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Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

Filtering by Category: Church

The Pace of Change

Tom Elenbaas

"On almost every important business index, the world is racing ahead. The stakes - the financial, social, environmental, and political consequences - are rising in a similar exponential way." [John Kotter] I have some serious questions rattling around in my own head and heart as I both experience, study, and lead in this rapidly changing world.

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Multi-site trends


One of the more striking trends of the previous decade has been the emergence of multi-location church as a normal condition. Currently at least fifty percent of megachurches are also multi-site churches.

-"What’s Next? A look over the hill for innovative churches and their leaders," Dave Travis, Leadership Network, 2012 Edition, p. 23.

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Gordon Cosby


I'm not sure how I missed this (I guess it's been a hectic week), but Gordon Cosby from Washington DC passed away a couple of days ago. [Read Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove's article on Patheos here.]

I spent a little time with Gordon at the Church of the Savior in the past couple of years, and those few moments were transformative for me. Not only was I introduced to a truly missional church, but was amazed at the power of a small group of people to serve so many through self-sacrifice and deep commitment. From the planting of several churches and several non-profits ranging from a retreat center, a transitional home for women and children, Christ-based Child Care Centers to an innovative art center for inner city kids to a jobs placement center to a hospital for the homeless to a theological school to train servants of the gospel to a hospice for the homeless and those with AIDS and other illnesses to an affordable housing organization to one of my favorite coffeeshop/ bookstore/ diners (you can find a more comprehensive list here). This little band of gospel centered people discipled and shepherded by Gordon have loved the least of these in ways many of us merely talk about, and their impact is incredible. Their commitment to Christ, to each other, to the spiritual disciplines, to prayer, and to service is inspiring.

Gordon taught me many things in our short conversations. I heard him speak passionately about being people formed by the essence of Jesus, about the importance of the inward journey, about doing the gospel and the outward journey, about downward mobility, and about the power of a simple act of love done in the name of Jesus. Gordon talked about our addiction to culture rather than to seeking the essence of Jesus. He spoke of pursuing the questions and pressing into the God who is the answer rather than seeking answers in themselves. I was impressed by his ability to hold the evangelical power of gospel transformation together in practice with a deep commitment to social justice - a marriage so often divorced in the contemporary church. As we talked about that issue, I asked him poignantly about the loss of spiritual fathers and mothers for my generation, and he looked deeply into my eyes and pointed his finger... "You be a spiritual father to the next generation." Quite a challenge, and not what I was looking for. I was comfortable lamenting the lack of spiritual fathers, and he gave a simple call to action. He reminded me to stay focused on Jesus as the center - what he called "the essence" - which so easily gets lost in our doing and our addictions, and we so often don't realize we're losing his essence. I was privileged to have spent a few moments with him, and know that Jesus has said to him, "Well done, Gordon, good and faithful servant."

"We are addicted to knowing and doing, and I wish we were addicted to being."

"Let the artisan shape you."

"If we are going up the rope, and Jesus is going down, then we've missed him."

-Gordon Cosby, March 2009 and April 2010

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There is a lot of suffering in the world.

You can't miss it if you have your eyes open. There are people around us every day suffering from various things - heart-brokenness, loneliness, bone cancer, job loss, chronic pain, hunger, divorce. Someone I know just lost her baby while 7 months pregnant. Someone else I know just lost their job. Even here in America, there is suffering, but we haven't seen anything compared to the rest of the world. I don't mean to be callous in any way, but my cynical side chuckles a little when I think of the fiscal cliff language and the doomsayers, especially when it's compared to the Great Depression. Just remembering a few chapters of the Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck would tell us that we have a ways to go before we get even close to that kind of reality. Right now, the fiscal cliff sounds more like a concern over having to cut back on our daily Starbucks or having to wait to buy the next iPhone when it comes out. That's not Depression. We sound more like the whining rich kid than anyone dealing with real suffering.

My heart goes out to those who are really dealing with real-life suffering through some of the things I've listed above. Or those around the world (and this includes our neighborhoods) who are worried about not getting food for their children or clean water to stay alive. I think about people who die from easily preventable diseases and millions of people who live in garbage dumps. It's real to them. They have already suffered loss or are suffering or continue to suffer it or are daily living a life of suffering.

Part of the problem comes from the world we have made for ourselves - a world in which we spend billions of dollars to avoid suffering at all costs. We try to get out of it as fast as we can. We avoid it. I've been reading a book lately about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (BTW... did you know his name was actually Michael... and his father got baptized and renamed himself and his son after a trip to Berlin and the land of the original Martin Luther?) Anyway, here are a couple lines I read that struck me:

...he would make much of unmerited suffering as a means of spiritual redemption.

