From ‘Fresh Expressions’ to a liturgical revival, stores play a key role in relationship-building.
Some Christian retailers seem to have been so focused on how the culture and the consumer are changing that they’ve missed an equally important shift in another area core to their success—the church. But those that see themselves in some ways as an extension of the local church’s ministry need to be aware of its changing face, especially with church accounts an increasingly important slice of business.
While the number of Americans who identify as Christians is dropping and church membership overall is in decline, the sky isn’t quite falling. Church attendance is dropping most in mainline Protestant churches—which some see as the legacy of years of increasingly liberal theology. Conservative Protestant churches, meanwhile, are among the fastest growing.
It’s important to remember, too, that the “nones”—those people who no longer identify as Christian—have not necessarily walked away from faith or church—just the way they have experienced it.
“The millennials that have left the church are great for CBA stores,” says Sue Smith, CBA chair and manager of Baker Book House in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “When we have good theological content, surrounded by a place of discussion and curiosity, our stores can be a place where they seek God outside of the church doors.”
If a Christian retail store can in some way become the new church home for the disaffected, it’s not the only nontraditional setting. Fast-food restaurants and tattoo parlors are among the unlikely spaces that have accommodated the new-look churches tracked by the Fresh Expressions (FE) church-planting movement. The less-formal environment that’s more attractive to some—congregations have been formed among groups as diverse as gun lovers and sex workers—can in turn can shape some of the church’s expression, notes Travis Collins.
FE’s director of mission advancement and southeast regional coordinator, Collins is also pastor of First Baptist Church of Huntsville, Alabama, which he acknowledges to be a surprising dual role. In the new forms of church, he says, often there is no music like you would find at a typical traditional or contemporary worship service because the meeting places don’t lend themselves to it. The preaching is probably different too—“much more of a dialogue than a half-hour monologue.”
One common factor among many of these new-look churches is that they largely are made up of members who are new to faith. “They are evangelistic-minded,” says Collins. “They are not just trying to be cooler or hipper than the church down the street.”
But while some people are looking for new forms of church, others are seeking out old ones. Many millennial Christians who are not finding what they’re looking for in contemporary churches are turning to “ancient faith” expressions.
Father Evan Armatas of Saint Spyridon Orthodox Church in Loveland, Colorado, says that interest in the Greek Orthodox Church is at the highest he has ever seen it, driven by Christians “looking for something deeper, traditional, and unchanging.” Many newcomers to his parish tell him they’ve grown tired of the constant ground shifting of things like worship style, philosophy of ministry, and even theology.
“As they begin to take even a cursory look at Orthodoxy, many of them find it to be a revelation,” he says. “They find a depth and a stability not found elsewhere.”
Much of the interest in the Orthodox church is to be found among the young—indeed, Moody Publishers acquisitions editor for church leaders, Drew Dyck, sees the trend as “very small, restricted to highly educated, white-collar evangelicals.”
There are some exceptions, however: best-selling author and “Bible Answer Man” broadcaster Hank Hannegraaf was received into the Greek Orthodox church earlier this year. That was a move too far for some radio stations, who dropped his show, even as he maintained his core faith and beliefs were unchanged.
This desire to go deeper is also being driven by external pressures, according to Ryan Padzur, who as associate publisher and executive editor at Zondervan Academic keeps a keen eye on church and leadership trends. As the broader general culture drifts further from its long-time Judeo-Christian roots, “there’s no longer that middle ground where it’s safe to say that you’re a Christian.”
As a result, “there’s a hunger in people who want to know what they’re committing to,” he says. “They want to know what the cost of being a Christian is: Why did people in the past die for these beliefs? What is it about the faith that sets us apart from the world? If I’m going to identify as a Christian, I want to know what that means.”
At the same time, there are those interested in exploring spiritual issues who have no faith or church background. Together with the others, they form a significant group interested in catechesis and doctrinal training more commonly found where there is an emphasis on the roots of the historic church.
While megachurches attract most of the media attention, they’re only part of the overall story of the church in America—in total they account for about one tenth of church membership, as the average American congregation numbers fewer than 100.
The Hartford Institute for Religion Research lists almost 1,700 con-gregations that draw at least 2,000 people a week, led by Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, with a membership of about 44,000. The senior pastors at eight of the top 10 listing are familiar Christian retail market names.
But some believe interest in megachurch involvement may start to wane in the same way that people are choosing to shop local over big-box shopping, looking for a sense of neighborhood and community. Craig Cable, director of publishing at Group, who hosts an annual Future of the Church Summit for exploring church trends, says that many millennials who used to be part of megachurches are now “emphatically running the opposite direction.”
For some, the turnoff of “big church” is not so much what they are as where they are—a distance away. That makes them less attractive to millennials who eschew car ownership and are concerned about their environmental footprint.
“People are going to be less likely to drive long distances,” church leadership expert Rich Birch has noted, suggesting that this is a factor behind the growth of the multisite church movement.
In terms of Christian retail stores, Father Armatas suggests they might do well to carry more classic works. “There are great patristic writings on everything from marriage to community that are classic and timeless and offer a unique and ever-fresh perspective,” he says.
For his part, Collins believes new-style churches will be less focused on discipleship by “programs or printed materials so much as relationships.” That thought is echoed by Anna Gissing, associate editor at InterVarsity Press, who sees “a move away from Bible study to more casual conversations about faith around meals.”
Meanwhile, Cable believes we’ll continue to see “the resurgence of the local Christian bookstore and small church as people migrate away from big box in search of something that serves their needs much better,” something that “may not be trendy but is most definitely timeless.”
For all the ways the face of the American church is changing, it’s important to remember that her heart needs remain the same.
“As much as we’re thinking about the big trends, a lot of church ministry still is the same human problems and issues that people have been dealing with for centuries,” says Pazdur. “It’s relationship struggles, the struggle against sin and temptation. And while these may take new forms it’s a good reminder to me that it’s not just the big cultural trends that matter.”
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