How the Church lost a generation (and how to win it back again)

In his second article on the future of the Church, Tom Sine explains why we must rediscover our call to radical living

In answering the question ‘Does the future have a Church?’ (August), I noted how the latest research indicates that the Western Church is declining. That’s why I emphasised the importance of trying something new and not to simply invite the ideas of under-35s (often described as ‘millennials’), but to actually help them launch their projects. This could be a game-changer for our churches.

As we seek to include the upcoming generations, we may be able to turn the tide and counteract the rapid decline of many churches in the West. But even if we do this and reach outside the four walls of the Church, a problem remains. What should we do about the declining levels of participation in our vital core churches among those of us who already profess faith in Jesus?

Keeping the lights on

Those who are over 50 will remember a time when Christians would attend church on a Sunday morning and a Sunday evening, not to mention Wednesday night Bible studies. But attendance at many churches in the West has now declined to just once or twice a month. Growing numbers  of believers say they have less time to pray, participate in small groups and be active members of their local communities.

Church leaders tell me they’re also concerned about declining giving patterns. In the US, per capita giving has declined from 3.8% in 1968 to 2.4% in 2014, despite the fact that our levels of discretionary income have increased dramatically within this same period.

Living simply

Before we imagine new ways of accelerating our current levels of participation, let’s journey back to the past. I want to celebrate two seasons of accelerating participation that made a difference in the lives of many Christians around the world.

I remember listening to Dennis Bennett’s talk at St Luke’s Episcopal Church in my hometown of Seattle one rainy Sunday in 1970. Bennett’s message was based on his now classic book, Nine O’Clock in the Morning (ReadHowYouWant). I found myself immediately impacted by the call to embrace a new move of the Holy Spirit and was drawn by the call to give our entire lives to God’s Spirit.  

When I started travelling to the UK in the late 1970s I was surprised at how the movement seemed to touch not only all of the established churches, but also gave birth to a diverse variety of new house churches such as Pioneer and Ichthus Christian Fellowship.

The house church movement was booming in the 70s and 80s, and thousands of people of all ages were powerfully impacted. I witnessed many followers of Jesus freeing up more time and resources to make a difference in the lives of neighbours near and far. Participation rates seemed to be rapidly growing across a broad spectrum of churches in Britain.

Fast forward to a sunny March day in 1980, when Christian leaders from 27 countries had gathered in London. The historic Lausanne Conference was titled: ‘An evangelical commitment to simple lifestyle’. Out of this event came a global call for evangelical Christians to: ‘Live more simply that others might simply live.’ To everyone’s surprise, this rapidly became a global movement as congregations from York to the Lake District had their imaginations reignited by the Spirit and created new ways to worship, make disciples and influence their neighbours.

The Simple Lifestyle Movement was motivating Christians to be more active, more compassionate followers of Christ. By the mid-80s, Christians across the UK and beyond had created an array of ways to live more simply. This seemed to dramatically increase church participation levels. John Stott not only led this movement by his advocacy, but also through his own life in a way that would engage the millennial movement today. He lived a very simple lifestyle in a very modest one-bedroom apartment until God called him home.

Given the declining levels of participation in a growing number of churches in the West, wouldn’t this be a good time to challenge all disciples of Jesus to increase their generosity, their compassion and their action? Perhaps we need to recapture the flame of those movements from the 70s and 80s.   

Whole-life stewardship  

Following Jesus was never a 10% deal. The call to follow Christ always includes a call to both whole-life discipleship and whole-life stewardship. But what are God’s purposes for all areas of human life and flourishing?

When my conservative evangelical friends seek to answer this question, they often claim that they bring scripture to bear on all of life. However, I find that they usually only bring scripture to bear on spiritual values, morality and relationships. On the other hand, my more liberal evangelical friends bring scripture to bear on issues of economic, political and environmental justice. All of these things are important. However, each group fails to bring scripture to bear on cultural values.

Occasionally railing against  consumerism and complaining about our busy lives will not set us free. Western cultural aspirations (what we call the ‘American dream’) and ‘Instagram envy’ too often shape our aspirations and our notions of what constitutes ‘the good life’. The global mall, which seeks to increase our appetite for more, has taken on the character of an economic empire.

These imperial notions about what constitutes the good life largely define how we steward our time and money and how we raise our children. Could our declining levels of church participation be more than an issue of being too busy? We won’t reverse declining participation rates if we don’t use scripture to redefine our notions of what a good life and better future actually looks like.

The mustard seed empire of Jesus doesn’t come with seduction, power and acquisitiveness. Rather, this empire of Jesus comes on a donkey’s back with basins and towels. Jesus reminds us that the good life of God will never be found in seeking life but in losing life in service to God and neighbour. ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it’ (Luke 9:23-24, ESV).

The servant Jesus demonstrates that the good life in his empire is never found in seeking life but rather in being God’s compassionate good news in the lives of those who are suffering.