...Evil must always be resisted, but any suffering, however undeserved, that facilitates the good of the whole must be embraced. The acceptance of unmerited suffering identifies the victim with the purposes of God.

"Unmerited suffering is a means of spiritual redemption." "Suffering... must be embraced." Think about that for a moment. Those are not the kinds of values I was necessarily raised on.  I was talking to a friend the other day whose husband had cancer, whose best friend had cancer, and who lost another really close friend to cancer in her early 50's - who was also a teacher to my kids. How do we make sense of this battle against suffering that comes as a result of the broken and fallen world in which we live and yet embrace this sufferings as a part of our spiritual redemption? I've always struggled with this idea in the writings of Paul. Here is what he says in Romans 5:2b-5:

And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.  Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

Clearly to Paul, suffering is not something to be avoided at all costs, but is to be embraced as a part of our spiritual redemption. In fact, Romans 5 goes on to talk about the unmerited suffering of Jesus - the suffering servant - who bore the unmerited suffering caused by our sins upon his shoulders at the cross for our redemption.

In a world in which we do our best to build lives that guard us from all suffering, in which we seek to remove all suffering from our families and our bodies, in which we design every possible system to relieve us from suffering, we are called to a gospel - good news - that embraces suffering. And in many ways our suffering is merited because we have sinned, and we experience the consequences of sin all day long. Paul again reminds us in Romans 8 that even though we experience death all day long, we are still more than conquerors through our God who loves us in Jesus Christ who saves us.

I'm not sure we are to seek after suffering. I'm no sure we should embrace suffering as a great friend. But I do know this, that through the seasons of suffering, our faith is tried and tested and refined. I know that you can't manufacture the kind of character that is fashioned in the crucible of suffering. I know that you don't need a Savior unless there is something you need to be saved from.

One last thought: violence. Violence - even defensive violence - is often a natural response to fend off suffering now or potential suffering in the future. King's non-violent response to oppression and unjust suffering placed upon blacks during and before the Civil Rights movement (and still today) is born out of a deep theological commitment to join Jesus in the embrace of unmerited suffering as a means of spiritual redemption not only for the one suffering, but also for those who might be causing suffering or those observing. How we respond to suffering in itself is witness to our trust in the one who suffered much and overcame (King Jesus, not ML King). When we respond to suffering by violence, it may just be that we are missing a powerful opportunity to empathize with Jesus and so to become forged in a similar fire as he was.

Or maybe it's just late at night and I'm rambling.

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David Platt at Urbana 2012


Urbana is an incredible missions conference for college students originally held on the campus of the University of Illinois and put on by Intervarsity Christian Fellowship - one of my favorite organizations. My wife and I attended this conference long ago, and it impact us for life. Though at the time we thought we would be "goers" to Africa and China respectively, we ended up being "senders" and "supporters" instead. The impact this conference has had on our life and commitment to missions is still inestimable. The conference happens every three years, and if you can send a college student, you won't be sorry. Save some money over the next two years and send someone that you sense God is prompting. If you haven't seen David Platt's talk from Urbana this year, I would encourage you to watch it. However, as a friend of mine said, "WARNING....Don't watch this unless you want your life to change drastically..." PS... if you have not yet read "Radical" or "Radical Together" by David Platt, I would also encourage these books at seminal reading in personal missional thinking and drive towards action.

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13 issues for the Church in 2013


Thom Rainer, president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources and author of several books including Break Out Churches, has written an interesting blog that looks at trends in the church - particularly with the rise of the millennial generation. This list he compiled is largely taken from Sam S. Rainer, senior pastor of Stevens Street Baptist Church in Cookeville, TN, and president of Rainer Research. I'd love to hear what you think about these projections:

