It seems that this year’s omnivorous expansion of “Christmas” isn’t quite enough. A national decline in church attendance, the struggling economy and the challenges of converting millennials have all led to a new movement to market God.
Apparently, The U.S. is witnessing a wave of experimentation by evangelicals to reinvent “church” in an increasingly secular culture. The mega-church boom of recent decades is winding down, along with it’s trappings of stadium seating, Jumbotrons and smoke machines. So churches are trying new tricks.
As reported in today’s New York Times, “’It’s unsettling for a movement that’s lasted 2,000 years to now find that, ‘Oh, some of the things we always assumed would connect with the community aren’t connecting with everyone in the community in the way they used to,’ ” said Warren Bird, the director of research for the Leadership Network, a firm that tracks church trends.
“According to a recent report by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who are not affiliated with any religion is on the rise, including a third of Americans under 30. Even so, nearly 80 percent of unaffiliated Americans say they believe in God, and close to half say they pray at least once a month.
“The ‘spiritual but not religious’ category is an important audience that evangelical leaders hope to reach in a culture that many believers call ‘post-Christian.’
“So they arrange meetings in movie theaters, schools, warehouses and downtown entertainment districts. They house exercise studios and coffee shops to draw more traffic. Many have even cast aside the words ‘church’ and ‘church service’ in favor of terms like ‘spiritual communities’ and ‘gatherings,’ with services that do not stick to any script.
“One Sunday before Easter, the pastor at the Relevant Church in Tampa, Fla., wearing a rabbit suit, whisked the unsuspecting congregation away on chartered buses to a nearby park to build enthusiasm for the coming service. ‘For us, it’s all about being interactive,’ said Paul Wirth, Relevant’s founder and lead pastor.
“Although the number of evangelical churches in the United States declined for many years, the trend reversed in 2006, with more new churches opening each year since, according to the Leadership Network’s most recent surveys. This wave of ‘church planting’ has been highest among nondenominational pastors, free to experiment outside traditional hierarchies.”