serve alongside all our brothers and sisters in Christ?
Revival will come when the Church as a whole consistently lives out their faith within the community together.
6.) All-City Worship & Prayer Nights
I get that we all have different worship styles and preferences. I know some ya’ll are still in love the organ while others deploy worship strobe lights like a toddler with a garden hose filled with glitter. Yet here’s another perfect opportunity for unity. Instead of focusing on what can we do to get more people in the door, what if we focused on asking God how we can impact and unite this city?
I think when you start with a question like that you’re more likely to hear the greater melody of Christianity echoing through the hills all around us. (Unless you live somewhere like Oklahoma with no hills… then you’re going to just have to use your imagination).
What could God do if a whole city came together to read scripture and worship him as they did in Ezra and Nehemiah?
What would it do for our hearts and our souls to see a room full God’s Children kneeling before him in praise?
What big and awesome prayers might explode out of a gathering like that?
And what a great entry point for someone who’s wandered away from the church. No pressure, just come be with us before God.
Revival will come when we think more like the city of Jerusalem did in the book of Nehemiah—publicly recognizing and acknowledging our sins and short-comings AND constantly coming back together as a city to praise and worship our incredible Father.
7.) Less Church Plants
Okay, I expect you to scream at me on this one and I may very well deserve it. First of all, if God is calling you to plant a church, for goodness sakes plant a church.
The statistic I heard plenty of times when I was around a few different church plants was that 1/3 don’t make it past their 2nd year. (Truthfully, I just spent the better part of an hour trying to find any research to back that up with zero success).
IF that is true, (a big if) I have to wonder if that time, energy, resources, and dedication to spreading the gospel could have been better spent uniting the American Church rather than plucking off members from another church.
I wonder if all the hours spent creating mission statement, logo, and loading in and out every Sunday could have been spent at a coffee shop investing in other believers. In addition, many of the church plants I’ve seen rely heavily on a divisive rhetoric, “we’re not like other churches you’ve been to.”
Perhaps the over 300,000 churches in America are enough for now. Again, that whole thing is going to be between you and God.
(And now that’ I’ve written this, watch God call me to plant a church some day…)
Revival will come when we focus more on building the communities we have rather creating even more somewhat poorly attended gatherings.
8.) More Informal Worship Gatherings
I think it’s time we stop relying on a physical church building and bring worship back out into the communities where we live. I think worship isn’t just something we do on Sundays, it’s a way of life.
I’ve found low-key worship nights with friends to be some of the most joyful night’s of my entire existence. You can let down the pursuit of performance perfection and just worship. Maybe we even hold it in a local park or amphitheater?
Let’s do more of that (and invite our neighbors).
Revival will happen when we start to see worship not as an hour in a church building but as a way of life.
9.) Change the function of the Church Building
One of my favorite people in the world asked me this question one Sunday morning between sets on worship team, “The church has a reformation about every 500, which is the time frame we’re living in now, what do you think the church is going to look like in the future?”
After pausing for a few seconds, I shared this dream I didn’t even know was within me:
I think the main function of a church building will become serving the poor. We will build multi-million dollar homeless shelters that save peoples lives and also double as a house of worship on Sundays. We’ll hold our bible studies on Wednesdays with the least of these that the building is serving.
The truth is most of our buildings are more like an office building most hours of the week and that to me seems like wasted resources. God has already given the American Church INSANE amounts of wealth and I think we could all be better stewards of God’s money.
Revival will come when we start to get creative about how we use the buildings and resources we already have to serve the world around us.
10.) Hold Bible Studies in Public Spaces
We have to find easier entry points for people to join a faith community. Most outsiders are much more comfortable going to their local breakfast restaurant or bar then walking into a church building.
In addition, by sending your study of the bible out into the public, we’re forced to form relationships with business owners, waitstaff, and others who frequent those spaces.
Instead of studying God’s word in our protective Christian bubble, what we we study it out in the real world for anyone to see and join?
Revival will come when we stop relying on the church to be our only location for getting to know God and instead view ourselves as the Church bringing the gospel out to the people where it belongs.
11.) Pay Your Church Staff Better
Wait, wait, wait, Sam, didn’t you just say we need to be BETTER steward’s of God’s money?
Sure did and I think that starts with paying church staff the salary they deserve and investing in their lives financially. Working in a church should be a prestigious occupation in our culture. If someone is willing to dedicate their life to the church they should be compensated accordingly—not working two and three jobs on the side to make ends meet.
If you actually have competitive salaries you’ll have less stress and worry among your staff members freeing them to do ministry better. In addition, you’ll attract an even more passionate, competitive work force in the long run.
Revival will come when we bring prestige and financial security back to working in a church.
12.) Teach people to read the Bible Every Single Day
This should have been number one… but I was really on role with that whole unity thing ya know.
I shared a lot about my bible reading journey in my post 6 Reasons Why You Should Stop Reading Your Bible (hint: read the article before you judge its title).
I think most of us are just lazy when it comes to reading the word of God. That certainly used to be me. I think if all Christians committed to intently studying and submitting to the word of God, there’s no way a revival couldn’t happen. I don’t think you can read this book every morning and not be exploding with a passion to change the world.
It’s time we get back to the heart of what the early church was about—prayer, studying scripture, and making disciples. [For bible reading tips, check out my post 10 Ways to Fall in Love With Your Bible].
Revival will happen when God’s people commit to truly knowing the scriptures and living their life by its teachings.
13.) Fight the Injustices in Our World Together
Christians should be on the front lines giving a voice to the voiceless. We should be changing the world with our love for the starving, broken, neglected, in prisoned, and lost people that are everywhere around us.
We can’t sit in our comfortable suburban churches with our non-fat, extra-foam lattes and pretend the world is fine anymore. It’s not.
This is not about politics our who you voted for. This is not about policy or executive orders. This is about loving people.
“Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Revival will come when we come together to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.
Here’s the bottom line people:
The church is dying. We’ve seen this over and over in the bible, the ebb and flow, the exodus and the return.
Let’s not live in this Church exodus for another second. Let’s take back the perception of the church as irrelevant, hypocritical and morally corrupt and come together with one purpose and one body.
What is one action step you can take right now to bring unity in your community?
It’s going to take hard work and vulnerability to admit we’ve been losing ground.
It’s gonna take people who’ve left the church to come back and give it another chance.
It’s gonna take millennials stepping up and stepping forward to be a voice of their generation.
It’s gonna take prayer and serious study of the bible.
It’s gonna heart and passion and perseverance.
It’s gonna take trust that God can and will bring his church back to life.
The climate of America today is the greatest backdrop for unity in the church we may ever have. @aliverecklessly
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In a world that can’t stop screaming, we can quietly love.
In a world that can’t stop fighting, we can gently share truth.
In a world living in a fear, we can share the strength and hope of Jesus.
In a world lost in the darkness, we can show them the Light of the World.
Yes, I am a quiet little man from a quiet little town and there’s no reason why a revival in the church should start with me.
But revival has to start somewhere.
Someone has be brave enough to stand up and say we can’t keep doing church like this anymore.
Someone has to say enough with the quarreling, the slander and the complacency.
Someone has to go chasing after the sheep who’ve wandered away.
Someone has to say enough with the competition and the siloed, self-centered view of church.
Someone has to stand up for the those cannot stand for themselves.
Someone has to say enough. Enough.
So let’s do this people. You and me together. Let’s bring the American Church back to life. Let’s be open to change and fresh ideas.
Let this revival start right now with us. Are you in?
What other ways can we revive the church? Leave your thoughts and comments below!
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