These are both exciting and challenging times for ministry. This generation has seen more technological progress than perhaps any other in history. Information is accessible now in ways previously unimagined. These advances have helped accelerate cultural change and make ministry environments more fluid than perhaps they have ever been. This creates great obstacles, but it also creates great opportunity. As Paul said, “a wide door for effective service has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (1 Cor 16:9). Here we take a look at some significant statistics and trends and consider how education can adjust to make the most of the opportunity.

 

CHURCH ATTENDANCE AND PERCEIVED RELEVANCE

Church attendance is declining: 22% of Americans frequently attended church in 1992, 18% in 2002.[1] According to Barna, overall church attendance has declined from 43% in 2004 to 36% in 2014. The survey summary adds, “Regular attenders used to be people who went to church three or more weekends each month—or even several times a week. Now people who show up once every four to six weeks consider themselves regular churchgoers.”[2]

Nearly 50% of Americans have not attended church in the last six months, and more than 50% of Millennials have not. 40% of unchurched Americans say they find God elsewhere, and 35% say that church is not relevant to them. Adults who believe church is important cite two major reasons: to be closer to God (44%), and to learn about God (27%). Only 20% feel like they grow closer to God through church attendance, and only 6% of those who have ever been to church said they learned something about God or Jesus the last time they attended.[3] From their data, Barna draws this conclusion: “Adults are aware of their very real spiritual needs, yet they are increasingly dissatisfied with the church’s attempt to meet those spiritual needs and are turning elsewhere.”[4]

PHOTO: REUTERS/SETH WENIG

PHOTO: REUTERS/SETH WENIG

Interestingly, megachurches have outpaced other congregations in five key experiential areas where responders said that “these words describe your weekend worship service very well” – inspirational (54% to 36%), nurturing (46% to 38%), joyful (46% to 37%), Thought-provoking (42% to 35%), and innovative (23% to 12%). Further, 71% of megachurches saw growth of at least 10% over the past five years, with a median growth of 26%.[5]

It is worth noting that while some denominations have seen marked decreases in the past 40 years, some have seen significant increases. According to Joe Carter, mainline churches are on the path to extinction, relative to their movement away from Biblical Christianity.[6]

The Pew Research Center observes that between 2007 and 2014, the Christian share of the U.S. religious population decreased from 78.6% to 70.6%. Unaffiliated increased from 16.1% to 22.8%, and Non-Christian adherents increased from 4.7% to 5.9%.[7]

Some Implications

  • overall decline in attendance
  • decrease in regularity of attendance
  • decrease in Christian adherents
  • learning in church is minimal
  • closeness to God not perceived through church
  • awareness of needs, but filling them elsewhere
  • perceived strength and weaknesses are more experiential than cerebral
  • denominations without a Biblical commitment declining in relevance
  • larger church communities seem more effective in meeting the experiential demands (technology plays a role)

Prescriptions for Preparation

  • prepare leaders and servants with realistic perspective of the trends and climate
  • prepare leaders and servants with understanding of people groups to be reached
  • prepare leaders and servants with understanding of how people learn and requisite pedagogical skills (experiential vs. cerebral)
  • prepare leaders and servants to understand impact of community size, resource allocation, and appropriate use of technology
  • prepare leaders and servants to handle the Bible well – it is still central

 

LEADERSHIP CHALLENGES

Current average clergy salary is $48,150,[8] more than 25% of MDiv graduates in 2011 accrued more than $40,000 in student debt.[9]

Chuck Lawless identifies ten reasons bivocational ministry is advantageous:[10]

  1. not dependent on ministry income
  2. more connected to unbelievers
  3. ministry has higher percentage available for ministry and missions
  4. makes church planting more achievable
  5. work is missions
  6. helps foster delegation and training
  7. affirms vocation as ministry
  8. more understanding of layperson struggles
  9. theological training can be had without leaving ministry
  10. models for all believers to consider how they can be used

Stats from the Francis Schaeffer Institute of Church Leadership Development (from 2005-2006, surveying 1050 people):[11]

  • 100% knew a close associate who left ministry due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure
  • 90% worn out on a daily basis
  • 89% considered leaving ministry
  • 81% said there was no discipleship program at their church
  • 77% felt they did not have a good marriage
  • 75% felt poorly qualified or poorly trained
  • 72% only studied the Bible when preparing to teach
  • 71% claimed burnout and battled depression
  • 38% were divorced or in the divorce process
  • 30% had either an ongoing or one time affair with a parishioner
  • 26% had regular devotions and felt spiritually fed
  • 23% were happy and content in their church and in their home

Some Implications

  • educational debt crippling
  • lack of intimacy and accountability contributes to high rate of moral failure
  • bivocational ministry more prominent, increasingly more necessary
  • ministry expectations not being set well or managed well
  • relationship with God often secondary to service
  • family failures symptomatic of misappropriated priorities

 

Prescriptions for Preparation

  • prepare leaders and servants to prioritize well, with relationship to God at the forefront
  • prepare leaders and servants to handle Scripture with a view to personal walk first
  • prepare leaders and servants to properly prioritize relationships and ministry (God and family, etc.)
  • prepare leaders and servants to set and manage ministry expectations Biblically
  • prepare leaders and servants to develop well balanced relationships for intimacy and accountability
  • prepare leaders and servants for effective financial decision making and management
  • prepare leaders and servants to effectively invest in others (discipleship), and to replicate with discipleship programs

 

CONCLUSION

The statistics cited above help us come to grips with quantifiable trends toward experiential and empirical and moving from the rational and reasonable. These trends support the idea that we are still very much in a postmodern environment. In response we must be aware, and we need to be willing to meet people where they are. We should not compromise truth, nor should we disregard the unique needs of this generation. God’s word is still as central and relevant as it has always been, yet the means whereby people digest information in today’s technological explosion is different from even a few years ago.

There are times when we need to recognize and accommodate distinct learning contexts of the present day, and there are other times when accommodation might accompany compromise. In those instances we need to stand firm on God’s word and the prescriptions within. The best way to discern what the situation calls for is by increasing awareness, by having the right data, and by interpreting it properly through the Biblical lens.

 

[1]http://www.churchleadership.org/apps/articles/default.asp?articleid=42346&columnid=4545.

[2] https://www.barna.com/research/americans-divided-on-the-importance-of-church/#.V9X2X5MrLeQ.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://www.hartfordinstitute.org/megachurch/2015_Megachurches_Report.pdf.

[6] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/factchecker-are-all-christian-denominations-in-decline.

[7] http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/.

[8] http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes212011.htm/.

[9] http://www.pcusa.org/news/2014/4/8/moonlighting-pastors-and-postponed-health-care/.

[10] http://thomrainer.com/2014/08/10-reasons-bivocational-ministry-matters/.

 

[11] http://www.intothyword.org/apps/articles/default.asp?articleid=36562.

 

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