The radical call

I remember being shocked when NT Wright once declared: ‘Heaven is not my home! Heaven is where the future of God is kept, but it is not my home!’ Wright unpacks this in his book Surprised by Hope (SPCK), where he says: ‘Jesus’ resurrection is the beginning of God’s new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord’s Prayer is about.’

He explained that what we are looking forward to is coming home as a great, multicultural, bodily resurrected community; not to the clouds, but to a new heaven and a new earth.

My imagination is always ignited by the powerful poetry of Isaiah. The prophet invites us to envision a new homecoming for all of the world’s people to a new heaven and a new earth, where all things are made new (65:17-19). He invites us to imagine a restored and abundant creation in which the blind see, the broken are healed and the disabled come running  up that mountain (35:1-10). Of course, this is also imagery of all of us being welcomed home to a celebration of feasting and reconciliation, with the best food and finest wine (25:6-9).

The call to follow Jesus is not a call to give our lives to the Western dream with a little devotional add-on. Rather, it is a call to become whole-life disciples and stewards of Jesus’ message. It is not found in seeking life, but in giving our lives away. It is an opportunity to experiment with the biblical values of hospitality, community and celebration instead of simply settling for affluence, individualism and status.

Living on purpose

God is inviting us to make his purposes our purposes; not at the margins, but at the very centre of our lives. It’s about discovering that the good life of God is the life given away.

Just three months before Rick Warren’s bestselling book, The Purpose Driven Life (Zondervan), was released, my wife and I published our book, Living on Purpose (Baker Books). (I assure you we haven’t been afflicted with 52 million sales.) We wrote it because, while there are books for discerning biblical calling for clergy and missionaries, less material seemed to be available for laity.  

5 steps toward Rediscovering your purpose for living

Radical living happens in unity with others. Why not encourage your small group to draft a statement for God’s purpose in your lives? Here are five steps toward doing this:

 1. Read scripture, particularly passages that reflect something of God’s loving purpose for human lives and God’s good creation.

2. Think about the needs of others and the created order. The elements that pull at our hearts could be God’s call on our lives.

3. Consider your areas of giftedness and brokenness, recognising that God can often do more through our broken areas than through our natural or spiritual gifts.

4. Recognise that on our very best days we see through a glass darkly. How do we give God’s purposes creative expression in both our work and free time?

5. Share your small group’s purpose statement and begin to live into your calling and become more involved in the compassionate way of Jesus 

Ian and Francis participated in one of the Living on Purpose seminars we held in London a couple of years ago. They felt God’s call to embody hospitality in their neighbourhood. Every Wednesday night one of their children invited a different family in their neighbourhood home to dinner. Ian and Francis began to notice that their young ones were not only becoming more hospitable, but were taking more interest in others.

Another example of how all this works in practice is Mark’s story. Mark is a businessman who owns a furniture factory in Canada. He felt impressed to put a three-year cap on his salary and those of his administrative team. He used the leftover money to boost the wages of his lowest-paid workers.

Economic and time pressures appear to be mounting in Britain, and many people in the US are also feeling the crunch. Instead of reducing our stewardship of time and money by doing a pragmatic balancing act, Mark and Lisa Scandrette advocate an alternative in their important book, Free: Spending Your Time and Money on What Matters Most (IVP). They suggest that we use our biblical sense of what matters most. I would also suggest that we use our sense of what constitutes a biblical view of good life to enable us to become faithful, whole-life stewards of Jesus.

At the very centre of my own life is the image of the great Easter homecoming feast. As a consequence, my wife and I spend more time and money offering food from all over the world to friends from all over the world. Most have survived. But seriously, we often forget that Jesus was often found throwing the best parties. The good life of God is not only an invitation to live more simply and sustainably, but also to throw better parties to give people a foretaste of that great homecoming feast of God.

Western churches are greying and declining, and we are losing the under-35s and experiencing declining participation rates as we race into the 2020s. If the millennial generation isn’t finding something attractive enough to commit their lives to in our buildings (at least not more than once a month), we must ask ourselves what we lost along the way. One answer is that the aspirations and addictions of the global mall often define our notions of good life, which in turn explains declining levels of participation.

The flame I saw ignited in the 70s and 80s for the purpose of Spirit-filled, simple living needs to be rekindled for a 21st-century generation. Let’s reconnect our lives to God’s loving purposes for his people and world. Let’s join many who, in the 70s and 80s, relished being wholelife disciples, freeing up more time to be present with God and neighbours, and throwing better parties.

If we grow towards living on purpose and becoming both whole-life disciples and stewards of Jesus, we could begin to see our levels of participation increase again. Most importantly, we could also see our lives and congregations begin to bring the good news of that Easter feast to many who have experienced little of God’s hope and healing as we race towards the turbulent 2020s 


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