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1.1          Background of the study

The Church, as established in the New Testament, has endured thousands of years of upheaval and controversy. From its beginnings, when believers were charged with atheism, savagery, and even cannibalism, to modern accusations of being unintelligent, hostile to change, and superstitious, the Church has been no stranger to controversy. One needs only to look at the Holy Roman Empire, the Crusades, the Protestant reformation, and various “Great Awakenings” to see that centuries of conflict have brought the Church to its current position in the world. As an institution, the Church has always held a prominent position in the world and the affairs of men. Even in the Church’s infancy, the Roman world recognized that it had “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). Those words, penned early in the first century, have described the Church’s actions for the better part of two thousand years. For better or for worse, the Church has turned the world upside down.

As the Church moves into its third millennium, one must understand the scale and the length of the Church’s existence; it has outlasted governments, nations, even entire empires. It has seen the rise and fall of tyrants and kings, and has even participated in many of those very events. At its best, the Church has been a force for good in the world, exercising a profound moral influence over human society. At its worst, the Church has participated in bloodbaths, perpetrated by fallen men who believed they were acting on the words of Christ. Throughout history, the Church has been described in many ways, by many people. However, of all the words, both positive and negative, that could be used to describe the Church, one would be hard pressed to acceptably use the term irrelevant. Regardless of one’s opinion of the Church’s actions throughout history, one must

concede that Christ’s Church has indeed “turned the world upside down”, as quoted in Acts 17:6 (NASB).

However, as the Church, and the world as a whole, moves into a new era of existence, Christianity seems to have become irrelevant to many. In the western world, the Church is experiencing a decline; few would care to debate this proposition, because the dwindling numbers of so many Churches provide irrevocable evidence that people are just not staying in Church. The decline has been felt most in Western, and specifically American churches.[1] While researchers often differ on the exact numbers, it has been suggested that up to ninety-four percent of Churchgoing high school students will leave the Church after high school.[2] Furthermore, additional research from the Barna Group indicates that many of those outside the Christian faith have neutral or negative opinion of Christianity and the Church.[3] In addition to a mass exodus from the Church and increasingly negative opinions of outsiders, further research, also performed by Barna, indicates that even those who claim a relationship with Christ do not demonstrate the fruit of that relationship in their lives.[4] Writers such as McDowell present a dire picture of the

Church’s future in the twenty-first century, as evidenced by the title of McDowell’s book, The Last Christian Generation. While some would doubtless call him an alarmist, the research of the Barna group supports his alarming predictions. Denominational organizations such as the Southern Baptist Convention corroborate this information for their own denominations, citing a drop in baptisms and a drop in membership.[5][6] If the research of Barna and McDowell is to be trusted, the Southern Baptist Convention is not the only denomination faced with a drop in membership.

Furthermore, within the Church, many have expressed discontentment and disillusionment with the traditional, evangelical Church paradigm. Countless books contain testimonies about believers, including pastors and Church leaders, growing tired of the Church and leaving the Church as an organization, if not leaving the body of Christ itself.[7] In the twenty first century, the Church seems to be destined for obscurity and irrelevance. A rapid decline in membership and attendance, as well as the exodus of so many young adults would seem to indicate that the Church has lost its cultural influence. Whereas once the Church was positioned to change the world with the gospel, the Church now seems to occupy the position of a dying social institution. If the Church is dying, one must seek a cause of death. One must seek a reason as to why the Church is hemorrhaging members, leaders, and cultural influence. A number of problems face the modern, western Church, including loss of faith in the Church as an institution, the growing influence of liberal theology and mainline denominations, the cultural shift to postmodern philosophical and religious views, and the rejection of absolute propositional truth. In response to these problems, many scholars, authors, and Church leaders have proposed and sought to enact strategies that demonstrate that the Church is relevant and that its message is true.

