Perhaps the deepest problem the church currently faces is that the church was recently the most important organization in a person’s life. For much of American history, it was the institution from which a person most consciously and thoroughly derived their identity. The business model of ‘church’ grew accordingly – the church did a little bit of everything so that it could reach everyone a little bit and provide a little bit for everyone to do. The difficulty of connecting with people across distance led to the inherent regional monopolies of one or a few churches over the inhabitants of a particular place. The lack of technology made it not only possible but virtually required to have a majority of people find their identity within some form of church community.
With the advent of the internet and societal shifts, people no longer require any particular organization from which to derive their primary sense of identity. A new community or distraction is just a click away. The core ministries of the church seem to be shifting to try and compete directly with every feed and activity that take up the time and attention of its members in the hopes of winning back enough attention to sustain the church’s presence in the world. The church, thus, becomes one of the many points of data on the stream of never-ending information and entertainment that vies for people’s attention online and in person.
But the local congregation will never win in this kind of quest for the same reason walmart will never ruin the business of high end, niche product manufacturers – mass production and low prices only get you so far. The geographic limitations of driving to a store are increasingly less important than what you can have shipped on the internet. And competing based on price means there is no loyalty to leverage into a defense against any future competitors. Walmart might remain a sustainable business in the field of cheap consumer goods. But if the church is asking people to give a deep part of themselves to the organization, it better have something more compelling to offer than location and cheap prices.
If the church is going to survive it must reevaluate the ways in which it provides an alternative narrative to the scattered, global, and stream focused attention of modern life. Instead of doing everything a little bit, each congregation must work to define its particular piece of God’s mission to transform the world and invite people to take part in that particular part of the mission. Embracing a definable and specific purpose for why each congregation exists may increasingly become the necessary precondition for anyone to consider participation in the life of a congregation.
What embracing purpose looks like is not at all clear and settled in my head, but it will likely involve at least the following: 1) a push toward specialization; 2) a steadfastness to its core mission matched only by its willingness to change the particular form of fulfilling that mission over time; 3) the freedom for participants to come and go for a season; 4) a meaningful process or pathway that participants can travel as they become more committed; 5) the desire to meet at least one (and maybe only one) concrete, felt need in the surrounding community; and 6) an explicit connection to the traditions and stories in which every Christian takes part.