  1. The impact of the “nones.” The 2012 study by Pew Research rightfully garnered much attention. The percentage of the adult U. S. population that claims no religious affiliation increased from 15 percent in 2007 to 20 percent in 2012. That is an amazing 33 percent increase in that one category in a relatively short period. One implication for local congregation is the decrease of marginal church attendees, often called “CEO” (Christmas Easter Only) Christians. There is no longer much societal pressure to attend church. Those on the margins are thus falling off completely. There will continue to be a financial impact since these infrequent attendees typically provided some level of giving to their churches.
  2. Migration back to small groups. For three decades, the key emphasis in American church life has been the corporate worship experience. Though that emphasis is not going away, there is an increasing emphasis on moving people to small groups of all kinds: Sunday schools; home groups; life groups; etc. There is an increasing awareness that those who are in groups have a higher level of commitment in almost all areas of church life. As the Sunday school movement swept the nation for a half-century through the 1970s, a similar groups movement is already underway and should gain even more momentum.
  3. Accelerated closing of churches. The institutional church stubbornly resists formal closing. Even if only six or seven people attend each week, those few fight for the survival of their church. Those who were attending these very small churches are either moving to the “nones” category, or they are moving to larger churches. The primary stalwarts to keep the doors open are members of the builder generation, those born before 1946.  As that generation decreases at an increasing rate, more churches will close. Any guess to the number of closings in 2013 is speculation on my part. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if the numbers reach the 8,000 to 10,000 level.
  4. More churches moving to multiple venues. Membership in Mensa is not a requisite to have an insight on this issue. Just from an anecdotal perspective, the number of congregations moving to multiple venues is staggering. Indeed that issue may be the single greatest distinguishing factor in growing churches. The variety of the venues is increasing as well. Some churches have different venues on the same campus. Others move to multiple campus models. Some have an onsite preacher/teacher; others offer video streaming. Some churches have venues on Sunday only. Other churches have venues up to seven days a week. In the 1960s American congregations moved to multiple worship services in sweeping numbers. That same trend in multiple venues is taking place today. It should accelerate.
  5. The growth of prayer emphases in local congregations. Though prayer is foundational in the life of New Testament congregations, it frankly has not garnered much attention in recent years in American churches. There was a subtle but noticeable shift in 2012. More and more church leaders and members realized that the power and strength of health in their congregations is not human-centered but God-dependent. I am reticent to predict a true prayer revival in our nation, but I am confident in saying that more local congregations will focus on prayer. It will be interesting to see how such an emphasis manifests itself in each local body.
  6. Fickle commitment. In his post, Sam Rainer noted an overall decline in institutional loyalty. It is certainly pervasive in many American congregations. Indeed, the culture of the vast majority of American churches has been one of low commitment. That lower level of commitment is evident, paradoxically, in even the more committed members. Those members who once were present “every time the doors were open” may now be present, for example, 75 percent of the time. It is likely that decreased frequency of active attendees may be the single largest contributor to church decline in the past five years.
  7. Innovative use of space. I recently drove onto a church property located on approximately three to four acres. My consultant training told me that 300 to 500 people could worship on that site. The Millennial pastor who was riding with me said that the site could easily accommodate 2,000 in attendance. The younger pastor did not see limitations of times or days of worship. Indeed that generation will cause us to look anew at church space limitations.
  8. Heightened conflict. The Millennial generation will not accept church-as-usual. They are shaking the status quo in many churches. They are not seeking to be adversarial; they are simply asking tough questions that those of us in older generations were reticent to address. Anecdotally the greatest resistance to change is occurring in the Builder generation and the older Boomer generation (roughly including those born before 1955).
  9. Adversarial government. More public schools and other public facilities will be less accepting of churches meeting in their facilities. Some other local governments are resisting approval of non-tax paying congregations expanding their facilities. New churches and existing churches that are expanding their venues will be forced to become more creative as they look for new locations.
  10. Community focus. One of the great benefits the Millennial generation brings to our churches is their focus on the community in which the church is located. They are not content simply to offer ministries to those who come to the church facilities; they are going into the community to serve the merchants and residents who work and live there.
  11. Cultural discomfort. Many of the issues noted thus far point to growing levels of discomfort for the congregations in the culture they seek to minister and serve. For all of the twentieth century and even the early years of the twenty-first century, it was culturally acceptable, even expected, to be a part of  a local congregation. Those expectations are all but gone. There is a growing and distinct divide between the values of the culture and the Christian values most churches hold.
  12. Organizational distrust. There is a pervasive and growing distrust of institutions in general. Those institutions are found in both government and business, but religious institutions are not exempt from this lack of trust. That diminishing confidence exudes from those both in churches and those who do not attend churches.
  13. Reductions in church staff. I am watching this development carefully. Two different forces are at work. First, in many congregations there is a greater emphasis on laypersons handling roles once led by paid staff.  Second, the tough economic climate and declining church attendance are naturally affecting church budgets. Congregations are reticent to fire staff, but more and more are not filling vacant positions.

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