The Church Jesus Is Building – Part Thirty-Four

A Century ago, carmaker Henry Ford professed his willingness to give people choice in their selection of colour for his cars. “People can have a Model T in any colour they want – as long as it’s black.” That is pretty similar to the view of many Christians regarding how people should pursue spiritual growth – through any means they want, as long as it is connected to the efforts of the local church.

The revolution we are currently seeing happen is changing the way in which people anchor and express their faith pursuits. For some revolutionaries, their local church is the foundation of their faith journey. For many others, a local church plays a minor role in their journey. And, for many others, the traditional local church is nowhere to be found on their agenda. But, let it be noted that a majority of those who are revolutionaries are involved in some form of “church.”

The church connection has to do with the new models of “church” that are being conceived, developed, explored, and embraced by many believers and non-believers in nations around the world. The congregational model, which is still the dominant form of the “church” experience today, is rapidly being joined  – and for many believers replaced – by various alternatives.

The congregational model of the Church – a definable group of people who regularly meet at the same place to engage in religious routines and programs under the guidance of a paid pastor who provides doctrinal teaching and organizational direction – has been the dominant force in people’s spiritual lives for hundreds of years. So why is it so rapidly losing ground at this moment in history?

Perhaps the major reasons are people’s insistence on choices and their desire to have customized experiences. The issue of choice is remaking many facets of modern experience. Whether you examine the changes in broadcasting, clothing, music, investing, or automobiles, producers of such consumables realize that people world-wide want control over their lives. The result has been the ‘niching’ of most areas of life – where there has been the creating of highly refined categories that serve smaller numbers of people, but can command greater loyalty. 

During the past three decades, even the local church has undergone such a ‘niching’ process, with the advent of churches designed for different generations, those offering divergent styles of worship music, congregations that emphasize ministries of interest to specialized populations, and so forth.

The Church landscape now offers these boutique churches along side the something-for-everyone megachurches. In the religious marketplace, the churches that have suffered most are those who stuck with the one-size-fits-all approach, typically proving that one-size-fits-nobody. Whether the niche-orientation of a church was designed to provide yet another alternative to choose from, to satisfy an underserved market (i.e., create a customized experience), or to address previously unmet and misunderstood needs (i.e., provide relevance), new models hit a hot button in a need-meeting culture.

But, the motivations for seeking new models do not stop there. Other drivers behind the move to new models include the preference for practical faith experiences, rather than generic, conceptual faith; a quest for spiritual depth and breath, rather than settling for one dimension or the other; a penchant for novelty and creativity, rather than predictability in religious and spiritual experiences; and the need for time-shifting, rather than inflexible scheduling of religious events. 

One outcome of the multifaceted push for new spiritual models has been the rise of unique, highly personalized church experiences. Few people now have the same faith development patterns and resources that comprise their journey. Two decades ago, typical Christians went to Sunday school at nine o’clock Sunday morning, then flowed in the worship service at eleven. They might have participated in a Bible study group or maybe a family service on Wednesday night at seven. And many believers prayed before meals and at the beginning or end of their day, and read the Bible a couple of mornings before settling into their daytime routine.

Now it is virtually impossible to craft a ‘typical’ spiritual pattern, especially among people under the age of forty. Growing numbers of young adults, teenagers, and even adolescents are piecing together spiritual elements they deem worthwhile, constituting millions of personalized “church” models. The proliferation of new elements available through the Internet, television, radio, diversified social networks, community action cooperatives, and via live arts environments is ensuring that future models of “church” will be almost impossible to categorize or market.