Based on the belief that culture has entered a postmodern era, many Churches and religious movements have sought to “postmodernize” the Church.[8]  One need look no further than the  movement known as the emergent Church to see an example of the Church seeking to actively engage culture in the wake of a cultural shift toward postmodernism. This “emergent” movement has much to offer the Church as a whole, including an attempt at revitalizing the Church through various means. However, as the Church seeks to engage a postmodern world, it must exercise care to preserve the truth of the Gospel while altering methods of ministry, evangelism, and community.

1.2          Statement of the problem

While a massive decline in Church attendance and membership appears to be the Church’s main problem, in reality a decline in numbers is simply a symptom of a problem with the Church itself as an organization. While the Church may not necessarily be actively doing something wrong, the loss of membership and interest indicates a failure to adequately engage the culture with the gospel. A failure to engage the culture with the gospel may not come from a lack of effort on the part of the Church. Many individual Churches have not failed to preach the gospel, and yet they seem to be failing in bringing new converts into the kingdom of God.[9] Beneath the symptom of lost membership and declining attendance lie the diseases that plague Christ’s Church: a failure to engage culture resulting in a loss of faith in institutional Christianity, the growing influence of mainline and liberal theology, and the effects of a massive cultural shift from modernism to postmodernism.

While many organized churches and denominations are faced with declines in membership, baptism, and attendance in worship services, other polls and surveys indicate that individual “religious participation” (i.e., attendance at weekly services and participation in occasional events) is actually increasing, though churchgoers participate in a different way, preferring not to fully identify themselves as members of a particular denomination or church.[10]An increase in individual religious participation combined with a decline in Church attendance and membership demonstrates that an interest in religion still exists, but that seekers and believers alike have reservations about the organized Church. Reasons for dissatisfaction have been voiced by many in the Christian community, from all different denominational viewpoints. Many emerging Church figures have led this charge and many of their stories include a decision to leave the traditional Church organization, often due to unanswered doubts or a perceived lack of authenticity in the Church.[11] Authors such as Brian McLaren and Donald Miller give voice to the discontentment and disillusionment felt by many Christians. Miller, in Blue Like Jazz, a favorite book among college students and other young adults, presents a number of reasons for his dislike of Church. Miller states that he “felt like people were

trying to sell [him] Jesus..” Brian McLaren echoes a similar disillusionment, voicing agreement with many others, saying “something isn’t working in the way we’re doing Christianity anymore.”[12] McLaren, while he may be a more liberal emergent thinker, has aptly identified the problem: the numerical decline is due to a deepening dissatisfaction with institutional Christianity. McLaren points out that this growing disillusionment reaches not only into Protestant circles, but is felt by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers.12

[1] . The focus throughout this work will be on the Western church, and specifically the American church. The research provided only focuses on a Western context, as non-Western segments of Christianity have not necessarily experienced the same decline.


[2] . Josh McDowell, The Last Christian Generation (Holiday, Florida: GreenKey Books, 2006), 13


[3] . Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Unchristian (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2007), 25


[4] . George Barna, Think Like Jesus (Minneapolis:Baker Books, 2003), 26, quoted in Josh McDowell, The Last Christian Generation (Holiday, Florida: GreenKey Books, 2006), 18

[5] . Allen, Bob, 2011, “SBC notes a drop in baptisms, attendance.” Christian Century 128, no. 14:

[6] -22. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed January 10, 2012).


[7] . See Dwight J. Friesen’s Thy Kingdom Connected. Friesen describes, early In the book, the case of two Church ministers, husband and wife, who grow discouraged by the Church and subsequently leave the ministry. Additionally, Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian, as well as A New Kind of Christianity contains many such tales about Christian ministers who have left the traditional Church in favor of less traditional contexts

[8] . The term postmodern will be discussed in greater detail later.


[9] . Dwight J. Friesen, Thy Kingdom Connected (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2009), 21

[10] . Frykholm, Amy Johnson, 2011, “Loose connections: what’s happening to Church membership?.” Christian Century 128, no. 11: 20-23. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed January 10, 2012).


[11] . D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005), 19


[12] . Brian D. McLaren,A New Kind of Christianity. (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 9 12. Ibid., 11

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